Celebrating Emily Brontë’s bicentenary with a walk on the moors of West Yorkshire
Furious Ghosts In The Stone House
ON A GLOOMY, SLATE-GREY MORNING, the arrival at Keighley station of a black locomotive, hauling several maroon and cream carriages, was greeted with universal delight by those of us waiting on the platform – children and adults alike. Soon the hyperventilating engine was pulling away from the gaping windows of abandoned factories towards the mill towns of the Upper Worth Valley, exhaling sulphurous steam like an asthmatic dragon.
Transported into a more leisurely pre-diesel world, we passed over bridges of creamy mustard sandstone beneath which the River Worth plunged and tumbled over weirs and cascades, and the horses in the fields trotted to keep pace with the engine, and free range bantams scurried in panic from the approaching fire-breathing beast, and the clickety-clack swaying of the carriages had a soporific effect on old men and babies.
The weight of my head nodded me awake as the train halted at Haworth station, and I quickly gathered my belongings and stepped down onto the platform. Placing my feet carefully, diffidently,
I began to climb the steep hill of the high street, past the holiday cottages, the gift shops selling Yorkshire relics, craft shops, fashion boutiques, pubs, cafés and tea shops. Behind the Black Bull Inn I discovered a narrow side street, which led past the Victorian parish church of St. Michael and All Angels to the former parsonage house that was once the home of the Brontë family.
Storms over Haworth
Resisting the nostalgic allure of the museum, I resolved to head for the moors and, rather than linger among the archaic anthology of gravestones in the churchyard, took the well-marked footpath beside the parsonage meadow then dog-legged towards Penistone Hill, where a slim finger of Haworth Moor extended from Wether Hill to touch the skirts of the town. It was onto the moors here that the young Brontës would take their afternoon exercise, often accompanied by the family servants Sarah and Nancy Garrs, while their father, the Rev Patrick Brontë, attended to parish business. Charlotte Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey recalled in her memoirs that Emily’s favourite walk was along Sladen Beck to a place known by Emily as ‘The meeting of the waters’. Here the children would sit in the sunshine and play in the russet streams that fell from the heather-clad moors.
The moors, however, were not always so benign. In the September of 1824, during a period of hot weather, Branwell, Emily and Anne had, as was their daily routine, ventured out onto the moors in the company of the two servants. On this particular Thursday afternoon the little group was late in returning and Patrick had become concerned. He went to a first floor bedroom window to gain a vantage point from which to look for the returning children and was surprised to see that the skies above the moors to the west had turned black with heavy cloud. A timpani of thunder and shock of lightning soon followed, as the whole moor was engulfed in a tempest of Biblical proportions. Distressed with worry, he set out into the storm to search for his young family.
Patrick was a pious man and believed the occurrence to have been an earthquake brought about by the electrical discharge of the storm and the recent hot weather, which he believed to be a ‘solemn visitation’, a warning from God to the inhabitants of moor and town, calling them to repentance. In fact, the earth tremor he had experienced was the result of the collapse of a large area of bog between Middle Moor Hill and Crow Hill. The resulting deluge of liquefied peat, mud and vegetation coursed down from the moor into Ponden Kirk and thus into the River Worth, flattening just about everything in its path, including trees, stone walls and a number of bridges. The wheels of mills along the length of the Worth were clogged with mire. At Horsforth, a good eight miles downstream from Haworth, over a thousand kilograms of dead fish were removed from the River Aire, having been suffocated by the quantity of mud and silt in the water system.
Patrick eventually found the children cowering under Sarah’s cloak in the porch of a house. The Leeds Mercury newspaper later reported: ‘The torrent was seen coming down the glen before it reached the hamlet, by a person who gave the alarm and thereby saved the lives of several children who would otherwise have been swept away.’ It’s not clear whether the children referred to in the newspaper report were the Brontës, but it is possible. How utterly different the course of English literature might have been if not for the timely intervention of that unnamed person.
In search of Wuthering Heights
Rather than follow the indicated route along the Brontë Way (there is little here that does not bear the epithet ‘Brontë’) I turned south from Penistone Hill and followed the line of a drystone wall above Leeshaw Reservoir, where in the depression of Spa Hill Clough were patches of ink-black bog deeper even than a fully extended walking pole. Above Spa Hill began the exhausting climb through sodden purple moor grass and large patches of lime green sphagnum moss to Oxenhope Stoop Hill, where I came upon a tall boundary stone, hewn from the local gritstone and carved with a large letter ‘H’. I considered for a moment if the ‘H’ was in homage to a certain misanthropic character in Wuthering Heights, but having consulted my map found I was standing on the invisible boundary between the county parish of Haworth, in the borough of Keighley, and Hepton in the borough of Calderdale.
Following the line of this boundary roughly west for a mile or so, I came upon the Pennine Way as it climbed from Walshaw Dean to the gap between Round Hill and Dick Delph Hill, before falling into the valley to the north, where beneath the boughs of two sycamore trees stood the quartered ruins of a small Pennine farm, the rough-hewn blocks of millstone grit weathered and encrusted with lichen and mosses, the inhabitants having long departed, home now to half a dozen Swaledale ewes with piercing stares.
