Country Notes Magazine

In a poet’s footsteps

A trip to Ted Hughes’s “loneliest place”

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In one of the fishing books in the lodge at the mouth of the river Grimersta, there is a picture of Ted Hughes as an old man. Moth-eaten jumper, thick grey hair blown to one side by the heavy Hebridean wind, and a dour face with a downturned mouth.

Grimersta, a place he called “the loneliest place”, was one of Hughes’s most beloved bits of Britain. He went there most summers with John Martin, a Devon sheep man who I stayed with once, ten Christmases ago.

John told me, as we sat by the fire in his thatched farmhouse, that he didn’t do culture but he liked Ted anyway, as he reckoned he was a countryman as much as he was a poet.

Grouse on Lewis are smaller than they are on the mainland, which in flight makes them look even faster

John died a couple of years ago and his grandson, Will, now heads up to Lewis every October to fish the pools that his grandfather knew so well. I was waiting for Will to return to the lodge as I leafed through those fishing books. The river was full of fi sh and Will had been out all afternoon, with the rest of the boys, trying to hook salmon where the system runs into the sea.

At dinner we drank too much and the following morning, as I stood in the heather with a Gordon setter poised in front of me, dark eyes fixed on the ground ahead of him and his black nose pushed into the wind, sweat pooled on my forehead.

Grouse on Lewis are smaller than they are on the mainland, which in flight makes them look even faster. When they sprung, they did so silently, turning hard into the breeze down towards a lochan lit a murky shade of old gold by the autumn sun.

I dropped a cock bird out of the back of the covey but I was too slow with my second barrel and the rest of them flew out across the water before pitching into the russet reeds on the other side.

I read a story, some weeks ago, about Hughes shooting grouse. He was in Yorkshire rather than on Lewis and it had been years since he’d shot anything. “I took the gun,” he recalled, “and as soon as I got hold of it, my heart began to pound. And I realised that what I had lost completely since I stopped shooting was automatically seeing everything. All my senses had been restored to me by the gun. I came awake in some weird way.”

Last month the RSPB appointed a new president who declared on Twitter that “shooting birds just for pleasure doesn’t make you more of a man/woman/person but it does make you less of a human being”. People were put
out for all sorts of reasons, not least because the RSPB is meant to be neutral on shooting but the sentiment was interesting.

The new president seemed to be saying the very opposite of Hughes, a poet who saw beauty, magic, and terror in the natural world with such precision, and whose very ability to see was enhanced by hunting, be it with fishing rod or gun. To hunt successfully, you must really know your quarry and to know your quarry, you must try to see all. It doesn’t diminish you but gives you greater insight, greater empathy, and ultimately greater love.

Grouse shooting is currently facing scrutiny like never before. In Scotland, new legislation is imminent. One of the keepers at Grimersta told me he thought they’d be ok, given the low-intensity way in which they do things. A bag is never much more than six brace a day up there, but he also said that, in truth, there’s no real way of knowing what sort of limitations Holyrood might impose.

The new president seemed to be saying the very opposite of Hughes, a poet who saw beauty, magic, and terror in the natural world

That evening, when I got down off the hill, I joined a webinar on curlew conservation and predator control. Professor Ian Newton, the veteran ornithologist, mentioned in his opening remarks that grouse moors, with their short vegetation and typically low numbers of foxes and corvids, provide an essential refuge for birds such as the curlew, the lapwing and other similarly-endangered waders.

It is absolutely the case that there are moors where gamekeepers have illegally skewed the balance. Birds of prey have been killed and, in some instances, grouse have been medicated up to their beady little eyeballs in order to sustain artificially dense populations.

But most ornithologists agree that to get rid of managed moorland entirely would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I sat there thinking of the northern poet Tom Pickard and his brilliant evocation of the curlew’s cry, “I’m here, I hear.” Curlew, like lapwing and like redshank, provide company among the hills when they return in spring and without them, those sweet lonely places would be lonelier still.

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