Jane Eyre is here in Norwich this week, a stunning new production which comes to us from the National Theatre. To celebrate this new version of a Bronte classic, Judy Foster takes a look at the Yorkshire locations that inspired Charlotte and her sisters.
Haworth is the epitome of Emily Brontë’s legendary Wuthering Heights.
Perched high on the edge of the windswept, wild and rugged Haworth Moor, straddling the West Yorkshire and East Lancashire Pennines, you can practically hear the echoes of Catherine and Heathcliffe on every steep cobbled street.
When the Brontës lived there, it was a crowded industrial town, polluted, smelly and wretchedly unhygienic, with a death rate as high as anything in London or Bradford. Forty-one per cent of children failed to reach their sixth birthday and the average age of death was just 24. Where previously villagers had typically subsistence farmed a few acres, combining this with hand-loom weaving or wool-combing, by the time the Brontë family arrived new water-powered mills had already begun to move the economy from domestic to industrial.
Today it is the tourism industry that flourishes with literary fans the world over beating a path to the door of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the base of one of the oldest literary societies in the world (the Brontë Society was founded in 1893) and the place to see one of the largest and most important collections of literary artefacts anywhere.
2017 is a landmark year to visit, it being 170 years since Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, Anne published Agnes Grey and Emily published Wuthering Heights. Haworth is also in the middle of a five-year programme, Brontë 200, which celebrates the bicentenaries of the births of the four siblings: Charlotte in 2016, Branwell in 2017, Emily in 2018 and Anne in 2020, while in 2019, the Brontë Society will celebrate Rev Patrick Brontë, 200 years after he was invited to take up the role of parson in Haworth.
While the Parsonage is undoubtedly the focus for all things Brontë, there are also other attractions. Moorland walks to ruined farmhouses and waterfalls with magnificent views along the way, independent foodie outlets and the Keighley Worth Valley Railway – as well as neighbouring villages all with attractions of their own such as the National Trust’s East Riddlesden Hall or Cliffe Castle and the Thornton Viaduct. Haworth boasts a lovely old railway station and visitors can stand on the bridge and watch the vintage steam trains puff their way in and out of the valley, or take a ride to the Edwardian station at Oakworth which was used as the location for the famous 1970s film The Railway Children.
Haworth’s heart is undoubtedly Main Street where visitors can wander through shops, craft outlets and tearooms, and glimpse those magnificent moorland views. In winter, the mists roll off the moors and cloak the landscape, conjuring up ghosts of the past.
The Parsonage Museum and shop are open all year around, except for in January and over the Christmas holiday period (from December 24-27). It’s opening hours are 10am to 5.30pm from April to October, and 10am to 5pm November to March, plus it’s open on New Year’s Day noon to 5pm. Tickets, which are valid for 12 months, are £8.50 for adults, £6.50 concessions and students and £4 for children (under 5s free).
The Parsonage was the home of the Brontë family from 1820 to 1861 and the place where Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote their great novels. It now houses the world’s largest collection of Brontë furniture, clothes and personal possessions, and the items on display include letters, notebooks and household artefacts. Visitors can see how tiny the sisters’ handwriting was, with the ‘Little Books’ being a favourite exhibit for many.
The Brontë family dining table, which was sold by auction following Patrick Brontë’s death in 1861, returned to the Parsonage recently thanks to an award from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. It is the table where Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were written and where the Brontë sisters shared their work with each other. A real writer’s table, it bears ink stains and candle burns and, as one of the most important literary artefacts of the 19th century, is a must see for anyone interested in the Brontës and their work.
Personal items on display include Emily’s paint box, Charlotte’s sewing box, pebbles collected by Anne, shoes belonging to Charlotte and Branwell’s wallet.
The museum presents a regularly changing programme of exhibitions, contemporary arts events and family activities. In 2016, the Brontë Society celebrated the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth by working with a wide range of artists, writers and organisations on a large number of events.
Currently of interest this year is To Walk Invisible: From Parsonage to Production, which tells the story of Sally Wainwright’s recent acclaimed BBC television drama on the lives of the family, with an exhibition of the costumes, props and behind-the-scenes photographs. It runs until January 1st, 2018.
As part of the Brontë 200 programme, Mansions in the Sky is an exhibition curated by Simon Armitage, the Museum’s 2017 creative partner. It also runs until January 1st, 2018, and is built around a letter written in 1837 by the 19-year-old Branwell Brontë to William Wordsworth. With the letter, he enclosed one of his own poems, expressing the hopes and dreams of a young romantic, intent on building ‘mansions in the sky’. Wordsworth did not reply.
The exhibition explores Branwell’s colourful personal history through a series of writings, drawings and possessions from the Museum’s collection, which are displayed alongside Branwell’s original letter and poem, loaned for the exhibition by the Wordsworth Trust.
The geology in Brontë Country is predominantly of millstone grit, a dark sandstone which lends the crags and scenery their air of bleakness and desolation. Many Brontë associated locations lie within easy reach of of Haworth, and any visit to The Parsonage should be combined with a walk on the moors.
There are several routes to follow but the Brontë waterfalls should not be missed. They were described by Charlotte Brontë as “fine indeed; a perfect torrent racing over the rocks, white and beautiful”. Part of the open moorland on the way to the falls is renowned for birds such as curlews, golden plover peregrines and merlins.
The ruined farmhouse on Top Withens, the supposed setting of Wuthering Heights, is also a must-see and the Pennine Way can be followed for part of the walk. Visitors are recommended to wear good walking footwear and take a waterproof – after all, “wuthering” is the Yorkshire word for stormy weather.
Slightly further afield in what is known as the Pendle Witch Country of East Lancashire there is Wycoller, believed to be the location for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre, and Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley, where Charlotte Bronte was a regular visitor.
Moving slightly further away from Brontë Country and on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales is Cowan Bridge near Ingleton where the local school provided the inspiration for Lowood School in Jane Eyre; while the country house at Norton Conyers, near Ripon in the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray, is believed to be the setting for Thornfield Hall. Further afield, Anne Brontë’s grave can be found at St. Mary’s Church in Scarborough.
Back in Brontë Country itself, attractions worth visiting which are not directly associated with the Brontës, include the industrial village of Saltaire in Bradford, built by Sir Titus Salt in the mid 1800s and now a UNESCO designated World Heritage Centre (it also boasts the superb Salts Mill gallery which houses one of the largest collections of David Hockney’s art); the Science and Media Museum in Bradford; the Keighley Bus Museum in Keighley; and the previously mentioned Keighley and Worth Valley Railway (which runs from the village of Oxenhope through Haworth and Oakworth to the town of Keighley in the Aire Valley).
Thornton is also worth a visit, being the birthplace of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. The family lived here until the move to Haworth in 1820 and St James’ Church boasts copies of the entries in the baptismal register for the family, as well as a stained glass window designed by William Morris.
The Brontë Country area has other literary and cultural associations: the late poet laureate Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd near Hebden Bridge (his wife Sylvia Plath is buried in nearby Heptonstall), while the playwright J.B. Priestley, the composer Delius and the novelist John Braine were all born within the district of the city of Bradford.
And artist David Hockney is also a Bradford boy and in celebration of his 80th birthday last weekend on July 9, a new Hockney gallery opened to the public at Cartwright Hall in Bradford.
The whole area is popular for walking and cycling with the Pennine Way long-distance footpath passing through Brontë Country, as well as the Brontë Way, the Bradford Millennium Footpath and the Great Northern Railway Trail.
Jane Eyre is here until 22 July, and tickets are available now.