No Net Ensnares Me: My Brontë Pilgrimage to Haworth

 

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I couldn’t get over the street names in Haworth! Others included Branwell and Brontë.

 

I began to dream of visiting Haworth the year I started studying the Brontës in college. When I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë, I was taken aback by the artistry of the writing style. I fell in love with the poetic flow of her words, and I adored her character, Lucy Snowe. I saw so much of myself in Lucy and was amazed that I felt such a connection to a fictional woman created in the 1850s.

My arrival in Haworth was a surreal transition from the wilderness to civilization. I had spent nine days hiking in the Scottish highlands, living like a wild creature whose only mission was to reach the finish line. All of a sudden I was on a train heading to a place I wasn’t sure I would ever get to see. I switched trains four or five times and traveled for about nine hours. My journey in Scotland had ended with me getting a serious stomach affliction, so I spent the whole day curled up in a ball in my seat, holding my stomach and dreading getting off each train only to drag myself and my suitcase onto the next one. I downed half a bottle of Pepto Bismol in Glasgow.

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You know it’ll be a good week when your hostel is in a mansion.

I was feeling less than my best when I finally stumbled into the Haworth youth hostel. It was like coming down from a high. I was discouraged about the serious pain in my feet, because I knew the hostel was a mile from everything in the town that I wanted to see. The idea of five days of walking back and forth, up and downhill, was daunting after having just trekked 96 miles.

I also couldn’t get it into my head that I was really in Haworth. I was really going to see where the Brontës had lived and written. My love for Charlotte Brontë has been this kind of all-consuming flame for over two years. So naturally, I was nervous that this pilgrimage to her home would not live up to my lofty expectations.

As it turned out, the trip far exceeded all of my hopes for it. After collapsing into yet another bunk bed, I slept for a solid ten hours and woke up the next day pretty much free of my stomach pain. My feet were still wrecked, but at least I didn’t have to vomit!

I ate breakfast with an American girl from my bunk room only to find out that she was checking out that day. I also met a Dutch girl named Roos (pronounced like Rose) and wished I had the confidence to just say, “Let’s be friends!” I headed into town by myself with the intention of visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

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The lovely and steep Main Street.

Directly in front of the parsonage is the church. I walked into the graveyard and things started to feel real at last. This was the resting place of actual people who had left the world hundreds of years ago. Every inch of the ground was covered in slabs of stone. This graveyard was established before the scientific discovery that flat gravestones prevented decomposition. There was a sign about the Brontës’ graves. They weren’t actually buried in the cemetery, but underneath the church (when they were buried, the church didn’t cover that particular spot of earth).

With a melancholy, pensive mood hanging about me, I entered the church and looked for the spot memorializing the Brontës. There’s a little chapel for them at the front of the church. I read all of the plaques that had been placed in memory of the family. There were no tourists flocking to the chapel. There was nothing ostentatious about it. Nothing to make you think some of the most famous writers in the world must be buried here.

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In the Brontë Memorial Chapel.

A small, scuffed plaque on the ground marked the final resting place of Emily and Charlotte. I kneeled and ran my fingers over their names. I whispered to them, telling them that people still remembered them, still loved them. They were so loved. I thought of their brutally short lives, filled with hardship from beginning to end. I thought of poor Emily, never living to see Wuthering Heights adored by critics. She only ever knew of their scorn. I thought of Charlotte finally finding love, only to be cruelly torn from life in the early stages of pregnancy. I thought of Anne, buried so far away from her family, lying alone in Scarborough.

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I rose and stood before the family plaque, where name after name was listed, all of them gone after such a brief stay on earth. All except Patrick. The father of the Brontës outlived his wife and all six of his children, dying aged 84. I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to stand helplessly by and watch the seven most important people in your life suffer and die terrible deaths.

Once I had gotten rather choked up thinking about what this family had been through, other visitors arrived and wandered respectfully around the chapel. I wiped my eyes and decided it was time to see the parsonage. It was very surreal to see this house, perfectly preserved, sitting in the middle of this town now populated by 21st century people. When I stepped over the threshold, I tried to imagine the Brontë sisters doing the same over 150 years ago. I was excited to be visiting during 2016 because Haworth was celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth.

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The Brontë home, now the parsonage museum.

The first room I entered was the room where the sisters sat around the table writing together. I saw the “E” carved into the table, probably Emily’s handiwork. The couch against the wall was where Emily may have died. If I concentrated hard enough, I could just feel the sisters’ excitement as they worked on their manuscripts, their fatigue from pacing around the table inventing stories, Charlotte and Anne’s pain from watching Emily die and knowing she would never again write at this table.

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Charlotte’s glasses and writing desk.

I managed to pull myself away from the room and made my way through the rest of the house, frustrated by the pressing crowds. When I reached Charlotte’s bedroom, the sounds and movement of the people around me faded into the background. In the center of the room was a dress in a glass case. I had known that Charlotte was small, but I didn’t realize how small until I saw her clothing. Her wedding veil was displayed in another case. I tried to picture it on her head as she walked down the aisle to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls.

