Were the Bronte's worth the fuss?We headed to Yorkshire to find out.
“You had no right to be born; for you make no use of life.
Instead of living for, in, and with yourself,
as a reasonable being ought,
you seek only to fasten your feebleness
on some other person’s strength.”
Yet another unexpected journey!
Having landed safely back in the UK, Michelle and I have been chomping at the proverbial bit waiting for an opportunity to get back on the road; to feel “normal” life vanish behind us as we continue to seek new experiences.
Like many Brits before us, we have not spent enough time exploring our own island, but we have poured gold over other continents and marvelled over landmarks on the other side of the world. If you haven’t read the story of our travels, it’s a little like the first season of 24: you never quite know what’s coming up next!
With the recent announcement that Dame Judi Dench has been appointed honorary president of the Bronte Society, this blog examines the Bronte legacy through a trip to their village in Haworth, Yorkshire.
Up the M1
It could be argued that a trip to Yorkshire in February is not everyones’ idea of a short break. Shouldn’t we be looking for a secluded terrace slapping on the lotion and basking in the warmth of some winter sun? Oh no, not us.
We had been invited to stay with our friends Dottie and George who we shared some amazing adventures with in Cyprus in 2015 and apart from looking forward to spending some quality time with them, we were also going to chalk up a new experience.
The View from the South
Having only ever visited Newcastle, Liverpool and Blackpool (for a Star Trek convention – ooh 20 years ago) it may appear that I’m a bit “Northist”. I made plenty of Game Of Thrones jokes about it when we were in Cyprus but, in truth, like my pre-conceived ideas about those that inhabit Australia, Dubai and New Zealand, most of them are wrong. We are a cynical lot in this country and sometimes it is our sarcastic nature that bleeds into our very being and flippancy becomes common place. Just as we say “it’s always raining up North”, our cousins beyond Nottingham think that we can’t hold our drink and that we are a little soft. What I can say equivocally is that only the latter is true. It does not always rain in the north, in fact, it was glorious sunshine for our entire stay. However, it was a different kind of cold. I’ll explain.
A Steam Train to Haworth
When the wind blows on the Dales it wriggles its freezing cold hands through any Goretex thermals you may have on and places its icy fingers on your chest. In the south we say “it’s bracing”; in the north it’s murder! So, on Valentines Day 2016, we found ourselves at Keighley Station and found that they had separated the old from the new.
On one platform there was a herd of commuters waiting for their modern carriage to transport them into Leeds, and on the other was platform 9 and three quarters.
A Blast From The Past
Younger travellers were searching for the Fat Controller, and Thomas and Gordon. The platform was full of families armed with packed lunch boxes, maps and a sense of excitement. In the back of my mind before the train arrived I couldn’t help thinking, “It’s a train! Get a grip”. But then you hear a distant whistle and see the whitest smoke ejected into the air since the church elected a new Pope. Children were squealing with delight as the polished black locomotive began reversing it’s way onto the lead carriage. I don’t think I showed myself up too much by throwing a few of them out of the way so that I could get a better view. After all, its every man for himself these days, they have got start learning early.
Young At Heart
When Michelle and I were cruising down Milford Sound in New Zealand, she noted that when I get excited I take lots of pictures. My friend George (who is just a couple of years older than me) began clicking. Kneeling down as the trains inertia carried it carefully onto the coupling, he captured different shots of the operation while I stood at the front repeatedly pressing the white circle on my iPhone in a furious bid to keep up with him. We then hustled our way to where the drivers were shoveling coal into the beast’s stomach and stood in awe at the contented glower coming from its innards. We even managed to get our pilot to pose for us and the poor chap has made it into this blog in all his glory!
More Than A Nod To The Past
I love volunteers. Passionate people that want to give up their time to promote whatever they believe in. As we arrived in Haworth, we had already met the conductor dressed in the traditional garb, his eyes shining with a deep affection for the role he was playing. As we crossed the road before making our ascent into the village, we stopped to see the devastation the flooding has had up here. Water is the new enemy of the north; it is not wildlings or white walkers: it is the simplest of human needs that has become such a threat. One building that sat next to a flowing river and had been (up until a few weeks ago) a thriving restaurant, had simply crumbled away. It was like looking at the side of a ship that had been torn apart. Like so many news items it isn’t until you are faced with the reality of what the locals have had to endure that you realize that you should never buy a property near a river. Now, that’s a lesson the 21st Century is teaching us.
Haworth, here we come!
