Yorkshire: A novel journey

By Jim Eagles

The Bronte Society has created an historic trip through the heart and soul of the Bronte family. Just don't forget to have a pint, writes Jim Eagles.

The Brontes moved from Thornton to this house in Haworth where the sisters lived, caring for their father and writing their famous works. It is now open to the public as a museum. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Brontes moved from Thornton to this house in Haworth where the sisters lived, caring for their father and writing their famous works. It is now open to the public as a museum. Photo / Jim Eagles

This is a part of the Bronte trail you don't hear much about... more's the pity.

Most cultural tourists will surely know of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, which commemorates the extraordinary literary success of the Rev Patrick Bronte's three daughters - Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (A novel journey).

But equally worth a visit is the Black Bull pub, just down the road from the parsonage, where their brother Branwell, considered by the family to be the most brilliant of all, consoled himself for his lack of recognition in a harsh world.

It's not a particularly cheerful thought - not much about the Brontes is cheerful - but this pub is a very pleasant place to sit in front of a roaring fire on a cold Yorkshire day, sup on an excellent pint of Nettle Thrasher ale and muse on the extraordinary Bronte story.

It's a tale which doesn't really start here in Haworth, but about 10km away in the village of Thornton.

I didn't go there myself - too much Nettle Thrasher - but Rev Bronte was curate in Thornton from 1815 to 1820 and it was there that Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were all born.

The old parsonage where they lived is still open to visitors; these days it is owned by novelist Barbara Whitehead and fellow-writer Bernard Mayston, who proclaim on their website that they are "gradually restoring the interior to the Regency period when it was the home of genius".

From Thornton the family moved to Haworth, where the family was to live for the next 40 years. The famous sisters lived, wrote and cared for their father - their mother died in 1821 - in the town's parsonage which today is a superb museum and the centre of the burgeoning Bronte industry.

I've been there twice, both times in winter, which seems to me the right season to savour the sombre atmosphere of the dark stone village with its roof of cold grey clouds and the brooding beauty of the surrounding moors which provided the setting for the Brontes' writing.

Visiting Haworth - even though the shops are full of Bronte ticky-tack - you almost feel as though you're walking in the pages of one of their novels.

On our first visit we drove across the tops in a howling blizzard, along the way passing the lonely ruins of a huge old house, and I could have sworn I saw a wraith-like figure swirling outside and heard a plaintive voice crying, "Heathcliff, Heathcliff".

Apart from the tower, little remains of the Church of St Michael and All Angels which Rev Bronte preached in - it was extensively rebuilt in 1881 - but the stolid, sombre atmosphere, with two old ladies in dark coats and warm hats silently polishing the brasswork, is very much as I imagine it would have been in their day.

Most of the family were buried in a sealed vault under the church, but in 1964 the locals built a Bronte Chapel on top, and a plaque marks the spot where their black oak pew once stood.

Surrounding the church is the graveyard where centuries of stone memorials - including those of the Brontes' servants Tabitha Aykroyd and Martha Brown - are jammed together, shaded by dark pine trees and green with age. Beyond, across a protective ring of stone walls, are the unchanging moors and a pathway leading to the great grey pile of the parsonage.

Since 1928 this has been owned by the Bronte Society, which has done a magnificent job of preserving the building and furnishing it with the chairs and tables, clocks and beds, diaries and letters, clothes and knick-knacks they used.

As a result you can wander through the kitchen, Rev Bronte's study, Charlotte's bedroom, Branwell's studio and, best of all, the dining room where the young women did most of their writing, looking much as it would have when they were producing their masterpieces.

Upstairs, in a gable added to the parsonage by Rev Bronte's successor, there's a permanent exhibition on the story of this remarkable family.

You could easily spend a day absorbing the fascinating memories of Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their work... but out in the surrounding countryside there are more sites associated with them still to be seen.

Alongside the path between the church and the parsonage, for instance, you'll spot a brightly painted building which now houses a childcare centre but was once a school where Charlotte taught.

A helpful map of Haworth and Bronte Country, put out by the English Tourist Board, identifies sites like:

* The village of Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale, where what is now a private residence once housed the Clergy Daughters' School which the girls attended.

Conditions were harsh - Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis shortly after returning home - and the school was portrayed as Lowood in Jane Eyre.

* Roe Head School, near Kirklees, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne studied and Charlotte later taught.

* Blake Hall, near Dewsbury, and Thorp Green, a hamlet close to York, where Anne was a governess.

* St Mary's Churchyard in Scarborough where Anne is buried (the only member of the family not to lie in Haworth).

* Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse at the end of a 10km round-trip walk from Haworth, said to have been the model for Wuthering Heights.

* The ruins of Wycoller Hall, near Colne, The Rydings, in Birstall, and Stonegappe, at Lothersdale, which respectively became Ferndean Manor, Thornfield Hall and Gateshead Hall in Jane Eyre.

And we mustn't forget the wonderful Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. Nothing to do with the Brontes, true, but its steam trains running through picturesque countryside have starred in countless films and TV programmes.

But I have to confess I didn't go to any of those places (though I did have a ride on the steam train on a previous visit).

I looked out the window of the Black Bull at the sleet falling on to the cobblestoned streets of Haworth, got a pint of Caledonian Deuchars IPA from the amiable barmaid, drew a bit closer to the fire, and thought a bit more about poor old Branwell.

Bit of a mess, poor guy, I'm sorry to say. Just down the road from the pub a gift shop now occupies a pharmacy where he once bought the opium to which he became addicted. And among his paintings on display in the parsonage is one of the family in which he has painted himself out.

What does that tell you about the way he felt?

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates has three daily flights from Auckland and one from Christchurch to Dubai, and flies from Dubai to several British airports including Manchester and Newcastle).

Bronte tours: The Bronte Society organises tours to introduce fans to places where the famous sisters lived. For more information about the Brontes, see visitbrontecountry.com and bronte-country.com.

Further information: See visitbritain.com.

Jim Eagles visited Bronte Country as a guest of Visit Britain and Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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