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Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Love Affair with the Brontes - and Haworth

Did you see 'To Walk Invisible'?  I loved it.  And it made me reflective about my years living in Haworth.  And I mean living. I've never written it down before... so here you go.  My love affair with the Brontes - and Haworth. 

My love affair with Haworth and the Brontes began at the perfect time to cultivate a breeding ground of angst and passions in my schoolgirl heart, fertilised with burgeoning sex hormones and longings to snog someone handsome (at that time it was a bloke called Keith with a blonde perm who caught the same bus as me in the mornings).  Jane Eyre was one of our set texts at school.  From the moment I encountered Rochester I was in love.  That book had everything for me – fabulous house: check, I’ll have my own Thornfield one day, I always said to myself. A heroine I could identify with: small, plain but bloody clever (2 out of 3), a hero I wanted to snog the face off and love me.  Oh and the beautiful love rival who doesn’t get a look in. Jog on Blanche. Everything.  I wanted to have written that book.  My friend Gillian and I used to have write-offs in the school playground.  Hers were jaw-droppingly good, mine were the desperate efforts of someone who wanted to be that good and tried too hard. Skipping forward to the end, I wanted it so bad I made it happen, Gillian took another route and makes historical costumes also to jaw-dropping standard (talented bitch)  Those years, that book, they were very influential to me.  And her.

I have seen every version of Wuthering Heights on the TV (including the Cliff Richard one) and read the book so many times but it never affected me in the way that Jane Eyre did.  Even picturing Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff (my perfect casting) I couldn’t raise a sweat for him. I couldn’t get behind Cathy as a heroine and when Heathcliff hangs the dog, well, we were finished. But I fell in love with the main character in that book – the moors.  I wanted to go there so much and see if they were as wild and windy as Kate Bush said they were.  Emily’s poetry was her main attraction for me.  I didn’t even try and emulate that.  Gillian did and came out with some fabulous stuff.  I just read and enjoyed and sighed at its gorgeousness.

There were, however, a couple of sequels to Wuthering Heights that Gillian and I sucked up like a sponge.  Return to Wuthering Heights by Anna L’Estrange hit the spot for me.  We LOVED that book.  Not so much Heathcliff by Jeffrey Caine, a conflicting story and the first time I ever came across the word ‘pizzle’ so there were some lessons to be learned.

Talking of books written around the Bronte works… please don’t even mention The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  I do not want any book that gives all the sympathy to the Mason family and makes Rochester out to be an unfeeling bastard, thank you. 

I digress…

The first time I actually went to Haworth my head blew off.

I didn’t expect it to look like the pictures.  I didn’t expect the main road to be so cobbley, I didn’t expect the moors to look as if they went on forever. I didn’t imagine the churchyard to be so tumbledown and eerie and the parsonage to look so beautiful.  I wanted to live there in the village so much.  It was never in doubt that I would.

It happened when I was in my early twenties. I had the world’s shittiest job in a building society.  Numbers and me are not friends so whatever possessed me to become a trainee accountant, God only knows.  Maybe had it not been so dire, I wouldn’t have burst out of my confines like a nuclear powered jack-in-the-box.  I used to skive off work and go to Haworth for the day, usually when it was mid-week and wintery. That’s when Haworth is at its bleakest, foggiest, eeriest best, as if time has rolled back.  There was a craft shop down the hill which I liked to visit and a café cum bookshop at the bottom which sold the best Caerphilly and onion sandwiches on the planet.  I even applied for a job at the Bronte museum, telling them they would get no one more passionate about the place than I was.  I received a letter back saying more or less: ‘meh’.

