Nine Standards, a line of nine dry-stone cairns, standing proud on the skyline above the Cumbria market town of Kirkby Stephens, approximately half-way along Wainwright’s coast-to-coast route and just seven kilometres west of where the Pennine Way passes the famous Tan Hill Inn, provoke the inquisitive hiker to ask questions about their origin. One might imagine there would be many local legends and stories to tell about these enigmatic sentinels, placed by some unknown party high upon the gritstone moorland. But ask a local livestock farmer or passing farrier about the origin of these hurrocks of stone and you are more than likely to receive a shrug of the shoulders than any elaborate mythological tale. Fascinated by the prospect of an unsolved mystery linked to two of the country’s most famous long distance footpaths, I set out from Kirkby Stephens early one morning to investigate.
The path climbing from the River Eden folded around the ruins of Hartley Castle and entered a coppiced hazel wood where wild garlic grew in abundance. Over thousands of years the water of Ladthwaite Beck has carved its way through the Carboniferous limestone rock like a knife through wedding cake. Tilting steeply to the West, the rocks provided a path of least resistance for the ghyll as it cascaded in parallel to the ancient stratigraphy.
Passing the remote settlement of Ladthwaite the path climbed onto Hartley Moor where the Nine Standards appeared on the horizon like a vanguard of petrified Daleks from a 1970’s episode of Dr Who. A slightly more plausible explanation given for the position of the cairns is that they were built by local people during the medieval wars between England and Scotland to give the impression of an army encamped upon the hill, and hence, the idea suggests, deterring any potential Scots marauders. The clear flaw in this theory being not only that the cairns are only visible on the skyline from the west and not from the north, east or south, but also that there are just nine cairns – no great army. As I drew nearer to the cairns along the path that ran beside Faraday Gill (Ghyll surely Mr Ordnance Survey?), it became apparent that the cairns themselves were of a variety of shapes and sizes and appeared to have been designed to represent more than mere figures standing on a hill.
A W Wainwright mentioned them in his description of the coast-to-coast route, and although rightly dismissive of frankly patronising notions that they were built by local miners or shepherds who had nothing better to do, he regarded them merely as boundary cairns. The Standards sit on the boundary between the ancient counties of Yorkshire and Westmoorland, which is also the watershed dividing the Pennine Hills east and west. From here the Eden runs west to the Solway Firth and the Swale runs east to the North Sea. Due to the exposed position of their location, the notoriously harsh winters of the northern Pennine Hills and the natural human instinct to climb on them, the cairns do suffer occasional structural damage and require intermittent maintenance. The last major re-build was commissioned by East Cumbria Countryside Project in 2005, which means that the cairns are currently in pretty good condition. Visitors are requested to treat them with respect, ensuring no stones are removed.
But what of their origin? How old are they and who built them? If we disregard the rebellious Scot deterrent theory, we must look elsewhere. Dr Stephen Walker, himself of Kirkby Stephen, has undertaken an extensive search of archives both local and national in an attempt to establish the facts about these strange cairns. His findings are remarkable.
The cairns appear on the 1862 Ordnance Survey Six Inch (1:10,560) First Edition maps of Westmorland. They are marked on a variety of tithe, enclosure and estate maps dating from as early as 1738. They are mentioned on many boundary rolls, or perambulations as they are also known, written between 1400 and 1699. A perambulation was simply a list of landscape features which marked the boundary of particular estates, parishes or townships. The oldest historical reference to the cairns is contained within a transcription of a perambulation of Gilbert Gant, Lord of Swaledale, dating to sometime from the late 12th or early 13th century, thus proving that the Nine Standards cairns were standing above Kirkby Stephens no more than a hundred years after the Norman Conquest.
Prior to 1066 there is currently only speculation and hearsay. In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe, the last independent Viking king of York was ambushed and killed by Earl Maccus, son of Olaf, as he crossed the pass at Stainmore, now the route of the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith. Tradition held that Eric was buried at Rey Cross, but when the site was excavated to make way for the new dual-carriageway in the 1990’s, no burial was found. Only four miles to the south-west, do the nine standards mark the actual crossing point of the Pennine Hills used by Eric and thus his grave, and those of his noble companions?
Moving further back in time, in 118AD the Legio IX Hispana of the Roman Army was ordered north from York and, according to some scholars, was never seen again, allegedly annihilated by the Picts. It has been suggested that the nine standards are a lasting memorial to the defeated ninth legion. The obvious flaw in this theory being if the legion was wiped out, who was left to build the Cairns?
In his book, Nine Standards: Ancient Cairns or Modern Folly*, Dr Walker is clear and vociferous, “They were not built to give the invading Scots the impression that an English army was camped up there. Nor were they a job creation scheme for indigent lead miners by some eighteenth or nineteenth century philanthropist, still less a ‘folly’ built by one of the more deranged landed gentry, as some have suggested. They are in fact ancient and demonstrably so.” Nor are they simply boundary cairns. In number they are unique in the British landscape, repeated on no other watershed or county boundary from Sutherland to Cornwall. They are undoubtedly a work of art, created by a Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin of the time. Their very presence is meant to communicate a message. We have simply forgotten what the message was.
A striking curiosity about Nine Standards Rigg, the hill upon which the cairns stand, is that its name is derived from the cairns themselves and hence post-dates them. They are not, for example “Old Harry’s Cairns on Backstone Hill”. The implication here is that for the topography to be named after a man-made feature, the feature must be very old indeed. Within the Brut y Bryttaniat, a 15th century manuscript copy of a 12th century script in Kymraec (Old Welsh), which was translated in to Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, an account is given of a battle between the Britons and the Saxons at York in 504AD. The manuscript states that the Saxons were routed and fled into the mountains to take refuge at a place named “mynydd daned” or toothed mountain. The Britons rallied and attacked the mountain at night, slaying the Saxons. If “toothed mountain” is taken as a description of Nine Standards, this manuscript may indicate that the cairns date to as early as the 6th Century.
