Following the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and the subsequent biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1857, there was a surge in popularity of Charlotte and Emily’s novels[i]. As a consequence, a morbid curiosity grew up around the lives of the tragic sisters and the pilgrimage to the parsonage at Haworth, and to Top Withens in particular, became a common undertaking for the literary enthusiast and the down right nosey. The pilgrims came from everywhere: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, America, all wanting to touch the landscape the Brontës had created. One young American woman came with her new husband and his uncle, Walt, eager in her enthusiasm for romanticism to see the place where Heathcliff and Cathy had roamed the moors. Her transatlantic, almost manic, energy embraced everything with a child-like enthusiasm, as her journal showed. “central tragic figure – Uncle W. – drama of Cathy & Heathcliffe – close.” She made lists of words, Brontë words, stolen from the Parsonage: “luminous – bluish – watercolor – blue book, leather – sofa – Emily died – 19thDec 1848” – in the margin of her notebook she drew a simple sketch of the sofa on which Emily spent her final hours. Uncle Walt showed them the way from Stanbury to Top Withens, where she made a pen & ink drawing of the dilapidated farmhouse, capturing the asperous simplicity of the place, the isolation, the sadness, and the ever-dutiful sycamore trees standing close by. She posed in the branches of one of the trees for a photograph, young, beautiful, vivaciously intelligent, full of life. [ii]
“There are two ways to the stone house, both tiresome. One, the public route from the town along green pastureland over stone stiles to the voluble white cataract that drops its long rag of water over rocks warped round.”
“The other – across the slow heave, hill on hill from any other direction across bog down to the middle of the world, green-slimed, boots squelchy – brown peat – earth untouched except by grouse foot – bluewhite spines of gorse, the burnt-sugar bracken – all eternity, wilderness, loneliness – peat colored water – the house – small, lasting – pebbles on roof, name scrawls on rock – inhospitable two trees on the lee side of the hill where the long winds come, piece the light in a stillness. The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors & the yellow-eyed shag sheep. House of love lasts as long as love in human mind – blue-spidling gorse.”[iii]
Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes met at a party held at the Women’s Union, Falcon Yard, Cambridge to celebrate the publication of a new literary magazine, the St Botolph’s Review, partly edited by Hughes himself. Plath had earlier bought a copy from Bert Wyatt-Brown and had memorised some of Hughes’ poems so as to recite them to him and to impress[iv]. The effect on Ted Hughes was conclusive and their tempestuous relations began, as it was to continue.
“And I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favourite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”[v]
Plath and Hughes were married in haste, with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury (a waiver of any waiting period or of required residential status) at St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury on 16t June 1956 – Bloomsday – which was not a coincidence. Finding themselves penniless after the wedding, they move in with Ted’s parents at the family home in Heptonstall, Yorkshire and Sylvia was eager to take this opportunity to explore the wild, barren country of Hughes’ home.
Their visits to Top Withens clearly left a deep impression on both Hughes and Plath, for its image, and the image of the Yorkshire Moors are recurrent themes in their poetry. In her poem, ‘Wuthering Heights’written some years after their stay in Yorkshire, when the pair had moved to Devon, Plath recalls the isolation of the stone house.
Sylvia Path died from carbon monoxide poisoning on 11 February 1963, aged thirty; a successful poet with a single novel to her name, ‘The Bell Jar’, published just a month before her death. Her asphyxiation was self-inflicted. Returning to Top Withens years after his wife’s death Ted Hughes recalled their earlier visits, how the small property then still bore the resemblance of a house, how she had excitedly suggested they buy the place and renovate it, how she had sketched, wrote, been wonderful. But twenty years had passed and Top Withens had become an empty shell, devoid of life and character.
We had all the time in the world.
Walt would live as long as you had lived.
Then the timeless eye blinked.
Squared with Water Authority concrete, a roofless
Pissoir for sheep and tourists marks the site
Of my Uncles disgust.
But the tree –
That’s still there, unchanged beside its partner
Where my camera held (for that moment) a ghost.”[vii]
“It’s twenty years, I’ve been a waif for twenty years! Let me in – let me in!”
[i]Sadly, Anne’s novels appear to have been mostly forgotten until much later in the 20th Century.
[ii]Stevenson, Anne 1989 ‘Bitter Fame: a life of Sylvia Plath’ Viking Penguin Inc
[iii]Kukil, Karen, V. (ed. 2000) ‘The Journals of Sylvia Path 1950-1962’ Faber & Faber Ltd, pp589
In her novel ‘Changing Heaven’ the Canadian novelist, Jane Urquhart, imagines the ghost of Emily Brontë, alone and reflective, wandering the bleak, windswept moors above Top Withens, or is it Wuthering Heights? We can no longer tell. The moors, the hills, the backbone of England; they were never the same after 1847. They became Brontë Country.
“I did, you know,” said Emily, eventually coming back to earth, lying down, relaxing on a couch of heather. “I knew it the day I finished my book. My dog Keeper and I set out on our daily walk and, suddenly, the landscape had altered. There it was, the landscape of my novel! I could never see it any other way again. It was mine, mine! I’d made it mine! And I’d changed it forever.”[i]
In the commercially astute environment of the twenty-first century, one cannot throw a stick in the general vicinity of Haworth without hitting something emblazoned with the name ‘Brontë’ but the modern veneration of Emily Brontë’s prose, the secular worship of the Brontë myth, has not always been so. When Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s only novel, was published in 1847 it was met with revulsion and moral outrage, and although its brutal portrayal of rural life at the turn of the eighteenth century has lost some of its impact in comparison to the graphic details of modern literature – think Irvine Welsh – it still has the power to shock. Take this paragraph from chapter nine for example, where Hindley has come home drunk to the Heights seeking his young son Hareton.
“There, I’ve found it out at last!” Cried Hindley, pulling me back by the skin of my neck, like a dog. “By heaven and hell, you’ve sworn between you to murder that child! I know how it is, now, that he is always out of my way. But with the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving knife, Nelly! You needn’t laugh; for I’ve just crammed Kenneth, head-downmost, in the Blackhorse marsh; and two is the same as one – and I want to kill some of you, I shall have no rest till I do!”[ii]
This brutal and often violent characterisation marbled through Wuthering Heightshas been a source of much debate among critics, biographers and historians alike and was partly the reason that after publication the conservative society of Victorian England found it so difficult to believe that a woman had written such a novel. Though strongly influenced by the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, as already mentioned, and the gothic poetry of Lord Byron, both of which were very familiar to Emily Brontë, the novel is manifestly littered with autobiographical elements. Of profound affect upon the surviving Brontë siblings was the death from consumption of first Maria, aged just eleven, and then her younger sister Elizabeth aged ten, in the spring of 1825[iii]. Although aged only nine and six respectively, the death of their elder sisters was a trauma that would haunt Charlotte and Emily for the rest of their lives and reverberate throughout their fictional works. Where Charlotte drew upon the memory of her sister Maria for the character of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, it was the young Branwell, returned home from schooling to attend his sisters’ funeral, who claimed to have heard Maria crying outside his window at night. Although only six at the time of Maria’s death, it was this image that Emily recalled vividly twenty years later in Wuthering Heightsin the appearance of the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw to Lockwood outside the latticed window of the bed chamber[iv].
Emily is believed to have taken inspiration for Lockwood from one of Patrick Brontë’s young curates, the Revd. William Weightman, who moved to Haworth in 1839[v]and developed a playfully flirtatious relationship with the three Brontë sisters and their friend Ellen Nussey, much to the consternation of Emily, who scorned any notion of romantic love. As Weightman’s amorous interest in Ellen grew Emily took it upon herself to play the strong-arm chaperone, a role that won her the sobriquet ‘The Major’ from Weightman. It was an affectionate but subtly resentful nickname that would stick with Emily for the rest of her life, long after the departure of the lotharious Weightman.
The strongly wilful and more masculine aspects of Emily’s character were affectionately portrayed by Charlotte in the novel Shirleyin which the eponymous heroine refers to herself as ‘Captain Keelar’ as she strides out with her frightful canine companion, ‘Tartar’ an animal not unlike Emily’s own beloved and faithful ‘Keeper’[vi]. Beloved or not, Emily was known on occasion to discipline the poor beast with her own fists, once so savagely that both the dogs eyes and her own hands required bathing afterwards to reduce the swelling[vii].
