Travel: UK - Pilgrim's progress on the Bronte Way

The Yorkshire village of Haworth is sacred to the thousands of people who come to see where the Brontes lived. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
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The Independent Culture
IN SO far as England has a Lourdes, an international place of pilgrimage for the world's faithful, Haworth must surely be it. Pilgrims come from all over the globe to this little village, a few miles west of Bradford in West Yorkshire and home of the Bronte family, moved by faith just as they are in the French town. They usually have to undertake long journeys to get there, the environment is garish and commercialised and, as in Lourdes, the surroundings are often more beautiful than the place itself. But most visitors seem to return spiritually strengthened and refreshed. The Brontes, all of them firmly opposed to the Catholics' "Romish idolatry", would have hated the parallel.

Haworth Parsonage was, from 1820 until his death in 1861, the seat of the Reverend Patrick Bronte, an Irishman who raised himself from destitution to Cambridge, took Anglican orders and ended with a poor parish in the then diocese of York. In it he settled with his wife Maria and six children. Within a few years, Maria and two of the five girls had died. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell were dead by 1855, leaving Patrick a solitary widower looked after by the son-in-law whose marriage to Charlotte he had opposed and whose wedding he had refused to attend, but to whom he was finally reconciled.

Out of the house had shone a dazzling literary light in the form of Charlotte's four novels - The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette - Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, not to mention their poems. Few if any family homes can aspire to such a vast output of quality.

The approach to the Bronte Parsonage Museum is not an attractive one and the atmosphere at Haworth, a rough and none too salubrious village at the time of the Brontes, does not seem to have changed much since then. The motorist is directed into a scruffy car park; up a litter-strewn path lies the village's steep main street where two houses out of three tout cups of tea, pizza or garden gnomes with the same aplomb with which hucksters sell rosary beads and aluminium medals at Lourdes.

It has been thus since Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte first appeared in 1857 and started a flow of pilgrims to the village. Juliet Barker, in her excellent biography, The Brontes, quotes a newspaper of the time as saying: "The quiet rural inns, where refreshment for man & beast, of a plain but excellent kind, used to be obtainable at a fabulously low price, have raised their tariff to an equality with the most noted hotels in the pathways of tourists."

But step into the parsonage, a stone-built Georgian house of 1778, and the travails of Haworth drop away. It is a handsome residence at the top of the village, across the graveyard from the church and overlooking the moors where the Brontes took their walks. Though altered in 1878 after Patrick's death, much of it remains as it was; since 1928 it has been in the care of the Bronte Society, which has decorated it lovingly in the style of the period as well as collecting in it a mass of objects that used to belong to the family. On the right of the entrance hall is Patrick's tiny study, containing the small piano - played mainly by Emily; on the left is the dining-room where his daughters did most of their writing, and where Emily died. Upstairs are the bedrooms and Branwell's painter's studio. In the newer part of the house there is a museum and across the front garden is Patrick's church. It is a model of how such premises should be shown to the public.

But there is a lot more to Bronte country than just Haworth. Walkers can visit all the sites by following the Bronte Way (marked on Ordnance Survey maps), which wends over the hill and through villages and towns. At Dewsbury is the parish church where Patrick was curate and not far away, at Hartshead, is St Peter's, where he served for four years.

Nearby, too, is Gomersal, where Charlotte's friend Mary Taylor lived. Kirklees Council has turned her home, the Red House, into a museum. This is Luddite country and the inspiration for Charlotte's Shirley. Here distressed, unemployed textile workers set out to wreck the machines that had taken away their livelihood. The Red House is said to be the model for Briarmains, while the nearby Oakwell Hall, an Elizabethan manor-house, inspired Fieldhead in the novel. Kirklees Council and the Bronte Society are doing a great service in keeping the places of pilgrimage in such good condition.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum is at Haworth, West Yorkshire BD22 8DR (01535 642323)

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