Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The windswept Yorkshire moors in the footsteps of the Bronte family

Nestled amid the bleak Pennine moors, overlooking the Worth Valley, lies the quaint hilltop village of Haworth.

It’s a picturesque little place, with its cobbled main street, flower-fronted brick houses, cosy restaurants and pretty tearooms, not to mention the rolling hills and vast, lonely countryside that surround it.

And it’s to this place that tens of thousands of tourists make a pilgrimage each year, to follow in the well-trodden footsteps of the world’s most famous literary family, the Brontes.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte wrote most of their classic novels while living in Haworth, when their Northern Irish-born father Patrick was parson at the adjacent Church of St Michael and All Angels.

The trio drew inspiration from their environs, particularly Emily, who looked to the wild and windy moors as the backdrop for her one and only novel, Wuthering Heights.

Today, the old parsonage is a museum, maintained by The Bronte Society. Exhibiting original manuscripts and letters belonging to the sisters and their brother Branwell, as well as furniture, clothes and personal possessions, the museum is a mecca for Bronte devotees from around the globe.

Yet despite its position as the second most popular destination for literary tourists — next only to Stratford-Upon-Avon — Haworth somehow manages to retain its olde-worlde charm.

There’s still a sense of the Brontes’ presence here. Everywhere one looks there is a connection to the family — Villette’s coffee shop, Rochester art gallery, a gift shop called Eyres and Graces, Ye Olde Bronte Tea Rooms, Heathcliffe Mews. Even the local taxi firm, Bronte Cabs, borrows the name.

The October weekend I chose to visit with my friend, Michelle, was off-peak and was fairly quiet. The base for our break was the five-star Ashmount Country, a homely guest house set in beautiful gardens, just a minute’s walk from Main Street and the moors.

Like almost every aspect of Haworth life, there’s a link back to the Brontes. Ashmount once belonged to Dr Amos Ingram, physician to Patrick Bronte and daughter Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley and The Professor.

Charlotte was the last surviving sibling of six and watched, one by one, as her four sisters, Maria, Elizabeth (who both died as children), Emily, Anne and brother Branwell passed away.

Patrick Bronte, who lost his beloved wife from cancer less than a year after moving to Haworth, outlived all his children. Not one of the six lived beyond the age of 40.

Ashmount today cleverly combines the character of a bygone age with modern facilities — much like the village itself.

Our first port of call was the Bronte Parsonage Museum. The old Georgian house, which has been extended since the Brontes lived there, looks onto the graveyard (left), adding to the ghostly atmosphere. Inside, each room has been laid out as close as possible to what they would have looked like in the Brontes’ day and most of the objects on display actually belonged to the family — the miniscule manuscript books that they made as children, letters, drawings, even Charlotte’s wedding bonnet.

There’s something quite poignant about standing in the same room that Emily penned my favourite novel, Wuthering Heights, and where it is rumoured she breathed her last breath, lying on the sofa in the dining room.

The following day we woke early to begin our trek across the moors, but the heavy downpours put paid to that. Instead, we opted for a ride on the Keighley and Worth Valley steam train, which has been used in numerous films including The Railway Children.

When the rain finally stopped, we took a taxi to the nearby village of Stanbury. Our destination was Top Withins, the remains of an old farmstead high on the moors, which many believe to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights itself.

Quite a few public footpaths lead out of Haworth and form part of the 43-mile Bronte Way, but the route from Stanbury is shorter, and given the weather conditions that day, a more sensible option.

We had our lunch at the Wuthering Heights pub, situated on the edge of the moors. How could we resist? And then, clad in our walking boots, heavy coats and jumpers, we set off on our journey.

Our path took us high up onto the moors, passing one or two isolated farmhouses that remain there. We by-passed the walk to the Bronte Waterfall and Bridge, and headed on towards Top Withens instead, praying the rain would stay away. It would be no fun to be caught out in a downpour up there, with nowhere to shelter and miles to walk before finding any kind of civilisation.

I expected the moors to be teeming with tourists, but we only met a handful of ramblers on our trek.

I was struck by the beautiful colours of the moorland — golden, green, purple and red — and the rapid changes in the weather.

One moment, the sun flitted across the moors, bathing the countryside in a warm glow, next, the skies turned dark and threatened to spoil our walk.

But it was the strong winds up at Top Withins that really brought home to me just how inspirational these moors were for Emily Bronte. It nearly knocked us off our feet as we battled against it.

In Emily’s classic novel we are told “Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed, one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house.”

These days, only one tree remains by the ruins of the old house, bravely defying the blustery gales. Standing there in eerie silence, looking over the moors, we could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves galloping up the path or the chatter of farmhands as they set to work at the Heights.

Unfortunately we didn’t see the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering the windswept moors and we never made it as far as Ponden Hall, believed to be the inspiration for the Linton’s home, Thrushcross Grange.

With dark clouds gathering ominously overhead, we decided to walk back through the moors to Wuthering Heights, where the host was much more hospitable than his fictional counterpart. But we both agreed we’d come back to Haworth and soon, to continue our Bronte journey.

For anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Bronte novel, or who likes to ramble in the great outdoors, Haworth is definitely worth a visit.

But you don’t have to be a literary know-all or a hill-walker to find this West Yorkshire village a magical place. Like the three Bronte sisters who lived and wrote there, all you need is some romance in your soul and a vivid imagination.

Travellers guide

How to get there: If you would like to immerse yourself in the Bronte experience, Jet2.com offers twice-daily flights direct from Belfast International Airport to Leeds Bradford. Flights cost from £19.99 (one way including taxes) and are available from www.jet2.com. Trains, buses and taxis run to Haworth or nearby Keighley.

Where to stay there: Ashmount Country House (pictured right), Haworth, is a five-star bed and breakfast, which was once the home of Charlotte Bronte’s physician. It boasts 10 beautifully kept rooms, ranging from £85 to £165 per night and combines modern amenities such as hot tubs and wi-fi with many of the original features that the Bronte Sisters would have admired.

Ashmount is fully licensed and although it doesn’t serve evening meals, it does now offer guests a dinner B&B rate, with dinner at one of the village’s restaurants. The afternoon tea is a must. For further information, tel: 01535 645726.

What to see there: Bronte Parsonge Museum, open 10am-5.30pm, April-Sept; 11am-5pm, Oct-March, except Dec 24-27 and Jan 2-31. Admission: adult, £6, student, £4.50, children, £3, family, £15. For more info visit bronte.org.uk

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