Devon Days (1959-1963): North Tawton, Dartmoor and Sylvia Plath.

A Day Out on Dartmoor.

We moved to Devon from Sheffield in 1959, when Aidan was about two and Gerald still a baby. Initially we lived in Okehampton, where a flat had been found for us by the W.E.A. It was quite small and unsuitable for a growing family. We began to look for something to buy as soon as we sold the house in Sheffield. We made a few hundreds on the sale which was useful for a deposit.

There were some lovely houses still on the market, at that time, and we did a lot of exploring in the villages within Gilbert's working area. We soon discovered though, that a most of them had advanced dry rot or were riddled with woodworm (or with both). I assured Gilbert that we would not get a mortgage on a property with either of these problems. That is how we came to buy a bungalow, called Park View, at North Tawton. It offended Gilbert's aesthetic sense, but appealed to me as being practical. Gilbert always agreed that I was the one with all the common sense. It had a very large garden, more like a small field, which would be great for the boys. They were both hyperactive (especially Gerald). I had not reckoned on the fact that Gilbert did not do gardening!

One problem that had to be sorted out immediately was the monkey puzzle tree at the front of the bungalow. Gilbert said he couldn't live with it. I think he thought it was pretentious. It had to go. I remember getting rid of it was quite costly. But go it did! Gilbert told the tale of the abnoxious monkey puzzle tree long after it disappeared.

When we moved to Devon, Gilbert acquired a car. It went with the job. After many tries and failed tests he finally learnt to drive and we were off to explore Devon.

Aidan with Gilbert in our first car.

Whereever we lived, Gilbert seemed to acquire special interests. They took precedence over everything, including his job. In Devon it was the lost villages of Dartmoor. I think Hound Tor is the best known, but there were others, maybe up to three. Gilbert looked for the ruins of these deserted villages, while I kept my eye on Gerald who had a habit of disappearing even at this very young age. When found he would look very happy, not worried, and he never seemed to have missed us.

Bride was born on March 21, 1961. Births in North Tawton were in the very capable hands of Nurse Davies. You had your baby at home unless you were at very high risk. Nurse Davies was very knowledgeable, giving advice (wanted or unwanted) on a variety of medical and social subjects. I learnt very little about her personal life, except that she had a grown up son called Garnett and that she kept dogs. Had she been married, been widowed or divorced? No one seemed to know.

I remember one occasion, in particular, when she demonstrated her diagnosing skills. At the time when Bride was due to be born, a lot of the children in the town had very bad coughs, and I developed one too. Nurse Davies declared that we all had whooping cough, but because we had been vaccinated (or had had it before) it was without the whoop. I was sceptical about this, but no one contradicted Winifred Davies.

Bride was born a healthy eight pounds, but soon after her birth she developed a cough. Then she began to whoop. Dr.Webb was called and diagnosed whooping cough!

It was agreed that she should stay at home, with daily medical checkups.It may have saved her life. I was breast feeding and I think I passed on my immunity to her through the milk. The first week was horrendous. I got no sleeep. She kept whooping and being sick all night. I kept picking her up to make sure she didn't choke and then re-feeding her, hoping she would fall asleep and absorb some of it. After a week she was much better and well on the road to recovery.

It was a chaotic time though immediately after Bride's birth. Gerald got up to all sorts of mischief when I wasn't around to keep an eye on him. On one occasion he managed to get hold of his father's razor blades and sliced the end off his finger. There was blood everywhere! It seemed as if there had been a massacre. The only person who wasn't alarmed was Gerald. He took all these thing in his stride.

Bride out in the car, well again, with Gerald in the background.

Some time towards the end of 1961, I met a woman walking along Essington towards the town centre. She was tall, about my height (I was 5'10") and she was heavily pregnant. She didn't look like a local. She was smiling and seemed friendly. Who was she? I heard later that day that Court Green had been sold to a Mr and Mrs Highes and that Mr Hughes was a poet. It must have been Mrs Hughes that I met earlier in the day. They had one daughter and a new baby was expected soon.

