A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to go to Bradford for a work meeting. Not a problem, said I, ever keen to spend a day out of the office. I google mapped the location of said meeting; it was a stone’s throw from Haworth, home of the Brontes. I haven’t been in a few years and I’ve been itching to go back, but the train fare is exorbitant and there never seems to be the opportunity. So, I hatched a plan; if work would pay for the train, I would pay to stay in Haworth overnight and therefore could conveniently mix business with pleasure. They agreed, and I was over the moon! A whole two days to myself to roam the Yorkshire countryside that I adore so much! What bliss! And, as it happened, the day I went was the day after I found out about my teaching course as well, so it was a perfectly timed little celebration trip!
I boarded the train to Leeds with high spirits; I love train journeys. As tired as I was, I marvelled at how quickly the ugly straggle of London suburbs is left behind and the countryside unfolds before you, richly green and seemingly endless. The London-Leeds line runs via Peterborough and Doncaster, so the train goes through several counties, from Hertfordshire to Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and then into West Yorkshire. The make up of the countryside alters dramatically, going from predominantly flat to very hilly, and as you get more northerly, the industrial nature of many of the towns gives the landscape a much more gritty, smoky aspect. Seeing England flash by through a train window is fascinating, and I always find myself glued to the glass as the scenery goes by, musing about how different life is for people living just a few miles apart. By the time we were an hour outside of London, the accents of people boarding the train had changed, their vowels flattening the further north we travelled. It’s amazing how diverse we are for such a tiny island!
So, I got to Bradford, met my colleague Jo, who drove me around the city – more in another post – and then took me to our meeting. Afterwards she drove me to my Youth Hostel in Haworth, via the scenic route so that I could see more of the delicious countryside and the house in the village of Thornton where the Brontes were born. I so enjoyed being able to see the surrounding villages, with their soot and age blackened stone houses, disused mills and steep, cobbled streets, all set amidst the scrubby moorland that stretches as far as the eye can see. This was the landscape the Brontes would have known; wild, rugged, and hauntingly beautiful, it is unsurprising that it inspired them to such heights of passion. In Haworth itself, much has changed; it is a bigger town now, and the many disused mills would not have all been there in their time. However, the main street is largely the same, and so are the views; once you are beyond the Bronte’s parsonage there is nothing to see but the moors and you do feel a little as though you are on the edge of civilisation, and that the realities of village life are far away.
The Bronte Parsonage Museum is wonderful, and unlike many similar ‘author’s house’ museums, the majority of what is on show did genuinely belong to the Brontes, so you do get a very good idea of what the house would actually have been like for them to live in. It is not a large house, and though it was well furnished, it is clear the Brontes were not overly prosperous. It is easy to see how close the siblings must have been, living on top of one another, sharing bedrooms, using the same parlour to write in and sharing the same circle of friends and acquaintances. It is also easy to appreciate how devastated Charlotte must have been to lose Emily and Anne so quickly in succession, and return home to the house that was once so lively with voices, so full of women rushing around, writing, working, talking, now silent and empty.
Having been before, I knew all this, so I focused my attentions on exploring the church and the churchyard for more clues as to life in Haworth. Many of the graves date to the time the Brontes lived there, and I was amazed at how young so many of the people were when they died. Some headstones marked baby after baby, child after child, lost before the age of 10; many adults seemed to barely reach their 35th birthdays. Hardly anyone made it to what we would consider an old age, and I was intrigued as to why. A display in the Parsonage Museum explained that a board of health report in 1850 revealed the shocking sanitary conditions of Haworth at the time. Due to the hilly nature of the town, many houses had poor drainage and were damp. There were open drains leaking sewage, only 4 1/2 toilets per house and a highly polluted water supply. With several thousand people buried in the overcrowded churchyard and no drainage, decomposing bodies added even more to the pollution of the water. Nearly half of all children died before the age of 6 and the average life expectancy was 24. Tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera and smallpox were rife. In this environment, the Brontes would have been used to death. Their house overlooked the graveyard; with the life expectancy being what it was, there must have been a burial most days. We consider it to be a tragedy that Emily and Anne died so young, but they actually lived to a good age compared to many of their fellow villagers. With death ever present and a long life hardly to be expected, it sheds more light on the extraordinarily passionate, intense, almost desperate prose of the Bronte sisters; they knew from experience that life was short, and that there may be no tomorrow. Why waste time on writing about quiet courtships and balls when wild romance on the moors and passionate embraces were all they had time for?!
The Yorkshire countryside is breathtaking, but much of the once majestic, optimistic Victorian architecture in its towns and cities is now crumbling due to the poverty that set in after the closure of the manufacturing industries that once made this corner of England so prosperous. The Youth Hostel in Haworth is a huge Victorian mansion once owned by a Victorian industrial magnate who owned several mills in the area; the interior is breathtaking, with handpainted stained glass, huge marble fireplaces, intricate mosaic tiled floors and elaborately carved railings and banisters. I saw many magnificent homes like this, now derelict, as I travelled around, and it made me so sad that for a place with so much natural beauty, and so much history, that there is so little opportunity and hope for so many of its inhabitants. I wonder whether, from this environment, a new generation of Brontes will arise, giving a voice to the spirit of this beautiful but bleak landscape once again.