The landscape around Kirkby Stephens contains other mythological echoes. Pendragon Castle, the supposed birthplace of Uther Pendragon lies just 6 miles to the south-west. Some would suggest Arthurian associations with the cairns. The 6th century British cleric Gildas places a Romano-British commander by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus at a battle against the Saxons at a place known as Badon Hill, location now unknown. It is my own belief, and nothing more than a belief mind you, that Baidon Hill is the lost name of Nine Standards Rigg and that each cairn was built to bear the flag or “standard” of each tribe of the Britons who defeated the Saxon hoards there. The watershed west and east would be a most likely location for these two armies to meet, the Saxons having arrived form the east, Ambrosius Aurelianus from his Welsh stronghold in the west. Could Ambrosius Aurelianus be the historical fact behind the mythological legend we know as King Arthur?
But all this is speculation and conjecture. In the mists and shadows of time, names and places become confused. Distorted and manipulated by subsequent generations the truth rapidly becomes the first casualty of history. It is perhaps astounding then that no formal archaeological investigation of the Nine Standards has ever been undertaken. Until that time, it is only natural that people will look to the cairns and attach their own stories to explain their presence. For now the origin of the curious nonad of dry stone cairns upon Nine Standards Rigg must remain a mystery.
*Dr Walker’s book is available from Hayloft Publishing Ltd http://www.hayloft.eu/
This article first appeared in Cumbria Magazine, February 2014
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.
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.
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.
Following the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and the subsequent biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1857, there was a surge in popularity of Charlotte and Emily’s novels[i]. As a consequence, a morbid curiosity grew up around the lives of the tragic sisters and the pilgrimage to the parsonage at Haworth, and to Top Withens in particular, became a common undertaking for the literary enthusiast and the down right nosey. The pilgrims came from everywhere: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, America, all wanting to touch the landscape the Brontës had created. One young American woman came with her new husband and his uncle, Walt, eager in her enthusiasm for romanticism to see the place where Heathcliff and Cathy had roamed the moors. Her transatlantic, almost manic, energy embraced everything with a child-like enthusiasm, as her journal showed. “central tragic figure – Uncle W. – drama of Cathy & Heathcliffe – close.” She made lists of words, Brontë words, stolen from the Parsonage: “luminous – bluish – watercolor – blue book, leather – sofa – Emily died – 19thDec 1848” – in the margin of her notebook she drew a simple sketch of the sofa on which Emily spent her final hours. Uncle Walt showed them the way from Stanbury to Top Withens, where she made a pen & ink drawing of the dilapidated farmhouse, capturing the asperous simplicity of the place, the isolation, the sadness, and the ever-dutiful sycamore trees standing close by. She posed in the branches of one of the trees for a photograph, young, beautiful, vivaciously intelligent, full of life. [ii]
“There are two ways to the stone house, both tiresome. One, the public route from the town along green pastureland over stone stiles to the voluble white cataract that drops its long rag of water over rocks warped round.”
“The other – across the slow heave, hill on hill from any other direction across bog down to the middle of the world, green-slimed, boots squelchy – brown peat – earth untouched except by grouse foot – bluewhite spines of gorse, the burnt-sugar bracken – all eternity, wilderness, loneliness – peat colored water – the house – small, lasting – pebbles on roof, name scrawls on rock – inhospitable two trees on the lee side of the hill where the long winds come, piece the light in a stillness. The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors & the yellow-eyed shag sheep. House of love lasts as long as love in human mind – blue-spidling gorse.”[iii]
Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes met at a party held at the Women’s Union, Falcon Yard, Cambridge to celebrate the publication of a new literary magazine, the St Botolph’s Review, partly edited by Hughes himself. Plath had earlier bought a copy from Bert Wyatt-Brown and had memorised some of Hughes’ poems so as to recite them to him and to impress[iv]. The effect on Ted Hughes was conclusive and their tempestuous relations began, as it was to continue.
“And I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favourite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”[v]
Plath and Hughes were married in haste, with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury (a waiver of any waiting period or of required residential status) at St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury on 16t June 1956 – Bloomsday – which was not a coincidence. Finding themselves penniless after the wedding, they move in with Ted’s parents at the family home in Heptonstall, Yorkshire and Sylvia was eager to take this opportunity to explore the wild, barren country of Hughes’ home.
Their visits to Top Withens clearly left a deep impression on both Hughes and Plath, for its image, and the image of the Yorkshire Moors are recurrent themes in their poetry. In her poem, ‘Wuthering Heights’written some years after their stay in Yorkshire, when the pair had moved to Devon, Plath recalls the isolation of the stone house.
Sylvia Path died from carbon monoxide poisoning on 11 February 1963, aged thirty; a successful poet with a single novel to her name, ‘The Bell Jar’, published just a month before her death. Her asphyxiation was self-inflicted. Returning to Top Withens years after his wife’s death Ted Hughes recalled their earlier visits, how the small property then still bore the resemblance of a house, how she had excitedly suggested they buy the place and renovate it, how she had sketched, wrote, been wonderful. But twenty years had passed and Top Withens had become an empty shell, devoid of life and character.
We had all the time in the world.
Walt would live as long as you had lived.
Then the timeless eye blinked.
Squared with Water Authority concrete, a roofless
Pissoir for sheep and tourists marks the site
Of my Uncles disgust.