It was the 80s.  Total madness to uproot and buy a place there when the mortgage rates were ridiculously high, especially when I had no job.  So I did it.  Myself and my trusty sheepdog Molly wangled a mortgage somehow and moved to a 400 year old cottage just outside the village, which became the location for the Anne, Emily and Charlotte cottages in White Wedding. I found a job working in an antique and furniture place ‘Moor Lodge’ which the owner had beaten Roger Moore to buying.  There I worked with 3 wonderful older ladies who were to give me my inspiration for the cross generational friendship in Summer Fling. It took me five minutes to get to work on a road where barn owls would fly at the side of the car.  The road was high above the valley bowl and mist would fill it and swirl – the inspiration for Sunshine over Wildflower Cottage. I hopped from job to job during my years in Haworth: working in a mill, a plastic injection moulding firm, a cruise company in Skipton who sacked me for ‘having an accent better suited to the textile industry where I came from.’  I vowed there and then that any book I ever wrote would be stuffed so full of Yorkshire it would ooze onion gravy. But as crap as all the jobs were, the mates I picked up en route were the toppest birds you could ever meet.

Romance-wise, I hooked up with a lad I worked with whose family lived in the house opposite the parsonage as his granny looked after the church.  Mr Nicholls lived there and sometimes when I stayed I wondered if I’d bump  into his ghost en route to the loo. We never did pass in the hall though. We bought a derelict cottage at the top of Main Street:  Heathcliff Cottage it was called and was the world’s smallest B & B.  I gutted it along with my boyfriend’s uncle. I was always handy with a Black and Decker.  I even made clocks and sold my woodwork in one of the gift shops in the village.  My boyfriend was more like Branwell than Rochester.  He was in the Black Bull more than the landlord was. It wasn’t a good romance, but angst is always great for writing books and when he moved onto a leggy blonde, I had a wonderful fling with an incredibly handsome Keighley Cougar.  Village life was interesting, rich, funny, wonderful and very colourful.  I loved going to the quizzes on Sunday night, the sunny afternoons watching the village cricketers, traipsing en masse down to the Haworth Tandoori for a post-booze-up curry. I laughed a lot in those years.  In quieter contemplative times I would take my dog up on the moors, which were as wild and windy as Kate Bush said, but also very beautiful and quite another world.  There are millions of bilberries growing with the heather.  I remember spending all morning picking them and gathering enough to only make a Mr Kipling size mini pie. There is a hidden lagoon up there too where people once went swimming.  Top Withens is a wreck but there is NO doubt about it, it IS Wuthering Heights.  The heather bursts into purple flame in August across the moors and is more beautiful than any photo can portray.

My mum and nan used to love to come to Haworth and visit.  Their favourite place was The Carousel, an ice-cream parlour half way down Main Street.  Anyone who has read my books, might see a point of inspiration there.

The one thing I didn’t have in common with Gillian and other girls at school is that they were horse-mad and used to leap about pretending to be silver brumbies.  My heart was never in that nonsense.  But once in Haworth, I would see people on horseback taking hacks on the moors and so I paid for private riding lessons.  My work wage was rubbish but I had a second job up at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill folding jumpers for 6 hours on Sundays dressed in a blue kilt (kill me now.  But I did get a great discount on clootie dumplings which everyone got for Christmas).  And I became a barmaid at The Royal Oak by the railway station, Wednesdays and Sundays and the family who ran it were fantastic.  It was the best fun.  That paid for my riding lessons and soon myself and Duke, the biggest, dopiest and sweetest Cleveland Bay in the world, and I were moseying over the moors for hours on Sunday mornings – bliss. 

My husband was a Haworth boy. His mum worked at ‘Villette’ the coffee shop down the road.  His dad was an ex-quarry worker.  It was he, when we were courting, who told me that Stan the nice bearded bloke I’d known to say hello to was the god that is Stan Barstow.  Our English teachers at school had three major passions: The Brontes, Thomas Hardy and Stan.  It didn’t make a difference, although I did become suddenly awe-struck and had to force myself to talk normally to him.  I never told him I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t want him thinking I spoke to him for any other reason than he was a nice friendly villager, though years later, when I got my first book published I did write to him (he’d moved away then) and confess.  And he wrote me the most wonderful encouraging and fond letter back.  He came to my wedding and my old schoolfriends couldn’t believe it was him, writer of our set texts.  I spent more time with them and Stan on my wedding day than I did my new husband.  We were blasted! It was a good call. They were much better company.

