Category Archives: Literature

Flower Face

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls, and she is for the hunting.”
Alan Garner, The Owl Service

Lleu Llaw Gyffes stood upon the rocky outcrop shot through with obdurate, milk white quartz, high above the cascading waters of Afon Cynfal and raised high above his head his fire-forged spear. With every sinew, every muscle and tendon in his body taught with indignant rage, he aimed his lance at the heart of Gronw Pebyr, lover of his wife, usurper of his crown and author of his downfall.

Such is the culmination of a folk tale that over centuries has woven itself into the consciousness of the Welsh nation and the fabric of a landscape. The evocative story of the love triangle between the heroic but gullible Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the devious Gronw Pebyr and the beautiful flower maiden Blodeuedd, manifested into existence by the magician Math son of Mathonwy, is part of a narrative with origins believed to date back to the post-Roman period of British history but which has become known as the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval folk tales of the Welsh corpus, translated into English and popularised in the early 19th Century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The tale of the entanglement of the three lovers is unique amongst the collection in that many of the geographical locations of the story can be identified in the landscape of Snowdonia and in particular the secluded valley of Cwm Cynfal which lies some miles to the south of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd.

At the edge of the forest there were scenes of devastation wrought by the winter storms. Over a dozen large Sitka Spruce lying vanquished across the saturated forest track. With a little persistence I was able to clamber across the fallen timber and make my way over the river by means of a small footbridge. Further along the valley, in the centre of a long narrow farm track, I came upon what at first I thought was a sleeping cat, but which upon closer inspection I found to be a young lamb, cold and curled up upon itself; dead, I assumed, abandoned by its mother. I felt I couldn’t leave it where it was to be squashed by the next Mitsubishi to come blistering down the track, so I resolved to move the cadaver into the thicket and let the carrion crows do the rest. As I touched it, the little thing revived, its eyes thick with mucus, its head lolling like a rudely awoken drunk, reeking of the sour stench of death – if not already off his mortal coil, this little one was not far from it. I checked my map and saw there was a farmhouse not a mile further along the track and so despite the mucus oozing from every orifice and the smell stronger than a hikers sock, I took up the lamb in my arms and set off towards the farm.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

Fferm Cwm, 1497 read the sign. A simple but beautiful oak-beamed ‘A-’framed building with a low oak door and an elaborate iron knocker which I raised and let fall loudly. There was no answer. I knocked again, fully expecting a gruff, septuagenarian, hard-minded, Welsh speaking hill farmer with little time for sentimental Englishmen and half-dead lambs, to answer the door. Instead it was opened by a fashionably dress young woman, hair held up with a decorative broad headband, wearing a designer sweater, bright purple leggings and “Ugg” boots. I assumed a holiday let. “Hi”, I said, feeling rather foolish now standing at the door covered in mud and sheep mucus holding a half-dead lamb. I asked if the sheep were her responsibility. She answered in the affirmative, sounding a little vexed, and invited me in.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

The lady led me through to a lounge, which took up most of the ground floor of the building. The walls were paneled with wood, bamboo matting covered the stone floor and thick oak beams held aloft the ceiling. But for the large flat-screen television in the corner of the room showing an omnibus of Hollyoaks, I might have thought I had walked into a medieval hall. Already by the fireplace lay another invalid lamb, feeding on freshly cut grass. The lady of the house took my lamb and placed a plastic cover over him and fed a feeding tube into his gullet so as to administer a glucose solution. He was then treated to a gentle warming from a small hairdryer and placed in front of the fire with the other lamb for company and the afore mentioned television for entertainment.

The lady of the house I discovered was Bronwen, whose father had owned the farm for over forty years but who had sadly died some months earlier. He had been a professor of art at Bangor University and Bronwen had grown up at Fferm Cwm but had moved away to Liverpool in later life. Following the death of her father she inherited the farm and the two hundred sheep that came with it. Initial plans to sell the farm were complicated when the two hundred sheep came into lamb during the spring and something had to be done so she and a couple of friends upped sticks from Liverpool and took up residence as temporary shepherds in Cwm Cynfal.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

Conscious of my boots dripping mud onto Bronwen’s bamboo matting and happy that my little rescued lamb was in the care of someone who was actually capable of restoring him to life, I made my excuses and carried on my way eastwards to the cascades at the head of the valley.

Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllyn was hunting in the forest of Hafod Fawr when late in the evening he came upon Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was absent at the time at the court of the magician Math son of Mathonwy, having left his wife Blodeuedd in charge of affairs. Concerned that her husband would be unpleased if hospitality was not offered to the lord, Blodeuedd invited Gronw and his entourage to stay the night at the castle. However, as soon as Gronw entered the castle and his gaze fell upon that of Blodeuedd, were they both filled with the deepest love for each other and sought that very night to consummate that love in each other’s embrace. Rather than take leave from his host the following day, Gronw sought to stay a further night in his lovers arms and together they conspired how they might rid themselves of Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Some days later Gronw departed and the lord of the house returned. That night Blodeuedd feigned concern for her husband’s life. Lleu replied that she had little to fear for by virtue of his birth, his mother being the sorceress Aranrhod, daughter of Dôn, it was all but impossible to slay him. Blodeuedd pleaded with Lleu to tell her that way in which his death might come about, so as she may always ensure that such circumstances should never occur. Foolishly, Lleu agreed. Firstly, he told her, any spear able to strike the mortal blow would have to be forged only when people were at Mass on the Sabbath and be a year in the making. Further, a bath of stone would need to be made on the riverbank and that with a thatched roof and by bringing a Billy goat along side the stone bath so as Lleu would place one foot on the edge of the bath and one foot on the back of the goat. Only then could the mortal blow be made. Blodeuedd laughed nervously, for she knew such circumstances were never to occur by chance. None-the-less she sent word to Gronw Pebyr who immediately set about making a spear in his forge.