But the tree –
That’s still there, unchanged beside its partner
Where my camera held (for that moment) a ghost.”[vii]
“It’s twenty years, I’ve been a waif for twenty years! Let me in – let me in!”
[i]Sadly, Anne’s novels appear to have been mostly forgotten until much later in the 20th Century.
[ii]Stevenson, Anne 1989 ‘Bitter Fame: a life of Sylvia Plath’ Viking Penguin Inc
[iii]Kukil, Karen, V. (ed. 2000) ‘The Journals of Sylvia Path 1950-1962’ Faber & Faber Ltd, pp589
In her novel ‘Changing Heaven’ the Canadian novelist, Jane Urquhart, imagines the ghost of Emily Brontë, alone and reflective, wandering the bleak, windswept moors above Top Withens, or is it Wuthering Heights? We can no longer tell. The moors, the hills, the backbone of England; they were never the same after 1847. They became Brontë Country.
“I did, you know,” said Emily, eventually coming back to earth, lying down, relaxing on a couch of heather. “I knew it the day I finished my book. My dog Keeper and I set out on our daily walk and, suddenly, the landscape had altered. There it was, the landscape of my novel! I could never see it any other way again. It was mine, mine! I’d made it mine! And I’d changed it forever.”[i]
In the commercially astute environment of the twenty-first century, one cannot throw a stick in the general vicinity of Haworth without hitting something emblazoned with the name ‘Brontë’ but the modern veneration of Emily Brontë’s prose, the secular worship of the Brontë myth, has not always been so. When Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s only novel, was published in 1847 it was met with revulsion and moral outrage, and although its brutal portrayal of rural life at the turn of the eighteenth century has lost some of its impact in comparison to the graphic details of modern literature – think Irvine Welsh – it still has the power to shock. Take this paragraph from chapter nine for example, where Hindley has come home drunk to the Heights seeking his young son Hareton.
“There, I’ve found it out at last!” Cried Hindley, pulling me back by the skin of my neck, like a dog. “By heaven and hell, you’ve sworn between you to murder that child! I know how it is, now, that he is always out of my way. But with the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving knife, Nelly! You needn’t laugh; for I’ve just crammed Kenneth, head-downmost, in the Blackhorse marsh; and two is the same as one – and I want to kill some of you, I shall have no rest till I do!”[ii]
This brutal and often violent characterisation marbled through Wuthering Heightshas been a source of much debate among critics, biographers and historians alike and was partly the reason that after publication the conservative society of Victorian England found it so difficult to believe that a woman had written such a novel. Though strongly influenced by the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, as already mentioned, and the gothic poetry of Lord Byron, both of which were very familiar to Emily Brontë, the novel is manifestly littered with autobiographical elements. Of profound affect upon the surviving Brontë siblings was the death from consumption of first Maria, aged just eleven, and then her younger sister Elizabeth aged ten, in the spring of 1825[iii]. Although aged only nine and six respectively, the death of their elder sisters was a trauma that would haunt Charlotte and Emily for the rest of their lives and reverberate throughout their fictional works. Where Charlotte drew upon the memory of her sister Maria for the character of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, it was the young Branwell, returned home from schooling to attend his sisters’ funeral, who claimed to have heard Maria crying outside his window at night. Although only six at the time of Maria’s death, it was this image that Emily recalled vividly twenty years later in Wuthering Heightsin the appearance of the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw to Lockwood outside the latticed window of the bed chamber[iv].
Emily is believed to have taken inspiration for Lockwood from one of Patrick Brontë’s young curates, the Revd. William Weightman, who moved to Haworth in 1839[v]and developed a playfully flirtatious relationship with the three Brontë sisters and their friend Ellen Nussey, much to the consternation of Emily, who scorned any notion of romantic love. As Weightman’s amorous interest in Ellen grew Emily took it upon herself to play the strong-arm chaperone, a role that won her the sobriquet ‘The Major’ from Weightman. It was an affectionate but subtly resentful nickname that would stick with Emily for the rest of her life, long after the departure of the lotharious Weightman.
The strongly wilful and more masculine aspects of Emily’s character were affectionately portrayed by Charlotte in the novel Shirleyin which the eponymous heroine refers to herself as ‘Captain Keelar’ as she strides out with her frightful canine companion, ‘Tartar’ an animal not unlike Emily’s own beloved and faithful ‘Keeper’[vi]. Beloved or not, Emily was known on occasion to discipline the poor beast with her own fists, once so savagely that both the dogs eyes and her own hands required bathing afterwards to reduce the swelling[vii].
Prone to bouts of melancholy and a need to escape the tiresome company of others, the small talk of polite society, for the solitude of her beloved moors, Emily was the antithesis of the young Victorian woman, for whom the expectations of society were to make a successful marriage. It is evident from Emily’s poetry that such a role was the last thing on her mind.
With ideas of gender fluidity far more readily acknowledged in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth it is easier to see how the introverted, misanthropic and frankly sadistic elements of Emily’s personality could find expression in the more savage passages in Wuthering Heights, not least in the character of Heathcliff himself. With such considerations in mind it is tempting to believe that in the infamous scene from Wuthering Heights, when Catherine expresses her eternal love for Heathcliff to Nelly Dean, that Emily herself was also expressing something of the conflict of identity she experienced.
“he is more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same … My great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it … Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”[ix]
Undoubtedly, although Emily Brontë died on 19 December 1848, another victim to the ravenous beast of consumption, it is the popular fascination with her only novel Wuthering Heights,that has propagated the memory and the myth of the most enigmatic of the Brontë sisters.
