Any reader of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes will be familiar with the house they bought in North Tawton, Devon, where they lived together for just one year. Known as Court Green, it has featured in both poets’ work and has been vividly documented by their biographers. They moved into the house on the last day of August 1961 when Plath was in the third trimester of her pregnancy with her son Nicholas Farrar Hughes. It was, as their friend Elizabeth Sigmund described it, ‘a poet’s house’ and the hope was that they could live and work in Devon with trips to London, which at the time was serviced by a direct train line, while being self-sufficient with their seventy apple trees, masses of daffodils to sell in the spring, honey from their beehives, and a large vegetable patch. This is how Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, described the house before the couple had moved in to her son, Warren, in 1961:
“It is the ancient house of Sir and Lady Arundel, who were there to show them about… The main house has nine rooms, a wine cellar, and a small attic. The great lawn… in front, leading from a wall nine feet high, is kept cut by a neighbour… All one can see from the road is the thatched … roof. There is a cobblestone court, a good stable to use as garage and a cottage of two rooms and a toilet (used for servants’ quarters in the past) that is in great need of repair. There are three acres of land – all walled in – an apple orchard, cherry trees, blackberry and raspberry bushes… The land backs onto a church; the village is close by… They are one hour’s drive from Exeter – a largish town – and one hour’s drive from the coast, where there are supposed to be beautiful beaches. The countryside is lushly beautiful; the climate… is very mild and has clear sunny weather, too.” (Letters Home, 1978)
The couple found the house after a long search of properties over the summer of 1961 and immediately fell in love with Court Green. It was originally a large manor house and had also been used as a rectory, presumably to the ancient church, St. Peter’s, which adjoins the back wall of the property. Sylvia Plath boasted about the history and significance of the house to her friend Helga Huws in October 1961: “It is… very very ancient… with castle-thick walls in the original back part and almost ten rooms, yet very compact and not at all rambling, feeling almost small… We have a U-shape of outbuildings around a cobbled courtyard – a big thatched barn, stables (!), and a thatched cottage… The house is white, with a black trim and this primeval peaked thatch” (Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame 1990). The historic origins of the house would have pleased both poets very much – parts of the house dated from the eleventh century and there was a prehistoric moated hill fort in the grounds.
The poets spent many months repairing and decorating the house and hoped for a long life there writing and bringing up their children. Sylvia chose the largest bedroom at the front of the house for her study and from this window she could overlook her gardens and the church. Ted and her brother Warren sanded down a large elm plank for a writing desk and she would sit before the window. Reading her poem The Moon and the Yew Tree gives us an idea of the view from her study in a bleak and mystical rendering of the landscape. However, this literary Eden they built together would not last long – their marriage was already under intense strain and a visit from David and Assia Wevill, a couple who had taken over the tenancy of their London flat, on 18 May 1962 proved fatal. An attraction between Ted and Assia quickly emerged resulting in an affair and the end of the Plath-Hughes relationship. Thus Court Green has become inextricably tied up in our imaginations with the drama of their marriage breakdown. Sylvia asked Ted to leave and it was over the autumn months in which Sylvia woke at dawn each day and wrote almost all of the Ariel poems, the book which would make her name.
It is because the house is so bound up in Plath’s work that Court Green has a special resonance for readers of her poetry. In many ways it has become a character in their story, as Plath herself described the house in September 1961; “The place is like a person; it responds to the slightest touch and looks wonderful immediately”. Far more than Fitzroy Road, London, where the poet committed suicide, or the house on Elmwood Road, Massachusetts, where the poet lived and is immortalised in The Bell Jar (1963), Court Green is prominent in the reader’s imagination as it is the locale for much of Plath’s best poetry. Ever since I became interested in her work I have imagined what the house must be like, so when I realised that North Tawton was only a forty-minute drive from where we were staying in Cornwall on a holiday I knew I had to go and see it. I wanted to be able to contextualise the house within Plath’s poetry and get a real sense of the life she would have lived there almost fifty years ago.
We arrived in North Tawton on a wet day and took a little look around the town, stopping for tea at The Bay Tree Café whose owners were rather colourful locals. The town itself is somewhat characterless – mainly residential with long rows of terraced houses (which appeared to have an abundance of cats and dogs in their net-curtained windows) leading up to the town hall and market square. The town has expanded somewhat since 1961, with modern suburban houses sprawling around the periphery. Behind the town hall is St Peter’s, an ancient Anglican church whose tower dates back to 1257. It is situated in a beautiful churchyard with lopsided gravestones covered in lichen. Set back from this churchyard at the far end of the boundary is Court Green, which is on Essington Road. The back wall of the property is lined with gravestones which Plath famously described as a ‘wall of old corpses’ in her poem Letter in November. The property is walled in by a nine-foot stonewall and beyond the house you can see the lushly green hills of Devonshire countryside Aurelia Plath commented on.
My first impressions of the house were surprise at its size and the beauty of its situation and grounds. Instantly one can see why both poets were attracted to Court Green, which is completely unique to the town. The grounds have been opened up a little and one can appreciate the whole three acres in which its sits, though it seems that much of the orchard has gone. The house looks recently renovated, with the thatched roof in excellent condition and the façade newly painted. Unfortunately I could not see much of the out buildings from the side but it is easy to get an impression. During our visit we were joined by a woman with her husband and two boys. They had come on the same pilgrimage (having travelled quite some way apparently) and we got talking. I explained that I was an English graduate and had always loved Plath’s poetry and she said she had read English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. She seemed delighted to hear we lived in Oxford. It did amuse my husband who said that the current occupants must roll their eyes when they see people taking pictures of the house, saying ‘oh the death squad are here’ which I found very droll and amusing.
Court Green has a tremendous power and magnetism; a certain fecundity for the imagination which I am sure is what attracted Plath and Hughes to it in the first place. But it also has a taint of tragedy because even in such beautiful surroundings their marriage could not last. When Plath left Devon for London in December 1962 she would not return to her beloved home as she committed suicide just two months later. Hughes would return to the house eventually alongside his mistress Assia Wevill, who later killed herself and a daughter by Hughes in the same manner as Plath in 1969. I was interested to find out that Ted lived there on and off for the rest of his life and his funeral was held in St. Peter’s in 1998. The house is still retained by the family and Carol Hughes, Ted’s second wife, still lives in the house. This suggests why Court Green is still largely intact and hasn’t been turned into smaller properties, or worse, a hotel, though it must seem so strange to live in a house which pilgrims flock to year after year and filled with the lingering ghosts of two poets who seem locked in its walls:
“Fumy, spirituous mists inhabit this place/Separated from my house by a row of headstones./I simply cannot see where there is to get to”. Sylvia Plath, The Moon and the Yew Tree
Thank you to Peter Steinberg for providing some additional information regarding the house. All pictures (except for the portrait of Plath and Hughes) copyright © of P.H.Davies