Travel

In the Footsteps of the Bronte Sisters

The Priory Ruins on the banks of the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The Priory Ruins on the banks of the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Staring at the horizon, I might have been looking at a vast canvas where the technique of chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and dark, was used to create a specific mood. One minute sunshine dappled the landscape; the next misty rain enveloped it.

“Don’t worry about that,” said my hiking guide Johnnie Briggs, as one of the intermittent rain showers descended upon us. “Those are just Yorkshire kisses.”

Actually, it was the rain rather than the sun that created a more fitting atmosphere for our hike. We were walking on the bleak moors above the village of Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters who through their writing, created some of the most memorable characters in English fiction.

Of the three, it was Emily who most loved the wild moors, and made them the trysting place for Heathcliff and Cathy in her novel “Wuthering Heights.”

Our hike didn’t take us all the way to Top Withens, the abandoned farmhouse exposed to the fierce elements used as inspiration for the book’s remote farm. Considering the number of “Yorkshire kisses” we experienced along the way, it was probably a good thing that we opted not to do the entire six-and-a-half mile round-trip walk.

I would have liked to have seen Top Withens and I was about a month too early for the purple heather that blankets the moors in late summer, but I did marvel at a landscape stark in its beauty, and thrilled to the sight and sound of larks, lapwings and merlins circling above me.

A Bronte Celebration

For those who love the Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and their most famous works (“Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”), this is a great time to travel to Yorkshire, the north English county where they spent their short lives (none lived past the age of 40).

For the next five years, Yorkshire will be celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of Charlotte (this year), their brother Branwell (2017), Emily (2018) and Anne (2020).

During that same period, the Bronte Society — whose president is acclaimed actress and Bronte fan Judi Dench — will also celebrate the Rev. Patrick Bronte, the siblings’ father, 200 years after he became the parson of St. Michael’s Church.

All of which means over the next half decade, there will be a hot time in the hamlet of Haworth (population, 7,000).

Any visit to the charmingly cobbled village must start with the Bronte Parsonage. Once home to Patrick and his brood, it is now a museum containing the world’s largest collection of Bronte material. My favorite room had to be the parlor where the sisters would sit together nightly and write, often contributing to each other’s works.

I also loved the upstairs gallery whose exhibits provided an illuminating look at the lives of the three sisters and their doomed brother. I learned that “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” have been translated into 25 languages, and have inspired numerous films, radio and television adaptations as well as operas, ballets and paintings.

I learned that England’s poet laureate Robert Southey once told the ambitious Charlotte that “literature is not the business of a woman’s life.”

Hopefully, he later apologized and admitted his error.

I especially loved discovering that the London publishers of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell had no idea they were women, and for a while, even assumed they were all one man.

Writing about the Bells, one critic noted, “The Bells are of a hardy race. The air they breathe is not that of a hot house or of perfumed apartments, but it whistles through the rugged thorns that shoot out their prickly arms on barren moors or it ruffles the moss on mountaintops.”

It’s probably safe to assume the hardy race he was referring to was Currer, Ellis and Acton, and not Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Beyond the Brontes

Yorkshire is England’s largest county and one of its most historic, and in this part of it, punctuated by the stunning countryside of the Dales. There is much for the visitor to enjoy.

From a scenic ride on the Keighley and Worth Valley steam train to a stop in Rylstone, the tiny village where a group of remarkable women inspired the film “Calendar Girls” to a modest country pub where a Michelin-starred chef holds sway, the visitor will not lack for “Bronte-less” activities.

Yorkshire is the site of several of the magnificent monasteries left in ruins by Henry VIII after he broke with Rome over the Pope’s refusal to sanction his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

One of the most magnificent is Bolton Abbey, often referred to as “the jewel in Yorkshire’s crown.” Built in the 12th century on the banks of the River Wharfe — more a bubbling brook than an actual river — the romantic ruins of the Augustinian monastery have been a tourist attraction since Victorian times and intrigued the poet William Wordsworth and painter J.M.W. Turner, who depicted it in a series of watercolors.

Now maintained by the Duke of Devonshire, the spectacular grounds offer everything from walking trails to outdoor theater, and if you’re not afraid of the possibility of getting wet, you can attempt to cross the stepping stones which connect both banks of the Wharfe.

Anyone who has been to London during the past 20 years knows that the culinary scene there has become one of the world’s best. This focus on food and the desire for local fare has enveloped the rest of Britain as well, and Yorkshire is at the forefront.

Like France with its auberges where the emphasis is primarily on a Michelin-starred restaurant and secondarily on a few rooms for overnight guests too sated by their gourmet meal to do much moving, Britain has a growing number of pubs with rooms.

Such a spot is the 5-room Clarendon Hotel in the tiny village of Hebden in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Recently voted England’s best rural pub, it’s home to Alsatian-born, Michelin-starred chef Lionel Strub, who puts a French twist on such typically British dishes as oven roasted grouse (a moorland bird unique to Britain) and strawberries and elderflower trifle.

Another much lauded pub is the 350-year-old Shibden Mill Inn, a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Its rustic setting and traditional British fare is a perfect counterpoint to a lavish afternoon tea at imposing Ashmount Country House on a hill above Haworth. Also offering luxurious accommodations, Ashmount has a secret garden just begging to be discovered.

I get the feeling that Charlotte, Emily and Anne would have loved it.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.

If You Go

Yorkshire

Where to Stay: Holdsworth House. A beautiful Jacobean manor house dating to 1633, the hotel makes an ideal base from which to explore Haworth, the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines mountain range. Rooms are spacious, the manicured grounds are lovely and the restaurant has three dining rooms — the Stone Room, Panelled Room and Mullioned Room — all of which overlook the gardens. Holdsworthhouse.co.uk.

Online: Visitbritain.com

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