Prone to bouts of melancholy and a need to escape the tiresome company of others, the small talk of polite society, for the solitude of her beloved moors, Emily was the antithesis of the young Victorian woman, for whom the expectations of society were to make a successful marriage. It is evident from Emily’s poetry that such a role was the last thing on her mind.
With ideas of gender fluidity far more readily acknowledged in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth it is easier to see how the introverted, misanthropic and frankly sadistic elements of Emily’s personality could find expression in the more savage passages in Wuthering Heights, not least in the character of Heathcliff himself. With such considerations in mind it is tempting to believe that in the infamous scene from Wuthering Heights, when Catherine expresses her eternal love for Heathcliff to Nelly Dean, that Emily herself was also expressing something of the conflict of identity she experienced.
“he is more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same … My great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it … Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”[ix]
Undoubtedly, although Emily Brontë died on 19 December 1848, another victim to the ravenous beast of consumption, it is the popular fascination with her only novel Wuthering Heights,that has propagated the memory and the myth of the most enigmatic of the Brontë sisters.
[i]Urquhart, Jane 1990 ‘Changing Heaven’ McCelland & Stewart Inc pp179
With a heavy heart I left the sanitised materialism of the Parsonage Museum gift shop, a packet of Brontë Rum and Raisin fudge stuffed in my the pocket of my rucksack, and wandered into the anarchic anthology of gravestones in the churchyard, each moss covered stone a remembrance of a family internment from before 1856, when due to public health concerns, the cemetery was closed. The horse chestnut, Scots pines and birch trees, so evocative of a windy afternoon in Haworth, were planted in 1864, long after the departure of the Brontë family, to help disperse the estimated forty-four thousand corpses contained within an acre of land. A photograph of the old church and churchyard, taken around 1860, shows only a few small trees in the Parsonage garden, tall enough barely to reach the first-floor windows and in the meadow to the south what appears to be a drinking trough, or possibly even an old bath, indicating that then, as now, the meadow was used for keeping livestock[i].
A well-marked footpath led beside the meadow then dog-legged towards Penistone Hill, where the overflow cemetery for Haworth was built in 1856 and where a slim finger of the Haworth Moor extends from Wether Hill to touch the skirts of the town. It was onto the moors here that the young Brontës would take their daily afternoon exercise, often accompanied by the family servants Sarah and Nancy Garrs, whilst Patrick attended to parish business. As the children grew older they were allowed to venture out on their own to explore the countryside. Ellen Nussey recalled in her memoires that Emily’s favourite walk was along Sladen Beck to a place known by Emily as ‘The meeting of the waters’[ii]. The Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale map of the South Pennines, published in 2008, shows Sladen Beck as emanating from the foot of the earth and clay dam of Lower Laithe Reservoir, built in 1925. Upstream of the reservoir, the beck extends to a point now known as the Brontë Bridge and the Brontë Waterfall. It is safe to assume that this is the location to which Ellen Nussey referred, where a tributary tumbles over gritstone boulders into the afore mentioned beck from the south, although, the Ordnance Survey mark the beck to the west of here as South Dean Beck. Here the children would sit in the sunshine and play in the russet waters that fell from the heather clad moors.
The moors, however, were not always so benign. In the September of 1824, during a long period of hot weather, whilst the eldest three Brontë children, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, were away from home at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, Branwell, Emily and Anne had, as was their daily routine, ventured out onto the moors in the company of Sarah and Nancy Garrs. On this particular Thursday afternoon, the little group was late in returning and Patrick had become concerned. He went to a first floor bedroom window to gain a vantage point from which to look for the children returning and was surprised to see that the skies above the moors to the west had turned black with heavy cloud. Timpani of thunder and shock of lightning soon followed as the whole moor was engulfed in a tempest of biblical proportions. Patrick later recalled in a sermon given to the congregation of St. Michael and All Angels how he heard a “deep, distant explosion” whilst feeling the house about him tremble. Distressed with worry, Patrick set out into the storm to search for his young family and eventually found them, cowering under Sarah’s cloak in the porch of a house.
Patrick was a pious man and believed the occurrence to have been an earthquake brought about by the electrical discharge of the storm and the recent hot weather, which of itself he believed to be a “solemn visitation”, a warning from God himself to the inhabitants of moor and town, calling them to repentance. In fact the earth tremor Patrick had experienced was the result of the collapse of a large area of bog between Middle Moor Hill and Crow Hill. The resulting deluge of liquefied peat, mud and moorland vegetation, which Patrick himself described as being up to sixty yards wide and between five to six yards deep, coursed down from the moor into Ponden Kirk and thus into the River Worth, flattening just about everything in its path, including trees, stone walls and a number of bridges. The wheels of mills along the length of the Worth were clogged with mire. At Horsforth, a good eight miles downstream from Haworth, over a thousand kilogrammes of dead fish, mostly trout and perch, were removed from the river Aire, having been suffocated by the quantity of mud and silt in the water system[iii].
Patrick had clearly been deeply shaken by the event, emotionally as well as physically, and by his frantic concern for his children. He concluded his sermon with the following prognostication:
“We have just seen something of the mighty power of God: he has unsheathed his sword, and brandished it over our heads, but still the blow is suspended in mercy – it has not yet fallen upon us. As well might he have shaken and sunk all Haworth, as those parts of the uninhabited moors on which the bolts of his vengeance have fallen. – Despise not this merciful, but monitoring voice of Divine Wisdom.[iv]”
Merciful indeed, for if a report in the Leeds Mercury was to be believed the young Brontës came closer to catastrophe than was originally perceived.
“The torrent was seen coming down the glen before it reached the hamlet, by a person who gave the alarm and thereby saved the lives of several children who would otherwise have been swept away.[v]”
It isn’t clear if the children referred to in the report were the Brontë children, but it is possible. How utterly different the course of English literature might have been, if not for the timely intervention of that unnamed person.
Rather than follow the indicated route along the Brontë Way (there is little here which does not now have the epithet ‘Brontë’ applied to it) I turned south from Penistone Hill and followed the line of a dry stone wall above Leeshaw Reservoir, where in the depression of Spa Hill Clough were patches of ink black bog deeper even than a fully extended walking pole, an thus to be avoided at all cost. Above Spa Hill began the exhausting climb through sodden purple moor grass and large patches of lime green sphagnum moss, to Oxenhope Stoop Hill, where I came upon a tall boundary stone, hewn from the local gritstone and carved with a large letter ‘H’. I considered for a moment if the ‘H’ stood for a certain misanthropic character in Wuthering Heights, but having consulted my map found I was standing on the invisible boundary between the county parish of Haworth, in the borough of Keighley and Hepton in the borough of Calderdale.
Following the line of this boundary roughly west for a mile or so I came upon the Pennine Way as it climbed from Walshaw Dean to the gap between Round Hill and Dick Delf Hill, before falling into the valley to the north, where beneath the bows of two sycamore trees stand the quartered ruins of a small Pennine farm, the rough hewn blocks of millstone grit weathered and encrusted with lichen and mosses, the inhabitants having long departed, home now only to half a dozen Swaledale ewes with piercing stares.
Top Withens is about as far as it is possible to be from the sea in the north of England and although the distances involved are by no means great in the age of the internal combustion engine, a hundred and fifty years ago they were considerable. From the crook of Delph Hill, beneath which the ruins sit, it is over seventy miles eastwards to Hornsea and the algid waters of the North Sea. To the west the Fylde coast lies somewhat closer at forty miles distance, none-the-less a journey of at least two days on foot in 1824. The former Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar on Withins Heights stands at 444m above sea level and has line of sight along a ridge north-west via Crow Hill, across the gap at Coombe Hill Cross to Great Wolf stones, surveyed at just a metre in height below the Heights, for this is the backbone of the north of England, the watershed east and west, in the 18thCentury given the sobriquet ‘Apennine’ in deference to the Italian mountains of the same name and now more commonly referred to as the Pennines.
In 1567 an area of sixteen acres of land upon the Pennine hills known as ‘Wythens’ was sold by Thomas Crawshaye and his sister Anne to a George Bentley, who subsequently passed the ‘Wythens’ on to his descendant William Bentley. Bentley had three sons; Luke, Martyn and John between whom the land was divided into three farms known as Top, Middle and Near Withens. The change in spelling of the name is a common feature of the farms throughout their history, the original deeds to the land having given the name as ‘Wythens’, but the 1852 six inch to one mile map of the Haworth gives the name as ‘Withins’, as does the current Ordnance Survey map, last printed in 2008. However, ‘Withens’ is also in common usage as indicated on William Edmondson’s photograph of ‘Top Withens’ dated 1895 which shows the moor top dwelling as a working farm, complete with a gaggle of white geese. Such variations of spelling are indicative of the transition of a pre-literate culture where oral tradition held primacy, into a culture dominated by administrative literacy.
