Travel article about a trip to Howarth.
|I first fell in love with the Bronte sisters when my English teacher described Heathcliff as “the sexiest man ever written”. That may not be everyone's view, but reading 'Wuthering Heights', I knew exactly what she meant. And it sparked my interest in Gothic literature. Since then, I went on to study English literature and read my way through the Bronte back catalogue; and yet, I had never visited the place which started my love affair with 'Dracula', and 'Frankenstein', and Poe. So, one sunny Sunday afternoon we decided to take a trip to Haworth.
According to the website, Haworth is 'a hilltop village not far from Bradford in the heart of West Yorkshire'. More interestingly for me, it's also the place where the Bronte sisters were born, and the place whose landscape is infused throughout 'Wuthering Heights', in particular.
Five people sandwiched into a tiny car (I'm no good with car makes and models, suffice it to say that there were five of us stuffed into a four seater) made for somewhat of an uncomfortable journey. This wasn't made any shorter by a system of diversions through Hebden Bridge, caused by what I can only assume was some sort of marathon or sponsored run. Either that or the residents regularly dress up in costumes, close down roads, and jog down a hill in small groups. What do I know? They say strange things happen in Hebden.
Although we'd anticipated problems with parking, and there were a lot of other people who'd had the same idea as us for their Sunday, the place is well versed in tourism and there were several different car parks. Our driver knew the area and found us a free spot a little way out of the centre of town.
Walking down to the high street, the place looked much like any other Yorkshire village. Pretty stone cottages with flower-filled gardens (the acceptable face of the village) on the main roads, views up over fields and hills, and a glimpse of a council estate in the distance. The high street itself is something quite special though.
Adorable sandstone cottage shops, with bow fronts to displace their merchandise, meander down a steep cobbled hill, with conveniently placed benches provided for those of us who are less fit and found the gradient on the way back up somewhat arduous; especially in flip-flops. Some street musicians had set up stall, and the sounds of accordions and acoustic guitars somehow added to the feeling of unreality. There are probably hundreds of these kitsch little high streets, tucked away in tourist villages all across the UK. It was a bit like stepping into a theme park, that feeling of walking into another, more magical, world where everything has been carefully selected to fit in with the motif; like walking down Disneyland's Main Street. The Bronte theme might be a jot over-laboured, as was perhaps the “ye olde shoppe” theme, but the overall effect was charming. And honestly, if it doesn't reflect the real world, this is where the Brontes grew up; what's a little storytelling between friends? Luckily, I'm a fan of kitsch. Not one of the shops sold anything you might consider useful; unless what you really needed was a money box shaped like an old London telephone box, or some ornaments shaped like cavorting dogs. The Apothecary for example, sold all kinds of useless things like jars of oddly named sweets, and things that were lavender scented. But if you waded through the tat, there were some gems to be found. About halfway down the hill was a handmade silver jewellery shop, and a little further down an antique shop with some excellent bargains. No 'Clare’s Accessories', no 'New Look' or 'Costa' here; what a relief!
After we had perused the high street, we decided to make our way to the main attraction: the Bronte house. More correctly known as the Bronte Parsonage Museum, this is where the family lived on and off for most of their short lives. A short walk through the overcrowded graveyard, round the side of the church, leads you almost directly to the front door of the Parsonage. I was perhaps expecting something larger and more imposing, but it was the sense of history and quality of the exhibits which really made an impression. The museum hasn't focused it's attention solely on the life and works of the sisters, but has thoughtfully considered the rest of the family; there is a room dedicated particularly to Patrick Bronte, and plenty of information and exhibits about the wayward Branwell. If you know anything about literature, this place is a must-see. The rooms have been carefully furnished much as they would have been in the Brontes' time, and with replicas where they couldn't acquire the genuine articles. I was fascinated by a sight of one of the Little Books that the Brontes as children filled with stories, plays, drawings and journal entries. There were first editions of the sisters' novels, photographs of aspects of Haworth and the moors as they were then, a tiny dress belonging to Charlotte, and a multiplicity of other personal belongings. Rather incongruously, parts of the old church had been fixed to the wall and displayed in a glass case in one of the rooms.
After our museum tour, we had begun to feel somewhat peckish and decided to check out the eating establishments. The Old Sun had a menu that was a little too familiar to any pub-goer, and we decided to give it a miss. Instead we opted for fish and chips from the Howarth Team Rooms, and it was a delight. Reasonably priced, the fish was soft and flaky and freshly battered, the chips were perfection, and we ate it sitting on a bench people watching outside in the sun. Another must-do.
I would have liked to take a walk on the moors and see Top Withens (supposedly the setting for Wuthering Heights itself), but time didn't allow. There are actually numerous attractions in Howarth, which I wouldn't have minded seeing. The railway station was the setting for the film of the Railway Children, and nearby, The Black Bull pub where Branwell is credited to have begun his demise into alcohol and opium addiction.
Howarth is everything you might expect from a village whose main income is from tourist traffic, but for all that, it has some truly wonderful history and some excellent money spending traps. Well worth a visit.