It’s a haunting landscape, the moors of West Yorkshire where the Bronte family lived, wrote and loved. It might be something in the water, but it’s impossible to visit Haworth, the Bronte village, and not become a fan, especially as 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. If you’re interested in the Bronte sisters in Haworth, England, read on.
The Bronte pilgrimage begins
It’s the table that did it. The worn wooden table in the parlour of the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, England. Fairly gleaming with literary ghosts and the lingering whisper of elegantly-turned phrases, it brought the Brontes to life for me.
The Bronte sisters at the table
As children the Bronte sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne, would sit here with their brother Branwell, devoting untold hours to writing and creating fantastical worlds of their own. Later, working on their novels and poetry, the Bronte sisters would walk around the table long into the evening, reading their work out loud and offering critical feedback to each other.
Then Emily died, and Anne died and Charlotte circled the table alone.
Visiting the Bronte Parsonage
They were a tight knit family, the Brontes, and a visit to the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, is a right of passage for thousands of Bronte fans. This year, the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, will no doubt only magnify the Bronte house’s allure – and the excitement won’t die out anytime soon. Brontë200 is a five year program celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of four of the Bronte children: Charlotte was born in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820.
Don’t forget Patrick Bronte
Not to leave anyone out, Patrick Bronte, their social-justice-minded father will be feted in 2019, the 200th anniversary of his taking up the role of parson in Haworth. This just shows that when you’re a Bronte fan you will always find a reason to celebrate and visiting Haworth with a handful of like-minded travel writers, I quickly slipped into extreme fandom.
My first symptom manifested itself in the churchyard of the Bronte Parish Church. I’d gone for a brief ramble and was rejoining my group for our BrontëWalks Tour just as someone remarked on a black hen whipping across the churchyard.
“What about the hen?” I asked quickly, not wanting to miss any Bronte lore.
“It’s a pea hen,” Kalyani, one of the women in our group, said. “Just a hen.”
“Oh, not a Bronte hen, then?” I asked, disappointed.
“Well, it might be named Charlotte or Emily.”
Why do the Brontes fascinate us?
Maybe I’m taking my Bronte pilgrimage to extremes, but it’s easy to be fascinated by the Bronte sisters. For one thing, there’s the phenomenon of having three gifted literary sisters in one house. Then there is the passion in their writing and the unforgettable characters they conjured (hello, Heathcliff!). Ultimately, there is tragedy. Anne died at 29, Emily was 30, Charlotte at 38.
Who were the Bronte sisters?
The Bronte sisters were an unlikely literary trio. Their own world was small (although they travelled more than most people think), and so were they. Charlotte was 4’10”- you can see her tiny dress at the Parsonage. The books they wrote, however, loom large: among them Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The Bronte sisters in Haworth, England
Their father moved the family to Haworth in 1820 after becoming the village rector. Haworth’s setting on the edge of the wild Yorkshire moors would come to inspire and influence all the sisters’ writing, particularly Emily’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that seems to claw its way out of the ground as organically as the purple heather that colours the moors in summer.
Visiting the Bronte Parish Church
Johnnie Briggs, the guide for our BrontëWalks Tour leads us into the parish church where Patrick Bronte devoted so many years. All the Brontes are buried here except Anne, who died in Scarborough. Inside, a plaque dedicated to Emily and Charlotte marks the spot on the floor where they lie.
“Gifts are always being left here,” Johnnie says.
I look down and see a tiny brass vase with wild flowers, a painted heart and a feather, realizing I’m following a long line of Bronte fans.
The tragic history of the Brontes
Death loomed large in the family and being in the church brings it home. There were five Bronte sisters in all, but two of them, Elizabeth and Marie, didn’t live past childhood. Their mother died in 1821, a year after moving to Haworth, and Branwell, a gifted artist, never lived up to his early promise, turning to alcohol and morphine and dying early in 1848. Emily died the same year of tuberculosis, Anne a year later.
Charlotte would go on to marry her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls (against her father’s wishes). She died in 1855, possibly of hyperemesis gravidarum, the same super morning sickness that afflicted Kate Middleton. The last survivor was Patrick who lived to 84.
“Why did the children die so young? Were they a sickly family?” I asked Johnnie as we made our way outside.
Johnnie motioned around at the moss-tinted gravestones standing at crooked angles over the churchyard. “The spring water came through the graveyard and the water was contaminated. There was sewage in the streets,” he says. “Life expectancy in Haworth was 25.8 years.”
No wonder the Bronte books are so gloomy, I thought. One look around and I was starting to imagine tales of ghosts, madness and revenge for myself. Between the grey clouds hovering over the horizon and the mournful-looking gravestones, you’d think a pall of despair would suffocate the entire village but this “strange uncivilized little place” as Charlotte called it is surprisingly cheerful.
A new find in an old churchyard
Even the churchyard was a bustle of Bronte-based activity, and by chance we ran into a who’s who of Bronte elite. The woman poking around in a yellow rain slicker is archaeologist Dr Angela Redmond, while the man talking to her is Steven Wood, a Bronte historian.
“Angela’s just found a medieval cross,” Steven told John. Obligingly, Angela led me to a shadowy corner of the church, pushed away some foliage and showed me the faint trace of a Greek cross carved in the stone. Crouching in front of it, I wondered if the Bronte sisters, led by Branwell, the precocious leader of the siblings, had ever stumbled across the carving for themselves, building an imaginary world around it as they did with Branwell’s toy soliders.
