Ever since discovering the Bronte sisters as a teenager studying for English Lit, I’ve loved their complex, well-observed tales of Yorkshire life. Like their legions of fans worldwide, I’ve devoured and revisited their literary masterpieces, unpicked their stories endlessly at book clubs and revelled in each new screen adaptation.
As a transplanted “Southerner” living in Yorkshire, it would have been rude not to explore the village the Bronte sisters called home. It’s almost on my doorstep, so I made a pilgrimage to rural West Yorkshire, to the village of Haworth where the Bronte family lived from the 1820s to the 1850s.
Visiting Haworth, Home of the Bronte Sisters
After a week of record-breaking high temperatures in Yorkshire, the weather turned, and I awoke to a chilly, grey day. Driving through the undulating Yorkshire dales early in the morning, low mists clung wetly to the hills, obliterating the hilltops and reminding me of the bleakness of the Yorkshire countryside in winter. Visions of
On arrival in Haworth, the Bronte Parsonage Museum car park was elusive. Frustrated after half an hour of circumnavigating the same narrow, winding streets, I paused for a moment and reset the SatNav for Oxenhope. I’d remembered that refurbished Keighley and Worth Valley steam trains run from Oxenhope to Haworth. Plan B swung into operation. Moments later, I stood on the platform of Oxenthorpe’s quaint station, clutching my £4.00 return ticket to Haworth.
A train whistle blew in the distance, and the sense of excited anticipation in the small crowd was palpable. Suddenly, the chuff-chuff-chuff sound heralded the approach of a steam train, before the shiny red engine hove into view.
A dedicated group of volunteers and enthusiasts maintain the engine, carriages and track. The railway is a credit to them and a joy to experience. The 1940s carriages and steam engines evoke a rush of nostalgia, perfect for visiting Haworth, which hosts an annual 1940s gala weekend.
Haworth Station to the Bronte Parsonage
Nobody told me there would be a hill — a monstrous, steep, cobble-stoned one. As the train chuffed off into the distance, I overheard a lively group of hikers ask for directions to the Bronte Parsonage. “Just follow the hill to the top,” the porter said with a smile. I know why he was smiling – walking up the hill is a proper workout!
Most of the people walking up the main street stopped to take photos of the achingly pretty houses, shops and coffee houses on the way. Or maybe they needed to draw breath.
Early in the 19th century, the village of Haworth was disease-ridden, impoverished and unsanitary. Life expectancy was only 24, and the six Bronte children all died before the age of 40. At least forty thousand people are buried in the graveyard of the church opposite the Bronte Parsonage.
As the graves were at the top of a hill, with inadequate drainage, runoff from the graveyard seeped into local wells and streams, infecting the supply of drinking water. In 1859, Queen Victoria ordered the closure of the cemetery to new burials.
It’s not surprising that the Bronte sisters enjoyed their bracing walks on the moors so much. Imagine the relief of escaping from the festering village to the fresh moorland!
The Bronte Parsonage Museum
The Parsonage is tucked away behind the church where the Bronte sisters worshipped and their father was the parson. It’s well signposted and easy to find. In the 1920s, a generous benefactor bought the Parsonage, turning it into a museum.
Every year, around eighty thousand fans of the Bronte sisters make the pilgrimage to the Bronte house, wanting to see the environment that inspired them to write. Mere moments from bleak, windswept moorland, the plain Yorkshire stone parsonage sits atop the village,
While modest in size, the rather dark and gloomy rooms speak volumes of how the Bronte family lived. See the
Life here would have been harsh for the Bronte sisters. Their father was not wealthy, their mother Maria died when they were very young, and there was little money to pay servants. Household chores fell to the sisters. In those times, neither brother nor father would be expected to do “women’s work”!
Upstairs, the tragic story of this literary family unfolds further.
Patrick and Maria Bronte had only one son, Branwell, who was home tutored by his father. A tortured soul, he descended into drug addiction and alcoholism, before dying from tuberculosis at the age of 31.
His small room is dark and gloomy, littered with portraits, scribbles, half-finished sketches and discarded clothes. All it needed was a few pizza boxes and pairs of trainers, and it could have been a modern teenage boy’s man cave.
The Bronte Sisters
The Bronte girls suffered a far worse fate, as they were sent away to school. In early 1824, Maria and Elizabeth went first, aged just eleven and nine years old. Younger sisters Charlotte and Emily joined them later that year.
The Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge was a vile, cold and unsanitary place with appalling food. Charlotte Bronte was inspired to write Jane Eyre after the cruelty she and her young sisters suffered at Cowan Bridge, which she used as a model for Lowood School.
Only months after arriving, Maria became seriously ill, and the school sent her home. Sadly, she died a little later from tuberculosis. Within months, Elizabeth also succumbed to the same terrible disease, known at the time as “consumption”.