Nicholas was delivered on January 17 1962 by the indefatigable Nurse Davies. In due course we received an invitation to tea at Court Green. The children were invited too and the boys went off to play with Frieda. Sylvia remarked that she had been named after D.H. Lawrence's wife.

Court Green : a Rural Idyll.

After the usual attempts at pleasant conversation, Sylvia intimated that she wanted to hear about the local characters. Gilbert obliged. He was good at caricature. High on the list was the Rector, who came from Northern Ireland, was Low Church and preached incredibly boring sermons. Actually Gilbert and Sylvia were very far apart religiously. Gilbert was a church goer who liked ritual, genuflection, incense and the whole paraphernalia of the High Church. Sylvia had been brought up as a Unitarian. They were united, however, in their opposition to the Rector's very old fashioned and reactionary views.

During this visit Sylvia seemed happy and content with her two lovely, healthy children and her handsome husband. She did not seem to mind that Ted's reputation had overshadowed hers. We did not know that she was a poet and she did not tell us.

Gilbert asked Ted if he would be willing to do a single or a series of lectures for the WEA. Ted turned it down. We were not surprized. He could probably have found far more lucrative work in London. I mentioned this later to Nurse Davies. She replied, "If he couldn't get the husband, he should have tried the wife. Sylvia writes poetry too you know." I didn't know, nor had I any idea that she would become one of the best poets of our generation.

The first sign that anything was wrong came with a car incident. Sylvia had driven her car off the road. Gilbert happened to be walking past Court Green shortly after her return and he encountered Sylvia. She was very distressed.

When he arrived home, a few minutes later, he told me about it. I quickly established that she was not hurt. Nor was the car damaged. I assumed that it was a minor accident. Maybe a moment of inattention. It must have shaken her, I thought, but she had been lucky. She seemed to have got off scot free.

That was not the way she had represented it to Gilbert. She had told him that it was an attempt to harm herself. Did she really want to die? It did not fit in with what I knew about the bright and sociable Sylvia. Clearly there was a lot going on underneath the surface. Was I seeing only her social front?

It was a cause for concern, but not too much alarm. At that point I did not take it very seriously. I was fully occupied with 3 small children and there was soon to be another on the way.

As far as I remember we saw Ted and Sylvia only by chance over the summer of 1962. We lived on the same street (Essington), so were bound to meet them from time to time. Every morning I walked into the town centre, with the children, to do some grocery shopping and to get some exercise.

We set off, in a procession, with Gerald in front moving at top speed. Dr. Webb's surgery was at the bottom of our garden. There was a car-port next to the surgery and his car jutted out half way across the pavement. Gerald would shout, "bang that doctor's car", at the top of his voice, as he went down the hill. He didn't do it. I had forbidden it, but he would touch it with one finger to assert his rights. Then he would circle the back of the car and almost always fall down. This was because his co-ordination was so poor. He was never hurt and I would pick him up, set him on his feet again and we would continue on our way.

The next landmark was Court Green. I have a vivid picture in my mind of Ted with Frieda among the daffodils. She was playing happily and they seemed very close. But that must have been the spring. Sometime, during the summer, I met the whole family walking in the opposite direction to me, accompanied by a woman I had never seen before. This turned out to be Aurelia, Sylvia's mother, visiting from America. They were smiling and chatting as they walked along and I picked up no hint that there was anything wrong. It all looked very positive, although I had that odd incident with the car at the back of my mind.

I learn a lot of what had gone on at Court Green that summer through Elizabeth Compton (later Sigmund). I cannot remember exactly when we were introduced to her, but she arrived at our bungalow, from time to time, sometimes accompanied by her husband.

David Compton was Elizabeth's second husband. He was an aspiring writer. I don't think he had achieved a publication at that time, but later he did. In fact he was to write many books in the realms of science fiction or fanatasy. He was not in the league of Ted or Sylvia, but "good enough" to have a following of people who bought his books.