The etymology of the name ‘Wythens’ holds particular interest for me because the particularly homogenous council estate to the south of Manchester on which I grew up was known as Wythenshawe[vi], so named after the 16thCentury timber framed house and associated parkland, once home to the Tatton family and now owned by Manchester City Council. The teachers of my primary school, which bore the emblem of a weeping willow, would often instruct that the etymology of ‘Wythen-shawe’ is old English, meaning a coppice of willow trees[vii]. The implication here is that the correct form is indeed ‘Wythens’ as indicated by the original deeds, but whether or not there is any association between the three Pennine farms of the Sladen Valley and the growth of willow, is unknown. The two remaining trees which have stood faithfully beside Top Withens throughout the twentieth century, loyal partners isolated in a sea of moorland grasses and heather, are in fact Sycamores.
By 1813 Top Withens was owned by a John Crabtree, who leased the farm to Jonas Sunderland, who eventually bought the property and passed it on to his son, also Jonas. During the time of the Brontë sister’s excursions onto Haworth Moor, Jonas had married and had three children: John, James and Ann. The income of the farm came from livestock on pasture, the associated dairy produce and was also supplemented by handloom weaving, as the income from such a small holding alone was unlikely to be sufficient to keep the family. It is tempting then to imagine the Brontë sisters calling upon the Sunderlands as they took their daily perambulations upon the moor. The author Glen Hughes in his fictionalised biography Brontë took this idea a step further and imagined the Brontë children taking refuge from that September Storm and its associated landslip in the relative safety of Top Withens.
“The darkened cottage – the firelight and rushlights flickering – with its flagged floor, its rough, stone fireplace under the rack of drying oatcakes, was bare and severe; no rugs, but a scrubbed table, wooden chairs, crude pots and wooden spoons. Pat Wainwright and Nancy were sitting by the fire, with Tom and Mary Sunderland, and their two smaller children. At one side of the fireplace, Mrs Sunderland was praying, the huge shut bible, with its brass clasp fastened, on her lap.”[viii]
It was Ellen Nussey who, as far as is recorded, first intimated the connection between Top Withens and Wuthering Heights, the family home of the Earnshaw family. In 1872 the publishers Smith, Elder & Co had undertaken a re-print of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and had employed the artist Edward Morrison Wimperis to provide engravings to illustrate the works. George Smith wrote to Ellen asking if she might know the identity of some of the places described in the novels. Although her reply to Smith is not extant, it is clear from the resulting engravings and from a letter Smith wrote to Ellen thanking her for the information that Ellen had responded to the request. The most famous image produced by the artist is a dark and brooding, moonlit scene of the view from below Scar Hill showing the three Withens farms, the third, most elevated and most remote having been transformed into the “large jutting stones” of Wuthering Heights. Thus established, the association began to burrow its way into the popular consciousness.
Commentators draw on at least two other contenders for the inspiration of Wuthering Heights. The first is High Sunderland Hall, a large manor house, which until the 1950’s stood in parkland to the north of Halifax and which Emily is thought to have visited during her time as a teacher at Law Hill School. The description of Wuthering Heights at the opening of the novel in which Mr Lockwood sees “a quantity of grotesque carvings lavished over the front” and “a wilderness of crumbling griffins, and shameless little boys” is thought to have been inspired by the seventeenth century stately home. However, an examination of the text shows that the descriptions of the interior of Wuthering Heights in the novel are not those of a large ancestral manor house, but rather of a less substantial farm building. Indeed, ‘the Heights’ are often referred to in the text as being a farmhouse. In the letter Isabella Linton sends to Ellen Dean following her elopement with Heathcliff, she writes:
“The sun set behind the Grange, as we turned on to the moors; by that, I judged it to be six o’clock; and my companion halted half-an-hour, to inspect the park, and the gardens, and, probably, the place itself, as well as he could; so it was dark when we dismounted in the paved yard of the farmhouse, and your old fellow servant, Joseph, issued out to receive us by the light of a dip candle.”[ix]
Joseph, the acerbic servant is often described as retreating to his garret, a feature far likely to be found in the Pennine farms of the Sladen Valley than in a stately manor close to the centre of Halifax and, in the first chapter, as Lockwood enters the building he describes a single room reaching to the very roof.
“One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby, or passage; they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently.” Lockwood continues, “One end, indeed, reflecting splendidly both light and heat, from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, in a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn, its entire anatomy laid bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes, and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it.”[x]
The above is no description of a manor house, but may be the description of Ponden Hall, a substantial farmhouse, also built in the seventeenth century, located below Ponden Clough on a spur of land that now extends into Ponden Reservoir. The Brontë children often visited Ponden Hall to make use of the extensive private library which was housed there and the oak beamed rooms of its interior may have fired Emily’s imagination. Certainly, it was here that Emily encountered an upper chamber with a small, latticed window, enclosed by the frame of a box bed[xi].
Perhaps most convincingly, again and again Emily Brontë, describes Wuthering Heights as a hilltop dwelling rather than the parkland setting of High Sunderland Hall.
“Pure, bracing ventilation they must have of it up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house;”[xii]
“On that bleak hill-top the earth was hard with black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb.”[xiii]
“heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy.”[xiv]
The above powerful discourse given by Cathy to Nelly Dean makes apparent a factor that I believe is often overlooked. Wuthering Heights in not merely the dwelling in which the Earnshaws live, but the whole area of moorland about their farmhouse. This is also true of the Withens farms. The 1852 six inch to one mile map gives the name of the area of raised moorland immediately to the west of Delf Hill, below which Top Withens sits, as ‘Withens Heights’. This association of name is for me far more than coincidence, especially given that ‘Wuthering’ is a Yorkshire dialect variant of the Scottish dialect ‘Withering’. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were particular favourites of Emily’s, and Scott often used the devise of country dialect in his novels, particularly in the character of Andrew Fairservice in the novel Rob Roy.
Withens – Withering – Wuthering!
[i]Barker, Juliet op. cit. plate section one, in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum
It took twenty-eight years for me to walk beyond the confines of the cemetery wall of Saint Michael and All Angels, Haworth. In the wake of a rather acrimonious divorce in 2005 I fell upon the mercy of a local “under 40’s” Rambler’s club, an incidental collection of divorcees, serial-singletons, misanthropists and social misfits (many of whom I have come to know and love as very good friends). The debt of gratitude I owe to this diverse band of characters is beyond measure, for they enabled me to re-discover my love of the British countryside, and vicariously, an essential part of me own being. It was in attending a walk organised by a member of this group that I found myself back in Haworth, where I found myself assailed by memories long locked away in the confines of my subconscious. The walk that day was from the Parsonage, across Penistone Hill and along Sladen Beck to the “Meeting of the Waters” from thence to the ruined Elizabethan farms below Withens Heights: lower, middle and top, returning via Ponden Clough and Hall. That was my first visit to Top Withens and the beginning of a fascination that persists to this day.
On the chilly March morning I had taken the train to Haworth, I found the stone solidity of the Brontë Parsonage Museum a haven of tranquillity, peaceful in early spring when the chattering crowds of high season had been replaced by the ceaseless whispers of the wind echoing throughout the house, through the stone floored hallway, into the parlour where the flattering George Richmond portrait of Charlotte hangs above the fireplace and where the three sisters would make their evening perambulations around the mahogany dining table. It was at this table that from their early adolescence, the four Brontë siblings would indulge their favourite pastime of writing fictional accounts of their heroes. Characters at first taken from contemporary accounts the children had read in Blackwood’s Magazine, a satirical periodical of the time; Charlotte’s favourite the Duke of Wellington, Emily’s Sir Walter Scott, but later developing in imaginative complexity into the Angrian and Gondal Sagas, which would continue to be the foundation of the Brontë’s literary efforts into much later life[i]. In her acclaimed biography of the Brontës, Juliet Barker cautions against fuelling the myth of the Brontë’s nascent literary genius, preferring to see the ‘Juvenilia’ as the product of a mutual, creative endeavour; a means of expression for young, imaginative minds.
