Two hundred years ago today in a village in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Britain’s most famous literary family gained an extra member. That child’s name was Emily Brontë.
Apart from her only novel, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë left us with little else after her death. Famous for her love of solitude and of the wild moors where she spent most of her time, Emily’s personal life remains tantalisingly enigmatic. And yet her evocative descriptions, her warts and all portrayal of human emotion, won her the loyalty of generations of fans.
The bleakly beautiful Yorkshire landscape where Emily was born and bred leaves an indelible mark on every page of Wuthering Heights. No mere background, it is an active presence with a force of its own, as captivating as any of the book’s characters.
It’s often said that the only way to understand both Brontë and her book are by experiencing the environment that shaped them. So I decided to do just that and head up to ‘Brontë country’ to romp around the moors doing my best Kate Bush impression (minus the flowing garb).
It’s July. The rest of the UK is sweltering in the current heat wave. But as I drive over a ridge, plunging down the valley into the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire, the temperature suddenly drops by 3°C and an ominous murk of clouds rolls overhead. I’m almost glad. Peak season for Brontë tourists is when the moorlands are at their most bleak.
My first stop is Ponden Hall. Perched on the edge of a reservoir, this stone farmhouse is thought to have inspired Emily’s descriptions of Thrushcross Grange, the family home of the Lintons in Wuthering Heights. During the 1800s, Ponden boasted of the best library in Yorkshire and Emily would often trek across the boggy fields to sit and read here. Now a bed and breakfast, visitors can rent out Ponden’s Earnshaw room and, if you’re feeling brave, sleep in an exact replica of the famous box bed where Wuthering Heights’s narrator, Mr Lockwood, is haunted by the clawing of Cathy’s ghost at his window.
After I slide out of the entrance hole in the coffin-like bed, Ponden Hall’s helpful owners, Steve and Julie, point me in the direction of Ponden Kirk. This towering gritstone outcrop supposedly became the Penistone Crags ‘fairy cave’ which Hareton takes Cathy to on their first meeting.
A narrow passage runs between the Kirk’s jutting boulders. According to local folklore, if a couple crawl through the passage together, they must marry within the year. Otherwise they’ll commit suicide and haunt the rock forever. Deciding I’m not really ready for either marriage or an early death, I stick to taking photos.
I set back off in the direction of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse whose location, and romantic name, are believed to have inspired Wuthering Heights. Forging through tussocks of grass and across peaty streams, hopping from one slippery lichen-covered pebble to the next, I can’t help wondering how Emily and her sisters managed in petticoats and heavy woollen skirts. Perhaps Catherine and Heathcliff would have been a lot less troubled if they’d owned a rain mac and sturdy pair of trainers.
After some huffing and puffing, the panoramic views from the top of the hill by the crumbling remains of Top Withens are a worthy reward. While you run around screaming ‘Cathy!’ on the way back down, try to avoid disturbing the grouse hiding in the heather. As I discover, overexuberant calls to your lost lover will result in an explosion of flapping wings from the thickets. Swallows, lapwings and peregrines provide some welcome company on my hike. Despite her tendency to cut herself off from other humans, Emily’s love of animals is well-known. She would often return from her walks with a young rabbit or bird and once even rescued a falcon which she adopted as her pet and named Nero.
Soon I arrive at the Brontë Falls where the siblings would sit and write. What Charlotte Brontë described in 1854 as ‘a perfect torrent racing over the rocks, white and beautiful’ is now little more than a trickle. But, nonetheless, an ideal spot from which to admire the hazes of purple heather and rolling emerald slopes all around.
Next, I cross over the Brontë bridge and follow the wooden signposts (helpfully written in both English and Japanese) towards the village of Haworth. As I discovered at Ponden Hall, I am not the first and certainly won’t be the last to want to walk in the footsteps of Emily and her siblings. It was 1858 when the first Brontë tourist arrived at Ponden Hall, asking for directions to the other places which inspired literature’s most iconic family. Soon the Brontës’s father, Patrick, was receiving hundreds of requests for scraps of their dresses and hand-writing.
Save the addition of a good deal more tea rooms and pubs with literary puns for names, the cobbled streets and soot-blackened stone buildings of Haworth look much the same now as they did when Patrick Brontë took over as the village’s vicar in 1820. The Haworth Parsonage where the sisters spent most of their lives is itself a mini time capsule, designed to look exactly as it did 200 years ago. Inside the museum you can inspect the ink marks and candle burns on the table where the sisters wrote their novels and the very sofa Emily is supposed to have died on. The Parsonage Museum is currently hosting a special exhibition to mark Emily’s bicentenary, entitled ‘Making Thunder Roar’.
Wandering round, my eye is grabbed by a book, about 5x3cm, covered in miniscule handwriting. This is one of magazines, complete with tiny adverts and article reports, made by Emily and her siblings for the fantasy worlds they created together. The Brontës would use scraps of sugar bags and wallpaper samples to chronicle the coronations, executions and love intrigues of their Game of Thrones-style universe. Emily’s diary entries show that, even on a train journey to York at the age of 27, she was still acting out dramas from her imagined island kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.
The last stop on my Brontë tour is their final resting place at the St Michael and All Angels’ Church where Patrick served as minister. Patrick and all of his children apart from Anne are buried in the family crypt beneath the church’s flagstone floors.
At the end of Wuthering Heights, a shepherd boy shrieks that he has seen Cathy and Heathcliff’s ghosts walking the moors. Their existence is so closely tied to the landscape that even death cannot erase it. Standing in the heath, surrounded by wild swathes of bracken, you can’t help but feel the same of Emily. Even the name Brontë, meaning ‘thunder’ in Greek, holds an echo of the lashing rains that tore the roof from Top Withens and sculpted the crevices and crags of Ponden Kirk.
So if you too want to step into Emily Brontë’s world, come and take a walk in her footsteps. In the words of her heroine: ‘I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free…I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills.’