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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Haworth and the Brontes

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Haworth Churchyard and, beyond, the Parsonage
Who was the third Brontë sister?  This could be a good question for quiz night down at the Old Ruptured Duck.  My reader, an intelligent soul, of course not only knows the answer but will also be screaming, just about now, that there were five Brontë sisters – plus a brother.  Anyroadup, we were speculating as we set off for Haworth, Mecca for Brontë fans and a whole lot more.

Charlotte and Emily we knew - the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively.  But we couldn’t remember who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Tracy Brontë, perhaps?  Or Chelsea?  No – if you’re a literary ignoramus like most of us, let me put you out of your misery; it was Anne.  And if you happen upon the Parsonage in Haworth, where they lived, you’ll get a sense of her extraordinary family.

Haworth is one of those beautifully preserved bits of the past nestling amongst what is, in places, a bit of an urban post-industrial mess.  It is a late Georgian-Victorian village, with a picturesque steep cobbled main street, some alluring little shops with a touch of kitsch thrown in and plenty of options for a coffee and a bun.  My reader will have realised by now that somewhere for a coffee and a bun is an essential ingredient for any decent visit.  So Haworth is a joy to meander around.  Its growth was due mainly to the textile industry.  When the Brontës lived there, it is estimated that there were 1200 hand looms working – soon to be replaced by factories.  Now, it boasts its credentials as the World’s First Fair Trade Village and is undoubtedly a tourist destination – not least as a place of virtual holy pilgrimage for Brontë devotees.  Various events are held through the year, including the intriguing ‘Scroggling the Holly’ just before Christmas, featuring Victorian costumes, Morris dancers and, naturally, Santa Claus.  Amongst the emporia you will find a traditional sweet shop, selling lots of sticky filling-removers from glass jars.  Then there’s Rose & Co Apothecary, which still has the wonderful original shop fittings in it.  When I first visited Haworth, it used to sell all manner of fascinating stuff, like carbolic soap, patent rat-dissolving fluid and sadistic looking scrubbing brushes; now it seems to specialise in delightfully fragrant bath preparations, many cunningly disguised as cupcakes etc, as well as unusual ornaments – and a thought provoking range of retro-style frocks, which looked expensive and unreasonably small.

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Main Street, Haworth
Turn right out of the Apothecary and you’ll see the Old White Lion Hotel, one of several hostelries that seriously tempt you to spend time in them, and where I remember once having breakfast amusingly described on the menu as “Heart Attack on a Plate.”  Opposite the Apothecary is the Church of St Michael and All Angels, which has a stunning west window and several other notable features – including the Brontë burial chamber.  Next to the church is the school, where Charlotte taught, and which is sometimes open; it hadn’t changed much, last time I saw it.  The church is relatively new, the previous one being pulled down in 1879 having been judged structurally unsafe and insanitary.  Apparently, water from the adjacent graveyard was seeping in.  The graveyard has to be seen to be believed – it holds an estimated 42,000 graves, which crowd in on each other as if seeking security in closeness.  Rooks caw incessantly from the tall trees whose roots disturb the dead. It’s like being in a Hammer Horror – you half expect to see Vincent Price or Peter Cushing to come looming out of the mist in cloak and top hat.

Haworth, Bronte, about Britain, Yorkshire
Haworth kind of suits monochrome photos
Then, just behind the church is the Parsonage.  Here you can learn a new collective noun, ‘Brontëana’, which gives you some idea of the near-fanaticism of some Brontë worshippers.  Nevertheless, the Parsonage is extremely well-presented (though I can’t show you that, because they are precious about interior photography), and it is absolutely fascinating.  Even an old cynic like me was impressed to stand in the room where great works were written.  The story of the Brontës is one of both achievement and tragedy.  Patrick, father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, became perpetual curate (priest in charge) to Haworth in 1820 and the Parsonage was the Brontë family home until Patrick’s death in 1861, aged 84.  Despite modest origins, Patrick became a Cambridge scholar, changing his name from Brunty to the more pretentious Brontë along the way, and was by all accounts an accomplished writer himself, as well as a dedicated curate who worked hard for his parishioners.  But he outlived his wife, Maria, who died aged 38 the year after the move to Haworth, as well as his six children.  The oldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11 in 1825, allegedly of tuberculosis contracted as a consequence of attending Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters near Kirkby Lonsdale.  Charlotte (b 1816) and Emily (b 1818) were withdrawn from the school, which appears to have been a horrendously cruel place; Anne, born in 1820, never attended.  Their brother Patrick, known as Branwell and born in 1817, was an aspiring painter, but also an alcoholic and drug addict who died in Haworth aged 31 in 1848.  He was followed a few months later by Emily, in her 30th year, and in 1849 by Anne who was just 29.  Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, but died the following year aged 39, possibly of tuberculosis, though some believe her death was caused by acute dehydration resulting from excessive morning sickness; her unborn child died with her.

What strikes me about these talented people is how much they achieved in the tragically short time they had.  Charlotte, Emily and Anne were prolific writers from an early age, and Branwell certainly churned out the pictures.  Granted, they did not endure the same stresses experienced by the working classes around them, though they certainly shared similar general health risks.  But they were by no means wealthy enough to enjoy a life of leisure and, by heck, did they cram a lot in; think about as you chill out in front of the TV; it’s rather humbling.

Incidentally, Arthur Bell Nicolls remained at Haworth until Patrick's death, when he returned to his native Ireland, remarried and died aged 88 in 1906. 

More information about Haworth, visit the Haworth village website.  For more about the Parsonage, visit the Brontë Society's website. Anne Brontë is buried in Scarborough - here is a bit about her grave.

One criticism about the town: there's a large car park on various levels in woodland, just a short walk from the churchyard.  Delightful surroundings.  But the last time I visited there was only one working 'pay and display' machine, the surface of the car park was in poor repair and it's a fairly down market path into town.  You'd think with all the tourists spending money there, they could do better than this.

Haworth is just off the A6033, about 4 miles south of Keighley (pronounced ‘Keithgley’, not as in ‘Minogue’).  And spot the Keighley and Worth Valley (steam) railway while you’re there.