Return to Bronte Country

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.

34 comments

  1. This makes me really nostalgic because I did my teacher training only a few miles from Haworth and we were able to go over as often as we liked. It is certainly beautiful when you have good weather and also beautiful when it snows, but when it snows it really does snow. We used to ‘borrow’ tea trays from the refectory and use them as sleds down the Pennine slopes. Why the powers that be should have been so disapproving of this remains a mystery to me to this very day:)

    1. Oh lucky you, Alex! I would love to have the opportunity to spend some time living in that part of the world. I can imagine that the snow must be a nightmare – I was thinking of what it must be like to walk down the main street in Haworth in the snow and ice – I imagined it must be a sledding situation! Tea trays are certainly a perfect solution – what fun that must have been!!

  2. it it wonderful and saddening to read all this .. my own family on my mother’s Irish paternal side come as sibling to Patrick Brunty, or Bronte .. about 7 generations back .. so what that makes me and my 5 siblings to the Bronte girls I am not entirely sure, but as an artist myself, I can completely understand how the wildness of their landscape echoed their own lives, the bleakness, the windswept land …

    1. Wow Bronte, what a claim to fame! Lucky you! Yes – actually seeing the landscape does give you a real insight into how they managed to write what they did. It’s a wild place!

  3. What a fascinating post. I’ve always wanted to go to Haworth, and you’ve given me a glimpse of the town, and the graveyard, and the Brontes’ home, and what life would have been like for them and the villagers.

  4. Lovely post. You’ve just captured my mood perfectly..we’re absolutely shattered after a day of walking in the hills around Clitheroe and, like you say, parts of Yorkshire are just breathtakingly beautiful. I have to stop myself from tripping over my feet daydreaming about novels as I walk through that landscape..

  5. As usual your writing paints a vivid picture for the reader – I think I need a dose of Jane Eyre which I haven’t read for several years. It would be nice to think that not only will current times produce another generation of Brontes but maybe bring back manufacturing to this area and our country.

    1. Thank you Jennifer! I can always encourage a Jane Eyre re-read! Yes indeed – I would love to see these depressed areas in the North regenerated. The charity I work for is doing great work with children and young people in Bradford but the hopelessness is so pervasive…these kids know there won’t be jobs for them when they leave school and that sense of ‘what’s the point?’ is so sad to see.

  6. I’m currently mid way through my third re read of Jane Eyre, and loving it again, so a most timely post. How lovely to escape for a few days.

    1. Oh lovely, Rachel! I’d love to re-read Jane Eyre but I don’t seem to have time at the moment! It was a lovely little escape – just the perfect ‘fix’ of countryside!

  7. Such a beautiful landscape and all of those old brick buildings and mansions – it’s incredibly atmospheric. I can’t easily imagine the lives of the Bronte sisters, looking out over a graveyard and surrounded by death and wildness. I’m glad they responded with such hunger for life and passion.

    I am also applying to the University of Nottingham🙂 It’s further north than I initially wanted to go, but the School of English there seems quite good. Hooray for Robin Hood!😉

    1. Yes, it is a particularly breathtaking place, Lucy – I love it. It certainly gets the creative juices flowing!

      Oh wow – the university is very good in Nottingham. If you are prepared to go north, you should look at the University of York as well – it has an excellent English dept and it’s a smaller and more safe city than Nottingham.

  8. I loved this post. Brilliant, makes me want to leave our Tasmanian winter and head there now to enjoy some summer weather in such a beautiful spot. Would love to do an author’s tour over there. Also, well done on your future teaching career. May it be all you hope for and more. cheers, Pam

    1. Thanks Pam! Oh, it was cold and wet on the second day – no real summer weather yet, so don’t be too jealous!

      Thank you very much, I appreciate that!🙂

  9. This is just lovely. I am almost jealous of your lovely trip, but so grateful that you shared it with all of us. As a midwesterner from the U. S. it is not likely that I will view this in the first person so I will enjoy from afar. I am reminded of all of the books that I have read in which the main characters traveled by rail from London to the countryside or the reverse. Imagine what it was like for people of previous centuries who didn’t have benefit of all the electronic information that we have now. It must have been a culture shock to some of them.
    Your photos of Haworth are just amazing. Beautiful, the graves, the moors, the buildings … sigh. It is all so, well, Bronte-ish. All of that beauty and yet so much tragedy.

