The storm had been assembling itself all morning, and finally the glowering sky, veined with lightning, loosed a rain of Old Testament proportions. Alan Pinkney looked up approvingly, then turned to the seven walkers he was leading and exclaimed, “This is perfect—I can almost see Heathcliff riding across the moor!”
From This Story
We had ignored the clouds to hike some three miles to a remote, ruined farmhouse named Top Withins. It was little more than crumbling walls, but in its original form it is widely believed to have been the model for Wuthering Heights, home of the wild and mysterious Mr. Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s classic 1847 novel of passion, rage and revenge.
This was the first of five days that we followed in the footsteps of Britain’s most famous literary family, the Brontë sisters–Emily, Charlotte and Anne–the authors of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and other, lesser-known masterpieces. Like the sisters a century and a half earlier, we took long walks across the bleak Yorkshire moors and through the stupendous sweep of scenery in Derbyshire’s Peak District, all the while touching the landscapes and buildings that animated their work.
“A Brontë tour is unparalleled in its richness because you have the unique situation of three literary geniuses spending most of their creative lives in the same place,” says Pinkney, who spent three weeks putting together the walk along the “Brontë Trail” for the Wayfarers, a 25-year-old British company specializing in small-group walking tours. “And the only way to do it right is on foot.”
Indeed, it can be argued that much of 18th- and 19th-century English literature was born afoot. Not only the Brontës, but Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and Thomas Carlyle were all members in good standing of the walkers club. (In fact, previous Wayfarers walks have focused on Hardy, Wordsworth and Scott, and there are plans for an Austen walk.)
Ground zero for a Brontë pilgrimage is Haworth, a former wool-manufacturing town whose cobblestone streets climb steeply to a square and St. Michael’s Parish church, where the sisters’ father, Patrick Brontë, was curate and where the family vault lies beneath an inscribed stone. The church has been rebuilt since the Brontës’ day, but a few steps away is the parsonage, a stone Georgian structure that remains much as it was when it was built in 1778. The sisters spent nearly all of their lives there, and it is now operated as a museum by the Brontë Society.
The museum is furnished with an array of Brontë artifacts, including Charlotte's wedding bonnet, Anne's writing desk and the black sofa where Emily died. Just to the left of the entrance door is the dining room, where the sisters penned their novels by candlelight. “With the amount of creativity going on here back then, it’s a miracle the roof didn’t blow off,” says Ann Dinsdale, museum collections manager, who gave several talks to our group.
Leaving the parsonage, we walked single file past the graveyard and its tombstones canted by the frosts of hundreds of Yorkshire winters. The inscriptions identify dozens of children and young adults. Haworth was a grim place during the Brontës’ time, as disease reduced life expectancy to 25 years. (All three sisters died in their 30s, Emily and Anne of tuberculosis in 1848 and 1849, respectively, and Charlotte of tuberculosis and complications from pregnancy in 1855.)
Soon we were on the moors. While the parsonage was the Brontës’ creative sanctuary, it was the wild and desolate moors that fired their imaginative and descriptive powers. Early in Wuthering Heights, Emily wrote: “[O]ne may guess the power of the north wind...by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs... and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms from the sun.”
We were on our way to a tiny waterfall that was a favorite destination of the sisters. We walked along the same ancient right of way, past green hillsides speckled with white sheep and demarcated by stone walls thick with history. After the falls, it was another mile to Top Withins, where the lightning unzipped the sky and the rain came down in sheets.