You can see Top Withins from a mile away. At first, it is nothing but a dark blip on the horizon. But as you walk towards it, the place looms ahead, standing alone at the top of a hill. According to local legend the abandoned farmhouse was the spot Emily Brontë envisioned as the place where the Earnshaw family lived in Wuthering Heights. Though, as a bronze plaque affixed to the side explains almost apologetically, “The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described.” Regardless, the rugged, windswept moors that surround the house make it the ideal setting for the gothic classic. People even say that the ghost of Emily can be seen walking along the path to Top Withins. Of course, if I had died at 30 right as my masterpiece became a bestseller I would probably wander the earth looking for retribution too.
I first read Wuthering Heights when I was 15, but was already very familiar with the story due to repeated viewings of the 1992 movie version several years earlier. This was, at least initially, motivated by my crush on Ralph Fiennes. It was 1998 and while Leo fever was reaching its pitch I was renting Quiz Show from the library. (I wasn’t allowed to watch The English Patient) and instructing my friends on the correct pronunciation of Ralph’s Welsh name (Rafe).
Sidebar: Have you seen Tom Hardy as Heathcliff in ITV’s 2009 adaptation? It’s pretty sexy. I’m not sure if 13-year-old me would have been into it, but now me definitely is. Of course, there’s really only one way to settle who makes the better Heathcliff: by having Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy wrestle each other while in character. And their shirts have to be off. Because of literature.
But even without my adult feelings for a classically trained British actor, Wuthering Heights was right up my alley: a dark, tortured romance with lots of intense looks and shouting at the wind. I had never so much as kissed a boy, yet I was convinced this was my life–minus the bits about love and ghosts and the moors.
Eventually I figured out that truly loving someone doesn’t mean obsessing over them for decades, trying desperately to commune with their ghost, or exacting revenge on their children. Sure, it can, but I now prefer my aspirational relationships to at least involve a few boring adult qualities like trust and mutual respect, as embodied by couples like The Darcys, Coach and Tami Taylor, and whatever Sherlock and Watson have going on.
Over the years, I went on to read other entries in the Brontë canon including Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Villette, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. But it was while reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë that I became increasingly intrigued by the isolated lives of the three sisters and their brother Branwell. So when I began planning a solo trip to England last year, Haworth was at the top of the list.
The day after my arrival I visited the Brontë Parsonage, a wonderful home museum set up to look as it did when the family lived there. One can look at the dining room where the sisters did most of their writing, often taking turns walking around the table discussing their novels aloud, and view a number of items owned by the Brontës, including some of Charlotte’s tiny wedding clothes (she was 4ft 9 in.) and the couch where Emily died.
The museum is next to the churchyard where an estimated 40,000 bodies have been buried since the 17th century. This overcrowding combined with its dubious location at the top of a hill poisoned the water of the village below and, when the Brontës lived there, diseases caused by the poor sanitation conditions ravaged the town—which some blame for contributing to the early deaths of the sisters themselves. Today, Haworth’s main street is no longer a moldering cesspool of human bacteria. Instead, it’s a charming cobbled street lined with cafes, tearooms, and specialty shops that has retained many of its historic buildings. In fact, the area is so well preserved that hypothetically, if the Brontës found a time machine and, when presented with the chance to travel anywhere at anytime, decided instead to see what their hometown looked like 150 years in the future, they would still recognize much of the area. Hypothetically. One can even have a pint at the Black Bull pub where Branwell, that loose canon of a brother, used to do much of his drinking.
“This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.” – Wuthering Heights
To say the Brontës were plagued by tragedy is an understatement, though perhaps not uncommon for the times. After losing their mother Maria to cancer in 1821, the two eldest siblings, Maria and Elizabeth, died in 1825 after becoming ill while attending the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge. This heartbreaking experience would later provide the model for the infamous Lowood School in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Death would again haunt the family in later years with Branwell’s sudden demise in 1848 at the age of 31 (no doubt connected to his drinking and opium habits). Three months later Emily died of tuberculosis. Anne, also ill with tuberculosis, set out for the coast the following May to try a sea cure but died in Scarborough four days after her arrival. She was 29. This left Charlotte the sole surviving sibling, but after marrying Arthur Nichols, her father’s curate, in 1854 she died less than a year later shortly before her 39th birthday, in the early stages of pregnancy. Their father, Patrick Brontë, continued to live in the parsonage until his death in 1861 at the age of 84 having outlived his wife and all six children.