Blodeuwedd in Bloom by Selina Fenech www.selinafecench.com

A year later Blodeuedd entreated her husband to again regale the details of how his mortality may come about and to demonstrate the same. In order to please her he agreed and so she prepared a stone bath with a thatched roof on the banks of the river Cynfal and gathered as many Billy goats as she could find in the valley and sent word to Gronw Pebyr to make himself ready under the lee of the hill known as Bryn Cyfergyr which overlooks the river. Then Blodeuedd asked her husband to show her the position in which his mortality may be taken by placing one foot on the edge of the stone bath and one foot on the back of one of the Billy goats, and again, foolishly, to please her, he agreed. No sooner did he do so Gronw Pebyr rose up from behind Bryn Cyfergyr and threw the year-forged spear at Lleu Llaw Gyffes such that it struck him in the side, whereafter Lleu leaped into the air in the form of an eagle issuing an ear piercing scream, flying away into the mountains of Eryri.

Beyond the meadow to the east of Fferm Cwm the ground rises steeply to a spur with a natural viewpoint above and the Afon Cynfal tumbles over a series of cascades culminating in the dramatic Rhaeadr y Cwm with a drop of thirty-seven metres over Ordovician shale and sandstone turbidites. Above the cascades the landscape broadens out into open moorland, much of which is above five hundred metres in height. There is a lot of open space up here on the edge of Yr Migneint, an expanse of blanket bog of over two hundred square kilometres, the most extensive in Wales. Sadly, the remoteness of this landscape has encouraged its exploitation for the management of utilities. A line of electrical grid pylons now transect the forest plantations of Hafod Fawr, strung together like enslaved giants, striding westwards to the controversial (it being located in the national park) and since 1991 decommissioned nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd, the presence of all of which somewhat detracts from the sense of wilderness. As I wandered south from Pont yr Afon Gam towards the forest  I was struck, as I often am in such places, by the emptiness of the terrain. As I climbed up onto the undifferentiated summit of Pen y Foel-ddû the sense of isolation just grew and grew.

Abandoned farm buildings below Pen y Foel-ddû

The Ramblers Association have for some time expressed concerned that since the passing of the CROW Act in 2000 the use of open access land has not been embraced by those who engage in outdoor activities as perhaps was expected. This may be due to several reasons, not limited to a lack of confidence in navigation skills, over-dependence on GPS units, guide books which still slavishly stick to established rights-of-way and perhaps more than any other, the fear of getting lost. In her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit laments the disappearance from our maps and atlases of the term ‘Terra Incognita’. With our reliance on technology, we in the 21st Century often rest under the assumption that no region of the globe, no square kilometre of our planet, remains unknown, for everything is photographed and mapped by satellites, charted and measured by global-positioning systems. Something the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 must remind us all is that this protective veil of technology is not infallible.

Solnit argues that any map only provides a restricted view of a particular landscape, limited by the information left out: the unmapped and unmappable. We may look at the Ordnance Survey map of the Vale of Ffestiniog, look at the ochre contour coils against the pale yellow patches between reference squares 7138 and 7642 and notice the lack of little black or green dotted lines there, but unless we take our compass in hand and step out into those contours, to all intents and purposes they remain ‘Terra Incognita’, their story forever silent.

Ruins of the Norman Motte and Roman fort at Castell Tomen-y-mur

Nineteen hundred years ago this moorland may have bore more trees, but perhaps this broad, open landscape and sense of isolation was what drew the Roman Legions to use the area for training camps. Where the Afon Llafar tumbles down from the twin lakes of Llyn Conglog-mawr and Conglog-bach are remains of many Roman practice works. It was common, when moving large numbers of troops across hostile territory, to build fortifications overnight and raw recruits had to be trained how to do this efficiently. Here too, passing Dolbelydr, Sarn Helen, the main Roman artery through occupied Welsh territory, climbs towards the Roman complex at Castell Tomen-y-mur, in its time the most extensive Roman complex in Wales comprising a military tertiata fort of over four acres, a stone built principa, annexe buildings and even a small amphitheatre for troop entertainment. When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain, the territory left behind fell into the hands of tribesmen and warlords. The presence of a Norman motte here indicates that the site was variously occupied until around the early twelfth century and the ruins of a hafod, a small farm dwelling, indicate that the site was occupied for agricultural rather than military purposes well into the nineteenth century. But today the once centre of Roman provincial power, Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, as imagined in the Mabinogion, is occupied only by sheep who ruminate on the abundant thistles.

And so Gronw Pebyr wasted no time. He returned victorious to Mur Castell and with Blodeuedd by his side took possession of the lands of Ardudwy, which once were the province of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. When Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle heard of his fate he was greatly distressed and set off to search for his wounded nephew. Through all the country of Gwynedd and Powys he searched until he came to a valley where he saw a sow feeding on rotting flesh and maggots beneath a great oak tree. When Gwydion looked up into the tree he saw a wounded eagle resting in the upper branches and every time the eagle shook itself, the rotten flesh and maggots would fall from his wound and so the sow ate them. And so by means of singing an enchanted song to the bird, Gwydion was able to entice it down from the tree whereupon he struck it with his magic wand and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was restored to his former shape, yet gravely ill.

After many months recuperation Lleu Llaw Gyffes mustered an army and set out to Ardudwy determined to reclaim his lands.  Upon hearing of his coming Gronw Pebyr and Blodeuedd fled, Gronw to Penllyn and Blodeuedd into the mountains with her maidens, who, being so filled with fear would only walk backwards and so fell into a deep pool and were drowned, that lake now bearing the name Llyn Morwynion, the lake of the maidens. As for Blodeuedd, when Lleu finally caught up with here he intended to kill her for her betrayal, but was none-the-less filled with love for her and instead transformed her into the shape of an owl, a bird so cursed that she may only hunt at night and towards which all the other birds were filled with enmity. And her name was henceforth known as Blodeweudd, Flower-face.

Gronw Pebyr appealed to Lleu Llaw Gyffes for clemency in exchange for silver and gold, but Lleu would have none of it and instead requested that Gronw meet him by the cascades upon the river Cynfal and receive from him the same blow that Gronw had unleashed upon Lleu. Gronw reluctantly agreed, and so they both came to the banks of the river and Gronw stood by the stone bath on the banks and Lleu Llaw Gyffes took up position under Bryn Cyfergyr and aimed his spear at the heart of Gronw Pebyr. Wait! shouted Gronw, pleading with Lleu for clemency, that as he had not acted alone in his deceit he be allowed to place a stone, which he saw by the river bank, between himself and the spear. Lleu Llaw Gyffes agreed and so Gronw Pebyr held the stone before his chest and Lleu Llaw Gyffes threw his spear with all of his strength and the spear pierced the stone and Gronw’s chest and broke his back and he fell to the ground dead.