[i]Urquhart, Jane 1990 ‘Changing Heaven’ McCelland & Stewart Inc pp179
With a heavy heart I left the sanitised materialism of the Parsonage Museum gift shop, a packet of Brontë Rum and Raisin fudge stuffed in my the pocket of my rucksack, and wandered into the anarchic anthology of gravestones in the churchyard, each moss covered stone a remembrance of a family internment from before 1856, when due to public health concerns, the cemetery was closed. The horse chestnut, Scots pines and birch trees, so evocative of a windy afternoon in Haworth, were planted in 1864, long after the departure of the Brontë family, to help disperse the estimated forty-four thousand corpses contained within an acre of land. A photograph of the old church and churchyard, taken around 1860, shows only a few small trees in the Parsonage garden, tall enough barely to reach the first-floor windows and in the meadow to the south what appears to be a drinking trough, or possibly even an old bath, indicating that then, as now, the meadow was used for keeping livestock[i].
A well-marked footpath led beside the meadow then dog-legged towards Penistone Hill, where the overflow cemetery for Haworth was built in 1856 and where a slim finger of the Haworth Moor extends from Wether Hill to touch the skirts of the town. It was onto the moors here that the young Brontës would take their daily afternoon exercise, often accompanied by the family servants Sarah and Nancy Garrs, whilst Patrick attended to parish business. As the children grew older they were allowed to venture out on their own to explore the countryside. Ellen Nussey recalled in her memoires that Emily’s favourite walk was along Sladen Beck to a place known by Emily as ‘The meeting of the waters’[ii]. The Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale map of the South Pennines, published in 2008, shows Sladen Beck as emanating from the foot of the earth and clay dam of Lower Laithe Reservoir, built in 1925. Upstream of the reservoir, the beck extends to a point now known as the Brontë Bridge and the Brontë Waterfall. It is safe to assume that this is the location to which Ellen Nussey referred, where a tributary tumbles over gritstone boulders into the afore mentioned beck from the south, although, the Ordnance Survey mark the beck to the west of here as South Dean Beck. Here the children would sit in the sunshine and play in the russet waters that fell from the heather clad moors.
The moors, however, were not always so benign. In the September of 1824, during a long period of hot weather, whilst the eldest three Brontë children, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, were away from home at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, Branwell, Emily and Anne had, as was their daily routine, ventured out onto the moors in the company of Sarah and Nancy Garrs. On this particular Thursday afternoon, the little group was late in returning and Patrick had become concerned. He went to a first floor bedroom window to gain a vantage point from which to look for the children returning and was surprised to see that the skies above the moors to the west had turned black with heavy cloud. Timpani of thunder and shock of lightning soon followed as the whole moor was engulfed in a tempest of biblical proportions. Patrick later recalled in a sermon given to the congregation of St. Michael and All Angels how he heard a “deep, distant explosion” whilst feeling the house about him tremble. Distressed with worry, Patrick set out into the storm to search for his young family and eventually found them, cowering under Sarah’s cloak in the porch of a house.
Patrick was a pious man and believed the occurrence to have been an earthquake brought about by the electrical discharge of the storm and the recent hot weather, which of itself he believed to be a “solemn visitation”, a warning from God himself to the inhabitants of moor and town, calling them to repentance. In fact the earth tremor Patrick had experienced was the result of the collapse of a large area of bog between Middle Moor Hill and Crow Hill. The resulting deluge of liquefied peat, mud and moorland vegetation, which Patrick himself described as being up to sixty yards wide and between five to six yards deep, coursed down from the moor into Ponden Kirk and thus into the River Worth, flattening just about everything in its path, including trees, stone walls and a number of bridges. The wheels of mills along the length of the Worth were clogged with mire. At Horsforth, a good eight miles downstream from Haworth, over a thousand kilogrammes of dead fish, mostly trout and perch, were removed from the river Aire, having been suffocated by the quantity of mud and silt in the water system[iii].
Patrick had clearly been deeply shaken by the event, emotionally as well as physically, and by his frantic concern for his children. He concluded his sermon with the following prognostication:
“We have just seen something of the mighty power of God: he has unsheathed his sword, and brandished it over our heads, but still the blow is suspended in mercy – it has not yet fallen upon us. As well might he have shaken and sunk all Haworth, as those parts of the uninhabited moors on which the bolts of his vengeance have fallen. – Despise not this merciful, but monitoring voice of Divine Wisdom.[iv]”
Merciful indeed, for if a report in the Leeds Mercury was to be believed the young Brontës came closer to catastrophe than was originally perceived.
“The torrent was seen coming down the glen before it reached the hamlet, by a person who gave the alarm and thereby saved the lives of several children who would otherwise have been swept away.[v]”
It isn’t clear if the children referred to in the report were the Brontë children, but it is possible. How utterly different the course of English literature might have been, if not for the timely intervention of that unnamed person.
Rather than follow the indicated route along the Brontë Way (there is little here which does not now have the epithet ‘Brontë’ applied to it) I turned south from Penistone Hill and followed the line of a dry stone wall above Leeshaw Reservoir, where in the depression of Spa Hill Clough were patches of ink black bog deeper even than a fully extended walking pole, an thus to be avoided at all cost. Above Spa Hill began the exhausting climb through sodden purple moor grass and large patches of lime green sphagnum moss, to Oxenhope Stoop Hill, where I came upon a tall boundary stone, hewn from the local gritstone and carved with a large letter ‘H’. I considered for a moment if the ‘H’ stood for a certain misanthropic character in Wuthering Heights, but having consulted my map found I was standing on the invisible boundary between the county parish of Haworth, in the borough of Keighley and Hepton in the borough of Calderdale.