We soon settled into our seats and were off to Hogwarts, sorry Haworth. Doh! Pulling out of Keighley station, little did we realize that we were in for a shock later that night! More of that later. I told you this was like 24! We were soon passing through the Worth Valley skirting dry stone walls and hardy buildings that although dusted with soot stood strong; bastions of the landscape, untouched by mans incessant desire to change and adapt his surroundings. As we passed through a number of stations, I realized that we shouldn’t just be preserving historical buildings, we should be keeping the 21st century away from all that surrounds it too. I found myself wondering why Warner Brothers Harry Potter exhibition was so popular? Yes, we’ve all loved the books; true masterpieces of storytelling, but why is the place such a draw? After all, it is completely fictional whereas our heritage is real. There seems to be a blur now between the fantastical (don’t even get me started on Marvel superheros) and true stories from an age that we find it harder and harder to identify with. How could they have not lived without a smartphone and the internet? What did we do before convenience tapped us on the shoulder and invited us into its lazy world? Even the next generation of kids are seeing the 1990’s as ancient history, so what chance does the mid 19th century have?
A Steep Climb
Haworth itself sits on top of the hill. Bronte’s parsonage is higher still, sitting behind the local church and most significantly overlooking the graveyard: a dark view indeed. Having staggered to the summit past many emporiums that wouldn’t look out of place in Diagon Alley, we took a left and saw, for the first time, the place where “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” were written. As a writer myself standing in these small rooms, I made an attempt to see and feel how the incredible artists that were Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte found their inspiration. Alas, like so many artistic works, be they musical, paintings or the written word, much of the best work comes from desolation: a place where only acute pain has a voice, and, in that wilderness a certain beauty emerges: the silver lining to grief. I could not know their struggle. These ladies were also fighting for their place in the world. 150 years later and much of the modern world has woken up to equality, but we still have a long way to go. It was in Haworth, a place flanked by unforgiving hills and populated by a different kind of male to the one that covers his face in Nivea today that a genders struggle for recognition and validation was so elegantly told.
Is a place full of heart and memory: a wonderful, respectful memorial to a whole family. As soon as you enter its confines, you are transported back to where life began for the Bronte’s. It is strange to think that Patrick Bronte, the father to daughters that spawned at least three literary masterpieces, lived into his eighties whilst his whole family perished before his eyes. It is a truism of life that a parent should never outlive their children and not only did he lose his wife, but also his six, (yes, six) children before finally succumbing himself. He must have led a torrid existence and his heart must have been the heaviest to carry at the end of his life. In the parsonage, the diseases that killed his family are all gone. As we climbed the stairs and into a small room in the centre of the house, we saw some of the artistry of the sisters, their faded hand-prints smudged into the white walls, an early sign of their desire to paint their lives with more than their surroundings and circumstance.
The Adjoining Rooms
Having visited Charlotte’s room and seen the traditional dress that she would have worn so many years past, we were directed to the back of the parsonage. Here is where the historians have taken over, lovingly creating a timeline walkway chronicling the life and works of the sisters. For those that don’t know their story and perhaps not lucky enough to have read their writing, it is here where visitors can learn and be inspired by this family. As we now live in a digital age we are learning how to preserve our memories. Instead of houses filled with books and photo’s, our lives are now less cluttered, held for our enjoyment in a virtual cloud. We’ve learnt to be minimalist. It was not so easy for those in the 1800’s and decaying fading parchment is all we have left of that era. In the museum, preserved behind glass, we can see what their handwriting was like, how heavily they held their pens, and see some of the letters that were written in a more respectful formal language. On the walls are quotes from the books that often find their way onto posters, mugs and pictures that we now hang in our houses.
And then we saw a glimpse of the texts that have become part of our folklore, compact notebooks, easily secreted. A glimpse of the struggle constructed without editors, agents, and a publisher that wants the next John Grisham.
It’s another world. It would be an anathema to this generation but only because their writing helped change behaviour, challenged doctrines and shaped the society we live in today.
In this way, the Bronte’s, all of them, live forever.
And one more thing!
So you thought you were done. Those of you that have actually read this piece through to the end might have done so for a number of reasons.
- Slight insanity
- Are being nice to me
- Genuinely interested in a different viewpoint or maybe one that is similar to your own
- Just wanted to know the ending. I guess you like spoilers!
So, what did happen at the end of our day in Haworth?
Having had the requisite cup of tea/coffee (with cake)in Haworth, we headed back to Keighley. Darkness had fallen as we headed back to the multi-story car park where George had parked the car. We laughed as we wandered along the high street re-counting another great day spent together only to find the whole place locked up. The shutters were down, lights off, everyone had gone home!
Luckily, Michelle spotted someone exiting the back of one of the shops, no doubt having stayed on to clear up after their day. They advised us to go and see the attendant whose office was on the top floor of the car park. We read a sign on the way up saying that cars parked overnight were subject to a charged of over £100… we hoped for a reprieve. The chap was in his office and George recognised him: an old school friend or work colleague? I couldn’t remember which. He kindly led us into the multi-story, allowed us to pay the normal rate and then opened the gates for us. Our trip to Haworth could have been more expensive than we had bargained for, but thanks to a man who wasn’t a jobsworth we returned to our friends house and toasted his spirit of generosity with a glass of red wine or two.