And should you care to, you may wish to visit, on an overcast, rainy afternoon, an innocuous, rather muddy field, populated by indifferent sheep, above a farm known as Bryn-saeth, the hill of the arrows, and find under the dripping hawthorn Llech Gronw, the stone of Gronw Pebyr, with a hole right through the middle of it made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. And as you walk from the stone, as the light beings to fade and the gloaming gathers amid the oak trees of Cwm Cynfal, you may hear the cry of an owl as she mounts her nightly hunt.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Great Outdoors Magazine

Of Rifted Rocks and Ghoulish Green Men

Staffordshire Moorlands

The Staffordshire Moorlands are nothing if not a surprise. In the formative years of my exploration of the Peak District, I was astonished to discover that a sizeable portion of the gritstone uplands of Britain’s most popular national park, including the village of Flash, at 463 metres (1,519ft) above sea level the highest in Britain, lie within the administrative county of Staffordshire, more famous perhaps for pottery, Stoke City football team and the dolesome Alton Towers amusement park. More recently, as I find my time increasingly consumed by worldly concerns, it is among the nearby hills and dales of the Peak District that I find solace.

So with Hallowe’en fast approaching, the turning of the year echoed in the turning of the leaves to amber hues, I had hitched a lift from an old friend to the market town of Leek, from where I intended to make the long journey home to Manchester on foot.

Approaching the hamlet of Upper Hulme along Whitty Lane, the sky to the west began to cloud over grey and the fresh smell of cold air heralded light rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour. Before long I found myself beneath the slim finger-like battlements of Hen Cloud – Cloud being a Staffordshire dialect word for hill – and sought to take shelter in a small wooden shed, which had been erected by the side of the road. These impressive towers of Carboniferous stone extending almost vertically into the leaden sky constitute the most southerly outcrop of the gnarled and contorted sandstone escarpments that are collectively known as the Roaches, their name being taken simply from the French word for rock.

By the tiny dwelling I was accosted by a man bedecked in dark green waterproofs, clasping a large and slightly threatening pair of binoculars. “Can I help you?” he ventured, and for a moment I wondered if, given recent seismic political movements in the country, the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 had overnight been repealed and I was trespassing on ‘his’ land. I subsequently noticed that I was standing beside a large and colourful banner proclaiming the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which I had not previously noticed having been cocooned within the hood of my waterproof jacket in a vain attempt to keep out the driving rain.

Hen Cloud, Roaches, Staffordshire

The gentleman in question was not an irate gamekeeper but rather an enthusiastic volunteer named David who wanted to show me a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons who had taken up residence some weeks earlier in the lofty fingers of Hen Cloud. “Do you see that central finger of rock, up there?” he pointed through the now stair-rod thick rain to the top of the aforementioned hill, “well, if you drop down on the crag about fifteen feet you can just see where the nest is.” I couldn’t see a thing and David offering the use of his steamed up binoculars made little difference, but for a good twenty minutes the pair of us stood there in the criminally torrential rain, two relatively sane, intelligent men, becoming increasingly saturated, trying to spot a pair of nesting birds of prey who probably had far better sense and were bunkered down within a protective crevice high up on the south face of Hen Cloud waiting for the storm to pass. In many ways I wanted to prolong this very British folly but I made my excuses to David, consulting both my watch and map, thankfully both contained within a waterproof casing, as to the next leg of my journey, and left him to his stewardship of the mighty Peregrines of Hen Cloud in the rain.


Don Whillans Hut

Nestled beneath the lower escarpment of the Roaches, half enclosed by the earthen-red rocks themselves, stands Rock Hall, formerly a summer house of the Roaches Estate, now owned by the British Mountaineering Council and given the epithet of the Don Whillans Memorial Hut. Don Whillans, a dour, stocky Salfordian with as much a taste for scrapping as for making breakthrough climbs on northern grit during the 1950’s with his buddy Joe Brown, is a bit of a hero of mine. Don, who grew up on the hard knocks streets of post-war Salford in Greater Manchester and quite literally punched above his weight when it came to breaking into the elitist world of British climbing, put up some of the landmark climbs on Peak District grit, most notably, at the Roaches. In his beautifully written biography of Whillans “The Villain” Jim Perrin describes how on 21 April 1951 Don had travelled to Leek by bus and having walked up to the climbing crags on the lower tier of the Roaches had watched as Joe Brown’s second had been unable – or unwilling – to follow the line of Joe’s ascent of Valkyrie buttress. Don had quickly volunteered to take up the slack, sprightly following Joe up the route that they later named as Matinee (grade HVS 5b) because of the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. This was the first recorded climb of these luminaries who would go on to revolutionise traditional climbing. Just three years later Joe Brown and Don Whillans would have moved on from the gritstone crags of the Roaches, via the volcanic crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Snowdonia, to the lofty needles of the Alps, making the first ascent of the Petit Dru West Face, Chamonix in 1954.

Whillans went on to be a leading figure in the British mountaineering community of the 1960’s and 1970’s completing the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Chris Bonington and Ian Clough in 1961, the first ascent of the Central Torres del Paine, Patagonia again with Chris Bonington in 1963 and most famously the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston in 1970. Don Whillans sadly died in his sleep on 04 August 1985 – he was just 52 years old.

As I ascended the climbers’ steps at the rear of Valkyrie Crag to the second tier of the Roaches, the weather turned from inclement to tempestuous. The occluded Atlantic front which earlier that day had swept across the Western Approaches of the British Isles now slammed into the elevated ridge of the Roaches with all the malignant force of the wailing Banshee supposed to inhabit the moorland tarn known as Doxey Pool, beside which I now stood. Surmising that the Banshee’s curse had certainly come upon me by virtue of hail stones like shot pellets which now dug themselves into the saturated sandy ground around me with sufficient velocity to create tiny craters, I struggled manfully away from the accursed pool with as much speed as I could muster, soon arriving at the white washed ordnance survey triangulation pillar that marks the highest point along the ridge. I continued bravely northwards, losing some altitude through the swirling mists and biting hail, until I caught a glimpse of a sizeable object sheltered in the lee of a dry stone wall.

