"Unreclaimed, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone."
Emily Bronte , "Wuthering Heights"
High on the crest of the Pennines, Northern England's mountainous spine, the dark moors lie still under a brooding sky. This is an ancient land -- the last somnolent stumps of a great range thrown up by the stirrings of the earth more than 200 million years ago. There are no trees here; there are no walls -- just the constant rushing of wind across the cotton grass and the occasional cry of a curlew -- an abrupt sound, a hollow resonance full of the loneliness of the moors.
This is the land of the Bronte novels, in which landscape and characters often seem interchangeable. Emily Bronte 's gritty description of Heathcliff, the doomed hero of her "Wuthering Heights," is intentionally symbolic of the Pennine Hills and moors. These wild uplands of western Yorkshire form the background of most of the novels written by the three sisters -- Charlotte, Emily and Anne -- and lovers of their books will recognize this "Bronte Country" as the haunt of a host of memorable fictitious characters.
Others also will find intriguing glimpses of a lesser-known England -- a hidden corner full of unusual surprises and delights.
The Pennines possess a bold beauty. Moors of heather and bracken stretch all around, open and endless, and black stone-built villages huddle on hilltops and in the crest-like valleys that slice into this ancient land.
Begin exploration in Haworth, a small hilltop village on the edge of the moors 10 miles west of the city of Bradford. The character of the place has changed little since 1820, when the Rev. Patrick Bronte brought his wife and six children to live at the parsonage here, overlooking a gloomy graveyard. Gloom describes the fortunes of the family, whose legendary story reads like a Victorian melodrama: Mrs. Bronte died a year after their arrival, two elder sisters passed away in childhood and the remaining three sisters lived lives of isolation with their increasingly alcoholic brother, Branwell, and their melancholy father, who ironically survived them all.
Haworth has a somber beauty, even though its steep main street has now become a line of small shops selling the typical range of tourist goods from over-priced Shetland shawls to "Souvenir of the Bronte Country" ashtrays (from Hong Kong). At least the Black Bull is still here: Branwell's favorite watering hole -- for all the hurly-burly of the visitor trade -- is a remarkably pleasant place for a morning pint before the crowds arrive.
The parsonage here is now the Bronte museum, and a cobbled lane leads to the rear entrance, where you leave the 20th century behind and tiptoe through demure rooms graced with memorabilia of the three sisters.
Creativity flourished in these decorous surroundings. Patrick's children lived in their fantasy kingdom of Gondal and produced an array of tiny magazines, history books, songs and illustrations describing in minute detail the life and times in such fictitious places as "Great Glass Town" and "The World Below." Despite their father's concern over all this imaginative volatility, the sisters published a selection of poems in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell -- followed quickly by Emily's "Wuthering Heights," Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" and Anne's "Agnes Grey." (Branwell, ever popular for his learned discourse at the local pubs, gradually wasted his talents as the sisters refined theirs.)
Thousands of visitors make the four-mile pilgrimage on foot from Haworth up past the Bronte Falls (where Charlotte caught her fatal chill in 1854) to the ruins of an old farmhouse at Top Withens, thought to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw House in "Wuthering Heights." The nearby Ponden Hall (an unusual weaving center offering bed and breakfast) is Thrushcross Grange, home of Mr. Lockwood in the same novel, and Wycoller Hall, a few miles further west, is the setting for Ferndean, the attractive country home in Charlotte's "Jane Eyre."
An easier alternative to long and often boggy moorland walks is a trip on the Worth Valley Railroad. Follow the steep main street down past the 16th-century Haworth Old Hall, through Central Park (where there are brass-band concerts in the summer) and onto the station platform, where a steam locomotive waits to puff its way along five miles of clanking nostalgia. The bar on board serves some of Yorkshire's finest "real" ales as you wobble along past mill villages set in rolling green hills. Enthusiasts will spend small fortunes in the railroad-buff store at Haworth while others gorge themselves on fish and chips, pork pies, sausage rolls, cornish pasties and Eccles cakes from nearby stores.
The Bronte sisters rarely strayed far from home. Emily taught for six months in 1836 at a school in Halifax, and Charlotte and Anne tried to make a living as governesses in the area around Wycoller and Leeds. Visitors should allow time to explore this outer fringe of Bronte country rich in the traditions and history of northern England.
