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Walking the Bronte moors
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Country Walking , 2007
Patrick Bronte, the parson of Haworth , was worried. His children – Charlotte (nine at the time), Emily, Anne and brother Branwell – were out on the moors. The sky was black as night and there was a violent storm overhead, when, abruptly, a large explosion rattled the windows. Patrick Bronte himself thought there had been an earthquake.
It was 1824, and fortunately for English literature the future novelists had taken cover and were quite safe. But the noise Patrick Bronte heard was the extraordinary sound of Stanbury Bog exploding, throwing out rocks, soil and vegetation more than a mile down the hillside and creating two vast chasms in the moor. Quite why the bog threw such a spectacular wobbly is still not properly explained.
Luckily for me I've picked a fine day to follow in the Bronte sisters' footsteps. There ahead of me across the moorland is Stanbury Bog itself, looking decidedly damp but showing no sign of repeating its earlier exploit. Anyway I'm on firm ground, standing on the highest rock of one of the south Pennines ' most impressive millstone grit outcrops, the Alcomden Stones. And I'm enjoying a view which, until the access law changed in 2004, was shut away behind a ‘private' sign.
Appropriately, my walk has begun in Haworth, the little town which now makes its living from Bronte-related tourism but which, despite the gift shops, is still a pleasant place to explore. The footpath I'm following from the town passes the Bronte Parsonage museum and the gloomy churchyard which the Bronte sisters would have known so well, before heading out to Penistone Hill and the open countryside. It's an easy stroll to the little bridge over South Dean Beck (the ‘ Bronte Bridge ', of course), before I leave the picnickers behind to head up the hill. The signpost tells me that I've briefly been following a long-distance route. But of course: it's the Bronte Way .
I'm heading away from the popular tourist footpaths to find the little path which runs high up above the quiet valley of Ponden Clough . My immediate target is the large, almost perpendicular, rock which carries the curious ecclesiastical name of Ponden Kirk. Some claim that, if Ponden Kirk has any religious connection, it's a religion which pre-dates Christianity: certainly local legend gave the rock magical properties. It used to be said that if girls crawled through the large cleft at the foot of the rock they'd find themselves safely married before the year was out. I'm not sure whether it worked for men too, but though the cause of journalistic enquiry should really see me on my hands and knees in the mud I decide to give the experiment a miss.
A few steps back from the Kirk I find the faint path which runs up Middle Moor Clough. It's wet underfoot, probably the fault of the nearby spring known as Robin Hood Well. We're a long way from Nottinghamshire, but in fact many Yorkshire springs carry the same name. One theory is that they are in fact named after the water sprite Robin Goodfellow, better known as Shakespeare's Puck.
For a few hundred metres I tussle with the tussocks. But soon, straight ahead, the main objective of the walk comes into view. I take time to explore the Alcomden Stones properly, and to look out over the wild moors which stretch away northwards and westwards towards Crow Hill and the summit of Boulsworth hill. If you've looking for the full atmospheric Brontesque experience, this surely is the place to come.
From here, the walking becomes easier. I pass the trig point above Stanbury Moor and drop down to the ruins of Top Withens where the Pennine Way comes by on its way up to Kirk Yetholm. Now it's a question simply of following the track back down the hill to the Bronte Bridge and Haworth .
The route here is well-signposted, in two languages: English and Japanese. It was David Parsons, a Bradford countryside service worker, who first noticed the large number of Japanese visitors making their own pilgrimage to the Bronte heartlands – and who suggested to his employer that they should be helped by being given signs in their own language. The footpath signs went up, and the story of this unusual tourist initiative made front-page news around the world.
I choose to be more perverse. I leave both English and Japanese signs behind, taking a short detour up beside the attractive waterfall just beyond the Bronte Bridge . Its name? You guessed of course: the Bronte Falls .