It was Charlotte’s friend and correspondent Ellen Nussey who first intimated the connection between the Pennine farm of Top Withens and Wuthering Heights, the family home of the Earnshaw family in Emily Brontë’s only novel. In 1872 the publishers Smith, Elder & Co had undertaken a re-print of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and had employed the artist Edward Morrison Wimperis to provide engravings to illustrate the works. George Smith wrote to Ellen, asking if she might know the identity of some of the places described in the novels.
Although her reply to Smith is not extant, it is clear from the resulting engravings and from a letter Smith wrote to Ellen thanking her for the information that Ellen had responded to the request. The most famous image produced by the artist is a dark and brooding moonlit scene of the view from below Scar Hill showing the three Withens farms, the third – most elevated and most remote – having been transformed into the ‘large jutting stones’ of Wuthering Heights. Thus established, the association began to burrow its way into the popular consciousness.
In 1956, having married in haste, with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus finding themselves penniless, poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes took up residence with his parents at the family home in Heptonstall, 10 miles south-west of Haworth. Eager to explore the wild and barren landscape, the couple would undertake long walks across the moors to reach the isolate ruin of Top Withens. In her journal, Sylvia Plath wrote:
“There are two ways to the stone house, both tiresome. One, the public route from the town along green pastureland over stone stiles to the voluble white cataract that drops its long rag of water over rocks.
“The other – across the slow heave, hill on hill from any other direction across bog down to the middle of the world.
“The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors
& the yellow-eyed shag sheep. House of love lasts as long as love
in human mind.”
Sylvia Path died from carbon monoxide poisoning on 11 February 1963, aged 30 –\ a successful poet who, like Emily Brontë, had just a single novel to her name: The Bell Jar, published only a month before her death. Her asphyxiation was self-inflicted. Returning to Top Withens years after his wife’s suicide, Ted Hughes recalled their earlier visits together, how the small property then still bore the resemblance of a house, how she had excitedly suggested they buy the place and renovate it, how she had sketched, wrote, been wonderful. But two decades years had passed and Top Withens had become an empty shell, devoid of life and character.
Heather and cottongrass
Beyond Delf Hill, the plateau of moorland stretched out before me to the north and west. On the high expanse of the moor distances became elusive and I found it difficult to determine scale. I walked for almost a kilometre across the ling heather and tussocks of cottongrass with little alteration in elevation and without passing anything higher than my kneecaps. Thankful of good visibility, I was able to use the considerable scattering of frost-shattered, wind-eroded boulders known as the Alcomden Stones as a visual guide.
To the west of the stones, a shallow trench marked the same constitutional boundary I stumbled upon by Oxenhope Stoop Hill. A mile or so north-west the trench met the county boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire as it transected west to east before making a sharp turn to the north at a curious feature known as ‘the Lad’. Whether boundary stone or monolith, the hefty gritstone tooth protruding from the moor solicits a choice from passers-by, being engraved in capitals ‘LAD OR SCARR ON CROW HILL’ in an act of vandalism thought to originate from an 18th Century boundary dispute. I headed out across the Wage of Crow Hill onto Stanbury Bog and within half a mile or so came across a natural drainage channel and a considerable depression in the peat, devoid of heather, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Brontë’s description of the site of the 1824 ‘Phenomenon’, albeit somewhat reduced in depth by two centuries of peaty material from the surrounding moor: ‘a part of the moors in my chapelry … sunk into two wide cavities; the larger of which measured three hundred yards in length, above two hundred in breadth, and was five or six yards deep.’
The sun was lingering above the outline of Boulsworth Hill and I resolved to abandon my explorations for the day and head via Bracken Hill down to Ponden Hall. Passing by the old house I glanced up at the tiny mullioned window in the east gable where it is said Emily Brontë took inspiration for the appearance of Cathy’s ghost to Lockwood, and for a brief moment thought I glimpsed a child’s face pressed against the glass. A trick of the light.
Perhaps it is also a trick of the light that imbues Top Withens and the surrounding moorland with a maleficent energy. I’m not the only one to have felt it. Perhaps it’s the influence of the sociopathic sheep, scourge to small children, foreign visitors and hikers. Perhaps it is the north wind blowing over the edge.
Or perhaps it is simply a human instinct to see patterns in the landscape: faces in the rocks, voices in the wind, and stories in the ordinary lives of the hill-farming families. Those patterns are seductive, drawing us in, until the landscape is transformed by our imagination.
Possibly the most famous of literary families, the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and brother Branwell – were brought up in Haworth, where their father Patrick was the parish minister. Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, was born on 30 July 2018 so this month marks the 200th anniversary of her birth.
The Brontë Parsonage, now a museum (GR: SE028372),
was home to the famous literary family from 1820 to 1861. It is filled with the Brontës’ furniture and possessions and has rotating exhibitions.
Top Withens (GR: SD981353), possibly the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, is now ruined, but is worth visiting
as Andrew did on his walk.
The Brontë Society has planned five years of events to mark this anniversary and the bicentenaries of Emily’s siblings. Find out more at bronte.org.uk/bronte-200
Walk The Route
START/FINISH Haworth train station GR: SE034372 Distance: 20km/ 12.5 miles
Ascent: 550m/1804ft Time: 6-8 hours
Maps: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 104 (Leeds & Bradford); 1:25,000 Explorer sheet OL21 (South Pennines))
Transport: Occasional trains to Haworth from Keighley by steam on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Line (kwvr.co.uk); buses from Bradford and
Accommodation: see visitbradford.com/discover/haworth