England: Take a trip to Heathcliff country

We explore gorgeous countryside and a Bronte family fest.

By Anthea Gerrie, September 2, 2009
Rugged and romantic: a stream near the Bronte Falls in West Yorkshire

Rugged and romantic: a stream near the Bronte Falls in West Yorkshire

Last weekend’s plush ITV production of Wuthering Heights gorgeously showcased Bronte Country, a wild, dramatic and rather secretive corner of West Yorkshire. For those who have never been, consider spending a few golden autumn days in this austerely beautiful and culturally rich slice of England before the public descend en masse.

The great British public, that is, since the Japanese have already indulged a decades-long obsession with Haworth, where the Bronte sisters grew up.

The appetites of Brontephiles everywhere have been whetted by the local mysteries surrounding Emily, whose book has been voted the world’s greatest romantic novel. It’s believed the manuscript of Wuthering Heights lies buried in Haworth churchyard, and that under the parsonage lie buried fragments of the secret second novel Emily was said to be writing before her untimely death at 30. Haworth itself would be a gorgeous place to visit even if it wasn’t the site of the Bronte home and parsonage. A cobbled street lined with old-fashioned sweetshops, boutiques and a Victorian apothecary recalls the famous Hovis ad, and the Black Bull where Branwell Bronte drank himself to death is still there, and still has the chair where young Bronte sat for hours in an opium stupor.

But today the apothecary sells toiletries instead of opium, and the Parsonage collection focuses on Branwell’s talented early days. Throughout the 1820s he and his sisters scribbled stories furiously in tiny notebooks. The notebooks, the children’s drawings and Branwell’s portrait of Emily, Jane and Anne Bronte — who all published their novels under male pen-names — are among the treasures in this beautifully-preserved home museum. Costumes for the new Wuthering Heights production are the newest attractions.

The obvious place to stay in this attractive village is Ashmount, possibly Britain’s poshest b&b. It was the home of the physician who treated Emily’s elder sister, Charlotte, whose Jane Eyre was a bigger blockbuster in its day than Wuthering Heights. Now the surgery itself is one of several elegant rooms. Other rooms have four-posters or hot tubs, and breakfast includes smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

Having trawled the Parsonage, trudged the haunted churchyard, snapped the Sunday school set up by Charlotte, supped a pint at the Black Bull and dined with Emily’s ghost at Weavers, a cosy and engaging village eatery, it’s time to explore the wild West Yorkshire moors where Heathcliff once howled for Cathy. Sites associated with the novel include Top Withens, the inspiration for the Earnshaw farmstead, and Ponden Hall, an Elizabethan mansion which became the fictional Linton residence, Thrushcross Grange. Both are at the end of an uphill walk that is glorious in fine weather. A more genteel Bronte-related pursuit is an exploration of the delightful 1830s Red House at Gomersal. The beautifully-preserved Jacobean home inspired Briarmains, featured in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley. The home of Charlotte’s friend, Mary Taylor, and thus her second home it is now a museum which sheds new light on the life of the Brontes.

Also worth checking out, especially if children are in tow, are the steam trains of Keighley & Worth Valley Railway. They run from Keighley station through the heart of Bronte country, and will run in the late October half-term and every weekend until then.

But to really grasp why the wild moors inspired so much romantic fiction, drive 11 miles to Hebden Bridge and stop to gawp or take a walk. You’ll catch glorious vistas of windswept hills dotted with sheep, drywall fences and those famous satanic mills, now mostly defunct. One of the most picturesque, Gibson Mill, is hidden in Hardcastle Crags, a lovely wooded valley.

Hebden Bridge itself is a large, lively village full of arty and alternative types. It has a stylish, modern boutique hostelry in Moyles, owned by the Radio 1 DJ’s brother. The hotel has an acclaimed restaurant and so much buzz in the bar, you’ll never hear any howling on the nearby moors.

It would be a shame to leave West Yorkshire without exploring Salts Mill at Saltaire, a pretty Victorian “ideal village” which, like Hebden Bridge and Haworth, is within easy reach of Leeds. The moral industrialist Titus Salt built the village to house his mill-workers, and it’s particularly rewarding to take a little walk with the costumed characters who tell the story of the town.

Haworth Parsonage where the Bronte family lived

Haworth Parsonage where the Bronte family lived

But the mill is the star of the show. Jewish entrepreneur Jonathan Silver invested millions to transform it into a private museum for the works of David Hockney, and after Silver’s own untimely death, his widow continues to run the operation with great panache. Don’t miss Hockney’s opera designs, in large, spotlit theatre sets on the darkened top floor.

It is worth taking the train from the mill into Bradford to explore another of our great, largely unsung, cultural treasures, the National Media Museum. Devoted to British photography and our national film and TV heritage, it will keep the whole family entertained for a full day. If the weather is clement, those with wheels will want to spend at least half a day in the magnificent Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. World-class monumental artworks, including Henry Moores, dot the sublime landscape, and there is an excellent restaurant and shop.

Don’t miss the Skyspace created by James Turrell, the artist who makes structures with holes in the roof for watching changing light and clouds.

Leeds is probably a more salubrious urban base than Bradford, packed as it is with boutique hotels and the dual enticements of great shops and the Henry Moore Institute.

Boutique hotel Quebecs is virtually opposite Leeds station, though quiet and hidden away. It’s also possible to stay above Titanic Spa in Huddersfield where yet another mill is enjoying a 21st century renaissance. All manner of sophisticated treatments are available at the spa, there is a café, and the stylish suites above have far-reaching views which encourage the fantasy that if you listen carefully, you can hear Heathcliff howling for Cathy across the moors.

Travel facts
Ashmount (01535 645 726 www.ashmounthaworth.co.uk) has rooms from £79 double b&b; at Moyles (01422-845272; www.moyles.com) from £79 double; Quebecs (0113 244 8989; www.theetoncollection.com) from £69 double, room only. More information on the Parsonage Museum at www.bronte.inf, West Yorkshire at www.yorkshire.com.

Jewish West Yorks
● Jews have called Leeds home since 1750, and the city still has a community some 10,000 strong. Synagogues include the century-old Etz Chaim on Harrogate Road, and the coolly modern Sinai reform shul on Roman Avenue.
● There are several kosher food suppliers, delis and bakeries, if not restaurants per se.

    Last updated: 2:04pm, September 2 2009