Sisters Emily and Anne also died from tuberculosis. Anne Bronte died and was buried alone in Scarborough, but all of the other Bronte sisters and Branwell are buried alongside their mother in the family crypt, moments from the Parsonage.
Charlotte Bronte’s Room
Charlotte was the only one of the Bronte sisters to marry. Her bedroom is full of trinkets and memorabilia from her life, including her writing slope and her watercolours. One display reveals a tiny pair of thin cotton shoes that would have been no barrier against the cold floors of the Parsonage. There’s also a plain cotton dress which Charlotte wore on honeymoon.
Only a year later, while in the early stages of pregnancy, Charlotte Bronte died from tuberculosis, aged just 38.
Parson Bronte’s Room
Patrick Bronte’s room must have been a sad and lonely place. Imagine living in the same house where your wife and six children died!
The house is a treasure trove for Bronte fans. There are lots of original paintings and drawings too, some by Branwell, others by the accomplished sisters themselves. I loved Charlotte Bronte’s watercolours of flowers which reminded me of the “Country Diary of an Edwardian lady”!
Exploring Beyond Haworth
According to local lore, the desolate ruin high up on bleak moorland at Top Withens was Emily Bronte’s inspiration for the Earnshaw’s farmhouse in Wuthering Heights. The landscape today is very different to how it was two hundred years ago. Then, Yorkshire was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Ugly coal mines, mills, belching chimneys and workers cottages scarred the horizon.
Today, all that remains is the well-worn track to Howarth from Top Withens; the same path workers would have taken to church. The hard inhospitable countryside lies silent now, except for the haunting cry of curlews and the bleating of sheep.
This favourite spot of the Bronte sisters is just a few miles from the village of Howarth. It’s a pleasant walk, then a bit of a scramble up to see the waterfall. It’s somewhere for walking shoes, not sandals and I couldn’t help thinking about how hard the climb would have been with a long skirt!
The tiny village of Oxenhope has Bronte links too. Charlotte Bronte fell for her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, but Patrick did not approve of the match. The two lovers met secretly on the path to Oxenhope!
For more information about the Bronte family, check out the Bronte Society Website.
Today Howarth is a thriving hotspot for tourists, lured by the Brontë heritage. On Main Street, you’ll see the Villette Coffee House and Brontë Tea Rooms. Even the “Bronte bus” that trundles back and forth to Oxenhope is called Charlotte!
In 2002, Howarth won the prestigious accolade of World’s First Fairtrade Village.
Where to Eat in Howarth
We had afternoon tea at the completely fabulous 10 the Coffee House, run by Claire Barton and her welcoming team. Located at the bottom end of Main Street, the coffee shop is cosy and stylish, with plenty of room to relax. It’s a proper, leisurely experience, and a real treat after that hill! What a find!
We had half-and-half sandwiches – two dainty fingers of smoked salmon on brown and two of the most scrumptious egg mayonnaise fingers on the softest white bread (naughty but oh so nice). Plus a pot of Darjeeling from the extensive tea and coffee menu. And of course,
I love to bake, but Claire’s cakes are out of this world! If you visit, you have to try the soft strawberry and cream sponge or the tart, tangy lime cake. Yummy. I’m not sure I’d fill up on Claire’s cakes before attempting the climb up the hill to the Parsonage though…
Shops in Haworth are independent, quirky, and worthy of a good browse! I was entranced by the old apothecary which has been converted into The Cabinet Of Curiosities. It’s a fabulous place to snoop around and
If you have a sweet tooth, Mrs Beighton’s Sweet Shop is a traditional sweet shop that will tempt you in and the smell of chocolate is sure to lure any chocoholic into the supremely indulgent chocolate shop ….And Chocolate of Haworth.
Places to Stay in Haworth Village
The Old Registry is right in the middle of the village on the famous cobbled Main Street. You’ll find top-quality service here; some rooms even have four-poster beds and whirlpool baths. There’s also an imaginative Yorkshire menu, using fine, local produce and a very acceptable wine list.
The Rookery Nook and Brontë Parsonage is located opposite the Bronte’s church. You couldn’t get closer to the real Bronte experience than this beautiful, quaint little apartment, which has a 10/10 rating on TripAdvisor!
Haworth doesn’t feel very suitable for visitors with accessibility needs. Here’s why:
- The walk up from Haworth Station to the village and onward to the Bronte Parsonage is steep and cobble-stoned. In wet conditions, the cobbles are very slippery!
- The Parsonage is wonderful to visit, but it’s an old property with lots of stairs and no ramps or wheelchair access
Places to Visit Nearby
Are you a Bronte fan too? Do you have a favourite sister? Or a favourite book? Or have you been to Haworth? As always, we’d love to know your thoughts.
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