Following the line of this boundary roughly west for a mile or so I came upon the Pennine Way as it climbed from Walshaw Dean to the gap between Round Hill and Dick Delf Hill, before falling into the valley to the north, where beneath the bows of two sycamore trees stand the quartered ruins of a small Pennine farm, the rough hewn blocks of millstone grit weathered and encrusted with lichen and mosses, the inhabitants having long departed, home now only to half a dozen Swaledale ewes with piercing stares.
Top Withens is about as far as it is possible to be from the sea in the north of England and although the distances involved are by no means great in the age of the internal combustion engine, a hundred and fifty years ago they were considerable. From the crook of Delph Hill, beneath which the ruins sit, it is over seventy miles eastwards to Hornsea and the algid waters of the North Sea. To the west the Fylde coast lies somewhat closer at forty miles distance, none-the-less a journey of at least two days on foot in 1824. The former Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar on Withins Heights stands at 444m above sea level and has line of sight along a ridge north-west via Crow Hill, across the gap at Coombe Hill Cross to Great Wolf stones, surveyed at just a metre in height below the Heights, for this is the backbone of the north of England, the watershed east and west, in the 18thCentury given the sobriquet ‘Apennine’ in deference to the Italian mountains of the same name and now more commonly referred to as the Pennines.
In 1567 an area of sixteen acres of land upon the Pennine hills known as ‘Wythens’ was sold by Thomas Crawshaye and his sister Anne to a George Bentley, who subsequently passed the ‘Wythens’ on to his descendant William Bentley. Bentley had three sons; Luke, Martyn and John between whom the land was divided into three farms known as Top, Middle and Near Withens. The change in spelling of the name is a common feature of the farms throughout their history, the original deeds to the land having given the name as ‘Wythens’, but the 1852 six inch to one mile map of the Haworth gives the name as ‘Withins’, as does the current Ordnance Survey map, last printed in 2008. However, ‘Withens’ is also in common usage as indicated on William Edmondson’s photograph of ‘Top Withens’ dated 1895 which shows the moor top dwelling as a working farm, complete with a gaggle of white geese. Such variations of spelling are indicative of the transition of a pre-literate culture where oral tradition held primacy, into a culture dominated by administrative literacy.
The etymology of the name ‘Wythens’ holds particular interest for me because the particularly homogenous council estate to the south of Manchester on which I grew up was known as Wythenshawe[vi], so named after the 16thCentury timber framed house and associated parkland, once home to the Tatton family and now owned by Manchester City Council. The teachers of my primary school, which bore the emblem of a weeping willow, would often instruct that the etymology of ‘Wythen-shawe’ is old English, meaning a coppice of willow trees[vii]. The implication here is that the correct form is indeed ‘Wythens’ as indicated by the original deeds, but whether or not there is any association between the three Pennine farms of the Sladen Valley and the growth of willow, is unknown. The two remaining trees which have stood faithfully beside Top Withens throughout the twentieth century, loyal partners isolated in a sea of moorland grasses and heather, are in fact Sycamores.
By 1813 Top Withens was owned by a John Crabtree, who leased the farm to Jonas Sunderland, who eventually bought the property and passed it on to his son, also Jonas. During the time of the Brontë sister’s excursions onto Haworth Moor, Jonas had married and had three children: John, James and Ann. The income of the farm came from livestock on pasture, the associated dairy produce and was also supplemented by handloom weaving, as the income from such a small holding alone was unlikely to be sufficient to keep the family. It is tempting then to imagine the Brontë sisters calling upon the Sunderlands as they took their daily perambulations upon the moor. The author Glen Hughes in his fictionalised biography Brontë took this idea a step further and imagined the Brontë children taking refuge from that September Storm and its associated landslip in the relative safety of Top Withens.
“The darkened cottage – the firelight and rushlights flickering – with its flagged floor, its rough, stone fireplace under the rack of drying oatcakes, was bare and severe; no rugs, but a scrubbed table, wooden chairs, crude pots and wooden spoons. Pat Wainwright and Nancy were sitting by the fire, with Tom and Mary Sunderland, and their two smaller children. At one side of the fireplace, Mrs Sunderland was praying, the huge shut bible, with its brass clasp fastened, on her lap.”[viii]
It was Ellen Nussey who, as far as is recorded, first intimated the connection between Top Withens and Wuthering Heights, the family home of the Earnshaw family. In 1872 the publishers Smith, Elder & Co had undertaken a re-print of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and had employed the artist Edward Morrison Wimperis to provide engravings to illustrate the works. George Smith wrote to Ellen asking if she might know the identity of some of the places described in the novels. Although her reply to Smith is not extant, it is clear from the resulting engravings and from a letter Smith wrote to Ellen thanking her for the information that Ellen had responded to the request. The most famous image produced by the artist is a dark and brooding, moonlit scene of the view from below Scar Hill showing the three Withens farms, the third, most elevated and most remote having been transformed into the “large jutting stones” of Wuthering Heights. Thus established, the association began to burrow its way into the popular consciousness.