“It is easy also to over-emphasize the maturity of the young Brontës by drawing attention to the complexity of their childhood writings, the elaborate and exotic descriptive passages, the wide range of references and the rich vocabulary used. Less often mentioned is the highly imitative nature of much of the writing, in both style and subject matter. Their slap-dash writing, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation well into their late teenage years is usually glossed over, as is the frequent immaturity of thought and characterisation.”[
Barker, Juliet, (2010) The Brontës, second edition, Abacus, pp178
What is undoubtedly much more fascinating than the literary merit and sheer volume of the writing produced, is the level of preoccupation exhibited by the Brontës in their imaginary worlds, an absorption that in the case of Emily would continue until her death in 1848 and which often proved a barrier to integration into everyday life.
The Brontë children were for the most part educated at home by their father. Apart from her brief, and by all accounts traumatic, sojourn of six months at the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School, Emily had received no tuition at a place of formal education. Concerned by this Patrick arranged for Emily to be sent at the age of seventeen to Roe Head School, near Mirfield, where another of his daughters, Charlotte had attended as a pupil in 1831[iii]. Patrick no doubt thought it provident that Charlotte had recently been made the offer of a teaching position at the school by her former mistress, Miss Wooler. His two eldest daughters would then move to Roe Head together. Unfortunately, despite the presence of her sister at the school, Emily found integration difficult. The constraints of the school routine, so different to the freedoms she had valued at the Parsonage, soon became a challenge, and she began to withdraw from her fellow pupils, not least because of her self-consciousness at her physical and mental maturity in comparison to the majority of her classmates and her unwillingness to engage in what she no doubt saw as the childish chatter in the dormitory. But the most grievous restrictions imposed upon Emily were undoubtedly her geographical separation from the moorlands upon which she loved to walk, and the lack of private time in which to indulge her Gondal fantasies. Though visible from the dormitory windows of Roe Head, the hills and moors surrounding Mirfield were strictly out-of-bounds for pupils, more by virtue of the rigorous daily schedule of the school.
Unable to communicate with her sister Anne, the chief co-conspirator in the Gondal sagas, and having little time and privacy with which to put down in writing her imaginative thoughts, a cathartic release that had always been available to her at the Parsonage, Emily became physically and emotionally ill. Within three months of moving to Roe Head she was permanently sent home. This was a pattern that would reappear in the summer of 1838, when at the age of twenty Emily took up a teaching post at Law Hill School, near Halifax. In a letter to her friend and confidant, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte wrote of the rigorous work schedule at the school.
“I have had one letter from [Emily] since her departure it gives an appalling account of her duties – Hard labour from six in the morning until eleven at night. With only one half-hour of exercise between – this is slavery I fear she will never stand it.[iv]”
Despite this ‘slavery’ Emily did find time to write poetry during her first term at Law Hill, much of which based on Gondal themes but noticeably coloured with the language of exile and loss. An untitled poem dated 11 November 1838 contains the following lines[v]:
In the gloom of a cloudy November They uttered the music of May – They kindled the perishing ember Into fervour that could not decay
Awaken on all my dear moorlands The wind in its glory and pride! O call me from valley and highlands To walk by the hill-river’s side! …. But lovelier than corn-fields all waving In emerald and scarlet and gold Are the slopes where the north-wind is raving And the glens where I wandered of old – …. For the moors, for the moors where the short grass Like velvet beneath us should lie! For the moors, for the moors where each high pass Rose sunny against the clear sky!
For the moors, where the linnet was trilling Its song on the old granite stone – Where the lark – the wild skylark was filling Every breast with delight like its own.
There is no evidence to suggest that Emily wrote anything during the second term at Law Hill, an indication perhaps of her failing mental and physical health. By the Easter of 1839 she had once again returned to the familiar haven of the Parsonage at Haworth and would never again earn money through employment. Her sister Charlotte described Emily’s discomfort with pedestrian reality of working life in a preface to the 1850 edition of ‘A Selection of Poems by Ellis Bell’[vi].
“Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it, she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and inartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindliest auspices), was what she failed in enduring.”
Even after the achievement of having written Wuthering Heights, which she completed in spring of 1846, Emily reacted with strong feelings of rejection, perhaps understandably, to the mostly lukewarm responses the novel received from prospective publishers. Emily once again withdrew into her fantasy Gondal world, producing several melancholic poems in partnership with her sister Anne.
It would perhaps be disingenuous to throw twenty-first century psychoanalytical labels around when considering the lives of those who lived in the nineteenth century, but it is evident that all of the Brontë siblings suffered considerable trauma as children and had to face the consequences of this in later life. Emily’s mother died when she was just three years old. The subsequent deaths from consumption of the two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth not four years later and her experiences of deprivation and, what by all accounts was psychological torture and near starvation at the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School, could only have had a profoundly negative effect on Emily. To what extent these traumatic childhood events affected the Brontë children is perhaps best seen in the narratives of their fiction. Juliet Baker points out[vii]that orphans and motherless children were a common feature in both the childhood writings and in published works. In the case of Emily, her novel Wuthering Heightsis populated almost entirely by such orphans and motherless children. Heathcliff’s parentage is never explained and he is presumed to be an orphan, found on the dockside in Liverpool. Both Mr and Mrs Earnshaw are dead by the end of the fifth chapter, leaving Cathy and Hindley without parents and Heathcliff orphaned for a second time. Hindley’s wife Frances dies in childbirth leaving Hearton motherless, as does Cathy leaving the young Catherine in the same predicament. Linton’s mother, Isabella (Edgar Linton’s sister) dies twelve years after his birth of what is implied to be consumption, and ultimately, Edgar and Heathcliff themselves die leaving the young Catherine and Hareton, whose unison in marriage brings the novel to a conclusion, without parentage. After a period of thirty years over which the narrative takes place, Catherine and Hearton are left as the only survivors of the two families.
If we assume then the profound effect of childhood trauma on the Brontës, it is perhaps miraculous that as children they were able to employ their imaginative powers to nurture each other and to overcome what trauma they had experienced to the extent that they were, in later life, able to produce such remarkable works of fiction. If there was a flaw in the childhood strategy, it was that once separated from the familial unit, their primary source of nurture and self-identity was not available to them. This being so, one can only imagine the magnitude of grief experienced by Charlotte when first Branwell, then Emily and finally Anne died of consumption within seven months of each other.
To be continued in Chapter 3 …..
[i]Barker, Juliet, (2010) The Brontës, second edition, Abacus
I add the quotation marks of cynicism as an acknowledgement of the inevitable progress of time, which has rendered, in Logan’s Run fashion, many of the clubs members well above the critical age threshold. We have yet to begin removing elder members with pleasure-inducing toxic gas.
In this series of six articles, one of which was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The Great Outdoors magazine, I explore my life-long connection with the town of Haworth in West Yorkshire, as it’s association with the Brontë family.
My sister’s house stood close by Burley Park Station on the Leeds-Harrogate-York railway line and during the summer months of the 1970’s, when the river Aire ran bright and singing past the meadows of Kirkstall Abbey, we caught Sticklebacks in jam jars from the streams and the summer heat fair split the granite setts in the avenues, and the British Rail heritage locomotives would steam past, carrying families to Scarborough for the day. I recall a particular boy who lived in the house at the very end of the avenue, from where there was an unobstructed view over the railway tracks, who by some process of divine cognition knew exactly when these trains would pass. But a real delight was a trip from Leeds City Station on the draughty and noisy class 110 British Rail diesel units along the Airedale line to the market town of Keighley from where the former Midland Railway 4F class steam locomotives of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway would strain at a sedate and stately pace against the gradient – one-in-fifty-eight at its steepest point – issuing bellowing clouds of bituminous steam, climbing three-hundred feet in five miles up the Worth Valley to Oxenhope. Imagine my delight when my sister informed me that Oakworth station was used as the location for the 1970’s film The Railway Children, the famous petticoats waving scene having been filmed at the Mytholmes tunnel a few hundred metres further up the line. Although a tour of the engine sheds at Oxenhope, where the line terminates, held a certain fascination for a young boy, my sister was always more enthusiastic when we alighted from the train at Haworth station and walked the half-mile to the town high street, where she would relate tales of three remarkable sisters who had lived there many years ago. Thirty-seven years later it was not the engine shed at Oxenhope but those three remarkable sisters that drew me back to Haworth.
