In North Yorkshire, on the outskirts of Keighley, near Bradford, nestling on a hillside between Penistone Hill and the Worth Valley, is the quaint country town of Haworth. It’s gift shops and cafés, clinging to the steep, cobbled main street, mask the town’s past as a centre of industry. It once was, as the town’s website describes it: “polluted, smelly and wretchedly unhygienic.” At the top of the hill is St. Michael’s and All Angels church, where, in 1820, Patrick Brontë was appointed curate. His duties would have included ministering to the poor and the sick, and Haworth had plenty of both. Average life expectancy was 26 and 41% of children died before their sixth birthday. You can get a feeling for this just looking around the churchyard. It’s jam packed (standing room only, I would say) Estimated to contain some 42,000 graves, some of which held entire families. Brontë was constantly campaigning for it to be improved, cleaned and renovated. Death in a northern industrial town was ever present, and was a frequent visitor to the Brontë household.
Into the modest parsonage to the west of the churchyard, squeezed Patrick, his wife, Maria, her sister Elizabeth, and their six children: Maria (7), Elizabeth (5), Charlotte(4), Patrick Branwell (3), Emily (2) and the infant Anne. Five years later, the family was reduced by three; by 1855, only Patrick remained. He lived on to the ripe old age of 84 but had to live through the deaths of his entire family. The parsonage is preserved, by the Brontë society, as a delightful little museum. The entrance fee is modest (and the past lasts for a year) and you get a lot for your money. The house itself is decorated in keeping with the period in which the sisters inhabited it, using letters from diary entries from Charlotte and her friends and associates, including Elizabeth Gaskell. The exhibits link each room with specific family members and you can see the dining room, in which Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote some of the greatest novels in English Literature.
There are also two exhibition rooms. One of them houses a permanent exhibit of objects associated with the Brontës and Haworth. You will find the tiny little books they wrote as children particularly interesting: they created fantasy worlds with their own history, myths and legends, all recorded in tiny handmade books. There are some of Branwell’s paintings (his famous portrait of his sisters hangs on the stairway) and a large collection of what has become known as ‘Brontëana’. This collection of personal possessions and artefacts was dispersed: bought or ‘otherwise acquired’ by Brontë collectors. The Brontë society has been returning it to the museum since 1928. There is also a temporary exhibition, containing works by local artists, as well as those inspired by the Brontë novels. Before leaving the house, you will be ushered through the bookshop, which is among the finest I have visited. When running a gift shop in an historic house, it must be tempting to fill the shelves with piles of cheap crap. I am happy to say that the Brontë society has resisted this temptation. There are beautiful editions of all the novels and poems; you will find one to suit your pocket. There are reproductions of Charlotte’s own drawings along with gifts and products inspired by the novels, town and countryside.
Elsewhere in the town there are lots of other places of interest. You can visit the family’s graves (except Anne – she requested to go to Scarborough when she became ill) in the church. You can get a very good lunch at Black Bull, the pub where the ne’er-do-well Branwell spent most of his time. You can also visit the apothecary where he bought his laudanum (don’t ask to buy some: although she laughed very politely, the look the shopkeeper gave me told me she gets asked this question at least a hundred times a day in high season). This is now a fantastic little shop selling hand-made toiletries and beauty products, along with ‘bathroom curiosities’: old-fashioned shaving equipment, that sort of thing. The smell of the place is amazing. Mrs. P. and I lunched in a small café called Cobbles and Clay, which also houses a pottery studio. It was lovely. We had a Yorkshire Platter: a board heaving under the weight of rustic bread, ham, cheese and pickles. We do love a sharing board, Mrs. P. and I.
I have relatively recently become a fan of the Brontë Sisters. Although I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre when I was younger, they confused me. The stories seemed disjointed and uneven, some of the characters unattractive and the landscapes described in a way that I wasn’t used to from other early Victorian literature (most of which is more heavily influenced by the Romantic era). I now see that it is the unusual construction that makes the novels so compelling. If you haven’t already, I strongly urge you to read the two aforementioned as I’m never sure which is the better – I change my mind after every re-reading – but these two stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the canon. The landscape features strongly throughout the stories: episodes that take place on the moors are at the heart of both of them and to appreciate them properly, you should spend some time wandering through the moorland. There are a number of influential places within walking distance: Ponden Hall (also a B&B), Wycoller Manor, the model for Ferndean in Jane Eyre and Top Withens, supposedly the model for Wuthering Heights.
Top Withens is about four miles out of Haworth, across the moors, so it was to this destination I planned to walk. It was a beautiful, sunny spring afternoon when I set out to appreciate the atmospheric ruins, which would, no doubt, shimmer in the late afternoon sunshine and I would perch on a nearby boulder, shield my eyes from the glare and spend a lazy hour sunning myself and taking in the ambience. This was Yorkshire, however, so ten minutes into my walk I was soaked to the bone, knee deep in mud and shivering with cold. The path was well-defined, though I was forced to leave it at one point by a particularly aggressive sheep, who stared me out. I made it as far as the falls (about half way) before I gave up. The Brontë falls are beautiful, they cascade down the hillside into a brook, where there is a lovely stone bridge to cross if you continue the journey. Nearby is a chair-shaped rock, in which the sisters are supposed to have taken turns to sit and tell stories. There is a circular walk across the moors, that takes three days to complete, and I hope to undertake this soon. Tony Robinson covered this as part of Channel 4’s ‘Walking Through History’ so you can find further details on it here.
If you’re now in the mood for investigating the lives of young women writers who died way too young, Sylvia Plath’s grave is in Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge. You can also stay in Ted Hughes’s childhood home in Mytholmroyd, which is now a holiday home. You should also try to visit the Brontës’ Birthplace in Thornton, Bradford, now a coffee shop. All of these are a short drive, or a long walk, from Haworth. You should also take in a ride on the Keighley and Worth Valley railway, which stops at Haworth Station and was used for the classic film The Railway Children. If you are a fan (of the film, or just Jenny Agutter) you should definitely give it a visit. There are some really good online resources for Haworth and Yorkshire: start with the excellent Brontë Society website.