Commentators draw on at least two other contenders for the inspiration of Wuthering Heights. The first is High Sunderland Hall, a large manor house, which until the 1950’s stood in parkland to the north of Halifax and which Emily is thought to have visited during her time as a teacher at Law Hill School. The description of Wuthering Heights at the opening of the novel in which Mr Lockwood sees “a quantity of grotesque carvings lavished over the front” and “a wilderness of crumbling griffins, and shameless little boys” is thought to have been inspired by the seventeenth century stately home. However, an examination of the text shows that the descriptions of the interior of Wuthering Heights in the novel are not those of a large ancestral manor house, but rather of a less substantial farm building. Indeed, ‘the Heights’ are often referred to in the text as being a farmhouse. In the letter Isabella Linton sends to Ellen Dean following her elopement with Heathcliff, she writes:
“The sun set behind the Grange, as we turned on to the moors; by that, I judged it to be six o’clock; and my companion halted half-an-hour, to inspect the park, and the gardens, and, probably, the place itself, as well as he could; so it was dark when we dismounted in the paved yard of the farmhouse, and your old fellow servant, Joseph, issued out to receive us by the light of a dip candle.”[ix]
Joseph, the acerbic servant is often described as retreating to his garret, a feature far likely to be found in the Pennine farms of the Sladen Valley than in a stately manor close to the centre of Halifax and, in the first chapter, as Lockwood enters the building he describes a single room reaching to the very roof.
“One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby, or passage; they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently.” Lockwood continues, “One end, indeed, reflecting splendidly both light and heat, from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, in a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn, its entire anatomy laid bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes, and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it.”[x]
The above is no description of a manor house, but may be the description of Ponden Hall, a substantial farmhouse, also built in the seventeenth century, located below Ponden Clough on a spur of land that now extends into Ponden Reservoir. The Brontë children often visited Ponden Hall to make use of the extensive private library which was housed there and the oak beamed rooms of its interior may have fired Emily’s imagination. Certainly, it was here that Emily encountered an upper chamber with a small, latticed window, enclosed by the frame of a box bed[xi].
Perhaps most convincingly, again and again Emily Brontë, describes Wuthering Heights as a hilltop dwelling rather than the parkland setting of High Sunderland Hall.
“Pure, bracing ventilation they must have of it up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house;”[xii]
“On that bleak hill-top the earth was hard with black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb.”[xiii]
“heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy.”[xiv]
The above powerful discourse given by Cathy to Nelly Dean makes apparent a factor that I believe is often overlooked. Wuthering Heights in not merely the dwelling in which the Earnshaws live, but the whole area of moorland about their farmhouse. This is also true of the Withens farms. The 1852 six inch to one mile map gives the name of the area of raised moorland immediately to the west of Delf Hill, below which Top Withens sits, as ‘Withens Heights’. This association of name is for me far more than coincidence, especially given that ‘Wuthering’ is a Yorkshire dialect variant of the Scottish dialect ‘Withering’. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were particular favourites of Emily’s, and Scott often used the devise of country dialect in his novels, particularly in the character of Andrew Fairservice in the novel Rob Roy.
Withens – Withering – Wuthering!
[i]Barker, Juliet op. cit. plate section one, in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum
It took twenty-eight years for me to walk beyond the confines of the cemetery wall of Saint Michael and All Angels, Haworth. In the wake of a rather acrimonious divorce in 2005 I fell upon the mercy of a local “under 40’s” Rambler’s club, an incidental collection of divorcees, serial-singletons, misanthropists and social misfits (many of whom I have come to know and love as very good friends). The debt of gratitude I owe to this diverse band of characters is beyond measure, for they enabled me to re-discover my love of the British countryside, and vicariously, an essential part of me own being. It was in attending a walk organised by a member of this group that I found myself back in Haworth, where I found myself assailed by memories long locked away in the confines of my subconscious. The walk that day was from the Parsonage, across Penistone Hill and along Sladen Beck to the “Meeting of the Waters” from thence to the ruined Elizabethan farms below Withens Heights: lower, middle and top, returning via Ponden Clough and Hall. That was my first visit to Top Withens and the beginning of a fascination that persists to this day.
On the chilly March morning I had taken the train to Haworth, I found the stone solidity of the Brontë Parsonage Museum a haven of tranquillity, peaceful in early spring when the chattering crowds of high season had been replaced by the ceaseless whispers of the wind echoing throughout the house, through the stone floored hallway, into the parlour where the flattering George Richmond portrait of Charlotte hangs above the fireplace and where the three sisters would make their evening perambulations around the mahogany dining table. It was at this table that from their early adolescence, the four Brontë siblings would indulge their favourite pastime of writing fictional accounts of their heroes. Characters at first taken from contemporary accounts the children had read in Blackwood’s Magazine, a satirical periodical of the time; Charlotte’s favourite the Duke of Wellington, Emily’s Sir Walter Scott, but later developing in imaginative complexity into the Angrian and Gondal Sagas, which would continue to be the foundation of the Brontë’s literary efforts into much later life[i]. In her acclaimed biography of the Brontës, Juliet Barker cautions against fuelling the myth of the Brontë’s nascent literary genius, preferring to see the ‘Juvenilia’ as the product of a mutual, creative endeavour; a means of expression for young, imaginative minds.
“It is easy also to over-emphasize the maturity of the young Brontës by drawing attention to the complexity of their childhood writings, the elaborate and exotic descriptive passages, the wide range of references and the rich vocabulary used. Less often mentioned is the highly imitative nature of much of the writing, in both style and subject matter. Their slap-dash writing, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation well into their late teenage years is usually glossed over, as is the frequent immaturity of thought and characterisation.”[
Barker, Juliet, (2010) The Brontës, second edition, Abacus, pp178
What is undoubtedly much more fascinating than the literary merit and sheer volume of the writing produced, is the level of preoccupation exhibited by the Brontës in their imaginary worlds, an absorption that in the case of Emily would continue until her death in 1848 and which often proved a barrier to integration into everyday life.