It was a slate grey missal morning as I set out over the heights of the M62 motorway into Yorkshire passing the famous Stott Hall Farm, located in the centre of the carriageways not, as urban myth would have, because of a dispute of land ownership, but rather a simple necessity of geotechnical engineering. The weather had not improved by the time I reached Keighley and did nothing to alleviate the dreary aspect of a town, which has over the decades sadly succumbed to industrial decline and mercilessly functional architecture. Keighley main line station is a case in point and has few charms to be recommended but the branch line platform retains many of the original Midland Railway features, redolent of the platform scenes in David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
The arrival of the matt black locomotive, hauling several maroon and cream British Railway carriages, exhaling sulphurous steam like an asthmatic dragon, was greeted with universal delight by children and adults alike and soon the hyperventilating engine was pulling us away from the black, gaping windows of abandoned factories and mills, over bridges of creamy mustard sandstone beneath which the river Worth plunged and tumbled over weirs and cascades, alongside fields where horses trotted to keep pace with the engine, past embankments where free range bantams scurried in panic from the approaching fire-breathing beast and the clickety-clack swaying of the carriages had a somnambulant effect on old men and babies.
The weight of my head nodded me awake as the train halted at Haworth station and I quickly gathered my belongings and stepped down onto the platform. Placing my feet carefully, diffidently, as I had done back in those hazy summers of the 1970’s, I began to climb the steep hill of High Street, past the holiday cottages, the gift shops selling Yorkshire Relics, craft shops, ladies fashion boutiques, old maids’ parlours, the notorious drinking houses and enough tea shops, cafés and restaurants to keep the Duke of Wellington and all his armies fed and watered. It is perhaps easy to see Haworth High Street as evidence of crass commercialism, but in comparison to many of the high streets of Britain, it has retained something of its independent charm and has not (yet) succumbed to the invasion of global chains that homogenise so many towns and cities. Behind the Black Bull Inn a side street leads past the Victorian parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, built to replace the previous building in 1879, past the church yard, closed in 1856 due to over crowding, to the former parsonage house which was once the home of the Brontë family.
There is little that has not been written about the Brontë family, that most enigmatic, celebrated, tragic, quasi-mythological family of this Yorkshire moorland and darkly industrial town. Of Patrick, the ambitious, diligent, pious clergyman; of his only son Branwell, the much maligned, unrecognised and ultimately alcoholic artist and poet; of Charlotte, the celebrated literary sensation of her time, proto-feminist and heartbroken author; of Anne, the affectionate, unassuming, oft overlooked novelist; and of Emily, the uncompromising, sensitive, often reclusive lover of nature, who penned perhaps the most singular work of fictional prose in the English language. Indeed, over the course of the one hundred and fifty years since their untimely deaths, whole forests have been felled in service of the Brontë myth and the propagation of a legion of fictional, biographical and psychological tomes. Certainly, a single chapter of discourse would not do justice to their intricate and fascinating story, nor to any half-hearted critical appraisal of their works. I do not intend to enter into that room. The road to Haworth is paved with a thousand authors, many falling bereft at the wayside, each offering their own particular interpretation and spin upon the saga. I came here only to remember and to experience once again a place I love.
I cannot remember how I lost my sister. She was perhaps busy still in the parsonage museum, but I recall vividly the wind stirring the tops of the sycamore trees in the church yard and the arguments of the rooks in their lofty canopy and the tranquillity, which is different to quiet, of that moment. Wandering amongst the sepulchres and tombstones I found the cemetery boundary wall, which to my juvenile frame appeared tall and insurmountable. Using the copingstones as leverage I pulled myself up and looked over the wall into the fields beyond. The enclosed meadows stretched for some half a mile, separated by an array of parallel dry stonewalls and beyond, the briefest glimpse of moorland heather where the ground rose to the horizon. I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to take flight over the wall and be off. As I began to find a footing on the protruding tie stones, the familiar treble of my sister’s voice sounded across the graveyard, calling me back.
At 854m in height, Arenig Fawr lays no claim to be amongst the mightiest of peaks in Snowdonia. The late W. A. Poucher ranked the rocky summit of this remote mountain as 24th in an ordinal list of the Welsh Peaks. But a mountain is more than a mere measurement of its ascent above ordnance datum, as obsessive peak-baggers and list tickers may fail to acknowledge. It is a massif of geological history, an eco system of flora and fauna, a facilitator of meteorological phenomenon, a catalyst of story, myth and legend, a home of spirits from an earlier age.
I first fell under the spell of this less well known area of the Welsh mountains as a student at Aberystwyth University. As Michaelmas term progressed and the nights began to draw in around the somewhat claustrophobic collegiate town, we looked with increasing anticipation to our weekend forays into the Welsh countryside to find space and light. And so we stumbled across the mountains to the south of Llyn Celyn, since when something has called me back time and time again.
On the autumnal equinox I set off to spend the night at the MBA hut situated rather apprehensively just below the slightly Heath Robinson looking dam at Llyn Arenig Fawr. As the hut is situated less than two miles south of the A4212 Y Bala-Trawsfynydd road I decided to extend the journey by starting at the Llyn Celyn dam, picking my way through the farms and fields around Mynydd Nodol and crossing a rather boggy Nant Aberderfel, where the Ordnance Survey indicated path seems to vanish into purple moor grass, bog myrtle and waist-high heather. After four rather gruelling miles I arrived at the bothy, which was, thankfully, empty. The hut is only just large enough for one person, or perhaps two if they know each other well, and probably dates from 1830 when Llyn Arenig Fawr was first adapted as a reservoir to provide the town of Y Bala with drinking water. The lake gains some shelter from storms as it lies in the lee of the crags of Simdde Ddu, but as an autumnal wind began to get up across the silvery waters, as the light began to fail and the rain began to pitter-pat on the steel chimney cap, I determined the best course of action was to light a fire in the somewhat smoky grate and settle down for the night.
In geological terms Arenig Fawr was born 490 million years ago in a sea of fire and foam in a part of geological time known as the Ordovician. The collision of continental plates gave rise to an arc of fierce volcanic activity. The volcanoes erupted into a shallow sea with explosive force, spuing out pyroclastic flows of white-hot ash and lava, which roared with breathtaking speed into the surrounding waters, making them boil and hiss. These “nuées ardentes” or burning clouds, rapidly cooled in air, in water to form solid rock: ignimbrites, tuffs, breccias, from which the lofty crags of Arenig Fawr were chiselled.
During the last ice age some 14,000 years ago, sheets of ice would have submerged these valleys, with only the mountaintops protruding above, a veritable flood concealing the fertile valleys from hunter gatherers and forcing them south to warmer climes. As the valleys and human imagination began to emerge from beneath the ice, stories were woven by the Celtic people about a race of giants who lived among them. Idris was one such giant, living upon his seat “Cadair Idris” and who would initiate contests between other giants, Yscydion, Offrwm and Ysbryn who also lived amongst these hills and mountains. There is an account in the Welsh Triads of the bursting of Llyn Llion that resulted in the deaths of all living people, with the exception of Dwyfan and Dwyfach, who escaped in a boat without sails, and went on to repopulate the British Isles with their offspring. Arenig Fawr seems a likely place for the grounding of this mythological boat, the Welsh for Ark being Aren or Arene. Similarly, it is believed locally that the ruins of an ancient and legendary city lie beneath the waters of Llyn Tegid, or Bala Lake as it is know in English, once lost in a great flood. The lake, formed by glacial melt waters following the last ice age, is one of the last habitats of the Gwyniad fish, a small salmonid creature. Three rather forlorn looking specimens of this remnant of a post-glacial ecosystem sit pickled in formaldehyde in the White Lion Hotel on the main street of Y Bala. Another local legend tells of a farmer who once found a fairy calf among the rushes of Llyn Arenig Fawr, and reared it as one of his own cattle. For many years it produced many fine offspring, making him a wealthy man, until one day a small man playing a pipe appeared by the lake and by his eerie music, led the animal back into the waters to rejoin the fairy herd. Born from water and returned to water.
I awoke to a cold, wet, grey morning and struggled to raise myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag. After a breakfast of kippers cooked on the old iron pan I found hanging on the bothy wall, I carefully balanced across the rickety old iron ladder spanning the water out-flow of the dam, and began to ascend the limb of Y Castell to the south-west of the lake. As I climbed higher and the expanse of open country to the south gradually began to reveal itself, I could see three sheets of water dominating the landscape: Llyn Celyn to the north, Llyn Arenig Fawr in the corrie below, and across the moorland to the south, Llyn Tegid, cradled in the valley beneath the lofty crags of Aran Fawddwy.
