Brontë fever

Another day, another literary pilgrimage. Yesterday, I rose at the crack of dawn (well…6.45am, which is more than early enough for me) and ninja-d my way around so I didn’t wake Sean before heading to the train station and commencing a journey just shy of five hours long. I took the train to Lancaster and sat opposite a lovely Nepalese girl and then changed trains to a local line, getting off at Keighley. I know I say it a lot, but this really was one of the prettiest train journeys I’ve ever been on. I had good music to listen to (King Eider) and a good book to read (A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf), but I could not tear my eyes away from the scenery out my window. Every time I’d start reading again, I’d be distracted by a sudden blur of green in my peripheral vision. I’d look out the window to see the greenest fields and hills I’ve ever come across, all speckled with little farmhouses and babbling brooks and tiny, baby lambs that were racing around crazily. I saw rabbits and pheasants and centuries-old walls made of stone and the neatest little villages. I don’t think the sight of all this beauty will ever become commonplace to me. I feel like I am in every storybook from my childhood, in the idyllic settings of my favourite novels. Just beautiful.

Once in Keighley, I walked to the bus station and caught a quick bus (only about 20 minutes) to the picture-perfect village of Haworth, most famous as the place of residence of the Bronte family. Even if you’ve never read their work, most people would have at least heard their names, or the titles of their work. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and disappointing brother Branwell (harsh, but true) grew up in the parsonage, where their father, Patrick, was reverend. The Parsonage is now a museum dedicated to the lives and work of the family. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are novels I love very much, but they are made even more special because of the fact that they were written by members of the same family. These girls were educated, yes, but they weren’t wealthy or privileged or holders of any particularly special societal status. They worked as governesses and Emily and Anne died spinsters while Charlotte enjoyed one year of marriage before her death. Their childhood was, one could argue, quite isolated. Haworth was a quiet village surrounded by wild moors, and despite some travel to Belgium for work and study, all the women ended up back at the home they grew up in before they died.

And yet, the work they are famous for was revolutionary for its time. It was violent and passionate and tackled spiky issues – domestic violence, religion and morality, proto-feminism, the plight of the lower classes, the list goes on. These three quiet, unassuming sisters produced some of the world’s best-loved books and poetry. Scholars have been writing about them for nearly two centuries, and interest in the women and their work is only increasing with more adaptations and criticism being produced every year as well as the approaching bicentenaries of their births (Charlotte is 200 in a few days – April 21). I have waited a long time to see their home.

But first! I was starving. So a giant Yorkshire pudding with roast beef was consumed. THEN it was Bronte time. The Museum is excellent. There are detailed explanations of every room of the house, and countless Bronte artefacts to see. I actually stood in the room where the girls would write. It is thought that Emily died on the couch in this same room. Upstairs there is an exhibition room in an area of the house that was a later extension, and there are plentiful letters and jewellery and all sorts of brilliant little possessions on display. Tracy Chevalier has curated a special exhibition for Charlotte’s bicentenary that emphasises “great and small” – how Charlotte’s literary feats of greatness and brilliance contrasted with the smallness of her physicality (she was a tiny woman) and her obsession with miniatures and intricate artworks, such as the famous tiny books the siblings produced.

There is a brilliant gift shop, of course, but I only bought two things – a copy of Agnes Grey, and a short story by Charlotte, both of which I have never read. Oh, and I bought a map of the local walking tracks. There are…quite a few. The Parsonage overlooks the graveyard of the St Michael and All Angels’ Church, where all the family (except Anne) is buried (and where Papa Bronte was reverend). Unfortunately, the church is closed for refurbishments, and the actual Bronte family plots are inside the building, so I couldn’t see those. But I found a cat, who let me pat him and coo at him so that was okay. Then it was time for a walk down Main Street. This is a long, steep, and cobbled road. It’s lined with lovely shops, most of them featuring some sort of association with the Brontes’ in the name of the shop or the products sold. There are tea shops, second hand book shops, gift shops, restaurants, guest houses, and all sorts. It’s lovely, and I spent too much, mostly on books. But I also bought a Kate Bush postcard, so all is well.

I walked to my hostel, which is a little way away from the main street. I walked through Central Park and uphill for about twenty minutes, stopping frequently to take photos of the absolutely stunning views of Worth Valley, and then found my way to the YHA Haworth hostel. It’s located in a massive, Gothic-style mansion, and my (very affordable) private room is built right under the slanted room, just a little bigger than Harry’s cupboard. It was utterly charming. The place was pretty quiet, but there were a couple of families with children and some hillwalker types. I spent the evening reading and had fish and chips from the hostel kitchens. Then I slept like the dead.