The Brontë children were for the most part educated at home by their father. Apart from her brief, and by all accounts traumatic, sojourn of six months at the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School, Emily had received no tuition at a place of formal education. Concerned by this Patrick arranged for Emily to be sent at the age of seventeen to Roe Head School, near Mirfield, where another of his daughters, Charlotte had attended as a pupil in 1831[iii]. Patrick no doubt thought it provident that Charlotte had recently been made the offer of a teaching position at the school by her former mistress, Miss Wooler. His two eldest daughters would then move to Roe Head together. Unfortunately, despite the presence of her sister at the school, Emily found integration difficult. The constraints of the school routine, so different to the freedoms she had valued at the Parsonage, soon became a challenge, and she began to withdraw from her fellow pupils, not least because of her self-consciousness at her physical and mental maturity in comparison to the majority of her classmates and her unwillingness to engage in what she no doubt saw as the childish chatter in the dormitory. But the most grievous restrictions imposed upon Emily were undoubtedly her geographical separation from the moorlands upon which she loved to walk, and the lack of private time in which to indulge her Gondal fantasies. Though visible from the dormitory windows of Roe Head, the hills and moors surrounding Mirfield were strictly out-of-bounds for pupils, more by virtue of the rigorous daily schedule of the school.
Unable to communicate with her sister Anne, the chief co-conspirator in the Gondal sagas, and having little time and privacy with which to put down in writing her imaginative thoughts, a cathartic release that had always been available to her at the Parsonage, Emily became physically and emotionally ill. Within three months of moving to Roe Head she was permanently sent home. This was a pattern that would reappear in the summer of 1838, when at the age of twenty Emily took up a teaching post at Law Hill School, near Halifax. In a letter to her friend and confidant, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte wrote of the rigorous work schedule at the school.
“I have had one letter from [Emily] since her departure it gives an appalling account of her duties – Hard labour from six in the morning until eleven at night. With only one half-hour of exercise between – this is slavery I fear she will never stand it.[iv]”
Despite this ‘slavery’ Emily did find time to write poetry during her first term at Law Hill, much of which based on Gondal themes but noticeably coloured with the language of exile and loss. An untitled poem dated 11 November 1838 contains the following lines[v]:
In the gloom of a cloudy November They uttered the music of May – They kindled the perishing ember Into fervour that could not decay
Awaken on all my dear moorlands The wind in its glory and pride! O call me from valley and highlands To walk by the hill-river’s side! …. But lovelier than corn-fields all waving In emerald and scarlet and gold Are the slopes where the north-wind is raving And the glens where I wandered of old – …. For the moors, for the moors where the short grass Like velvet beneath us should lie! For the moors, for the moors where each high pass Rose sunny against the clear sky!
For the moors, where the linnet was trilling Its song on the old granite stone – Where the lark – the wild skylark was filling Every breast with delight like its own.
There is no evidence to suggest that Emily wrote anything during the second term at Law Hill, an indication perhaps of her failing mental and physical health. By the Easter of 1839 she had once again returned to the familiar haven of the Parsonage at Haworth and would never again earn money through employment. Her sister Charlotte described Emily’s discomfort with pedestrian reality of working life in a preface to the 1850 edition of ‘A Selection of Poems by Ellis Bell’[vi].
“Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it, she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and inartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindliest auspices), was what she failed in enduring.”
Even after the achievement of having written Wuthering Heights, which she completed in spring of 1846, Emily reacted with strong feelings of rejection, perhaps understandably, to the mostly lukewarm responses the novel received from prospective publishers. Emily once again withdrew into her fantasy Gondal world, producing several melancholic poems in partnership with her sister Anne.
It would perhaps be disingenuous to throw twenty-first century psychoanalytical labels around when considering the lives of those who lived in the nineteenth century, but it is evident that all of the Brontë siblings suffered considerable trauma as children and had to face the consequences of this in later life. Emily’s mother died when she was just three years old. The subsequent deaths from consumption of the two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth not four years later and her experiences of deprivation and, what by all accounts was psychological torture and near starvation at the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School, could only have had a profoundly negative effect on Emily. To what extent these traumatic childhood events affected the Brontë children is perhaps best seen in the narratives of their fiction. Juliet Baker points out[vii]that orphans and motherless children were a common feature in both the childhood writings and in published works. In the case of Emily, her novel Wuthering Heightsis populated almost entirely by such orphans and motherless children. Heathcliff’s parentage is never explained and he is presumed to be an orphan, found on the dockside in Liverpool. Both Mr and Mrs Earnshaw are dead by the end of the fifth chapter, leaving Cathy and Hindley without parents and Heathcliff orphaned for a second time. Hindley’s wife Frances dies in childbirth leaving Hearton motherless, as does Cathy leaving the young Catherine in the same predicament. Linton’s mother, Isabella (Edgar Linton’s sister) dies twelve years after his birth of what is implied to be consumption, and ultimately, Edgar and Heathcliff themselves die leaving the young Catherine and Hareton, whose unison in marriage brings the novel to a conclusion, without parentage. After a period of thirty years over which the narrative takes place, Catherine and Hearton are left as the only survivors of the two families.
If we assume then the profound effect of childhood trauma on the Brontës, it is perhaps miraculous that as children they were able to employ their imaginative powers to nurture each other and to overcome what trauma they had experienced to the extent that they were, in later life, able to produce such remarkable works of fiction. If there was a flaw in the childhood strategy, it was that once separated from the familial unit, their primary source of nurture and self-identity was not available to them. This being so, one can only imagine the magnitude of grief experienced by Charlotte when first Branwell, then Emily and finally Anne died of consumption within seven months of each other.
To be continued in Chapter 3 …..
[i]Barker, Juliet, (2010) The Brontës, second edition, Abacus
I add the quotation marks of cynicism as an acknowledgement of the inevitable progress of time, which has rendered, in Logan’s Run fashion, many of the clubs members well above the critical age threshold. We have yet to begin removing elder members with pleasure-inducing toxic gas.