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Charlotte’s dress.

On a wall was a small informational plaque. It stated that Charlotte had died in this room with her husband praying at her side. I felt tears come to my eyes as soon as I read this. Charlotte’s mother Maria had died here as well. There were so many memories contained within these four walls, it was almost overwhelming.

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Mourning shoes made by Charlotte after Emily’s death. The sprig of heather is believed to have been sewn with Emily’s hair.

The parsonage was everything I wanted it to be. It was haunting and informative. It felt lived in, as if the Brontës had just stepped out for the afternoon. I knew I’d be back since one ticket is good for the rest of the year.

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First edition of “Jane Eyre”.

I walked down Main Street and had lunch at a cafe called Villette. The fact that there was a cafe named after my favorite book was almost too thrilling to handle. I sat there just soaking in my surroundings, still in disbelief about being in Haworth.

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After lunch, I went back to the parsonage to attend a talk about Charlotte and her sisters. It was very enjoyable and the woman giving the talk was passionate about the subject. It felt incredible to be packed into a room with dozens of strangers who all wanted to hear about the Brontës as much as I did. Most of the time, I have to practically handcuff people to a chair to make them listen to me talk about the Brontës. This was such a new experience and I couldn’t stop buzzing with excitement.

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Beauty around every corner.

I spent the afternoon looking in all the shops on Main Street. Almost every shop contained small references and merchandise relating to the Brontës. It didn’t feel like a tourist trap. It didn’t hit you over the head. Most of the Brontë items were lovingly handcrafted by locals. It was so special to be able to walk into a shop and strike up a conversation about Emily, Charlotte, and Anne and have everyone know exactly what I was talking about. Naturally, I bought far more than I should have.

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The apothecary.

That night, I thought I’d eat another lonely dinner at the hostel. But when I saw Roos, the Dutch girl from that morning, eating by herself, I decided to join her. We clicked right away. Here was a girl close to my age, doing her own solo Brontë pilgrimage. I was amazed to find that there were people just like me all over the world. We immediately found ourselves laughing together. I kept thinking I haven’t laughed this hard in so long. What’s happening? Have I made a friend?

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We decided to have tea, but I had a bit of a dilemma. I had bought some “Bron-tea” at the parsonage gift shop, but it was loose tea and I had nothing to steep it in. We searched the hostel kitchen but came up empty handed. Roos had some tea bags, so we ripped one open, poured out the tea, poured my Bron-tea into it, and clamped it shut with a can opener while I held it suspended in my tea cup to brew. We joked about me being qualified to perform heart surgery now that I had brewed tea with a can opener. The laughter went on all night.

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Dangerously brewing tea.

The next day, I was delighted to have Roos join me on a tour of the moors that I had booked with Brontë Walks. It was just the two of us and a lovely woman guiding us. The sun sparkled on the stunning moors. The purple heather looked as if it had been splashed across the landscape with the intention of pleasing the eye. We visited the Brontë waterfall and the Brontë chair, a perfectly shaped rock where the sisters are said to have sat when they played on the moors.

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Roos and I amongst the friendly sheep.

After much climbing (I was struggling to lift my feet after my exhausting time in Scotland), we reached Top Withens. This haunting and ruined old farmhouse is believed to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw’s house in Wuthering Heights. I could imagine the brooding Emily coming up here, her head full of vivid stories.

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The Brontë chair.

These moors had been such a happy place for the Brontë children, a place where they could allow their imaginations to run wild. But what about after Branwell, Emily, and Anne were gone? Charlotte still came to the moors after losing all of her siblings.

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Navigating the moors.
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Top Withens.

“For my part I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone – everything reminds me of the times when others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening – My sister Emily had a particular love for them , and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her.”- Charlotte Brontë

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The moors were beautiful and it was easy to imagine children rambling amongst the heather, but there was also a darkness and desolation to them. I saw how they could lift one’s spirits or remind someone of how lonely they are. I was glad to be there with a friend. We each found a bone, probably from a rabbit, and kept them as morbid tokens of friendship.

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Haunting.

That night at the hostel, the chef offered to make us a pizza. This is probably a good time to take a moment and say that we ate A LOT this week. We stopped at Cobbles and Clay just about every day for cakes or sandwiches or both. We ate extensive breakfasts at the hostel. We generally gorged ourselves. It was mildly distressing to think that any weight I had lost while hiking in Scotland was most likely sneaking back to me in Haworth. But it was so worth it. Does food taste more delicious when you’re sharing it with a new friend? It certainly seemed like it.

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Hot chocolate!
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Strawberry milkshake!
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Vanilla cheesecake!

The next day, Roos and I headed back to the parsonage. We went through the house together, marveling at the fact that we were walking in the footsteps of our favorite sisters. We had a wonderful time trying on Victorian hats and clothes. I never wanted to get back into my modern clothing. I’ve always felt more at home in a corset and a skirt than anything else.