They were an odd couple. Elizabeth was all drama and extravagent emotion. David was cool and restrained. He seemed embarrassed by gossip and soon stopped coming.

Gilbert too was impervious to the gossip about Ted. He neither believed nor disbelieved all the stories. He admired Ted and thought he was a great poet. Posterity, he thought, would care nothing about his private life. He was wrong there! Gilbert was often wrong.

Personally, I found Elizabeth's stories fascinating. Telephone cord ripped out of the wall (by Sylvia). Ted making mysterious phone calls from the public telephone in the centre of North Tawton. What was going on? It didn't sound like the Sylvia I knew. She was clearly much more aggressive than I imagined. She stood up for herself. She was a match for Ted. I thought it would all blow over. I never imagined that it would end in a tragedy.

After listening to Elizabeth for some time I grasped that the villain (or villainess) of the piece was a woman called Assia. She had seduced Ted during a weekend visit to Court Green. She came with her husband, who was a Canadian poet called David Wevill. What David felt about this seduction, which seems to have happened, more or less, in his presence, I did not find out.

I hoped never to encounter Assia. She seemed to be very beautiful and self confident and to dress in the height of fashion. She sounded intimidating. I had no money for new clothes. It was a long time since I had been clothes shopping. Gilbert didn't mind. He clung to an ancient corduroy jacket, which he had worn at Trinity College twenty years before, and ever since. He also treasured other odd or outdated items, which he had collected over the years.He did ask once for a Trinity College scarf, as the one he possessed had been either misplaced or lost. Similarily he wanted a new Trinity College tie for Christmas. He was very proud of his connection with Trinity College Dublin.

Around September 1962 I was threatened with a miscarriage, after a severe haemorrhage. Dr. Webb put me on bedrest. Both Sylvia and Ted came to see me, although only Sylvia came into the bedroom. Ted talked to Gilbert in the living room. It was the last time I saw them together.

Sylvia and I chatted. She said she had a miscarriage between Frieda and Nicholas. She knew how traumatic it was to loose a baby. I was still hoping to keep Rona, although Dr. Webb was very pessimistic. He said I had lost too much blood. He kept shaking his head and saying, "you can always have another one". That was not what I wanted. I wanted to keep this one.

I was very lucky. Nurse Davies told me, when Rona was born, that I was missing half a placenta. The cord was right on the edge of the missing part.

I think we must have continued our explorations, on Dartmoor, into the autumn, because I discovered this photograph and Bride is in it.

The three children were spaced out to mark the site of what Gilbert considered to be another lost village. They were meant to be in a triangle. Bride was to have her own place at the head of the triangle, but was too young to see the point of it all. The concept of lost villages was a bit beyond her. She wanted to stand with Gerald and kept rejoining him. Eventually we gave up!

We received an invitation to tea at Court Green for the 30th of September. When we arrived we saw no sign of Ted. Gilbert asked about him. He liked talking to Ted. Sylvia said she had thrown him out. She couldn't believe that we didn't know.

The whole visit, from then onwards, was punctuated by bitter outbursts against Ted, not only his infidelity but his many other undesirable habits. I was stunned, but kept silent. Gilbert though was a talker. He began to produce examples of other writers/artists, he had met or read about, who had similar lifestyles. It was the last thing Sylvia wanted to hear and she transferred her anger to us.

Frieda, who had been watching her mother very closely, said, "Mummy thinks you should leave now." I thought it was very perceptive for a two year old. Clearly, she had picked up her mother's anger. We left soon afterwards and I thought we would never be asked again.

I reflected on it all when I reached home. It was a very upsetting visit, although I did see positives. Most importantly Sylvia was writing again, very seriously, and I knew she thought she was producing good work.She wrote in the early morning before the children woke up and after her sleeping pills had worn off. This was Nurse Davies's idea.

