Ever since discovering the Bronte sisters as a teenage student, 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 Jane Eyre endlessly at book clubs and revelled in each new screen adaptation.
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As a transplanted “Southerner” living in Yorkshire, it would have been rude not to explore the village the Bronte sisters called home, so I made an early morning pilgrimage to rural West Yorkshire, to the village of Haworth where the Bronte family lived from the 1820s to the 1850s.
Visiting Haworth, the 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
The Train to the Bronte Sisters House
On arrival in Haworth, I drove around and around narrow, winding streets for almost half an hour, but couldn’t find the Bronte Parsonage Museum car park! Frustrated, I reset the SatNav for Oxenhope and moments later, I stood on the platform of Oxenthorpe’s quaint station, clutching my £4.00 return ticket to Haworth Village.
A train whistle blew in the distance, and the sense of excited anticipation in the small crowd was palpable. A distant 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 run the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, maintaining the steam engines, 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 the very quaint village of Haworth.
The Hill From Haworth Station to the Bronte Parsonage
Nobody told me there would be a hill — a monstrous, steep, cobble-stoned one. As the train trundled 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 that 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.
The Dark History of Haworth Village
Early in the 19th century, Haworth was a disease-ridden, impoverished and unsanitary place. Life expectancy was only 24, and all five of the Bronte sisters and their brother Branwell died before the age of 40.
At least forty thousand people are buried in the graveyard opposite the Bronte Parsonage. As these 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 Haworth cemetery to new burials.
Imagine the relief of escaping from the festering village to the fresh air of the Yorkshire Moors! It’s not surprising that the surviving Bronte sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne enjoyed their bracing walks on the moors so much.
How to Visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum
The Parsonage is tucked away behind the church where the Bronte sisters worshipped and their father Patrick Bronte was the parson. It’s well signposted and easy to find.
In the 1920s, a generous benefactor bought the Parsonage and turned it into a museum which is an absolute treat for real fans of the Bronte sisters.
Every year, around eighty thousand fans of the Bronte sisters make the pilgrimage to the Bronte house, wanting to see the environment that inspired masterpieces including Wuthering Heights, Villette and Jane Eyre.
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 was 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 just 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. The two younger Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily joined them later that year.
The Bronte Sisters’ School
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.
Death of the Bronte Sisters
Only months after arriving at school, 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 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 worn by Charlotte on her honeymoon.
The tragic death of the last of the Bronte Sisters
Only a year after her marriage and 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 on in the house where your wife and five of your 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”.
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, and ugly coal mines, mills, belching chimneys and workers cottages scarred the horizon.
Today, nature has reclaimed this wild and windswept land. All that remains is the well-worn track to Howarth from Top Withens; the same path that mill workers would have taken to church. The hard, inhospitable countryside lies silent now, except for the haunting cry of curlews, the bleating of sheep, and the creak and rustle of trees.
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 small, but pretty waterfall. It’s somewhere for walking shoes, not sandals.
I couldn’t help thinking how hard the climb would have been for the Bronte sisters who would have walked to the waterfall in 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 sisters and their family, check out the Bronte Society website here.
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.
Pro Tip: Some of the shops and places to eat in Howarth only take payment in cash, because the WIFI in the area is poor. Make sure you visit an ATM before you head for the shops or for something to eat!
Where to Eat in Howarth
We had afternoon tea at the utterly 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 Bronte Parsonage though.
Pro Tip: Can’t decide which cake to have? Ask for half and half portions! Two delicious cakes to try, in half-sized slices. Inspired!
Shopping in the Footsteps of the Bronte Sisters
Shops in Haworth are independent, quirky, and worthy of a good browse! I adored The Cabinet Of Curiosities which is 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 excellent, 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 Sisters home is steep and cobble-stoned. In wet conditions, the cobbles are very slippery!
- The Bronte Parsonage is lovely to visit, but it’s an old property with lots of stairs and no ramps or wheelchair access
Places to Visit Near to the Bronte Sisters House
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Are you a Bronte fan too? Which is your favourite Bronte sister or favourite book? Maybe you’ve been to Haworth? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.