Between such a tragic family history and their dramatic surroundings it becomes very obvious why the Brontës wrote the way they did. Charlotte once called Haworth a ‘strange, uncivilized little place.’ The landscape is rugged and raw and when the wind blows (which is normally the case) it chills you to the bone. And yet, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Pop in your headphones and play some particularly dramatic music and you could be the star of your own gothic romance…not that I would know anything about that.
Behind the museum is a path that leads out onto the moors, where the sisters walked daily. Brontë Falls is 2 ½ miles while Top Withins, my destination, is 3 ½. As I walked along the path called Brontë Way, I took my cue from the sisters and spent my time thinking about pieces I was working on, plot points and character development, but mostly I just focused on being there and taking it all in. The landscape changed significantly as I walked along. Hills covered with heather gave way to verdant green patches where sheep grazed next to long-abandoned farmhouses and neglected stonewalls. Every now and then a sheep would take a break from its incessant chewing to stare me down as I walked by, mere feet away. I pictured myself getting rammed by one and lying there in the grass with a broken hip in a foreign country, with the promise of Socialized medicine as my only hope. A boy walking ahead with his parents was similarly frightened by the wooly menace, but his father replied “It’s alright. They’re quite docile this time of year,” in the most amazing Yorkshire accent ever. This didn’t really comfort me though because 1.) It meant I shared the same fear as a small child and 2.) There was a time of year when they weren’t docile.
After two hours I reached Brontë Falls without incident and rested for a bit along the banks of the natural waterfall. The sisters used to hang out here and I looked around for the Brontë seat, a chair-shaped stone where Charlotte supposedly used to sit. My search proved fruitless so I continued on to Top Withins, a mile away, climbing up a deceptively steep, rocky hillside and nearly falling to my death approximately three times. At the top more stonewalls criss-crossed the straw colored fields and I followed along the worn footpath that cut through some of the crumbling walls.
In Wuthering Heights, Cathy claims: “I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills,” and indeed there is something so stimulating, exciting really, about walking on the moors. I didn’t mind that I was alone. In fact, I kind of preferred it. When I’m traveling with people I feel the need to talk or, at the very least, pretend to pay attention to them. I feel bad about stopping to take a photo if they are walking ahead and the things that capture my attention won’t necessarily register with someone else. But because I was by myself I could wander around for hours lost in my thoughts, taking as many pictures as I wanted. I wouldn’t choose to live my whole life like that, but it’s a pretty freeing experience to have for a week or two.
“Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.” – Wuthering Heights
“Wuthering” is Yorkshire slag for bad weather and by the time I reached Top Withins the sky had darkened, the wind was blowing, and scatterings of raindrops came and went. I was cold and my cheeks and nose were red with windburn. I was exhausted and my legs throbbed, yet I felt exhilarated. A couple people milled around the site but, in keeping with the behavior of pretty much everyone else in England, we all gave each other plenty of personal space. Of course, I’m from New England where the unofficial motto might as well be ‘What are you looking at?’ so this suited me just fine. It was eerily quiet, except for the wind, and I’m pretty sure I would have had chills if I weren’t already freezing. I suppose going to places like this is as close as one can get to actually being in a book. It’s a bit of fantasy, without all the commercialized/Disney bullshit. I hung around taking pictures until I couldn’t feel my toes, and then began the long journey back across the moors.
When I got back to my hostel I eagerly uploaded the pictures I had just taken, ready to relive the experience all over again, but I was immediately disappointed. The photos were lovely, but something was missing. It wasn’t just the view, it was the whole experience: feeling the wind against my face and the ground under my feet. It was the act of hiking for hours alone and seeing a landscape that was wholly new to me. It’s funny–now we have a dozen different ways to share our experiences with the world, but nothing really compares to being there. Not even close.