The spirit of Arenig Fawr can be deceptively passive, imbued with an air of amiability, beneath which lies a dark and angry character. On clear spring days, with the song of skylarks lifting high into the azure sky, the climb to the summit is a little more than a strenuous walk. But in winter, when the mountain is draped in snow and ice, reminiscent of that long ago age, when black clouds tear across the summit ridge propelled by winds strong enough to lift walkers from their feet and dash them onto the jagged rocks below, then one might imagine giants battling in these hills.
On a moonless August night in 1943 the deep thrum of aircraft engines could be heard above the wind, echoing along the Dyfrdwy Valley. The aircraft was a United States Air Force B17 Flying Fortress, “Mr Five-by-Five”, on night training manoeuvres, many miles off course. It is thought that the crew never saw Arenig Fawr in the darkness. Had the aircraft been just fifty metres higher they would have cleared the summit ridge, secured their location and returned to base for cocoa and a good night’s sleep. The summit cairn now bears a slate memorial to the eight American crewmembers, each one originating from a different state of the Union, who were killed that night. The area is even now scattered with fragments of metal, mostly fused, one would suspect at very high temperature, into the volcanic breccias that form the rocky outcrop, such that it is impossible to tell where aluminium ends and the natural rock begins. The bodies of the crewmen were never found.
To the south of the summit, Moel yr Eglwys, Church Hill, lies an area of rare simplicity and beauty where a scatter of crystal-clear pools, encircled by rich, red bog grasses, lie amongst undulating crags and rocky tors. Westward, across the boggy col of Ceunant Coch, I climbed to the summit of Moel Llyfnant and was rewarded with a view across Coed-y-Brenin, the King’s Forest, to the Rhinogydd, dark and silent like sleeping giants, beneath a blanket of cold-grey cloud.
To the north of Moel Llyfnant, on the descent towards Amnodd-bwll and Amnodd-wen, there are remains of shielings, or hafod in Welsh, buildings associated with the summer grazing of livestock, probably dating from the 18thCentury. Many are of considerable size and extent, belying the once active agricultural history of this barren landscape, populated now only by walkers, lone forestry workers and the occasional sheep.
In twenty-four hours I saw not one other person until I reached the sleepy hamlet of Arenig, from where I crossed Afon Tryweryn to reach again the A4212, where the cars and lorries race at foolish speed. Circling the lake I was reminded of the latest tale in these chronicles of fire and flood. In 1965, the construction of the reservoir of Llyn Celyn, built to provide water to the city of Liverpool via the river Dee, resulted in the flooding of Capel Celyn, a small village, which was a centre of welsh cultural activity. Local bitter feelings were exacerbated by the insensitivity of the authorities involved and the passing of the legislation for the reservoir in Parliament despite the opposition of thirty-five of the thirty-six incumbent Welsh members. The incident is remembered as a moot point for advocates of the Welsh Language, most notably by a piece of graffito on the wall of a ruined stone cottage by the A487 at Llanrhystud, outside Aberystwyth bearing the inscription “Cofiwch Dryweryn” Remember Tryweryn.
Arenig Fawr is an old, old mountain and has seen much in its lifetime, has many stories to tell of giants and fairies, fire, ice and flood. And although now it ranks as only a lesser Welsh peak, in a wild and desolate location, it has the spirit of a fiery volcano still.
“Great novels offer us not only a series of events, but a place, a landscape of the imagination which we can inhabit and return to.”
Ursula le Guin
The words of Neil Philips reverberated around my head for some considerable time. “to explore the disjointed and troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century through the symbolism of myth and folklore.” This was the landscape I had only too painfully come to know as a young adult, both the landscape of the novels of Alan Garner, but also “the troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century.” At the age of just fifteen I had found myself contemplating thoughts of suicide, thoughts which left unchallenged and untreated continued to fester, with age ripening into a dark self-hatred, which at the age of twenty-six compelled me, in a desperate cry for help, to act upon those thoughts. One vigorous stomach pump and a good night’s sleep later I found myself at the mercy of the on-duty psychiatric team, who seemed to offer as much empathy and compassion as Caligula, and some time later I was cast out onto the streets with the vague promise of some follow up sessions with a psychotherapist, in about six months time, they said.
By some miracle of self-determination I fought my way through to my mid-thirties only to be faced with a further personal crisis of calamitous proportions, the consequences of which – a failed marriage, two estranged step-children, a flat-lining professional career, mounting personal debts – lay around me like the victims of a massacre. Something had gone wrong, horribly wrong. There were so many questions, but the materialist culture surrounding me, to a certain extent smothering me, seemed to hold no answers. The messages, both intentional and subliminal, seemed to be saying that my only purpose was to work to earn money to spend in cycles of the unrestrained satiation of morbid desires. I was lost. I needed a place of familiarity from which to assay what I had become. So it was that I returned to those books of my childhood: The Weirdstone of Brasingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service, Red Shift, in some vain attempt to find answers beyond the material.
So again I found myself on Alderley Edge, as I had on many, many occasions since that first encounter, many years ago. On this particular bleached winter’s morning, an oatmeal sun straining to peer over the tops of the birches, I headed out from the warmth of the Wizard Tea Rooms to retrace familiar steps around the three hundred acres of woodland now owned and managed by the National Trust.
No more than three hundred metres through the trees I arrived at Engine Vein, a section of open cast and collapsed mine that once was over twenty-five metres deep but was capped with concrete in 1979 for reasons of safety (the chasm into which my younger self gazed with such awe and wonder). A small iron door on the southern side of the cleft leads through a narrow passageway to the extensive chamber below, from where a labyrinth of drifts, levels and adits criss-cross and interconnect for mile upon mile. Back filled passages are still being discovered at Alderley, often by the Derbyshire Caving Club who have taken responsibility for the up keep of the mines under the direction of the National Trust, and who regularly hold open days for those wishing to take a subterranean exploration of these fascinating features[i].
The earliest evidence of mining at Alderley is to be found at Engine Vein and dates to the Bronze Age. The main ore extracted was copper, but cobalt, iron, lead, silver and even gold have also been found[ii]. In their book Prehistoric Cheshire, Victoria and Paul Morgan recount how an oak shovel found by 19thCentury miners in a section of mine at Brynlow to the south west of Engine Vein, has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 3,700 years old[iii]. A large number of stone hammer heads and similar tools were also discovered in material that had been used to backfill the open cast mine. The process of open cast mining at Engine Vein is believed to have involved the digging of small circular pits into the rock, the adjacent sides of which were then knocked though to expose the full length of the mineral vein. Evidence of this process can still be seen along the side of Engine Vein today, together with significant blackening of the rock, indicating the use fire setting to make the rock faces brittle in order to ease excavation.
From Engine Vein I headed to Beacon Lodge and crossed the Macclesfield Road. The hollows and depressions of the thick oak woodland still held the frost of the previous night as I made my way to lower ground and a clearing of sandy deposits. This was known as Sandhills, and is all that now remains at surface level of a considerable mining enterprise that took place during the 19thCentury. In 1857, James Mitchell obtained a twenty-year lease from Lord Stanley to extract ore in this location, initially using open cast excavation, which became known as West Mine. By 1860 the excavations were extended using tunnels into the rock both at West Mine and also at a new location in Windmill Wood, the no less imaginatively named Wood Mine. Between 1857 and 1863 the Alderley Edge Mining Company excavated an estimated 80,000 tons of ore producing 1,071 tons of copper metal with an estimated value of £84,132.[iv]Extraction of copper ore continued until 1878, by which time competition from overseas mining operations became too great, resulting in a global fall in the price of copper. The Alderley Edge Mining Company opted for voluntary liquidation and all mining activity ceased. At the beginning of the 20thCentury there were brief periods of renewed interest in ore extraction at Alderley, but again global economic forces resulted in very little profit for the prospectors and by 1919 the mines were once again abandoned. This heralded a darker era in the history of the mines and one that I must confess to having played a minor (not miner) role in, the problem of trespass. In 1929 two young Stockport men had wandered into West Mine and had become lost in the labyrinth of passageways, their torches eventually giving up, unable in the dark to find a way out. Their emaciated bodies were found in a side passageway three months later. Public concern at the fatalities did little to deter persistent trespassers. Between 1934 and 1937, forty-one people were fined by Wilmslow magistrates for offences of trespass in the mines[v]. In 1946 a man fell sixty-five feet to his death in ‘Plank Shaft’, again in West Mine, but the mine was not filled-in and fully sealed until 1960, the year The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published.