Ten miles to the west, for example, Pendle Hill is a ponderous mountain and center of a region notorious for tales of demons and witches. On my last visit I was caught in low cloud and the memory still shivers my spine. Mist smothered the high moor and the sleeves of my anorak were sheened with moisture. The sweet smell of heather hung about me as I groped up the rocky path to the high flat back of the summit.
"Tha'll happen have a bit of weather." I should have listened to the warning of the shepherd in Newchurch. The village was a tiny place, a peppering of thick stone cottages along a steep dip in the road below the bulk of Pendle. I almost missed the church, hidden behind hedges. On the west wall of the bell tower was the "Eye of God," an oval protruding stone with a distinct pupil peering out over the surrounding moors. "Tha's for witches." The shepherd's face imploded with wrinkles and he laughed. "Tha's what they says, anyroad. They says it were a charm agin them witches." He nodded his head toward the isolated farms and cottages straggled around the base of the hill as if the infamous Pendle witches were still in residence.
I had heard the tales. For generations Lancashire children trembled in their beds, fearful that their errant mischievousness would bring parental dispatch "to't Pendle folk" and terrible torment on those misty moors. (Today many of the local legends are regarded with disdain, dismissed as the feudings of miscreant families whose hysterical accusations and counter-accusations resulted in their destruction in the 17th century.)
Then something gray and huddled moved suddenly in front of me. The mist was thicker now and cloying. I stopped and stood very still. It continued moving, and something else, off to my right, began a wraith-like undulating. All around me objects I had taken for boulders began rocking violently. My heart was pounding like an overworked piston. A bellowing baaa! burst through the grayness. Sheep! I was walking through the middle of a flock. The shepherd would have been amused.
History is compacted in the tight Pennine valleys. For centuries farmers on the high terraces above the valleys produced crude forms of cloth in their isolated homes. The clusterings of hamlets led to a more concentrated form of cottage industry, and tortuous packhorse trails linked these tiny outposts of activity to regional markets, particularly Halifax (where Emily Bronte was a teacher briefly in 1836).
Then, in less than 50 years (1790-1840), inventions of spinning and weaving machinery, the introduction of water- and steam-power and the construction of canals, turnpikes and railways transformed these tranquil valleys into a prime industrial nucleus. Mill towns and villages such as Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Heptonstall and Ripponden all experienced periods of enormous wealth when "Wool Was King," followed by more recent recessions as cheaper market centers developed around the world.
At Hebden Bridge the factories with their tall chimneys often occupied so much of the valley floor that little space remained for the workers' cottages, and they were sent scurrying up the steep valley sides at amazing gradients. There's one particular terrace where the "front side," facing the street, has two stories and the "back side" six!
In the last few years this once-dying village has experienced a cultural renaissance that, while not restoring the mill economy, has certainly made longtime residents and enthusiastic newcomers far more conscious of valley heritage. Old, age-stained recipes for Dock Pudding, Trunnel Pie and Havercakes have been dragged out of the drawers, brass bands have been revived, the medieval Pace Egg Play of Good (St. George) versus Bad (the Black Prince of Paradine) brings in the Easter crowds. Unusual valley games -- Billets and Knur and Spell -- are attracting more and more participants, witch posts have been spotted on old cottages, and the sound of clogs echoes once again on the steep slope of the Buttress.
I spoke with Ernie Clough of Marsden in the Lord Nelson Inn at Luddenden, another of Branwell Bronte 's favorite pubs. "We've been livin' like this for generations," Clough said. "There's nowt new wi' pigeon-rearin' and clogs and that. I bin wearin' them for 70 years. Just because some young 'uns 'ave discovered 'em everyone's making a fuss."
The Pennine Information Center at Hebden Bridge has enough recommended walks to keep the average hiker active for a year. One of the best-loved (and a little over-crowded on summer weekends) is the stroll along Hebden Water, past the cluster of cottages and tiny tea-room at Midge Hole, into the wooded glen below Hardcastle Crags.