Bronte in the water
Stopping for coffee at Cobbles and Clay, a combination cafe and pottery painting studio, we ran into yet another Bronte expert, the noted historian Ann Dinsdale. At this point I realized I hadn’t met a single person in Haworth who wasn’t somehow connected to the Brontes, and began to wonder if these days it wasn’t some sort of Brontemania that had seeped into the spring water.
No doubt Ann, author of The Brontes at Haworth, would have liked to enjoy her coffee in peace, but as we were just heading out to the moors I couldn’t help asking her about the Bronte sisters’ connection to the outdoors.
“They were living on the edge of the landscape,” she said. “And the wild moors are so heartbreakingly beautiful. They were very rooted here.”
Bronte walk up to Top Withens
That made me all the more excited to get out into Bronte country for myself. The most popular Bronte hike is the 6.5 mile circuit up to Top Withens, the farmhouse believed to be the location of the fictional Wuthering Heights. We didn’t have time for the full hike, but even our abbreviated version was a highlight, complete with atmospheric rain.
“We call it the Yorkshire kiss,” Johnnie said, as I pulled my hood tight.
“I think Yorkshire just made it to third base,” I said, wiping drizzle off my forehead.
We headed up the narrow road, whipped by wind and stared at by soggy sheep huddling against stone walls. Blankets of heather, bracken and grass were interrupted by dark patches of Millstone Grit, the local sandstone, while a lone tree stood by the the ruins of Top Withens.
“The connection between literature and the landscape is right here,” Johnnie said. “This was Heathcliff and Catherine’s wild playground.”
It’s bleak and romantic, and here in the realm of larks and curlews and lapwings, I felt certain the Brontes lived on. I could picture Charlotte, not pacing around the worn wooden table in grief, constrained by four walls, but striding over the moors with her sisters and brother – while around them, like daffodils bending their heads in the wind, wave their generations of fans.
Travel Guide for the Bronte sisters and Haworth, England
Bronte sights in and around Haworth
Top Withens and Bronte Waterfall Walk
This hike starts from Haworth and takes you to the Bronte Waterfall, a spot held dear by Charlotte (don’t miss the stone ‘Bronte Chair‘), across the Bronte Bridge and up to Top Withens, coming back along the Pennine Way. For exact directions you can get a 50p map from the Tourist Office at 2-4 West Lane, or check out this detailed Guardian article on the Brontës’ moors, Haworth, West Yorkshire for directions. For a shorter walk, you can also depart from Stanbury (that’s what we did).
Learn as you hike with BrontëWalks. Offering guided walks on the moors and day tours of the Haworth area, BrontëWalks is the perfect fix for any Bronte addiction and Johnnie Briggs is a storehouse of Bronte lore. Pick-ups from hotels and railway stops. Tel: 011-44-7749-108-105. brontewalks.co.uk.
The Bronte Parsonage
The Bronte Parsonage, the house where the Brontes lived, is located at the top of Main Street. It’s now a museum run by the Bronte Society. (Fun fact: Judy Dench is the President of the Bronte Society.) If you’re a literary fan, this is the one Bronte sight not to miss.
As part of Brontë200, a special exhibition at the Parsonage curated by novelist Tracy Chevalier highlights the contrast between Charlotte Bronte’s constricted life and her large scale ambition. Note: The museum is closed in January. Address: Brontë Parsonage Museum, Church Street, Haworth, Keighley, West Yorkshire, UK.
Haworth Parish Church
The Haworth Parish Church, St Michael and All Angels, where the Brontes are buried (save Anne) is located next to the parsonage. Rebuilt in 1879, it hardly looks the same as it did during the Brontes’ time here, but the tower dates back to 1480, and the origins of the church itself go back much further.
Margaret’s Book Shop
Margaret’s Book Shop was the village post office where the Bronte sisters would post their manuscripts. And yes, people come in to rub the original wooden counter. You can also visit the Druggist’s Shop where Branwell bought his opium.
KWVR Steam Train – the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway
It wasn’t built until after the Brontes’ time, but the KWVR Steam Train is still a fun thing to do from Haworth. Built to serve the local mill trades in the late 19th century, the train line runs less than 5 miles, but it’s a trip through the historic Worth Valley, where Haworth is located. And it does have a literary connection. It’s featured in the story of the Railway Children.
Where to eat and stay in Bronte country
Ashmount Country House
Ashmount Country House in Haworth is a luxury bed and breakfast (we stopped there for a sumptuous high tea). The Bronte connection? This elegant 19th-century house was the home of Charlotte Bronte’s physician. Address: Ashmount Country House, Mytholmes Lane, Haworth, Yorkshire.
Owned by the Heaton family, 17th-century Ponden Hall near Stanbury is said to be the model for Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights, and the Brontes visited here often. It’s now a B&B, or you can do a Tea and Tour. Visit the Ponden Hall website for more info.
We stayed at Holdsworth House, a luxury hotel 3 miles north of Halifax and about a 20-minute drive to Haworth. While this Jacobean manor built in 1633 has no connection to the Bronte sisters that I know of, it makes a cozy base for exploring the West Yorkshire’s Pennines and the Dales. Importantly, the Beatles stayed here in 1964, and the narrow twin beds where they slept are still here. Also, the shaggy friendly horses out next to the hotel are irresistible.
Clarendon Hotel & Restaurant
Slightly farther afield is Clarendon restaurant, a creative combination of modern French cuisine and British cookery. The building is a traditional, stone-walled public house 8.3 miles from medieval Bolton Abbey. Located in Hebden, Skipton.
Getting to Haworth
By rail: To get to Haworth you can take a train to the town of Keighley. Then take the restored Keighley and Worth Valley railway to Haworth.
For travel ideas read Places to Visit in England.