Nurse Davies was good for Sylvia, because she helped in a practical way. I remember Sylvia remarking to me that she was volatile. She was up and down. That was her temperament. Nurse Davies produced a nurse to help look after the children so that Sylvia could get on with her writing. She tried to steady her and produce some sort of equilibrium in her life. I thought Sylvia would survive, with or without Ted.

I have no recollection of reading any of Sylvia's writings until after her death, although I may have seen the odd poem in the Observer. We took the Observer every Sunday, and it was there that I read the four poems in "A Poet's Epitaph" on February 17th 1963. Since then she has become one of my favourite poets. Her poetry has far more appeal to me than Ted's.

I didn't see much of Sylvia that autumn as I had problems of my own. Dr. Webb thought that the baby was dead and I could expect a miscarriage any time. This left me constantly on edge and worried about if, and when, it was going to happen. There were no scans in those days. Nevertheless, as the weeks past, I thought the baby was growing. My skirts were becoming tight. At seventeen weeks I visited Dr. Webb again and he confirmed that Rona was alive and was the right size. She had survived.

Gilbert was out far more than I was and occasionally he met Sylvia by accident. He was oblivious to anything that had gone wrong on September 30th. Gilbert did not pick up on non-verbal signals or nuances of other people's emotions. It wasn't even a nuance that day. Sylvia was very very angry. Still he missed it. So he would have talked to Sylvia as if nothing had happened, which from his point of view it hadn't. I could compare it to some one who was colour blind. You don't blame a person who is colour blind for not seeing colours. Gilbert lived in his own world, which was different from that of most other people. Early in our marriage I had discovered that we had a communication problem.

News filtered through to me gradually through Gilbert. Sylvia had decided to winter in London, and was looking for somewhere to live. Then, she found a maisonette - the top floors of 23 Fitzroy Road. She was ecstatic about her find, because W.B. Yeats had lived there. She saw this as a good omen. It was another idyll.

One problem, she told Gilbert, was two kittens, which she had acquired during her period of indecision, about where she wanted to live. She was planning to return in April and she wanted to keep the kittens. Gilbert offered to look after them. He liked cats. He would come over to Court Green every day and feed the kittens.

We were invited to tea at Court Green on 25 November mainly to discuss the kittens. They were called Tiger-Pieker and Skunky-Bunks. One was a tabby and the other black and white. Sylvia seemed to be uncertain of their sex! However, my worries about the reproductive abilities of cats were resolved when we received a letter from Sylvia, soon after her move to London.

"If one or both are female, Gilbert, could you have her or the Shee fixed by the vet? Let me know & I'll pay the bill, so I won't return to thousands of kits."(December 15, 1962).

We agreed that in return for the cat food we would help ourselves to some of the produce of Court Green. In her first letter she confirmed that this was the arrangement.

"Do get the potato sack out of the hall closet, use all the onions & the apples." (Dec. 15).

Actually, there were vast quantities of potatoes, apples and onions, far more than we could ever use. There was enough to feed half of North Tawton! Had Sylvia harvested them herself? If so she was incredibly hard working. I suspected that a lot of it had been done by Ted on his visits to Court Green. Ted seemed to come and go, even though they were supposed to have split up. This was confirmed in her second letter.

"Did I tell you there's a big potato 'pie' in the back garden - - - You are welcome to this & if they are not rotted (Ted packed it) could you send me a bag? - - - we've been living on potatoes." (Jan. 9)

Sylvia left for London on December 10 and Gilbert took over the care of the cats. Aidan went with him to Court Green. There was a book case full of children's books (review copies) and Aidan chose one every day and returned it on the next visit. He looked at the pictures and Gilbert read it to him. This was something Gilbert enjoyed doing - reading to the children. He knew a lot about books.

