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ENGLAND: Haunted by Heathcliff - Yorkshire's Bronte Country

The custodian of the Bronte museum says that Haworth is “second only to Stratford for the number of visitors.” I asked him why he thought people were so interested in the Brontes and he answered, “They wrote good, clean, imaginative love stories.” So wrote Glyn Hughes in his book, Millstone Grit first published in the UK in 1975.

AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2011

The custodian of the Bronte museum says that Haworth is “second only to Stratford for the number of visitors.” I asked him why he thought people were so interested in the Brontes and he answered, “They wrote good, clean, imaginative love stories.” So wrote Glyn Hughes in his book, Millstone Grit first published in the UK in 1975.

 

Bronte country is by many accounts one of the loveliest pieces of Yorkshire landscape you’ll likely come across in this part of England. Yet others may well tell you about the desolate sweep of undulating moorlands, grim Victorian terraced houses and the remnants of once thriving woollen mills, the raw, snow bedecked winters in a dour millstone grit land sullied by swirling mists and dense fog, a region that has hardly changed since the Bronte family first settled in the parsonage in the village of Haworth in 1820.

 

Yet on a cold autumn morning, I and a friend from over the border in Lancashire, drove across the centuries old trading route or packhorse trail from Colne to Haworth.  Packhorse trails were common tracks between major trading centres especially across Lancashire and Yorkshire moorlands. On any day large trains of ponies carried all manner of goods; cloth for merchant clothiers, wool for handloom weavers, and food and goods to sell at market.  Corn merchants were known as ‘Badgers’, and ‘Broggers’ conveyed wool. The rutted and muddied track was eventually made into a Turnpike (roads where tolls were charged to pay for surface upgrades). The route today is now known as the ‘Herders’ road.

 

Passing isolated reservoirs and small hamlets, the lonely winding road eventually comes into the village of Haworth, where finding a parking space is more luck than management due mainly to the huge numbers of tourists that throng this tiny town.  The region as we know it today exists in a large part to the enduring love of all things Bronte that continually entice a glittering tourist trade to visit the Parsonage Museum, birthplace of Heathcliff and Victorian passions. 

 

On a partly sunny, fine day we wandered down through the town’s park to Haworth’s other main attraction, the Haworth railway station and museum.  As part of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway line it was used in the critically acclaimed 1970 feature film, The Railway Children. Today enthusiasts from all over the world make their way here to see and ride the steam trains as they travel a 5-mile (8 km) long former branch line serving mills and villages in the Worth Valley from Keighley to Oxenhope.  It connects to the national rail network line at Keighley railway station and is currently the only heritage railway that operates a whole branch line in its original form. The line is now a major tourist attraction operated entirely by volunteers and carries more than 110,000 passengers every year. It is also celebrated among beer lovers for operating the only buffet car serving real ale.

 

With thoughts of sampling a pint of real ale we stopped off at the 16th century listed, Haworth Old Hall at the bottom of Main Street, a notable, well preserved establishment. Suitably empowered we traipsed our way up the steep cobblestoned street, hemmed in by old houses where throngs of tourist mingled in awe of the scene. In this village there is understandably Bronte insignia everywhere; a Bronte Street, a Bronte Cafe where they probably serve a Bronte burger, there’s even a Bronte bookshop and on a pleasant nearby moorland walk where you’ll find Bronte Waterfalls.  If only Charlotte, Emily and Anne had of known their surname would help turn a grimy, unheard of Yorkshire village into a world renowned piece of English history, they might have thought twice about writing down all their poems, letters, observations, stories and novels that brought the town the fame it lives on.

 

At the top of the street lie two other pubs. The Bull Hotel seemed to have attracted all the tourists so we slipped down a lane to duck into the Old White Lion where friendly staff with friendly smiles served grand yeasty ales. It was a cold, late afternoon and logs of wood on the fire crackled as locals and tourist alike lifted the noise level right to the top of the low-beamed ceiling.

 

 

Outside again we wandered around the corner where the parsonage had lost the last of the sun and was now dark and mysterious, cloaked in the moorland energy of autumn weather. There were no shadows or birds singing just the sound of shoe heels on cobblestones outside the graveyard. Inside the front door to the left is the dining room where Charlotte, Emily and Anne did most of their writing. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey were all written here. It is said, that the Bronte sisters had a routine of walking around the table in the evening planning their novels and other projects.

 

Built in 1778-9 the rooms inside the Parsonage Museum today are quite light and airy, much more so then it would have looked in the oil-lamp days of the mid-1800s. For literary romantics, glass cases contain fragments of the Bronte existence; pocket diaries and pin cushions, veils and shawls, hats and mittens. In other rooms there are portraits and a piano along with beautiful examples of Victorian antique furniture – everything as it might have once looked when rose petal fragrance filled the house during the period Patrick Bronte, his wife, five daughters and only son lived there between 1820 and 1861.

 

The surrounding countryside is a hiker’s haven. The most popular well-trodden byway is the two and half mile path to Bronte Waterfalls, where it is claimed Emily Bronte took daily walks, a place true bonafide Bronte followers are likely to make a pilgrimage to. Here a muddy path leads across russet coloured, inhospitable moors with a fine valley view to a smaller settlement and a large catchment reservoir. Along the way unoccupied farmhouses in disrepair add to the blankness of the windswept landscape. The path at times is uneven as it dips through boulders until you reach the shelving, boulder strewn falls that cascade gently from Top Withens where the walls of a lonely, ruined farmhouse still stand.

 

Emily Bronte’s one and only novel was Wuthering Heights (1847), of which there seems to be no grand house of such description in the region, dilapidated, in decay or otherwise.  However, it’s possible Emily moulded her main character and the house he lived in on any number of local gentlemen, as she acutely studies Heathcliff in Chapter 1.

 

“The apartment and furniture would have been nothing extraordinary as belonging to a homely, northern farmer, with a stubborn countenance, and stalwart limbs set out to advantage in knee- breeches and gaiters. Such an individual seated in his arm-chair, his mug of ale frothing on the round table before him, is to be seen in any circuit of five or six miles among these hills, if you go at the right time after dinner. But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.

 

As we drove out of Haworth the sun had long set on the bleak moors up on Top Withens, a small crag of Yorkshire that’s still engagingly haunted by the Bronte’s and Heathcliff.

 

 

 

Facts:

 

Remember to buy the Great British Heritage Pass before you leave home as it is available through www.visitbritainshop.com/newzealand.  With the Great British Heritage Pass you can visit them all – just buy an affordable one-off pass for either, 4, 7, 15 or 30 days and you will be granted entry to over 580 UK heritage properties. This is the turn-key to unlocking Britain’s best kept secrets. 

 

Bronte Parsonage Museum is open every day of the year except 24-27 December 2011 and 2-31 January 2012 inclusive:

 

 

Keighley and Worth Valley Railway

Keighley station is on the National Rail network. There are fast electric trains to Leeds & Bradford Forster Square every 30 minutes Mon - Sat with an hourly service on Sundays. The vintage steam trains have a regular service through the summer months on Sundays only.

www.kwvr.co.uk

 

Shane Boocock would like to thank Visit Britain for the ground arrangements, go to: www.visitbritain and Etihad Airways for their wonderful Pearl Business Class flat bed service from Sydney to Manchester via Abu Dhabi. Go to: www.etihadairways.com

If you would like to read this article in full or licence it for your own publication, please click here to contact Shane.