Brontë Country: A Literary Adventure
This year marks the beginning of a series of bicentennials commemorating the birth, life and work of the Brontës, Yorkshire’s most famous literary family. Exhibitions, trails, new books and events are being organised at several sites – but the best way to pay homage is to explore the landscape that inspired their writings.
Ask most people about Brontë Country, and they’ll probably swoon about the amorous exploits of the young Cathy and Heathcliff on the moorlands in Wuthering Heights.
Lancashire born Chris Moss is an expert in Argentina and has visited every South American country at least once. Having spent over a decade in the Argentine capital, he returned to the UK and now writes online for The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wanderlust and Condé Nast Traveller magazines.
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But Brontë Country is bigger than many people imagine. The tourist magnets might be the quaint town of Haworth and its Parsonage – where the Bronte family lived – and nearby Top Withens, a farmhouse ruin misty-eyed pilgrims like to imagine is the inspiration for Wuthering Heights.
But the three sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and brother Branwell’s geographical range extends across the whole of Yorkshire, from Halifax and the Calder Valley to the coastal towns of Bridlington and Scarborough.
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This year marks the beginning of five Brontë bicentenaries, starting off with Charlotte, born on April 21, 1816. Brother Branwell was born in 1817, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820. In 2019, the focus will be on father Patrick, who was vicar at Haworth, 200 years after he took up the role of Parson.
Haworth’s Parsonage Museum is currently hosting an exhibition, Charlotte Great and Small, curated by Girl With a Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier. Once you’ve taken a look at the child-sized clothes, miniature books and paintings the young Charlotte made while inventing her earliest fantasy worlds, head out on to the moors at the back.
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Up To The Heights
It’s an easy five-kilometre walk to Top Withens, a remote, ruin of a farm building that is often imagined as the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. While its appearance does not match the house in the book, its exposed, wind-blasted prospect certainly does.
The next stop is Thornton, on the outskirts of Bradford, where the Brontë children were born. Patrick and Maria Brontë moved in to a house on Market Street in 1815; a plaque marks the site. At the time, Patrick was curate at the Old Bell Chapel; the building has long gone but an old cupola removed from it can be seen in the graveyard of the current church.
The Calder Valley
At Sowerby Bridge, the A629 road meets the River Calder. Nearby is Luddenden Foot, where Branwell was employed in 1840 as assistant clerk at the railway station. He started on an annual wage of £75 (soon rising to £130 when he was made clerk) and given a wooden shack as an office. He found the job taxing and when he was not idling away the hours sketching portraits of local characters, he would take himself off to the Lord Nelson pub. When the accounts were done for the year ending 1841, a whopping £11 was missing and he was dismissed.
Branwell’s attempts to fit in eventually gave way to drug and alcohol dependency and, following a failed relationship with a married woman, he died an early death in 1848 (aged just 31).
On the other side of Halifax is the village of Southowram, where Emily Brontë taught for a spell at Law Hill House. Many believed she began work on Wuthering Heights while here, and that High Sunderland Hall – now demolished – may have been the inspiration for the Wuthering Heights homestead. Her health suffered badly while working horrendously long days at the school, and she eventually moved home to become housemaid for her father (widowed since 1821).
Unsociable and shy, Emily’s feeble health was no doubt worsened by the harsh winter climate around Haworth. While the town was busy and far more industrialised than romantic memory sometimes suggests, it must have been a harsh and trying setting for a sensitive, intelligent woman like Emily.
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Over The Top
The drive east crosses the great spine of England: the Pennines. Formed by an ancient collision of continents, and whittled down and smoothed off over many ice ages, as well as fierce winds and rains, these beautifully bleak hills of millstone grit and limestone generate the climate, shadows and moods that surface in the Brontës’ writings and paintings. As you cross via the M62 and M1, don’t be surprised if the weather suddenly changes – sleet is possible even in early summer.
After Leeds, things are noticeably flatter as the Pennines give way to the undulating chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds and the low-lying fertile plains around the Vale of York. This area, the so-called East Riding, is far drier than the West Riding, and sheep country gives way to cattle farms and sun-loving crops.
Take A Walk Through Time
Our first stop her in the rain shadow is Great Ouseburn, an ancient hamlet that is mentioned in the Domesday Book. From 1840 to 1845, Anne Brontë was employed as a governess to the Robinson family at Thorpe Green Hall. Branwell was also employed there for some of that time.
Of the three sisters, Anne Brontë is often overlooked, mainly because of Wuthering Heights’ worldwide fame and because Charlotte lived long enough to become something of a literary celebrity. But Anne’s novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey – which derive much of their material from her governessing days – are highly regarded and have been championed by feminists for their author’s unwillingness to glamorise violent, brooding oppressive men (such as Heathcliff and Mr Rochester).
If you need to stretch your legs, the local council has created a series of ‘Ure Walks Through Time’, described on leaflets available at the Tourist Information Point. The Brontë-themed walk begins at St Mary’s Church and takes in the Long Plantation, where, in 1846, Anne Brontë penned her three-verse poem ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day’. “I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing ,” she writes. “The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray.”
To The End Of Yorkshire
Luckily, you can do exactly that, as the drive leads now to Scarborough, the setting for the climactic final scenes in Agnes Grey, and finally to Bridlington where, in 1839, Charlotte – according to friend Ellen Nussey – first saw the sea and was “quite overpowered [and] could not speak till she had shed some tears”.
Despite their short, often troubled lives, the four Brontës left a literary legacy that remains revolutionary for its intensity and modernity. While theirs was as much a landscape of the imagination as a real, physical place, the next time you pick up Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or Agnes Grey, the places you have seen on your journey will no doubt merge in your mind with what you are reading – that can only bring you closer to the spirit and letter of Brontë Country.