The last time I saw Sylvia was on the day of her move to London. She arrived at our bungalow early, looking very stressed. Gilbert was still in bed, so I agreed to accompany her to Court Green for last minute instructions and to collect the keys. She seemed apprehensive about the journey and I was worried about her. I hoped she would be happier once she arrived and settled down in London.

At first all seemed well, although there were a few temporary hiccups.

"Our moving in was a comedy of errors - - - I arrived to find no gas stove, no electricity connected up & as I ran out to see the gas people leaving the keys in the open flat, the door blew shut. Luckily the gas boys were experts at jimmying windows & we moved in by candlelight! Very Dickensian." (Letter. December 15)

Then, just before Christmas, the snow came, and it turned out to be one of the worst winters in living memory. The snow never melted, because of the intense cold. New snow piled on the top of old snow. In addition, Sylvia caught the 'flu.

"I am just crawling to consciousness after 10 days of influenza which the babies had too, all of us flat out with a day nurse through this ghastly weather." (Letter. January 9.)

I have no first hand knowledge of what happened next. Sylvia died on February 11 1963. I read of her death in the Observer on February 17. No one seemed to know how she died. The rumour in North Tawton was that she died of pneumonia. As time passed I learnt that it was suicide - in the gas oven, in "Yeats' place".

Rona was born on March 29 and delivered by Nurse Davies. It was an easy birth. I didn't even need gas and air. Dr. Webb had asked to be sent for, even if it was the middle of the night, but he wasn't needed. There were no problems. Rona was fine.

I had very painful phlebitis with every pregnancy. It was particularly bad after Rona's birth. I had clots in both legs and an enormous blood blister, where blood had escaped under the skin. My legs were a mess.

Nurse Davies was never hesitant about speaking her mind. She said, "You shouldn't have any more babies. You could die." Maybe, on this occasion, it was good advice.

Chaos reigned while I was in bed. Gerald had a field day. He had developed a penchant for taking things apart to see how they worked. He never put them together again. His father was oblivious to what was going on. One day Gerald drank half a bottle of ink, which Gilbert had left unguarded on his desk. We had to ring Dr. Webb to ask if ink was poisonous!

I had made the decision to sell Scarrowmanwick, the farm I had inherited from my father.

Scarrowmanwick Farmhouse & Fell. The farmhouse is early eighteenth century and Grade II listed.

It would mean that we could buy a house, whereever we were living, without a mortgage. I had the feeling that we going to become an itinerant family. The sale of Scarrowmanwick would make us more secure. Whatever happened we would have a home.

We were leaving North Tawton. Park View was put up for sale shortly after Rona's birth. Gilbert had been moved, to work from the central office of his region in Plymouth. He hated the idea of this, because he disliked the administrator of the Plymouth Office, Madison. He would be seeing Madison every day.

Gilbert was a brilliant lecturer on subjects that he was interested in. He was a hopeless administrator. He had abilities and disabilities. The disabilities often did not fit in easily with his job. He didn't like the idea of Madison, who he thought of as an intellectual inferior, keeping an eye on him.

I wanted to live in Plymouth. I like cities. Gilbert wanted to live as far away from Madison as possible. So he found a house in Seaton, Cornwall. I had to agree that we should buy it. I liked the house. Only it meant that he would have a commute every day. I didn't think it would last long.

Meanwhile, Gilbert had acquired a new interest - writing poetry. He wrote his first poem as we were preparing to leave North Tawton. It was dedicated to Sylvia Plath.

this is a season for dying:

now your one-eyed house regards no more children

Valletort's motte, just, and the shabby Green

no point in waiting here for summer's Court

silence: the bell-pull and the giggling bell

Sylvia was buried in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire in the graveyard extension of St. Thomas's Church.

I visited her grave in 2011 with my two daughters, both born in North Tawton. Lots of spring bulbs had been planted and there was a pot of pencils and pens. Rona rummaged in her bag and found another pen to add to the collection.

Ted had chosen her epitaph from the Bhagavad-Gita.

Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.

Marian Foster. September 2016.