The town was full of men with neat moustaches and women in high heels picking their way between the cobbles of the main street. We’ll Meet Again was playing on an old gramophone, and the whole place was festooned with Union Jacks.
I had hoped to be transported back in time when I visited Haworth, the hilltop Pennine village not far from the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This is where the famous Brontë sisters lived most of their lives. But I was expecting the 19th century, not the Blitz. I had inadvertently chosen the weekend of the annual 1940s Gala, where coachloads of people descend upon Haworth to dress up and re-enact the spirit of the war. Undaunted, I struggled up the hill to the Brontë Parsonage, relieved to find that I had left the crowds behind.
Visiting The Brontë Parsonage
The friendly woman on the cash desk told me that the Brontë Parsonage attracts around 80,000 visitors a year. Devotees of the work of Charlotte, Emily and Anne flock to make the pilgrimage to the sisters’ hometown and to see for themselves the landscape that inspired their work. The bleak frontage of the Parsonage reflects the barrenness of the moorland immediately beyond and, once inside, the harshness of their lives becomes apparent.
You can imagine how cold the thick stone floors would have been; the thin cotton slippers that they wore could hardly have kept out much of the chill. And there were never more than two servants to help with the endless work of cleaning and managing the large and unwieldy house that was home to the six Brontë children until they died, one by one, mostly of tuberculosis.
As I toured the house I looked at the costumes from the 2011 film of Jane Eyre (much more elaborate than Charlotte’s plain cotton dress which is exhibited in her bedroom). We admired the paintings and drawings, not just by their artist brother Branwell, but also by the sisters themselves.
The crowds had dispersed by the time I emerged into the late afternoon sunshine, and I wandered around the village, noting the school where Charlotte taught, the pub frequented by Branwell and the vault below the church where the whole family (apart from Anne, who died in Scarborough) is buried. In the nineteenth century the village was ridden with disease, a consequence of the infected water supply. Today it is thriving, largely as a result of the Brontë heritage. Reminders of the famous family abound, and on the main street we passed the Villette Coffee House and the Brontë Tea Rooms.
A Moorland Walk To Top Withens
The following day I set off across the moorland to Top Withens, reputedly the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. I followed the well-defined track, which would have enabled remote cottagers to walk to church in bygone times, and reflected how different it would all have looked in those days. It would have been an industrial landscape, with coal mining and mills, and dotted with workers’ cottages. Today it is void of human habitation, the only sounds the bleating of sheep and the occasional call of a curlew.
A few miles from the village I reached the Brontë Waterfall, so called because it was a favourite spot for the sisters to visit. I scrambled up the rocks to the waterfall, and idly wondered how they would have managed the climb in their long dresses.
On again, up to Top Withens. Although it is unlikely that the ruined building at Top Withens actually served as a model for the Earnshaws’ house in Wuthering Heights, the setting and the bleak moorland landscape below must surely be what Emily envisaged. The land is inhospitable and solitary, and the “pure, bracing ventilation” that she describes is much in evidence.
Suppressing a shiver, I turned back to Haworth. The visitors had disappeared and all traces of the 1940s had been removed, leaving only a sea of red, white and blue flags in anticipation of the next festival…