Haworth – In Search of the Brontës

Written by Ann Rhodes
(A highly commended entry in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)

Haworth - Brontë Parsonage
Brontë Parsonage

The windows were the first thing I noticed, shimmering, like mirrors, in the Autumn sunshine. This was the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, where Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw had crept from ink-smudged manuscripts.

Where in 1821 the Reverend Patrick Brontë’s young wife died. The house his sister-in-law came to from distant Cornwall, staying for many years (in the absence of any marriageable ladies willing to take on a widower and six small children) to help him to raise his young family, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.

I stood in the dining room where the children did most of their writing, joining the line of visitors who gazed reverently at the highly polished table with it inkpots and sheaves of paper. Charlotte’s portrait smiled sadly at us, her melancholy eyes following our gaze to the dark sofa where Emily had slipped from the world one sad Christmastime.

Tilting Main Street
Tilting Main Street

‘Leave us’ they said to us, her unwelcome guests and I hastened across the hall to Mr Brontë’s study, along to the kitchen and up the stairs, into each room, catching glimpses into the past.

A sense of loss and sadness pervades the memory of the Brontë family, a litany of early death and isolation. Yet the well presented display cabinets and information cards coax forth a vision of a happy family, children growing up in a loving home, despite the family losses so prevalent in early Victorian England.

From each window I could see the graveyard that crept right up to the garden walls, tombstones arrayed like worn-out soldiers, tormented by hundreds of years of storms driven in from the moors. In Emily’s small bedroom, for a just a minute, I found myself in the pages of Wuthering Heights, heard Mr Lockwood describe the ghostly Cathy’s fist shattering the window, reaching in through the snowstorm and I saw Heathcliff prowl by her grave on wet, moonless nights.

Desolate Ruin of Top Withens
Desolate Ruin of Top Withens

I went outside then, forgoing a visit to the museum exhibition and shop, to stroll through the tilting main street, to browse in the shops – antique, junk, books, jewellery, apothecary, mystical crystals and, of course, tea and coffee shops.

I passed the Black Bull, regular haunt of Branwell whose last few years were an unhappy haze of unrequited love, alcohol and drug abuse. I had no wish to share my lunch with an unhappy ghost so instead I bought a sandwich and a Fat Rascal at Villette’s Bakery, tucked them in my pocket and climbed the church steps, walked past the Parsonage and the Brontë meadow and out onto the moors.

I set off towards Top Withens the place folk say was probably the inspiration for the farmhouse of Wuthering Heights. It is a pleasant walk along a well maintained path that creeps up and down across moorland, spectacular that afternoon in the October sunlight in shades of russet and gold that defy description.

Path that Creeps up and Down Across Moorland
Path that Creeps up and Down Across Moorland

Top Withins is a desolate ruin on the moors, crumbling masonry, weeds and sheep droppings abound and it is said that the wind constantly wuthers thereabouts.

I sat on a rock there to eat my lunch – which was delicious – and I would not have been surprised to hear the desperate rhythm of galloping hooves across the heather.

Instead there is often the tramp of hiking boots as the popular long distance footpath, the Pennine Way, crosses the moors and draws walkers from all over the world.

I lingered a while by the old house but the light began to fade and I had no desire to be on the moors after dark. I told myself that characters from a novel could not possibly creep from the gloaming but I stretched my legs along the track back to Haworth.

Central Park in Haworth
Central Park in Haworth

It was dark when I reached the village, the Parsonage had shut its doors, daytrippers were leaving, headlight beams leading them away. Haworth settled back to quietness. I wondered if Charlotte sighed from her frame.

I stole a last glance across the moors, dark and forbidding in the shade of night and promised myself I would return to see that lovely landscape in Spring colours – and maybe buy a new copy of Wuthering Heights in the shop.

Visiting Haworth

Haworth is situated just a few miles off the Keighley to Halifax road along narrow, twisty lanes. Don’t try to drive up the cobbled Haworth Main Street, but take Rawdon Road up to the car park behind the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Keighley & Worth Valley Railway
Keighley & Worth Valley Railway

A pleasant alternative approach to Haworth is by steam train on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway – the location of the 1970 film The Railway Children featuring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins.  Main Street and the Brontë Parsonage are a just short walk from Haworth station, taking in the Central Park along the way with its well-tended gardens.

Senior travellers get discounts at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and when travelling on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.

Ann Rhode’s recommended accommodation in Haworth is The Apothecary Guest House.

Posted 31st October 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Ann Rhodes. The third and sixth photographs were supplied by the author.