Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (7)

Saturday, 29th April 2006

Haworth, home of two of the greatest of English novels, namely Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, sits amidst the area south of the Yorkshire Dales, known as the South Pennines. Internationally famous by virtue of the three Brontë sisters who, in the mid 19th Century, lived with their father in the Parsonage, it is also home of the famous Worth Valley Steam Railway, which featured in The Railway Children.

Above the village sits the wild expanse of Haworth Moor with its brooding rocky outcrop known as Ponden Kirk (Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights), the ruins of the remote farmhouse, Top Withins (home of the Earnshaw family in Wuthering Heights), Brontë Bridge and Brontë Falls. Once a working area of quarries, the moor is now the playground of walkers, literary tourists and, within season, grouse-shooting parties.

This was my third visit to these moors, the first two occasions being in my late teens, some twenty-nine years ago. The changes are subtle, but noticeable. The most obvious is the increased number of visitors. My first pilgrimage across the moor to Top Withins was unaccompanied and with no other soul in sight for the entire journey from Haworth Parsonage. The path beyond Brontë Bridge to Top Withins was indistinct and I can well-remember needing to orientate myself with the aid of a map and compass, picking out the landmark of a solitary tree at the ruins of Top Withins with the aid of binoculars. Now, the paths are well trodden and, at times two, three or even four people in breadth. Way markers (complete with Japanese wording – we met one Japanese lady en route) have also sprung up in a profusion, which, although helpful to the new arrival, detracts from the beauty of the area as an imagined wilderness.

Despite these ravages of modern tourism, it is still possible to enjoy the rugged beauty of the moors and envisage the scenes, wind swept and rain-lashed, which were foremost in the mind of Emily Brontë when she placed her lovers, Cathy and Heathcliff, in their encounters out here.

An indirect walk to Top Withins involves climbing up through an area known as Ponden Clough. Covered with heather, it must be a wonderful sight later in the year when the heather is in flower. Two tumbling becks divide the Clough, providing the important source of water for the Ponden Reservoir at the base of the valley. Having reached the heights of Ponden Kirk, one is rewarded on a clear day (such as today) with a panoramic view of the reservoir and of moorland and hills, which simply stretch for mile upon mile in every direction.

A mile or so further on, Top Withins is the ruined remains of a remote farmhouse. Pausing for lunch, we sat on the broken walls and took time to ponder how harsh life must have been for those who once lived here some one hundred and fifty years ago. How alien today’s visitors would seem to them, not least of all with the occasional mobile telephone making an unwelcomed intrusion. Even the sheep are tame; with only the firm pressure of a walking boot holding them off from approaching close enough to steal the sandwiches!

Literature however, such as that written by the Brontës, is not about describing reality. It is about opening windows in the minds of the readers through which they are able to see an imagined world. Despite the imposition of the modern tourist, the world the Brontës drew from and extended within their own imaginations is still out there. All one needs to do is open those windows in our own imaginations. Contemporary intrusions instantly disappear and we can be transported back to a dark, storm-lashed moor and two desperate lovers. It is the ability to make that cerebral connection with the mind of an author, living one hundred and fifty years ago, which makes today’s journey worthwhile. However many centuries pass, Top Withins will, for the literary mind, forever be the formidable Wuthering Heights.

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The walk back from Haworth passes through a small settlement called Stanbury. It is perhaps worth noting that Stanbury was the home of Timothy Feather, or ‘Owd Timmy’ as he was locally known. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the development of steam-powered mills within the West Riding of Yorkshire caused the demise of the old cottage industry of handloom weaving. However, undeterred, ‘Owd Timmy’ continued at his craft until his death, at the age of 85, in 1910.

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