Tomorrow is the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. Chris Bond went to Haworth to find out what impact this landmark anniversary is having on the historic home of the Brontës.
Pockmarked by abandoned quarries long since reclaimed by nature, the windswept peak of Penistone Hill is nestled deep in the heart of Brontë country.
Perched above Haworth it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to picture sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne drawing inspiration for their novels from these dramatic views stretching out across the Upper Worth Valley.
It’s an isolated spot but one that’s been transformed in recent months into a hive of activity, with lorries trundling up its narrow roads to the top of the hill, where a bevy of men in high-vis jackets have been busy at work. They are building a replica of the Haworth parsonage, which will be used for the much-anticipated BBC drama To Walk Invisible, penned by scriptwriter of the moment Sally Wainwright.
It has piqued the curiosity of locals and visitors alike who are keen to catch a glimpse of the ‘Penistone Hill Parsonage’. “There are definitely a few more owners walking their dogs up their than usual,” says Rebecca Yorke, marketing officer at the real Brontë Parsonage Museum, in Haworth.
The Wainwright drama is one of a string of TV films and documentaries as well as radio programmes, books and exhibitions tied to the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth.
Tomorrow’s anniversary marks the start of a series of landmark dates for fans of arguably the world’s most famous literary family. Next year will be the bicentenary of Branwell’s birth, the troubled brother, which will see events based around rehabilitation and addiction. Then in 2018 it’s Emily’s turn before the spotlight falls on Anne two years later.
It’s an important period for the parsonage museum, where the Brontës spent much of their lives, which has been working closely with Welcome to Yorkshire and Visit Britain to promote Haworth and the surrounding area as a literary destination. Their efforts appear to be paying off, with visitor numbers on course to top last year’s figures. “The last few years we have been fairly steady at around the 70,000 mark and visitor numbers are already considerably up on this time last year,” says Rebecca. “We’ve had a lot of media interest from around the world. There have been film crews here and we’ve been hosting journalists and that’s largely down to the bicentenary.”
The BBC’s documentary Being The Brontës, which went out over Easter was among the most recent. “That brought in a lot of people and there’s also a lot of anticipation about the Sally Wainwright drama. It whets people’s appetite because they then want to come to Haworth and see where the sisters lived and where they wrote their novels.”
But the idea of films and TV programmes boosting tourism isn’t a modern day phenomena. “It’s happened in previous years when there’s been new books, films and TV programmes. Back in the 1940s visitor numbers shot up after the films of Wuthering Heights and Devotion [a 1946 movie about the sisters].”
At one time though, the volume of visitors flooding into the museum was becoming unsustainable, with as many as 200,000 people a year making the pilgrimage to the parsonage. Since then numbers have become more manageable. “There’s a fine balance between having enough visitors to keep the museum growing without spoiling the experience for people who come here,” explains Rebecca.
“We’re delighted there’s all this attention, it really shows the power of the novels – Jane Eyre especially is something women often read at a young age and it stays with them. Last week we had a Twitter campaign called Jane and Me and we asked people to take a photo of themselves with their copy of Jane Eyre and post it and we were trending for four hours.
“At one point we had #JaneAndMe, #JaneEyre and #Bronte200 all in the top ten Twitter trends. There were people tweeting in Italian and there was somebody in New Zealand with their copy, it was amazing.”
It’s a big week for landmark birthdays and anniversaries with Charlotte sharing her birthday with the Queen, who turns 90 tomorrow, then on Saturday it will be 400 years since William Shakespeare breathed his last.
In Haworth, though, the focus is on Charlotte, with the museum leading the celebrations by hosting a tea party at the Old School Room, where Charlotte taught.
A short walk down the hill from the parsonage and you’re on Main Street, with its cobbles and chocolate box allure, that cuts a line through the heart of the village. Here the bunting is up in anticipation of the big day and local shop owners are gearing up for a party atmosphere.
“There’s a big buzz here at the moment, more so than usual because we’ve had quite a few TV crews filming here recently,” says Claire Foster, who runs the arts and crafts shop Hawksbys with her husband Barry.
“We’re surrounded by this beautiful landscape and there’s the Worth Valley railway and the general quirkiness of the streets. We’re really lucky to have all this on our doorstep.”
It’s perhaps easy to forget that Haworth has more strings to its bow. The village attracted huge crowds for the Grand Départ two years ago which introduced a whole new audience to its many charms, while its 1940s weekend is always a big draw.
But there’s no denying the Brontë factor. “They are a massive part of Haworth and a lot of people know Haworth simply because of the Brontës,” says Claire. It has not only brought visitors here but investment too. “I would say we’ve seen about 10 or 12 new shops opening in the last year or so and most of them are independents which has helped freshen the place up.”
There’s a mini industry built up around the Brontës and while it would perhaps be easy for Haworth to become a tacky tourist trap, it keeps its literary heritage understated, and is all the more attractive for it.
Diane Park who runs the nearby Wave of Nostalgia, a vintage-style clothes and gifts shop, uses the Brontës’ novels to strike up conversations with her customers. “I’ve actually done research about them and read their books so that I can talk to people about them,” she says.
The Brontë connection also brings wider benefits. “I’ve got Brontë-inspired gifts produced by local people. There’s a woman in Giggleswick who makes quotelets with lines from the novels and there’s a guy called Andrew from Heckmondwike who makes leather bound books, so they are helping local craftspeople too.”
Diane believes the famous sisters have left behind a lasting legacy. “You can feel the Brontës’ presence in the village, you get a sense of walking the same streets they once did. And to be able to sit here and read these fantastic books that were written just a few hundred yards is so inspiring. People come to Haworth because of the Brontës and without them there would be no Haworth.”
Simon Packham who runs ...and Chocolate, a local chocolate shop, believes tomorrow’s anniversary is important for Haworth. “I think the bicentenary has brought more excitement and it’s raised awareness of the Brontë heritage that we have here,” he says.
“A lot of people have been coming to Haworth since they were children and their memories will have been prompted by the Brontës.
“The reason they came here in the first place is because of the Brontë family and the bicentenary gives them another reason to come back.”
Celebrations of a literary icon
At the Brontë Parsonage Museum tomorrow’s celebrations include talks by writer and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier who edited Reader I Married Him, a collection of short stories inspired by Charlotte.
Pupils from Haworth Primary School will perform scenes from Jane Eyre and a birthday party will be held at the Old School Room.
There, Great British Bake Off contestant Sandy Docherty, from Yeadon, will deliver a special cake inspired by the writer.
Ms Chevalier, the museum’s creative partner for 2016, will also give a guided tour of the Parsonage’s new exhibition a Charlotte Great and Small, which explores the contrast between Charlotte’s constricted life and her huge ambition.