Being chilled thoroughly to the bone by precipitation as cold as a widow’s elbow, I considered the possibility that first stage hypothermia had set in and as a consequence I was hallucinating, when the object in question assumed the tangible form of an ice-cream van, its colourful logos enthusiastically advertising ice-cold drinks, various flavours of ice cream and cheerfully exhorting me to ‘have an ice day!’ Salvador Dali himself could not have conjured up such a surreal juxtaposition. I considered ordering a ‘ninety-nine’ but my fingers were too cold to open the pocket in my rucksack where I had stashed away some lose change. Thinking better of it I pushed on and as I followed what sometime earlier that day had been a path but now was most definitely a stream, towards Gradbach Wood, the hailstones ceased their torrent of abuse, and in their place came a relatively welcome fine British drizzle.


Lud’s Church

Amongst the mixed deciduous woodland of Back Forest on the north facing slopes of the Dane Valley, where larch, pine and hazel give way to a plantation of slender silver birch trees, is hidden a narrow chasm, sunk some twenty metres into the fractured millstone grit. My understanding of this curious feature is that it is post-glacial in origin, most probably having formed following the retreat of the ice caps at the end of the most recent glacial maximum, some twelve thousand years before present. It is essentially an expansion crack, as might appear as the result of settlement in the plasterwork of new buildings. In much the same way, as the weight of ice was removed from the land and isostatic uplift resulted in geomorphological instability, the rock has fractured, moving several metres into the Dane Valley, itself a product of glacial run-off waters, the line of fracture exploiting weaknesses in the Carboniferous rocks that may have existed for millions of years. This geomorphological phenomenon is known locally as Lud’s Church, the etymology of which is anything but certain.

The verdant chasm known as Lud’s Church

Myth’s and legends gather about Lud’s Church just as the emerald mosses, ferns, grasses and liverworts cling to the near vertical walls of the chasm. Being in shade for much of the year, the direct rays of the sun only penetrating the depths of the ravine during the season around midsummer when the midday sun is directly overhead, Lud’s Church provides the perfect habitat for woodland species that are able to exploit the dank, moist ledges, crevices, corners and fissures in the rock face on the cavern walls. Rock ledges are garlanded with Oak and Holly Ferns. Wood sorrel grows in abundance among Elegant Silk Moss (pseudotaxiphyllum elegens) and Crescent-cup Liverwort (lunularia cruciata) and where the dominant species allow, waxy green lichens such as Sticta Canariensis take a hold, punctuated by the occasional cluster of Cladonia coccifera or devil’s matchsticks.

Followers of the 14thCentury non-conformist preacher John Wycliffe, known as Lollards, were thought to have met at Lud’s Church for religious worship in order to avoid persecution. It is believed that following one such secret meeting a notable Lollard, Walter de Ludank was arrested here, the chasm thereafter taking his name.

A popular misconception holds that the term Lud’s Church is associated with the Luddite movement of the early 19thCentury. This is no the case. Luddites were textile workers, mainly in the north of England, who protested against the mechanisation of the textile industry by the deliberate vandalism of new weaving technologies such as stocking frames and power looms. Any similarity in name is purely coincidental. Despite these associations, and further legends that other notables employed the chasm as a refuge from authority, including Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is more likely that the name ‘Lud’ has a much older etymology and may be Celtic or pre-Christian in origin.

Sir John Rhys, the 19thCentury pioneer of Celtic philology, identified several characters from the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion as potential Celtic deities. One such character is Nudd, whom Rhys believed to be cognate with the Roman-British deity Nodens, or Núadu in the Irish literature. It was Sir John’s belief that three specific characters from the Mabinogion could be linked to the deity of Nudd, these being Lludd Llaw Eraint (Silver Hand) father of Creiddylad who appears in the Arthurian tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Skilful Hand) whom appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and Lludd ap Beli, ruler of the Island of Britain and brother of Llefelys, the primary characters in the brief tale of Lludd & Llefelys. Rhys, partly influenced by the French historian Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, went even further to suggest the existence of a pan-Celtic deity combining all of these characters known as Lugus (Hutton, 2013). It was this association that linked the name of Lud’s Church in Staffordshire with worship of the pagan god Nodens. In contemporary times Lud’s Church is still an important location for those practicing the Wiccan or neo-Pagan path of spirituality to which the presence of a votive coin log in the main chamber of the chasm attests. 


Gawain

Taking medieval linguistics as prima facie evidence, scholars generally agree that the Staffordshire Moorlands are the dialectal epicentre of a piece of late 14thCentury poetry written in Middle English, known to the British Library as manuscript Cotton Nero A. xbut more widely known as the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This surviving manuscript, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, was held in a private collection in Yorkshire during the 16thand 17thCenturies. It was first edited and printed in the original Middle English in 1839 and most famously translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and EV Gordon in 1925.

Thought to have been transcribed around 1390, the alliterative poem is without doubt one of the finest examples of medieval poetry in the English tongue and tells the story of a young, perhaps somewhat naïve knight of King Arthur’s court named Gawain whom is challenged to a rather gruesome duel by a most curious and unearthly creature.

The Story begins at Christmas time as the King’s courtiers are enjoying the commencement of a fortnight of feasting, when the festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a ghastly creature, half man half ogre who seemingly unchallenged rides into the court astride a green horse, himself dressed in garments of emerald green, his hair and skin the very same colour. The uninvited guest lays down a challenge before Arthur and his knights, that he will permit any such knight brave enough to take up the challenge to strike him at the neck with an axe, on the understanding that the very same knight will seek out the green ogre at the turning of the year to receive from him the very same blow. Thinking he cannot possibly lose this strange engagement, the young Gawain steps forward to accept the challenge and with a single swing of his axe cleanly smites the Green Knight’s neck, the severed head coming to rest at the feet of King Arthur himself. The assembled guests look on in horror as the beheaded Green Knight steadies himself, then grasping the bright green locks of hair, picks up his own head from the reed strewn floor and turning to Gawain, repeats the terms of the pledge, counselling Gawain to keep his word or be forever known as a coward. With all mouths agape the Green Knight mounts his green horse and, head in hand, gallops from the hall. Over the course of a year, Gwain is forced to overcome many obstacles and temptations before he ultimately finds his way to the Green Chapel, with which Lud’s Church is colloquially associated, to keep his ominous appointment with the ghoulish Green Knight, the outcome of which I will refrain from revealing.

