Nestled in the Pennines of West Yorkshire is a charming village, soaked in literary importance. Haworth is currently home to around 6000 people, but its most notable residents were Mr Brontë and his four children, Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre, Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, Anne, author of Agnes Grey, and the lesser well known, but equally brilliant, Branwell. The family lived in the parsonage, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and the four siblings worked as teachers in the School Rooms nearby. While Charlotte, Anne and Branwell travelled the country and lived in various locations away from Haworth, Emily was homelier. She loved the village and the surrounding countryside, and famously took pleasure in wandering and exploring the area.
Built on moorlands, modern Haworth looks like a typical Yorkshire village: a grand church and a vast cemetery on a cobbled high street, small pubs with ‘walkers welcome’ signs in the window, and an array of quirky souvenir shops and tea rooms. Surrounded by all this beauty, our first stop was the tourist centre where we bought a map of our route for 50p. Although the Parsonage Museum is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Brontë writing, we are amateur walkers, and our aim was to visit Brontë waterfall, before trekking the moors to Top Withens, the apparent inspiration of the Earnshaw Farm in Emily’s Wuthering Heights.
The first step is to escape the village. We passed the church, school house and parsonage museum via a shaded, cobbled path that ended at a small sheep field. We have climbed stiles before, but it seems in Haworth, the most effective way to allow human access is with a gap the width of a lamp post, so leaving the village became an unexpected challenge. Past the sheep field is a junction, and by turning left, you begin a steady ascent, with the cemetery on your left and a valley to your right. Looking down at the valley is like looking at a postcard. There are livestock grazing in the green fields and another small, archaic village built with grey stones at the bottom. In August, the moors are awash with bold colour. The heather that grows in the fields is in full bloom and the land not used for farming is a stunning shade of mauve.
However, the visual stimulation of the landscape fades as you pass the first mile. The stone walls are too high for you to see the valley, the path becomes cramped while still climbing, and when we visited, there were hundreds of sheep in our path. What comes with sheep? Poop and bugs. The next half mile was spent getting bitten to shreds by midges and fighting swarms of flying ants. The only interesting feature of this part of the journey is a dilapidated farmhouse with a ‘Do not enter’ sign, surrounded by half a herd of sheep. Unfortunately, not the farmhouse we were looking for.
A sudden thickening of foliage and a descent is the signal that you are coming closer to Brontë Bridge. The path becomes more difficult to navigate as it shrinks to the same width as the stiles out of the village. I had to lift my arms above my head to dodge overgrown bushes and my eyes were jammed to the floor so that I didn’t slip on a rock, but the sounds of water rushing to the right told me I was close.
Emerging into the clearing is utterly splendid. It’s obvious why the sisters spent their time enjoying the area around the waterfall. It’s in a tiny valley, probably only 30 metres wide, and a small but delightful bridge passes over the South Dean Beck. Other walkers’ dogs frolicked in the shallow water and I sat on the bank while Dan took some photos. I expected to follow in the footsteps, (or ideas) of two of my favourite authors, and have some inspiration to write, but instead of writing novels or poetry, I was inspired to paint. Looking downstream, the water winds into the most beautiful bushes of emerald, stippled with amethysts. Spiny trees dip their toes into the beck, their trunks like delicate watercolour brush strokes on a landscape scene, and grey slabs of stone are buried in the grasses along the banks. It is the most marvellous place to simply sit for a few moments.
Following a short rest at the waterfall, we crossed the bridge and climbed a steep path to the top of the valley. From there is a direct route towards Top Withens. Dan and I wondered how Emily Brontë found the ancient farm house in the first place. Now, the beginning of the path is flat and well defined, including a couple of stiles, and even as the route drifts into open moorlands, it is well worn by hikers and walkers, but when she wandered through the moors, it must have been a more difficult path to trace. I struggled, and the path was direct and printed on a map. In some places the ground was damp, even boggy. We dodged wet patches and other walkers as we tried to get to our final destination in 30 minutes.
Wuthering Heights is famous for its depiction of the bleakness and isolation of the Yorkshire Moors. On the afternoon we hiked, grey clouds rolled over the landscape like a blanket, hindering any hopes we had for a glimpse of blue sky. Far off in the distance, I could see a building beside a huge tree, and was adamant that was it. The flat land started to rise, and the walk became a complete slog. I was sure I was having palpitations, my legs were weak, and I was sweating. When we made it, I couldn’t even appreciate it; I collapsed on the bench beside the ruined farmhouse to catch my breath.
Derelict and remote, Top Withens is the best-preserved remains of George Bentley’s estate, shared between his three children in 1591, who built three farmhouses: Top Withens, Middle Withens and Low Withens. Today, it lacks a roof, is overgrown and looks nothing like the description of the Earnshaw home. Furthermore, the Brontë Society rejects the idea that Top Withens is even linked to the novel. Lots of people who have written about this walk air their disappointment at this discovery, but it’s important to remember that even at the time Emily and her sisters found the building, it was uninhabited, though unfortunately not the shell that it is today. Like most authors, Emily Brontë did not place the dramatic and arguably tragic story of Catherine and Heathcliff in a real location, providing a literal description, but drew on real life for inspiration, creating her own Yorkshire Moors.
Wuthering Heights is a work of fiction. The ability to engage your own imagination rather than rely on a real description makes Top Withens even more interesting. However, it may have felt more like the troubled Earnshaw home, more haunting, more desolate, if we were the only people there, but unfortunately, its literary significance is too enticing for enough people.
Although the journey to Top Withens (or Wuthering Heights) did not inspire me to write fiction or poetry, walking in the footsteps of famous Victorian authors, and three women who rejected the opinion that novel writing was not an appropriate pastime for a woman, inspired my Literary Walks project, and I suppose that will have to do.