01 March 2011

Memory No. 27: Top Withins

I have vivid memories of my first journey to Haworth, beginning with the train journey up to Leeds, leaving Kings Cross in London early in the morning and then wending northward into Yorkshire.  From there I had to take a bus into Keighley where a picturesque steam train sat huffing and puffing, waiting to take me onto the moors.  I felt like a character in an old film as we literally chugged along the valley into Haworth, with great clouds of steam and soot billowing out behind us.  "Keep the windows shut!" I was cautioned.  (Those who didn't do as they were told emerged from the train in Keighley with black specks all over their clothes and faces.)

The Keighley Rail Station -- a tiny stone building surrounded by flower-filled window boxes -- was tucked in a green valley between two enormous hills.  One led up to Haworth Brow and the house where I was staying while the other led up to the village of Haworth itself.  Although to call it a village was an overstatement since it was comprised of little more than a church, a parsonage, a graveyard, a tiny schoolhouse, and a collection of shops on either side of one narrow cobbled road. But then, if one can shop, worship, be schooled and buried, what more is needed really? 

I was eager to see the village but there would be time for that once I'd settled in.  I started up the hill towards the Brow and now it was my turn to huff and puff!  The incline was so steep they'd installed an iron railing along the pavement, which I used to pull myself along. 

When I reached the Brow I turned and looked down on the patchwork valley of farmland that stretched out before me, on the rail tracks that vanished into the higher moorland, and on the Village tucked into the hill directly across the way.  All the homes were grey, built of local stone, and spirals of smoke were coming from several chimneys.  Even in summer, the West Yorkshire weather can be chilly and I'd been warned to bring shawls and sweaters and be prepared to use them.

My room overlooked the valley and my hosts - including their three-legged cat - made me feel at home, putting a piping hot supper before me as we chatted about what the next week would hold.  "Rambling," I told them, was my chief intention.   

I wandered along the Brow after supper, looking out over the surrounding countryside and gazing wistfully towards the forbidding heather-covered hills that stretched out in the distance. The locals called them "Top Withens" and I was eager to find my way there. 

The following day I made my way over the Brow and down the hill (a much easier journey than my climb up the evening before!) and then I climbed the steep cobbled road to the village center.  The shops were one treasure trove after another and by the time I'd made my way up one side and down the other, I found myself struggling homeward with a satchel full of sweets, books, wooden spoons, a stuffed owlet, all manner of pottery and soap, and wearing a new felt hat.

Once again I spent the evening with my new friends, enjoying another delicious home-cooked meal and then taking my nightly stroll down the Brow, plotting the next day's activities.  As I sat in bed, writing letters home and scribbling in my journal, I decided that tomorrow I would tackle the 'Withins'. 

The sky was overcast when I awoke but I wasn't going to be deterred.  I gathered up a raincoat and a carry bag, slipped into a long skirt, a sweater and my leather hiking boots, and made my way back up into Haworth Village.  Stopping briefly at a shop for a bag of ginger biscuits, I asked for directions to the Withens and was given a map of the area along with a brochure that I assumed offered a history of the village. Something to read once I'd arrived at my destination.  I wandered down the lane towards the pastures behind the Parsonage. There was a sign on the cattle gate, reminding me to close it behind me and to stay on the beaten path that led over the meadow. (This is known as the Country Code, or more simply, leaving things as you find them.)

Soon I was out in open fields, with only a few stone farmhouses in the distance and the moorlands stretching out before me.  The heather was in bloom, turning the landscape a soft purple.  After a couple of miles I crossed a road and descended down a rocky slope that led to a copse of trees where a waterfall dripped over large stones into a narrow and easily crossed beck.  It was much cooler there, like the interior of a small forest, and the greenery was a relief after miles of open countryside.  A steep hillside rose above me and upon consulting the map I realized I had to climb to the top in order to continue on to the Withens.

The weather had grown warm enough to dispense with my raincoat, and the climb uphill left me quite breathless by the time I'd reached its crest.  There was an abandoned stone farmhouse at the top, which on the map was called "Virginia."  I smiled at this as I started off along the pathway -- if one could call the barely trodden ground a pathway -- clamoring over several stiles in the process, each one more terrifying than the last thanks to their proximity to the edge of the hillside and the sheer drop to the rocks and beck below.  Heaving my coat and carry bag over the top of the worst of them, I climbed the ladder and made my way down the other side, glad that the pathway turned slightly and led me over more even ground and away from the hillside's edge.

Throughout the walk I was locked in a good natured battle of wits with the weather.  For several hours there was only the uncanny sound of the wind, and the distant bleating of unseen sheep, coupled with a sense of utter isolation as I turned and saw nothing but moorland in every direction. And then, without warning, the sky blackened with swirling clouds and a pelting rain that stung my face and hands.  But in the time it took to slip into my rain coat, the wind had pushed the sky clear and the sun was beaming again.

The remaining miles took me over heather-laden earth until I noticed a lone tree that seemed singularly out of place on the moorland.  It was bent over to one side as if by the strongest of winds, and its branches were stretched out into the sky, like hands reaching out to something, or someone, unseen.  As I walked nearer I could see that it was leaning over a low stone wall, as if to protect it, and I realized suddenly that I was looking at the foundations of a house.  Much of the stonework was crumbling, although in some places the walls were still nearly a storey high. There was no longer a roof and the only inhabitants were several Swaledale sheep, chewing thoughtfully and watching me with a wary eye as I investigated their purloined grazing ground. 

There was a stone bench near the ruins where I was happy to rest for a moment. As I pulled my journal out of the carry bag the brochure that the shop girl had pressed on me fell to the ground.  I picked it up and read the title.


I perused its contents, realizing with some chagrin that I'd broken every possible rule for the nearly seven mile hike into this utterly desolate part of the West Yorkshire countryside:  I was alone, I was wearing wrong shoes, I had no water and nothing sensible to eat, unless you count Ginger Biscuits as sensible. 

With a sigh, I folded the brochure and peered at my surroundings, content and slightly astonished that I was really there. 

Top Withins, I murmured to myself.

The wind had quieted and the enormity of the place came over me. I stood and walked through the ruins, running my fingers over the stonework, leaning to pick up a few sprigs of heather and pressing them into my notebook.  After dreaming of it for so long, I was finally standing on the same haunted moorland that had immortalized a shy young author more than a century earlier.

Shifting my carry bag onto my shoulder I turned away and started the long walk back down the moors, stopping once to look back at all that remained of Wuthering Heights.

1 comment:

  1. I can actually picture a small shadow of a girl trudging up...and up further and further to her goal.