“The widest shaft they had yet come upon lay before them, and stretched across its gaping mouth was a narrow plank.”[vi]
The ancient mines of Alderley claimed their last victim in 1974 when a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl fell thirty feet into Engine Vein, prompting the capping of the open cast shaft with concrete[vii]. In the fields and heathland to the north of Sandhills there is now no visible sign of West Mine or Wood Mine, although the lower levels are still accessible by means of two shafts dug in 1975 by the Derbyshire Caving Club, now kept firmly under lock and key.
Heading back through the woods further to the north, I arrived at the Macclesfield Road by a rusted early 20thCentury sign, now a protected monument, bearing the inscription “TO THE EDGE”. The sign pointed to Castle Rock, a beautiful outcrop of the Helsby and Wilmslow conglomerates and sandstones, from which the escarpments of the Alderley edge were hewn, which were laid down during the Triassic period of geology some 240 million years ago, in an arid environment prone to flash floods, which brought down debris from the surrounding mountainous areas, rich in mineral deposits[viii]. Despite the name, no evidence exists to suggest there was ever a castle on this site, however, evidence has been found of Neolithic implements and what the Morgan’s refer to as “an original Neolithic floor” of “friable brownish sandstone” and “loose bleached sand”, dating to around 5,000 years before present[ix]. Neolithic hunter-gatherers would no doubt have been attracted to the Edge because of the shelter it provided from the prevailing westerly winds and the plentiful supply of fresh water, the Edge being irrigated by at least three natural springs.
I climbed down under the face and ran my hands along the beautiful banding within the rock, tracing the ebb and flow of ancient sand dunes and river channels, tiny crystals of silica and mica coming away on my fingers. These exposures continued to the north, gradually sloping downwards towards the village, where one of the natural springs seeped from the foot of the cliff. Looking up I saw the face of a bearded man looking back at me – Wizard’s Well. This enigmatic carving is folly believed to have been carved into the rock by the great grandfather of Alan Garner, whose family lived in the area of the Hough below the Edge (pronounced huff)for over three hundred years. Although increasingly illegible, the letters read:
“Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizard’s will.”
Now faced with the suburban gardens of Mottram Road, I about turned, following the sculpted sandstone eastwards to where two further springs, known as Holy Well and Wishing Well, appeared each on either side of a buttress several metres in height. By the second well, the rock was dank, coated with a curtain of moss, dripping with water rich in minerals, from deep within the ground. I cupped my hands underneath the lush vegetation and let them fill with the crystal clear water, and drank.
Beyond the wellsprings, the ridge of Alderley Edge climbed to an eastern prospect over looking Glaze Hill. Here at Stormy Point an impressive crust of the Triassic conglomerate sat defiantly above the softer red mottled sandstones of the Wilmslow formation, bearing the scars of past mining activities. A long fissure in the conglomerate rock around fifty centimetres wide and up to two metres deep, topped by an unusual rectangular stone capping a circular hole, is known locally as the Devil’s Grave.
“If you run round theer three times widdershins Owd Nick’s supposed to come up and fetch you.”[x]
As children we would dare each other to take up the challenge and thus by encircling the stone in and anti-clockwise direction, would invoke the very devil himself. Of course we were always bitterly disappointed when having circumnavigated the offending monolith, nothing happened.
By early afternoon the Edge began to fill with the routine assault of families of over excited children, lolloping dogs and couples wearing matching Hunter wellington boots and Barbour jackets. Barley able to contain my resentment towards these interlopers, I quickly took the path through the fir trees behind the old Pilkington Family memorial and descended into the beautiful beech woodland of Saddlebole, where the path dropped steeply into a hollow, then through the beech trees to the break of slope.
Stories are important; the telling of stories more so. In his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands describes humans as “the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves[xi],” and there is a very real part of myself, a part that perhaps a psychologist would refer to as the child ego state, which still wishes to believe in the legend of Alderley. And although it may be my inner child who turns up the undergrowth in the nooks and dingles of Alderley wood in search of ….what? something, some recognition, some identification, this desire is by no means childish. It is the desire that has driven the creation of myth and the telling of stories since humans first acquired the ability of speech.
At Ridgeway Wood I came across a small waterfall, which tumbled over loose shale into a deep ravine. In late November of 1745, rumour spread amongst the families of the Hough that a Jacobite army loyal to the ‘Young Pretender’, Prince Charles Edward Stuart were heading south from the undefended city of Manchester to Derby, their route taking them via Alderley. The alarmed inhabitants took their beds, blankets and family heirlooms and hid out in the ravine until the ill-fated rebellion had past by.
From above the wood I returned north towards an earthen mound topped by a memorial stone. Marking the highest ground, this was the site of an Armada Beacon built around 1577 as part of an Elizabethan early warning system comprising a chain of fire signals strategically located on high ground, stretching from the south coast of England, to London and onwards throughout the country. The original building was a simple construction of four walls around a fire basket or pot, within which wood, pitch and tar were to be lit should the need arise, as it did in 1588 when the Spanish fleet attacked the English coast[xii]. Lord Stanley, owner of the Alderley estate during the 17thCentury, arranged for the beacon to be re-built as part of landscaping works, with higher walls and a pitched roof. This building collapsed during a storm in 1931, the remains of which lay scattered around the site and were used to build the current memorial stone.[xiii]
The earth mound upon which the beacon stood has been scheduled as a Bronze Age barrow, a type of prehistoric burial site also found at Seven Firs just to the south of Engine Vein and in Brynlow wood, nearby[xiv]. It is not inconceivable that the association of the legend of the sleeping knights with Alderley Edge lies in the presence of these barrows, possibly the burials of Bronze Age chieftains. Alderley was certainly of great importance to Bronze Age people because of the mineral wealth held within the earth. As the Bronze Age passed into the Iron Age, the ceremonial rights and traditions of the former people would have been forsaken, remembered only as stories and passed from generation to generation by oral tradition.
Through the thickness of trees: fir, pine, oak, ash and birch, I could hear them shouting after me, calling my name. Adult voices, distant and dislocated from the hypnotic draw of the open wound in the Cheshire woodland. I believed I had found the fabled Iron Gates deep within the tactile rocks of Alderley Edge and was intent on discovering the whereabouts of the elusive Wizard. Unbeknown to the child, the wizard in question was not Ambrosius, or Merlin, or Cadelin, but Alan Garner himself. For undoubtedly a spell had been cast over me, one from which I would never recover, and what in fact I had discovered was not the mythic Iron Gates, but something far more precious. Precious to the child, even more precious to the man as he now found himself, stumbling around in the mid-life forests and spiritual vacuity of twenty-first century Britain, desperately searching for some vestige of meaning.
[vi]Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Op. cit. pg127
[vii]Carlon, Chris, J. The Alderley Edge Mines, Op. cit. pg124
[viii]The nomenclature of the Upper Triassic sequence was changed during the 1980’s. What had originally been referred to as the Bunter and Keuper Sandstones, became incorporated into the Sherwood Sandstone Group. The two main stratigraphic sequences visible at Castle Rock, Alderley Edge are the Upper Mottled Sandstone (formerly part of the Bunter sequence), above which is the Engine Vein Conglomerate (formerly part of the Keuper sequence). See Benton, M.J., Cook, E. & Turner, P. (2002) Permian and Triassic Red Beds and the Penarth Group of Great Britain, Geological Conservation Review Series, No. 24, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, 337 pp.
[ix]Victoria & Paul MorganPrehistoric Cheshire, Op. cit. pg33.
[x]Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Op. cit. pg33
[xi]Rowlands, Mark. The Philosopher and the Wolf, Granta Publications, 2008, pg2
[xii]Stanley, L. Alderley Edge and its neighbourhood, Op. cit.
So, while the light fails On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England
Many years ago, before the onset, or so it would seem in retrospect, of cultural consumerism, the unbridled self-gratification of Thatcherism, the ubiquitous narcissism of social media, and all the other ills of the neoliberal dream, on a russet-red sandstone escarpment on the eastern edge of the Cheshire Plain stood a ten year old boy: precocious, intelligent, a bit of a misfit, crowned with a mop of white-gold hair, dressed in a rather tatty C&A jumper, flared corduroy trousers and Start-Rite sandals. Offspring that he was of the homogenous council estate tucked away as an afterthought at the southern limit of a hazy industrial city, he none-the-less yearned for magic and enchantment, in pursuit of which he now gazed with unbridled awe and wonder into a slim chasm cut some seventy feet into the jagged rock below, a dog-eared copy of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamenclasped firmly in his slightly grubby hand.