In this series of six articles, one of which was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The Great Outdoors magazine, I explore my life-long connection with the town of Haworth in West Yorkshire, as it’s association with the Brontë family.
My sister’s house stood close by Burley Park Station on the Leeds-Harrogate-York railway line and during the summer months of the 1970’s, when the river Aire ran bright and singing past the meadows of Kirkstall Abbey, we caught Sticklebacks in jam jars from the streams and the summer heat fair split the granite setts in the avenues, and the British Rail heritage locomotives would steam past, carrying families to Scarborough for the day. I recall a particular boy who lived in the house at the very end of the avenue, from where there was an unobstructed view over the railway tracks, who by some process of divine cognition knew exactly when these trains would pass. But a real delight was a trip from Leeds City Station on the draughty and noisy class 110 British Rail diesel units along the Airedale line to the market town of Keighley from where the former Midland Railway 4F class steam locomotives of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway would strain at a sedate and stately pace against the gradient – one-in-fifty-eight at its steepest point – issuing bellowing clouds of bituminous steam, climbing three-hundred feet in five miles up the Worth Valley to Oxenhope. Imagine my delight when my sister informed me that Oakworth station was used as the location for the 1970’s film The Railway Children, the famous petticoats waving scene having been filmed at the Mytholmes tunnel a few hundred metres further up the line. Although a tour of the engine sheds at Oxenhope, where the line terminates, held a certain fascination for a young boy, my sister was always more enthusiastic when we alighted from the train at Haworth station and walked the half-mile to the town high street, where she would relate tales of three remarkable sisters who had lived there many years ago. Thirty-seven years later it was not the engine shed at Oxenhope but those three remarkable sisters that drew me back to Haworth.
It was a slate grey missal morning as I set out over the heights of the M62 motorway into Yorkshire passing the famous Stott Hall Farm, located in the centre of the carriageways not, as urban myth would have, because of a dispute of land ownership, but rather a simple necessity of geotechnical engineering. The weather had not improved by the time I reached Keighley and did nothing to alleviate the dreary aspect of a town, which has over the decades sadly succumbed to industrial decline and mercilessly functional architecture. Keighley main line station is a case in point and has few charms to be recommended but the branch line platform retains many of the original Midland Railway features, redolent of the platform scenes in David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
The arrival of the matt black locomotive, hauling several maroon and cream British Railway carriages, exhaling sulphurous steam like an asthmatic dragon, was greeted with universal delight by children and adults alike and soon the hyperventilating engine was pulling us away from the black, gaping windows of abandoned factories and mills, over bridges of creamy mustard sandstone beneath which the river Worth plunged and tumbled over weirs and cascades, alongside fields where horses trotted to keep pace with the engine, past embankments where free range bantams scurried in panic from the approaching fire-breathing beast and the clickety-clack swaying of the carriages had a somnambulant effect on old men and babies.
The weight of my head nodded me awake as the train halted at Haworth station and I quickly gathered my belongings and stepped down onto the platform. Placing my feet carefully, diffidently, as I had done back in those hazy summers of the 1970’s, I began to climb the steep hill of High Street, past the holiday cottages, the gift shops selling Yorkshire Relics, craft shops, ladies fashion boutiques, old maids’ parlours, the notorious drinking houses and enough tea shops, cafés and restaurants to keep the Duke of Wellington and all his armies fed and watered. It is perhaps easy to see Haworth High Street as evidence of crass commercialism, but in comparison to many of the high streets of Britain, it has retained something of its independent charm and has not (yet) succumbed to the invasion of global chains that homogenise so many towns and cities. Behind the Black Bull Inn a side street leads past the Victorian parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, built to replace the previous building in 1879, past the church yard, closed in 1856 due to over crowding, to the former parsonage house which was once the home of the Brontë family.
There is little that has not been written about the Brontë family, that most enigmatic, celebrated, tragic, quasi-mythological family of this Yorkshire moorland and darkly industrial town. Of Patrick, the ambitious, diligent, pious clergyman; of his only son Branwell, the much maligned, unrecognised and ultimately alcoholic artist and poet; of Charlotte, the celebrated literary sensation of her time, proto-feminist and heartbroken author; of Anne, the affectionate, unassuming, oft overlooked novelist; and of Emily, the uncompromising, sensitive, often reclusive lover of nature, who penned perhaps the most singular work of fictional prose in the English language. Indeed, over the course of the one hundred and fifty years since their untimely deaths, whole forests have been felled in service of the Brontë myth and the propagation of a legion of fictional, biographical and psychological tomes. Certainly, a single chapter of discourse would not do justice to their intricate and fascinating story, nor to any half-hearted critical appraisal of their works. I do not intend to enter into that room. The road to Haworth is paved with a thousand authors, many falling bereft at the wayside, each offering their own particular interpretation and spin upon the saga. I came here only to remember and to experience once again a place I love.
I cannot remember how I lost my sister. She was perhaps busy still in the parsonage museum, but I recall vividly the wind stirring the tops of the sycamore trees in the church yard and the arguments of the rooks in their lofty canopy and the tranquillity, which is different to quiet, of that moment. Wandering amongst the sepulchres and tombstones I found the cemetery boundary wall, which to my juvenile frame appeared tall and insurmountable. Using the copingstones as leverage I pulled myself up and looked over the wall into the fields beyond. The enclosed meadows stretched for some half a mile, separated by an array of parallel dry stonewalls and beyond, the briefest glimpse of moorland heather where the ground rose to the horizon. I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to take flight over the wall and be off. As I began to find a footing on the protruding tie stones, the familiar treble of my sister’s voice sounded across the graveyard, calling me back.