    1. I am glad I was able to give you a peek of this beautiful landscape, Janet! Yes, our train system here is amazing – you can get all over by train. It must indeed have been an eye opener for people who had never travelled before to get on a train and see such a different world just a few hours from home – England might be tiny but it is very geographically diverse!

      Glad you enjoyed the photos – it wasn’t easy to get good shots due to the gloomy weather but I think that gives a good sense of what it’s really like there!

  10. Another fine post. I gather that, after much controversy, approval has recently been given to a wind turbine scheme on Haworth Moor, so it could look rather different if you return in a few years.
    Incidentally, have you noticed how the face on the cover of the copy of Austen’s Emma, shown in your ‘Currently Reading’ widget at time of writing, looks rather like the actress Jennifer Ehle who played the rather different character of Lizzy Bennet in the legendary BBC TV adaptation of P&P? I doubt even Andrew Davies would give an Austen heroine multi-coloured hair in the way this cover designer has done. It seems to work though.

    1. Thanks David. Yes, it has – a real shame. However there are some wind turbines in the area already so I don’t know whether it will make as dramatic a negative impact as I originally feared.

      I hadn’t but now you mention it I can see it! I like the multi coloured hair!🙂

  11. I always enjoy your travel posts and the photographs that accompany them. I just noticed something in these photos and have a question. I don’t see any electric or telephone wires in these towns. Are these utilities underground in most British towns and cities? I’m sensitive to this because here in America, the towns and sometimes the countryside are strangled by these wires, detracting from the views. Here in Philadelphia, parts of the city have underground utilities and others don’t, and you should see what they do to the poor trees that dare grow near our precious wires! Butchery!

    1. Thanks Joan! Well, I do my best to avoid all the wires – they’re certainly there! There are loads in Haworth so I had to get quite creative with where I took photographs. I hate the way they obliterate views as well, though I suppose they are necessary!

  12. I love Haworth, looks like you got some lovely weather too! Congratulations on your teacher training, the way you talked about your English lessons in your last post makes it sound like you’re well on your way to inspiring young minds🙂

    1. It’s gorgeous isn’t it! I had a lovely day the day of my meeting, but the next day was a bit grey sadly!

      Thank you very much, that is very kind!🙂

  13. Thank you for such a lovely post. It was a wonderful trip thru your eyes. I hope to see it for myself one day, but until then, will have your amazing descriptions to give me a sense of the place.

  14. I enjoyed reading this so much. For the good writing and for your joyful high spirits. Yorkshire is where I could happy live – in a house lost in the moors and you have described your adventure beautifully. I’ve never known anyone get so much from life and its opportunities.

    Oh! – a bit late, this: many congrats about the teaching training course. You’ll be in your element!

    1. Thank you Chrissy! You are so kind.🙂 I know – me too. I have secret dreams of moorland life, but I know I’d get bored pretty quickly, unfortunately!

      Thank you so much! It’s a real dream come true and I can’t wait!🙂

  15. The UK always looks so picturesque! Though I’m sure when it’s raining it doesn’t look so wonderful. Those pictures look like you’ve stepped back in time. I love the one with the cobblestone streets and flags tied across the breach of the road.

    And congrats on your teaching letter!

    1. Yes, well, it’s not quite so nice when it’s grey and drizzly, but we do have a beautiful country, I cannot deny it! Yes – Haworth main street definitely looks like a blast from the past – they are quite known for it!

      Thank you very much!🙂

  16. Ah, Haworth! This spot will always hold a special place in my heart. My first visit was one of the best experiences of my life. Thanks for taking me back.😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s