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900

Naturally, doubt exists as to the validity of the transposition of a fictional story onto an actual geographic location, but standing within the richly abundant cascade of verdant plant life, everywhere alive with the whispered drip, drip of water, it is easy to see how the human imagination could transform the deep, narrow rock chasm into the cathedral nave of some long forgotten nature cult, or the great hall of some malign ogre or pagan god.

Emerging from the rank foliation of Lud’s hidden Church, blinking in the now brilliant sunlight of early afternoon, I saw ahead of me the outcrop known colloquially as Castle Rock, where I found a suitable prospect from which to view the valley below. Vaporous pennons of mist rose incrementally upward from the body of the forest, the saturated trees exhaling into the clearing sky, patches of blue breaking apart the sulphurous clouds. Having rested, I descended through the forest to Gradbach Mill, no longer a place of textile production but a beautifully situated youth hostel, alongside which, by means of a narrow stone bridge I crossed the ebullient waters of the River Dane, into Cheshire.

Macclesfield Forest

At Heild End Farm I crossed the A54 Buxton Road and wound my way passed a fine, though slightly dilapidated two storey barn, its slate roof still more or less intact, an ideal place to shelter from a storm or even spend a night, should one find oneself benighted on the moor, and dropped into the vale of Wildboarclough. By the time I reached the Crag Inn the weather had turned around again and the fresh smell of rain and the vanguard of descending, distended drops forced me to stop and adjust my clothing. The east slope of Shuttlingsloe is the steepest of the sharks-fin hill, known locally with much conviviality as the Cheshire Matterhorn, and I certainly felt the pull of gravity on my calf muscles as I laboured my way to the hills crazy-pathed summit.  Sticking my head above the outcrop of Chatsworth Gritstone on the south east edge of the hills summit plateau, I was met with a blast of cold, damp air a across the Cheshire Plain translucent sheets of rain swept inwards, propelled by cadaverously oppressive clouds. I elected not to linger and instead descended rapidly to the north and the relative shelter of the Sitka Spruce plantations of Macclesfield Forest, finding shelter beneath the interlaced branches of pine needles as swathes of sleet blew in form the west. 

To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15thCentury. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, commonly known as the Forest Chapel

I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years. Outside, a Highway’s sign proclaimed Charity Lane unsuitable for motor vehicles, the very sandstone bedrock having been exposed by years of runoff water from the surrounding hills. As I contoured the higher ridges, the forest below me exhaled again into the now blinding evening light, plumes of vapour rising effortlessly through the suddenly undisturbed forest. I had been walking for over ten hours and as I climbed the steep hard-set path towards Tegg’s Nose, the sacroiliac joints of my pelvis began to complain vociferously. Not wishing to chance a sustained injury, I staggered down the Old Buxton Road to Macclesfield Station from where with prospects of real ale and painkillers, I telephoned a friend and procured a bed for the night.


This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

Stillman, Sappho, Swinburne and the Sapphic

One of my most treasured books, which I return to for reference more than any other book I possess, is The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, first published by the American academic and poet Frances Stillman in 1966. The dogeared copy on my bookshelves was purchased in 1991 upon it’s eighth re-print, since when it has influenced and informed my understanding and appreciation of poetry. An invaluable pre-internet resource for any aspiring poet, in addition to a complex and comprehensive rhyming dictionary her book contains seven chapters outlining the traditional structures, meters, rhymes and forms of poetry as appreciated towards the termination of the twentieth century, illustrated with excerpts from many well known poets and a modest scattering of her own verse. 

Although copies of her books can still be found in second hand bookshops and even on certain online book forums, sadly, Stillman herself seems to have slipped into obscurity. A brief obituary from the New York Times dated 5 February 1975 reads as follows:

“Dr. Frances Jennings Stillman, assistant professor of English at City College and a writer and translator, died Monday at New York Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. She was 65 years old. Dr. Stillman, who also had taught at Brooklyn and Hunter, Colleges, was the author of “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.” She translated “Flemish Tapestries,” written by Roger D’Hulst, and “Oriental Love Poems,” among other works. For many years, she was an officer in the New York Chapter of the American Association of University Women. Dr. Stillman earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. degree at the City University of New York.” 

It was Dr Stillman who, through her book, introduced me to the lyrical form known as the Sapphic, named after the enigmatic Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos during the sixth Century BC. 

The historical biography of the poet known as Sappho is fragmentary and speculative. She was believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. During antiquity she was regarded as one of the finest lyrical poets of the time. Plato revered her as the tenth muse (in Greek mythology there were traditionally believed to be nine muses devoted to poetry, history, music, dance and astronomy, amongst other things). 

Sappho, as envisaged by Charles Mengin, 1877. In the care of Manchester City Art Gallery.

Many of Sappho’s poems have been lost, and much of those that survive do so in fragmentary form, but her influence upon modern poetry, particularly the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cannot be understated. Her poems have been translated by Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. The spontaneity, simplicity, and honesty of her verse strongly influenced the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical didactic model of the poet as a cultural spokesperson.

As Dr Stillman teaches, the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an “Adonic” and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee. 

The following deconstruction uses a verse from a modern English translation of Sappho’s Anactoria poem.

The Sapphic form explained, after Stillman, 1966

The extant fragment of this poem explores Sappho’s longing for her lost love Anaktória, and her admiration of the female form. 