As I recall, the book had been given, or lent (though possibly never returned) to me by a school pal named Stewart whose father taught at a school in the village of Mobberley, Cheshire, a rather bourgeois settlement to the south of what is now Manchester Airport most famous for being the home of the ill fated George Mallory, who died attempting to summit Mount Everest in 1924. Why one of my school pals from a rather run down primary school on the southern fringes of the city of Manchester should have a father teaching in such an esteemed location I cannot remember, but I do remember being taken to the school one day to look for ‘conkers’ which had fallen from the lofty horse chestnut trees that encircled the school. Perhaps my pal’s dad was the gardener or something like that and I’ve got it all wrong[i]. Notwithstanding, it was he, the father that is, that introduced me to the book, the legend of Alderley and vicariously, the works of Alan Garner.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a children’s novel about a geographically displaced brother and sister, Colin and Susan, who encounter Cadellin, the Wizard of Alderley and are pursued through the Cheshire landscape by the forces of evil, was the first book I had an emotional relationship with. I was not an avid reader as a child. Having a propensity for attention deficit long before the advent of Ritalin, I preferred picture books. Raymond Briggs and Jan Pienkowski were particular favourites. But the progressive social policies of Manchester City Council’s Education Committee of the 1970’s meant that books were regularly thrust into my hands, and by the time I entered lower Primary I had an above average reading age. For a child with a tendency towards visual dominance, the Weirdstone appealed not only because its narrative was particularly visual but because the book also contained maps, two of them, which gave me enough confidence to face head on the pages of daunting text, knowing that should I lose my way, I would have the maps to help locate myself.
The Weirdstone and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath were Alan Garner’s first two books, most decidedly intended for children, published in 1960 and 1963 respectively. Although perhaps somewhat dated in terms of characterisation compared to more recent popular children’s fiction, the books had a compelling energy and mystery that appealed to the adolescent mind. More importantly for me, they were rooted in a verifiable location; and not merely the broad brush of a fictional narrative located in a particular town or city, which might as well have taken place in any town or city, as with, for example, Holden Caulfield’s relationship to New York in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but a narrative entwined within substantive geographical features, which were as much a part of that narrative as the human characters who inhabited them. The Weirdstone of Brisingamenand The Moon of Gomrathcould only have taken place on Alderley Edge, a prominent ridge of sandstone escarpment some three kilometres long and reaching over a hundred and ninety metres above sea level, which all the more engaging for my younger self was less than ten miles from my parents house, and easily reachable by bicycle.
“And late one Sunday afternoon at the end of the first week in January, Colin and Susan climbed out of Alderley village, pushing their bicycles before them. They walked slowly, for it was not a hill to be rushed, and the last stretch was the worst – straight and steep, without any respite.[ii]”
With my bicycle chained to an old fence post and the headlamp employed as an improvised miners lantern, I would spend many hours exploring the near surface adits and passageways of the old mines. Locations such as Devil’s Grave, Pillar Mine and Doc Mine were familiar places for adventures, following in the footsteps of Colin and Susan. Upon the Edge I discovered that where Colin and Susan had “walked down the trench, and were rather disappointed to find that it ended in a small cave, shaped roughly like a discus, and full of cold damp air,” there was in fact, upon Stormy Point, among the towering Scott’s Pines, such a cave where, “there were no tunnels or shafts: the only thing of note was a round hole in the roof, about a yard across, which was blocked by an oblong stone.”The Wizard Inn with its “white walls and stone roof”, and above the door a painted sign showing “a man, dressed like a monk, with long white hair and beard[iii]” actually stood alongside the woods on the Macclesfield Road. The Weirdstone was a picture book then, except that the pictures existed in the landscape.
The story of the Weirdstone was partly inspired by the Legend of Alderley, the first known publication of which was in 1805 in the Manchester Mail. A newspaper correspondent is thought to have obtained the story from a servant of the local Stanley family, a Thomas Broadhurst, also known as “Old Daddy”. However, Parson Shrigley, the Clerk and later Curate of Nether Alderley was believed to have recounted the tale as early as 1753, himself believing the story to have originated a good eighty years prior to his telling.[iv]
The fable tells of the meeting early one morning on the Edge of a farmer from Mobberley and a tall, strangely dressed older man, who attempts to buy the farmers milk-white horse. Preferring to take his chances at Macclesfield market, the farmer is disappointed to find that his horse will not sell. Upon returning to the Edge that evening the farmer again meets the stranger and having reluctantly agreed to his proposal of sale, is led by the old man to a pair of iron gates mounted in the rock, the entrance to a large cavern deep within the hillside. Here the farmer is shown countless men lying in enchanted sleep, each but one with a horse by his side, his own mare to make the numbers complete. The farmer is richly rewarded with jewels and gold for his troubles and led from the cavern, the iron gates closing behind, never to be seen again.
The tale is not unique to Alderley. The myth of a hero and his knights entombed within a particularly striking feature of the landscape has been associated with several locations in Britain, notably the Eildon Hills of the Scottish borders, as recounted by Sir Walter Scott in his Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer[v]and the precipitous face of Y Lliwedd, which forms part of the Snowdon Horseshoe range in North Wales[vi]. In the Welsh version of the tale a shepherd is seeking a lost sheep on the slopes of Y Lliwedd when he stumbles across a small cave, known locally as Ogof Llanciau Eryri. Letting his curiosity get the better of him he enters the cave to find, as in the Alderley tale, an army of sleeping knights.
Although never specifically mentioned, is has been assumed by various authors and by Garner himself, that the Alderley knights were the companions of one Arthur Pendragon, the bearded stranger met by the Mobberley farmer his well known magical companion, of whom Gerald of Wales referred to as Ambrosius[vii] but whom we know more commonly as the magician Merlin, and despite Alan Garner’s decision to name his wizard of his book Caddelin the legend of Alderley is in folklore often referred to as the legend of King Arthur and his knights.
Such geomythological tales are often the remnants of a folk oral tradition, the purpose of which, for ancient communities, was to make sense of prominent geographical features or to facilitate the remembrance of a specific event in the oral history of the community. Often these stories were inspired by an emotional human response to the landscape. This emotional response may be described as a subliminal ‘sense of place’ or what is often referred to as genius loci, a term often used by the 20thCentury artist Paul Nash to describe the essence of his work, and what the author Merlin Coverley describes as “an eternal landscape underpinning our own”[viii]. Although unable to describe my emotions in such a manner as a child, for my adolescent self, both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath evoked the genius loci of Alderley and the surrounding landscape, both books being firmly rooted in the mythology and landscape of eastern Cheshire. As Neil Philips puts it, “The importance of place to these two books cannot be over emphasised. Alderley is not simply the setting: it shapes the stories.[ix]” Or as Garner himself states in the notes to The Moon of Gomrath, “every thing and place mentioned (…) does exist, although I have juggled with one or two local names.[x]”
More than this the landscape of the stories is embodied with its own sentience, a consciousness that drives the narrative. Take for example the following passage from The Weirdstone:
“They all looked. A mile away, above the crossroads on Monk’s Heath, a grassy hill stood out above the land. It was like a smaller Shuttlingslow – or a tumulus. It had the tumulus’s air of mystery; it was subtly different from the surrounding country; it knew more than the fields in which it had its roots.[xi]”
The union of myth and landscape was to become the defining characteristic of Alan Garner’s writing, and in subsequent works, such as The Owl Service, which won for Garner the Carnegie Medal and later Red Shift, the relationship between landscape and mythology, and the psychological effect of these twin forces upon the lives of the characters who inhabit the stories, became increasingly complex, possessing an emotional maturity, which drew into question the idea of Garner as being ‘merely’ a children’s author. Always seeing the past as a key to the interpretation of the present, Garner employed the juxtaposition of myth and landscape to make a dissection of contemporary society, as Neil Philips states, “Garner is one of the most able of the writers who have sought (…) to explore the disjointed and troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century through the symbolism of myth and folklore: myth is used as a diagnostic tool in the examination of contemporary ills.”[xii] As already indicated, for my younger self these concepts were if anything, subconscious, leaving only an emotional response to what I encountered both in the pages of the books and on the hills above Cheshire. But the very power of this emotional response, its hypnotic appeal, cannot be overstated.
[i]With the wonders of the internet I discover that the school did indeed exist and was in fact an ‘Approved School’ for boys aged between thirteen and fifteen and under the control of Manchester City Council, which makes perfect sense. The school closed in 1986 and is now a Health Spa. Thus the gentrification of North Cheshire marches on.
[ii]Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, William Collins Sons & Company Ltd 1960, pg99.