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After our 100th trip through the gift shop, we went to meet our guide for a Brontë focused tour of Haworth. Johnnie was an amazing guide and I clung to every little fact he divulged, completely enthralled by his description of Haworth in the 19th century. We learned about the harsh conditions of the time (the average person didn’t survive their 20s). We walked the streets of the town discussing the Brontës and how they had come to settle there. We ended with an immensely emotional talk in the church. Johnnie sat us down and told us about the tragic end of each Brontë’s life. I couldn’t control the tears welling in my eyes.

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The writing room. Notice my Jane Eyre shirt!

We ate dinner at The Fleece Inn. As usual, I made myself sick with the amount of food I had. But hey, we were on holiday! And I was determined to try everything with brie in it in all of Haworth.

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Hard to believe they walked on these stairs.

The next day, we decided to take the bus to Hebden Bridge. I went there with the mission to find Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall. I didn’t realize what a steep and difficult walk it would be to get into the town. We were both exhausted and Heptonstall had a sort of depressing aura that seemed to suck the life out of everything. The few people we passed in town immediately knew what we were up to and asked, “Looking for Sylvia?” This little question, always delivered with a slight smile, was rather eerie. Like Sylvia was still around and we might go have tea with her in the cemetery.

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We finally found her headstone in an overgrown graveyard. An older man came over to us and told us all about a woman who comes up from near London every few weeks to tend to the grave. She wasn’t family, just a fan. He told us about the graffiti he’d had to scrape off the grave and how the whole thing was replaced years ago after being destroyed. It made me so sad to think of this brilliant, troubled woman lying beneath the earth, still hated for taking her life in 1962. Mental illness is not as simple as Plath’s critics make it out to be. Yes, she left behind children. But in her mind, she had no other choice. The Bell Jar is one of the most pure and beautiful descriptions of the descent into all-consuming depression.

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After visiting the grave, we found the ruin of a church that I believe was built in the 1200s. Parts of it had been added on over the centuries. Everything was so eerie and quiet and empty of life. But all of a sudden, a black cat appeared and came straight toward us, rolling on its back and asking to be scratched. I couldn’t help feeling like the cat was the spirit of one of the people memorialized in the ruin, dead for hundreds of years.

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Meow.

As soon as we crossed over the line from Heptonstall onto the main road, a weight seemed to be lifted from us. I had never before experienced anything like the draining aura of that town. We were happy to head back to Haworth and the familiar Main Street. We stopped at a shop that still has the original wooden counter from the Brontës’ time. It was the counter over which the sisters handed their manuscripts to be posted. The woman running the shop was a direct descendant of the postman that the Brontës knew. The business had stayed in the same family for all those years. After the magical experience of touching the counter, we walked back to the hostel and had one more meal of lasagna together before I had to leave the next day.

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On my last morning in Haworth, I visited the parsonage one final time, said goodbye to Roos at the hostel, and took the steam train to Keighley. My pilgrimage had come to an end. It had been everything I dreamed and more. Trying to put into words what this trip meant to me is nearly impossible, but I’ll try.

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Going to miss Yorkshire.

Meeting Roos was a part of this journey that I never expected. I didn’t realize there were girls like me, so moved by the Brontës’ words that they were compelled to visit their home town. We had so much fun together, sliding down the banisters, using fake English accents, and playing room pong (ping pong using an entire room instead of just a table). I’m so grateful for the laughs we shared. But I’m equally grateful for the tears. We visited the Brontë grave together, wrote little notes for the sisters, and left sprigs of heather on Emily and Charlotte’s plaque. Sitting on the floor of the church, silently crying beside a kindred spirit was an experience I’ll never forget. The fact that this was a Dutch girl and English wasn’t her first language (she spoke it perfectly, though) made me appreciate even more how many people there must be in the world who have so much in common with me. It opened my eyes to the worldwide appeal of the Brontës’ brilliant writing. I felt so happy that literature could bring people together.

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My note is the super long one in the top right. It was amazing to see the collection of notes and heather grow as the week went on.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have had the courage to travel across England and stay in a hostel by myself for a week. I was crippled by worry and anxiety. I was convinced that I was incapable of making friends. I thought I would be trapped in my bubble of fear forever, never seeing the things I wanted to see because I had no one to see them with. But this year, I tore through my weak opinion of myself, I broke free from the false idea that I couldn’t possibly travel alone. I decided that, like Jane Eyre, “no net ensnares me”. I will no longer be restrained, caught in a web of self-doubt. If Jane Eyre could abandon everything she knew and become a governess in a strange house, if Lucy Snowe could leave England and teach in a foreign country, if Charlotte Brontë could survive without her family and study in Belgium, I can certainly forge my own path in life.

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My purchases included a tea towel, bunting made with book pages, a Brontë pillow, two graphic novels, Bron-tea, bookmarks, and a notebook. Roos and I loved decorating our bunk room.

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