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen 
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
   she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
   her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water. 
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents 
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
   won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded 
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
   who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my 
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
   armoured for battle

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

The erotic homosexual content of many of her poems has won Sappho the accolade of being the first (first recorded at least) Lesbian, the very term being derived form her Aegean island home of Lesbos. Undoubtedly, it was the freely erotic components of her work that fascinated certain protagonists of the Romantic movement, who in their own somewhat chauvinist way were striving to break free of the cultural conventionality of  eighteenth and nineteenth century society. 

Perhaps the most accomplished Romantic exponent of the Sapphic form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Very much a product of the English Victorian establishment, born to a wealthy family in the North East of England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne none-the-less became a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. Greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other member of the Pre-Raphaeltie Brotherhood, his poems were often explicitly sexual, perhaps designed specifically to shock the very establishment from which he came. Swinburne gained notoriety in 1865 with the publication of Poems and Ballads, a collection of poems which many critics of the time regarded as indecent. 

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The fragment below is taken from his poem Sapphics, written in the Sapphic meter as described above and undoubtedly in homage to the poet Sappho. 

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
   Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
   Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
   Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
   Shone Mitylene;

Many years ago, inspired by Dr Stillman’s tutelage, I put pen to paper and came up with the poem below, which I called Castaway. It is based on the myth of Calypso, as told in Homer’s Odyssey, who detained the Greek hero Odysseus on the island of Ogygia during his long voyage home from the Trojan wars. 

Calypso & Odysseus by Sir William Russell Flint

Wreckage adrift on blue Aegean waters
Clinging the rope cut fingers burn and blister
Slowly cracking the salty sun bleached timbers
   bake in the sunlight

Came I to these islands by currents rolling
Red kelp and oyster shell over and over
Till bound in their shackles washed ashore on her
   shingle she found me

Almond Oil and Meadow sweet, fresh mint from the
Mountains, yellow Broom and Oak flower petals
Smoothed by her spidery fingers worked warm through
   my still dormant flesh

Lips part to tongue touching teeth with each whisper
Soft scent of apples her dark anaesthesia
Heady the night the breath of her warm body
   falls sleep over me

Daylight gold in her hair veils sweet soft hollows
Wine blushed lips taste the damp dew of the morning
Naked children of an absent god giggle
   at their honesty

Long shore pull drags the hissing shingle seaward
Roar of the deep wave beckons the shifting tide
Impudent voice of reason voice of motion
   still calling, calling


Frances Jennings Stillman obituary from the New York Times: accessed 6 August 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/05/archives/dr-frances-stillman-dies-english-professor-at-city-65.html

Haworth, Chapter 6: Unquiet Slumbers

The sheep at Top Withens are evil. I say this without a word of exaggeration or hyperbole, and have learned to beware their very presence. Being so accustomed to the perpetual drip-drip of visitors, from Haworth, from Stanbury, from Heptonstall, they have become tame – no, fearless – to the point of sociopathy. They will take the sandwich from your hand without a second thought and stand before you whilst they eat it. They will harass small children, friendly dogs, hikers and foreign visitors alike and will ultimately claim Top Withens as their own. I wonder sometimes if Emily Brontë did not take as the model for the sadistic and vengeful Mr Heathcliff one of these ovine inhabitants of Haworth Moor with their demonic yellow eyes and curling horns. 

Top Withens
Top Withens

Perhaps it is the sheep that imbue Top Withens with its maleficent energy. Perhaps it is the location, its foundations higher than the grasstops. Perhaps it is the north wind blowing over the edge that begins to invoke the spell; a conjugation of myth, history and fiction, an association of memories from our own lives and the lives of others, weaving these disparate strands together as the Sunderland family wove the strands of wool from their own and their neighbours sheep to produce a thick, hispid material. Or perhaps it is simply a human instinct to see patterns in the landscape: faces in the rocks, voices in the wind, and stories in the ordinary lives of the hill farming families. But the patterns are seductive, drawing us in, until the landscape is transformed by our imagination and the patterns take on a life of their own.

Beyond Delf Hill, the plateau of moorland stretched out before me to the north and west. On the high expanses of the moor, distances become elusive, and it can be difficult to determine scale. I walked for almost a kilometre across the ling heather and tussocks of cotton grass with little alteration in elevation and without passing anything higher than my kneecaps. In low cloud it is remarkably easy to become disoriented and lost on the high moorlands, as the uninitiated and poorly prepared often discover. Thankful of good visibility, I was able to use the considerable scattering of frost shattered, wind-eroded boulders known as the Alcomden Stones as a visual guide. The intricate shapes and patterns made on these stones by thousands of years of wind, rain and ice suggest human involvement in their creation, a pre-historic Henry Moore perhaps. A precariously positioned rocking stone is thought by some to be a Bronze Age cromlech, known by common association as a Druidic altar for dubious sacrifice, whilst others believe the precarious stone to be a result of post-glacial erosion. I am of the former persuasion for I believe the Alcomden Stones to be a liminal zone, a place where the veil between the material and the spiritual realms is perceptibly thin, or at least perceptible to some.

Just below the cantilever in a cleft, where two of the boulders have fallen together, a tiny shelter had been fashioned by the construction of a small dry stone wall to close off the gap beneath the boulders. Judging by the extensive growth of Cladonia floerkeana, or the Devil’s Matchsticks, on the wall, it had been in place for some years, possibly having been used as a shelter for shepherds or gamekeepers caught in bad weather on the moor. Given the sheet of polythene spread out inside the cavity and a discarded, rusted gas container, someone had spent the night there not too long ago. I put the gas container in my rucksack to dispose of later.

To the west of the Alcomden stones, a shallow trench marked the same constitutional boundary I had stumbled upon by Oxenhope Stoop Hill. I followed its line, passing a number of shin high boundary stones marked “KC 1902” indicating the purchase of the moor to the east by Keighley Corporation in that year. A mile or so northwest the trench meets the county boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire as it transects from west to east before making a sharp turn to the north at a curious feature known as ‘the Lad’. Whether boundary stone or monolith, the hefty gritstone tooth protruding from the moor solicits a choice from passers by, being engraved in capitals “LAD OR SCARR ON CROW HILL” an act of vandalism thought to originate from an 18thCentury boundary dispute. Curious to see what I might find I headed out across the Wage of Crow Hill onto Stanbury Bog, finding it much less saturated than expected, undoubtedly the result of much improved drainage, introduced to encourage the growth of heather, which prefers dryer soil, for the convenience of the grouse and the shooting parties that come in pursuit of that comical little bird. Half a mile or so south of ‘the Lad’ I came across a natural drainage channel and a considerable depression in the peat, devoid of heather, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Brontë’s description of the site of the 1824 “phenomenon”, albeit somewhat reduced in depth by the accumulation of peaty material from the surrounding moor over the course of almost two hundred years.

