Monday, 28 April 2014

Oop north

It's one of the benevolences of being in Britain that we have in this small set of islands an astonishingly rich tectonic and geological history. You can see it just by driving a short distance in any direction. The landscape changes - sometimes quite dramatically - in just a matter of miles.

Here we have slumped marshes and flat emptiness. The houses are timber-framed. The chosen building material is brick.  Here we have low ranges of hills, with completely different vegetation and farming. Next we have densely industrial sprawls, where all the decisions ever made by man in those quarters have been worked out as concrete and steel surfaces and practical intensity - factories, yards, fences, controls. And eventually we get to the really hard stuff. The Carboniferous limestone.

We left home in Kent just after 5 o'clock this morning and have driven most of the day to get to North Yorkshire. It was the weather - the atmosphere - which governed our experience most of the day, rather than the views, at least as far as the River Trent. And by the time we were 'level' with Leeds, my goodness - the power of the scenery started to hammer home. The rivers are deeper, famous. The towns and cities have a resonant fame - for steel, milling, wool, the factory system. And the houses re all blackened by centuries of soot, even now.

We seized the chance to go into Haworth, a literary detour of course. Up into the moors - Shelf Moor, to start with - how pleasing, as we have little Shelvin not far from us in Kent, and that name was early in the Anglo-Saxon settlements and meant flat land. Precious in the 5th and 6th centuries, and still today.  Drystone walls. Vivid pastures. Distant views. The sense of continuity, though that can only ever be imagined. We can barely begin to imagine the hardships of people in the past. The deaths, so young, of so many.  Patrick Brontë buried his pretty Cornish wife when she was only in her early 30s, leaving him with six small children.  He sent the two oldest little girl to school and they came home to die very soon afterwards. Going into his Parsonage - now the Bronte Museum - the deaths are softly pointed out. Emily died on this sofa. Mrs Brontë died in the main bedroom, and then Charlotte died in the same room after being married for only 9 months.  The average life expectancy in Haworth in the early 19thC was under 29. 40% of children did not live to six years old.   Yet the house is set up to show us not how they died but how they lived....    They played this cabinet piano. They wrote Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall here, in this dining room. Here are the tiny books they wrote and 'published' as children. Here are the paintings and drawings they made of their beloved dogs.....  

It is with these drawings and paintings that the place comes to life for me. I just cannot imagine them sitting and writing, as they did.  It's less real to me than the hills, the stone roofs, the steep streets, the blackened cottages.

I had imagined that Haworth was a really remote and silent place - isolated in a Gothic sense. But I can see that it was - even then - a commodious little town, with quite a lot going on. I feel a sense of relief on behalf of those amazing children. They must have had an astonishing childhood, loved by their father and their aunt, with pets (a dog costing £3!!!!!), and able to travel, and of course to get out onto the moors and hilltops.  They loved their servants, who stayed a long time with them, and were regarded as part of the family.  They had 'things' about them - the piano, books, prints, plain enough, but no less inspiring for being plain.    The Museum has been well-endowed with objects which are known to have belonged to them - mostly scooped up and saved by relatives or astute admirers in Ireland and the United States. It is clean, tidy, and run by volunteers.  I have not done very much literary touring, but I would compare it to Dorothy and William Wordsworth's cottage in Cumbria, and Ellen Terry's house at Smallhythe. Vaux le detour.

We also went to see the old railways station, splendid in its old-fashioned crimson and cream livery, and with a marvellous coal-yard, with all the different grades of anthracite gleaming in dark piles.  Oh, childhood!

Then into Keighley to Lloyds Bank to insist they send some money to Spain for me, as their international internet service turned out to be a dreadful waste of time...  The nice man (who was not an Indian, unlike almost all the other people we saw in Keighley) did all the stuff good and proper and did not charge me for the transaction. 

Finally, we headed off into the wilds to the charming, pretty, prosperous, sorted-out little town of Settle. Here we are in a small cottage, as neat as can be. Dorothy and William could not have been more happily settled. We have 3 or 4 days to explore the area, including the famous limestone caves and pavements. We are not climbers, but we will get to grips with the Carboniferous.  How uplifting it all looks. 

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