This morning, I was up bright and early again (for me, I mean, bright and early FOR ME). I was in the dining room at 8am and filled up on a yummy full English breakfast in preparation. I walked into town, then had a drink at a lovely cafe on Main Street while I waited until the Museum opened. I had a quick quiz around the shop once it had, then headed off over the moors to Bronte Falls and Top Withens. This is a popular walk, associated strongly with the Brontes’ because we know the sisters frequented the waterfalls and the abandoned farmhouse a mile past the falls (known as Top Withens) is thought to have inspired Emily while writing Wuthering Heights. The map said that the Falls were about two and a half miles from the Parsonage, and Top Withens was another mile or so afterwards. It was the longest freaking walk of my life. It was beautiful – my goodness, was it beautiful – but I hadn’t quite prepared myself mentally for the length. Thankfully, the walk to the Falls is mostly flat. This gives you gorgeous panoramic views over the Worth Valley. The sun was shining and there was a cool breeze, and it apparently rained overnight because it was very muddy in areas and my shoes and jeans got nicely splattered. It felt very authentic. Setting off when I did (about 10am) was a good idea – by the time I was on my walk back (a lifetime later), there were dozens of people out walking the tracks. On my way however, I was mostly alone. This led to many Kate Bush singalongs with myself and practicing my Yorkshire accent (I didn’t bring an iPod and I am a child of the digital age that needs to be constantly entertained). Finally, the Falls! They’re lovely, only a very small ‘waterfall’, nothing exciting, but there is a lovely little stone bridge and some beautiful photo opportunities. There are also the letters C BRONTE carved into a rock…I don’t know how authentic they are but it was cute.

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By this stage, I was still optimistic and energetic – Top Withens was only another mile, it couldn’t be that hard! I didn’t realise how much of the next stretch of the walk was uphill. I saw a speck of a house in the distance and thought, ‘Gee, that’s a while away. Hope that’s not Top Withens!’. It was.

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CAN YOU SEE THE BLACK SPECK ON THE HORIZON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PHOTO? My destination.

But I made it, dammit. I walked and then stopped and then walked some more. Again, I was pretty much alone for the entire walk. I’m talking not a soul in sight. Several times I stopped just to listen, and experienced a silence purer and clearer than I thought possible. It was like I was the last person in the world. When I got to the foot of the steepest part of the walk, I sat to rest and pulled out my mandarin and found that it was gross, so I got rid of that and drank some water and soldiered on. And I got there, eventually. Puffing and sore, I took some pics of the ruins and then sat and read Agnes Grey while I procrastinated the walk back to town. It was pretty special though, lying on the grass in the sun, reading a novel, the entire valley spread out before me. I saw a lot more people around Top Withens as well. People had hiked up with their walking pole thingies and rucksacks full of picnic lunch, in groups and alone, and we all sat around and enjoyed the view. I didn’t stay for too long though. The sight of their food was making me hungry.

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I walked back, passing lots more people while feeling smug that I had finished the hard part and they were still on it. Fatigue makes me mean. In all seriousness though, everyone was lovely. I think Yorkshire people are some of the friendliest I’ve come across. I stopped to chat with a few people and patted their dogs, and they talked with charming accents and were interested in where I was from. Once I got back past the Falls, I saw a lot more people with small kids. I’m really glad I got to do this walk by myself. I didn’t have to wait for anyone else or feel rushed to keep up with someone. My own pace was a luxury. There was also a lot more sheep, and that meant a lot more LAMBS!! So sweet and small! And some dumb but beautiful pheasants. By the time I got back to Haworth I was ready to expire. Instead, I had a BLT and a milkshake and sat down for a long time. I worked out that my walk from the hostel, all the way to Top Withens, and back to Haworth was about 14.5km. It took me nearly four hours. When I felt slightly recharged, I wandered back down Main Street and caught the bus back to Keighley, and that’s where I am now, sitting in the public library and typing this blog before I take the train back to Edinburgh. I would have loved to spend the rest of the afternoon in Haworth, but the temptation to spend money was too big – this way, I’ll finish the draft of the blog and I can upload my photos and edit it later.

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I’m so pleased I finally had this experience. Bronte country is beautiful, and when paired with the atmosphere and drama of their words, it’s even better. Everyone should see this corner of the world, whether or not you are a fan. Now I’m going to stand outside real-estate windows and be sad.

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