“a part of the moors in my chapelry … sunk into two wide cavities; the larger of which measured three hundred yards in length, above two hundred in breadth, and was five or six yards deep.”[i]

Harwood Brierley gave an account for the Leeds Mercury in 1928 of a visit to Stanbury Bog in the company of local quarry man William Kay. Brierley noted how “the very top of the bog bore evidences enough of primeval forest land … to my astonishment I beheld piles of firewood representing some hundreds of pine, fur (sic), and oak trunks or roots, some still fast in the bogland … and was informed that the lot had been exposed to view by the disruption of 1824, being the remains of a Roman Forest.”[ii] On the day I made my journey to the “swamp of Wuthering Heights”, the “piles of firewood” were nowhere to be seen, perhaps long ago removed by local inhabitants, although I did stumble upon a small exposure of preserved tree material in the peat, possibly giving credence to this heather-less depression as the site of the afore mentioned eruption.

To the west the sun was lingering above the outline of Boulsworth Hill and I resolved to abandon my explorations for the day and head via Bracken Hill down to Ponden Hall. Passing by the old house I glanced up at the tiny mullioned window in the east gable where it is said Emily Brontë took inspiration for the appearance of Cathy’s ghost to Lockwood and for a brief moment thought I glimpsed a child’s face pressed against the glass. A trick of the light no doubt or a product of my over active imagination. 

The mullioned windows of Ponden Hall
The mullioned windows of Ponden Hall

In the editor’s preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë made concession to “what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults;” but it would be churlish to drag Emily Brontë through the mire of literary criticism without an acknowledgement of the fierce individuality of her work in a time when ‘authoress’ was considered to be an unwise occupation for a lady, particularly the daughter of a parson.  Her genius was not solely in the telling of a story, for which she drew heavily on her Gondal epics, borrowed themes from her brother, creating a narrative that is sometimes incohesive and perhaps simplistic in characterisation. Her genius was in taking a scalpel to the conventionality and hypocrisy of nineteenth century society, in portraying the often brutal reality of life as it was for the inhabitants of the Yorkshire moors at a time of great industrial and social upheaval. To quote the biographer Winifred Gerin, Emily possessed an “attitude of defiance towards the social, and even more towards the national, traditions of the English novel.” More vociferously, as her sister Charlotte proclaimed in the preface to the 1847 edition of Jane Eyre, in defence of those critics who believed the Brontës to be immoral, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the latter.”

Although there are undoubted similarities between her novel and the landscape of the Haworth Moors, in the lives of those who were witness to the gradual demise of the stone house and the way of life that went with it, in reality, Wuthering Heights only ever existed in the imagination of Emily Brontë. And whatever her inspiration, if there is an association with the farm building of Top Withens, if there is a thread that, even today, binds fact and fiction together, poetry and prose, joy and tragedy; it is because we have made it thus. Ellen Nussey, Edward Wimperis, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Jane Urquhart, Glyn Hughes and every one of us who has ever made the rough journey, with a sad heart, along Sladen Beck, through the landscape that now bears her name, to the top of that stark, rain bleached moor and stood among the pitiless sheep, and the truncated ruins of Wuthering Heights, wishing the fiction could, just for one moment, be made real. 


[i]Brontë, Patrick ‘The Phenomenon; or an account in verse of the extraordinary disruption of a bog which took place in the moors of Haworth’ printed by T. Inkersley, 1824 – in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

[ii]Brierley, Harwood ‘The Swamp of “Wuthering Heights” Scene of the Bog-Burst Patrick Brontë preached on.’Leeds Mercury, 6th August 1928 – from C.M. Edgerley’s scrap books in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956

Haworth, Chapter 5: Furious Ghosts in the Stone House

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.”

Top Withens
Top Withens, believed to be the locational inspiration for Wuthering Heights, viewed from Delf Hill.

“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.

Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes http://culture.affinitymagazine.us
Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes http://culture.affinitymagazine.us

“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. 

Sylvia Plath at Top Withens, 1956. Photograph by Ted Hughes.
Sylvia Plath at Top Withens, 1956. Photograph by Ted Hughes.

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.

“There is no life higher than the grasstops

Or the hearts of the sheep, and the wind

Pours by like destiny, bending

Everything in one direction.

I can feel it trying

To funnel my heat away.

If I pay the roots of the heather

Too close attention, they will invite me

To whiten my bones among them.”[vi]

Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956
Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956

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.


                                    And weatherproofed,

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

[iv]ibid, pp210

[v]ibid, pp212

[vi]‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems’, Hughes, Ted (ed. 1981) Faber & Faber Ltd

[vii]‘Two Photographs of Top Withens’, ‘Ted Hughes, Collected Poems’, Keegan, Paul (ed. 2003) Faber & Faber Ltd, pp840

Haworth, Chapter 4: Changing Heaven

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]

Brontë Country: looking down on Lower Laithe Reservoir from Penistone Hill
Brontë Country: looking down on Lower Laithe Reservoir from Penistone Hill

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].

‘Let me in—let me in!’ thank you to Laura Neubert for the use of this stunning image. https://www.facebook.com/laura.neubert.7

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.

Riches I hold in light esteem

And love I laugh to scorn

And lust of Fame was but a dream

That vanished with the morn-
 
And if I pray, the only prayer

That moves my lips for me

Is – ‘Leave the heart that now I bear

And give me liberty.’[i]

[i]Gezari, Janet (ed. 1992) Op.cit. pg30-31

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

[ii]Brontë, Emily op. cit. pp114

[iii]Gérin, Winifred (1971) EmilyBrontë Oxford University Press pg8

[iv]Ibid. pg10

[v]Ibid. pg106

[vi]Ibid. pg108

[vii]Ibid. pg109

[viii]Gezari, Janet (ed. 1992) Op.cit. pg30-31

[ix]Brontë, Emily 1847 ‘Wuthering Heights’, published in Penguin Classics (1985), pp122

Ruins of the Elizabethan farm of Top Withens, Haworth Moor

Haworth, Chapter 3: Top Withens

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].