The path continues alongside a bounding, pooling stream to Gibson Mill and the remnants of pillars at Blake Dean. In the early years of this century, these columns supported the towering trestle bridge and railroad that carried workers from the old shanty town of "Dawson City" (ramshackle towns often were named after U.S. gold-rush towns) to the reservoirs being constructed on these wild moors.
Further ahead, steppingstones at Fowl Hill lift the path up the steep south side of the glen to the moors again, around the village of Slack and across the broken cliffs of Eaves Wood to Heptonstall, nucleus of these ancient moorland trails. This is one of the most memorable villages in the South Pennines, a tight black huddle of houses edged by crags.
There are two parish churches here. The first, built between 1256 and 1260 and dedicated to St. Thomas a' Becket, is now a dramatic remnant set in a cemetery of ponderous headstones said to contain the remains of 100,000 bodies. John Wesley was not impressed by the ruins on a visit here in 1772 and described them as "the ugliest I know." The "new" church, located only a few yards away, was built in the mid-1800s and possesses a recently modernized interior.
Not far away -- across the Weavers Square and along Towngate, under the entry arch to the cemetery -- is a third church, an austere Methodist chapel. Take a look at the visitors book filled with names from all over the world. This is no ordinary chapel: Not only is it octagonal in design, but it is also the oldest existing Methodist church continually in use since its inauguration in 1764.
From a distance, Heptonstall, a tight hilltop village, resembles a sturdy fortress. And indeed it was used as such during the Civil War between Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads and Charles the First's Cavaliers, when Col. Robert Brayshaw garrisoned 800 of his Roundheads here in 1643. He beat back an attack by the Cavalier Gen. Mackworth and 2,000 men before leading a judicious retreat into the Pennine mists, leaving the unfortunate community to the pillaging of a much-reinforced Cavalier army that attacked again a few weeks later.
Hidden-corner explorers should avoid the main highways and slip away down the side roads, particularly those that switchback between the valleys. There's a memorable route northward from Golcar (where there's an excellent crafts museum) that plunges up and down through tiny villages unmarked on most maps. Some parts are so steep that cobbles have been specially set to give a better grip for wheeled vehicles. Be ready to stop at a moment's notice to peer over stone walls at old manors and ornate mansions (Barkisland Hall is one of the most notable examples) or pause at moorland pubs and listen to the endless anecdotes of the older regulars. It's one of the best ways to enjoy and appreciate the true flavor of these hills.
The valley roads converge on Halifax, where Charlotte set much of her novel "Shirley." This is the most visually dramatic of all West Yorkshire cities, clustered in a rocky, cliff-edged bowl, with the black grime from long-dead mills still stuck in the pores of its sand-blasted towers. In the 16th century beggars and vagrants were terrified of the city. "From Hell and Halifax, may the good Lord deliver us" they prayed, alarmed by the city's strict theft laws, whereby anyone stealing cloth valued at more than 13 pence was punishable by beheading at the gibbet. (This gruesome implement was last used in 1650 and a replica stands today on Gibbet Street, above the town center.)
Today you find a city in the process of rediscovering itself. The Victorian town hall rises golden and glowing like a Malayan temple. Even such structures as the castle-like Dean Clough Mill, epitome of the "dark Satanic mills" (according to William Blake), has retired with grace. On the outskirts of town, the 15th-century Shibden Hall sits in rolling parkland, a valuable repository of Pennine crafts and industry.
Most notable of all the buildings, though, is the famous Piece Hall, once one of Europe's most renowned Cloth Markets. Opened with great ceremony in January 1779, the market consists of a series of balustraded galleries surrounding a large central courtyard. More than 300 salesrooms provided a barter space for buyers from as far afield as London and Belgium. What a turbulent scene this must have presented on market days! Today it is a little more serene, full of tiny craft shops and known for its Saturday market, which brings visitors from all over Yorkshire and Lancashire.
But always when wandering these valley towns, climbing steep steps between tight terraces or admiring the work of skilled stonemasons so evident on the town halls and churches -- always there's the moor. The sweeping flanks lead upward to the great, empty, Pennine Plateau -- those wastes, browned by sun and storm, ravaged by gales, torn by tumbling streams. It's a part of England that should be explored, but explored with respect and care. There's a power in these hills and these villages that is truly Yorkshire -- truly Bronte .