It was whilst living in Haworth when I met the friends at work who became pregnant the same time that I did.  After years of trying to crack writing a book, I started to write The Yorkshire Pudding Club.  I never looked back.

My marriage crumbled and I moved back to Barnsley needing the support of my family.  But I never divorced myself from my in-laws and I go back to Haworth to see them, and my friends – one of my dearest being the woman who introduced me to the joy of cats and I became patron of Haworth Cat Rescue, now Yorkshire Cat Rescue.  Haworth will always be part of me, and I will always be part of Haworth – my own son is a Haworth boy. And I still take the hour drive there sometimes, alone, just to walk up the Main Street, see all the changes.  Stroll through the churchyard, visit the parsonage, see my old house (which will be worth a fortune now!), venture onto the moors and just look at its greatness, which changes every day, reflecting the mood of the clouds above it.  There is no place quite like the moors of Haworth. 

I cut my  teeth on life in Haworth.  My years there were as rich as a ripe peach.  There were hard, rough experiences as well as good ones - I won't lie, but that's life.  The bad stuff pushes your boundaries, builds up your stamina, it's a gym workout for the spirit.  For instance I nearly died when cricket ball came whizzing full speed at my head.  Luckily it missed my temple, a woman the next week would die from such an accident (not in Haworth - it isn't a cricket accident black pot).  Unluckily it landed in my gob, sent my teeth the same shape as the graves in the churchyard and split both lips totally.  I had to have them glued, an experience which put childbirth in second place on the pain scale.  It took years and years of corrective procedures - I had the last one in March last year.  I have a smashing silver scar traversing both lips to show for that. And I had a boyfriend there that dragged my heart over razor blades.  And I had some very lean years.  I remember one new year being too skint to put petrol in  my car to drive to Barnsley for New Year, so myself and my cat shared a tandoori chicken breast in front of the fire.  But on the other side of the scales there were mad, times: a whole pub erupting into singing 'Shiny Haworth People' to REM's Shiny Happy People at New Year, where the whole town turned out every year in fancy dress.  I excelled myself that year with a full Japanese costume (made out of mum's old shiny Barnsley curtains).  I even made a massive bun wig which weighed a ton.  And one of the villagers took a fancy to me, an old bloke who had come back to the fold after living in South Africa for years until he left quickly after his wife was strangled, some said - by himself.  He bought me a scarf.  

I laughed a hell of a lot in Haworth and had great pals, two of my favourites being the local gay pub landlords Patrick and Irish Martin.  Martin would drag me out on the moors with my sheepdog and his Yorkshire Terriers when he felt I needed air in my lungs.  Martin walked like Usain Bolt, I needed a defibrillator after a walk with him. They were kind, lovely, mad, wonderful men.  Physically I was at my best in Haworth - a 23" waist thanks to hours of hula-hooping, bum-length hair.  Nothing wobbled when I brushed my teeth.  And I had a fantastic arse in my riding jodhpurs. 

I moved there to be smitten by the Brontes, to be visited by their dead spirits.  All that romantic crap you come up with when you’re pretentious and young.  I can’t confess that I ever awoke with Charlotte whispering plots in my ears, but Haworth worked its magic on me. My years there gave me enough material to write volumes.  The Brontes fired me up, inspired me, started my brain thinking, ‘I want to write books.’  Jane Eyre remains my constant favourite book, I never tire of it.  I went there searching for magic and, with 13 books behind me, I think maybe I found it.


  1. What a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing, Milly. Jane Eyre is my favourite book, too. There's something magical about Haworth. Hoping to visit again in the summer. It's been too long. I so enjoyed reading this. Put a right big smile on me face! ��

  2. Gorgeous story. Thanks Milly!