The churchyard of St Michael & All Angels, Haworth
The churchyard of St Michael & All Angels, Haworth

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.

Boundary Stone on Haworth Moor

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.

Boundary Stone between Haworth and Hepton
H for Heathcliff? Boundary Stone between Haworth and Hepton

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.

A view of Top Withens from Delf Hill
A view of Top Withens from Delf Hill

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.

The ruins of Top Withens from the Pennine Way
The ruins of Top Withens from the Pennine Way

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. 

Wuthering Heights
Lithograph of Wuthering Heights by Edward Wimperis 1872, suggestive of the location of the Top, Middle and Lower Withens farms.

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].

Ponden Hall
Ponden Hall

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

[ii]ibid, pp228

[iii]Barker, Juliet op. cit. pp152

[iv]‘A sermon preached in the Church of Haworth … in reference to an Earthquake’ (Bradford, T. Inkersley, 1824), in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

[v]Leeds Mercury, 11 September 1824, pp3, qu. in Atkins, William (2014) The Moor, pp176, Faber & Faber Limited.

[vi]‘was’ as the Wythenshawe estate has subsequently been divided up into numerous housing associations and private developments.

[vii]Deakin, Derick 1989 ‘Wythenshawe: the story of a garden city’pp.4

[viii]Hughes, Glyn 1996 ‘Brontë’, Bantam Press (Transworld Publications Ltd)

[ix]Brontë, Emily 1847 ‘Wuthering Heights’, published in Penguin Classics (1985), pp174.

[x]Ibid, pp46

[xi]which, incidentally, one can still see should one visit the property, although the box bed is sadly not the original.

[xii]Brontë, Emily op.cit. pp46

[xiii]Ibid, pp51

[xiv]Ibid, pp121

The Parsonage, Haworth

Haworth, Chaper 2: Emily

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)[1]. 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 Parsonage, Haworth
The Parsonage, Haworth

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.

Churchyard
The Churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, Haworth

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.”

Snowdrops in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, Haworth

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
  • [ii]ibid, pp178
  • [iii]ibid, pg262
  • [iv]ibid, pp343, Charlotte Brontë’s spelling and punctuation.        
  • [v]Gezari, Janet (ed. 1992), Emily Jane Brontë, Collected Poems, Penguin Books Ltd.
  • [vi]Brontë, Charlotte 1850, a preface to  ‘A Selection of Poetry by Ellis Bell’, qu. in Barker, Juliet, (2010) The Brontës, second edition, Abacus, pp274
  • [vii]Barker, Juliet op. cit. pp160

[1]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.

Elizabeth Gaskell House Trustee, Jane Baxter reading from the 1880 edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

1880 edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall donated to Elizabeth Gaskell House

Although separated by four thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean, friends Lauren Burke and Hannah Chapman together publish the online podcast known as Bonnets At Dawn, which takes a light-hearted look at regency and early victorian English literature, the specific bonnets in question being those of Jane Austen in one corner and Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë in the other, although other notable bonnets such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Louisa May Alcott and George Elliot are sometimes recruited into the ranks for good measure. 

Lauren & Hannah of Bonnets @ Dawn
Lauren & Hannah of Bonnets @ Dawn

Regular visitors to Manchester, Lauren and Hannah recently crowd-funded the purchase of a US edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hallby Anne Brontë, published by Smith, Elder & Co. in 1880, which they have now donated to the Elizabeth Gaskell House Museum on Plymouth Grove. I was thrilled when Lauren asked me if I would photograph the book for them. Pictured below with the book are Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, House Manager and Jane Baxter, Trustee, in the library at Elizabeth Gaskell House. 

Anne Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was first published in 1848 by Thomas Cautley Newby, with Anne using the pseudonym Acton Bell. It tells the story of Helen Graham, a mysterious and retiring young woman who takes up residence in the remote Elizabethan manor of Wildfell Hall in Yorkshire and of Gilbert Markham, a local gentleman farmer whom befriends Helen and her young son. As their friendship develops Gilbert learns that Helen is in retreat from an abusive, alcoholic husband named Arthur Huntingdon. Despite a relentless cycle of abusive behaviour, as a woman in nineteenth century England, Helen has little recourse to the law, nor moral support from the patriarchal culture in which she lives and is thus forced to take flight and live as an exile in hiding, attracting the disparaging attention of local gossip. In highlighting the cultural constraints, hypocrisy  and victim blaming that made de facto slaves of many women, particularly amongst the English aristocracy, Anne Brontë is considered a pioneer of feminist writing. 

The Brontë biographer Winifred Gerin believed that the original of Wildfell Hall was Ponden Hall, a farmhouse near Stanbury in West Yorkshire. Ponden shares certain architectural details with Wildfell, including latticed windows and a central portico with a date plaque above, although the date above the door reads 1801, the year the narrative of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights begins, indicating that Ponden Hall was a place of inspiration to all the Brontë sisters. 

This 1880 edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be viewed at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Plymouth Grove, Manchester on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 11am to 4pm. http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/visit

To join in the fun at Bonnets @ Dawn you can listen to Lauren & Hannah’s podcasts at https://soundcloud.com/bonnetsatdawn or join in a discussion on social media at https://www.facebook.com/groups/BonnetsatDawn/


Haworth, Chapter 1: Railway Children

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.

The Parsonage Museum, Haworth
The Parsonage Museum, 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

Keighley branch line station.
Emily, Anne and Charlotte, from Korea. Keighley branch line station.

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 Worth Valley Railway, Keighley Station
The Worth Valley Railway, Keighley Station

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.

High Street, Haworth
High Street, Haworth

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.

The Church Yard, Haworth
The Church Yard, Haworth

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.

To be continued in Chapter 2 …..