Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I love walking. Perhaps because I was a clumsy child (and I can’t say I’m the most graceful of adults, either), overweight, and lacking a good sense of balance, many sports didn’t like me (it was mutual!), but walking I could do, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity it gives us to contemplate life at a slow pace and to discover things, people, and places that might pass us by if we use other means of transport.
I love the Brontës as well. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre have long been among my favourite novels (I must read some of Anne’s novels in English, I know), and I’ve lived and worked in Yorkshire, quite close to the area where they lived for lengthy periods, and loved the landscape as well. So, of course I had to have this book.
Wherever I visit, if I can fit in, I try to join a literary walk. It’s a great way to combine two of my favourite activities: reading and walking. (I also listen to audiobook while going for walks sometimes). If the guide is skilled and knowledgeable, you can learn fascinating information about the city or area, about the author or authors, and feel as if you were going back in time and experiencing what the place might have been like when the author lived there. This book offers us the same kind of experience. Although it is written as a companion for people planning a visit to Haworth and its vicinity, it is so packed with information, photographs, maps, literary references, and advice, that it will be indispensable to anybody who wants to learn more about the sisters and submerge herself or himself in the landscape the authors loved so much.
The book is divided into 20 chapters, it contains 19 walks of varied difficulty (some are short walks within the town of Haworth itself, and the first one, in fact, is a walk around the Parsonage where the Brontës lived, now a museum), and a few introductory chapters. There is the introduction proper, explaining the reasons behind the writing of the book, chapter 2 talks about West Yorkshire and the Haworth area, chapter 3 offers a guide to safe and responsible walking, chapter 4 summarises the history of the Brontë family and chapter 5 talks specifically about the Brontës in Haworth and what happened to them there. Then follow the chapters about the walks (some containing one walk in detail, while some of the later ones, which are longer and stray farther away from Haworth, sometimes include a couple of walks that might be combined, always offering options to reduce their length. There are even some that include the option of jumping on a train). The final chapter talks about the art of walking and what effects it had (positive and negative) on the Brontës. There is also a bibliography that will be of interest to anybody keen on increasing their knowledge on the sisters.
All the chapters are structured in a similar way, first offering a narrative, a fact file of the walk (including the Ordnance Survey Map, general information as to the terrain, level of difficulty, length, likely duration, facilities, and also any relevant warnings), followed by maps or graphics (depending on the topic), and then a collection of photographs, all in black and white, which can aid people going for the walks to find their location easily, but will help readers imagine what the place is like as well. (I must confess I would have liked to see colour photographs, but I can see how the black & white pictures recreate the nostalgic air of the area and help us imagine the old times, as they combine more seamlessly with the archival old photographs. It is also true that the moors change colours so dramatically with the seasons that it would be difficult to give readers an accurate idea of what the place is like in different times of the year).
What did I enjoy the most? Having visited Haworth, the surrounding area, the Parsonage, and having walked around (in town, but also some of the longer walks that include landscapes and buildings said to have inspired the sisters’ writing), I enjoyed the pictures, which reminded me of many familiar places and others that had passed me by (I must visit Thornton, where the family lived before they moved to Haworth, if I can). I also enjoyed the titbits of information about buildings, how those had changed over time, and how the authors managed to make readers imagine what the sisters and their family would have experienced and seen at the time, including also poems, and references to their work.
These are the moors above and beyond Haworth spreading for miles to the west and containing old farmsteads and ruined houses dating back to the Elizabethan era and where people have lived and worked for centuries. They can be covered in swirling mist or blazing sunshine, snow and piercing gales, or have an eerie calm. They can be loud with the cries of animals and birds or silent as a tomb in their deep holes and clefts. They are harsh and they are beautiful. (Walford & Rayner, 2018, p. 5).
While most of the book centres on the beauty and the wonders one can see and experience when visiting the place, the authors excel also at explaining what the living conditions were like at the time. Although today Haworth might feel quaint, charming, and romantic (yes, it is all that and lovely to visit, believe me), this is quite different to what it had been like at the time, when the living conditions were quite terrible, the industrial revolution was steamrolling everything, mills were popping up all around, filling the atmosphere with smoke and soot, transport was difficult, sanitation ranged from bad to inexistent… It is not surprising that the six Brontë children died young, as did their mother, and they were not the only ones.
“Through hard and dangerous work, squalid living conditions, polluted water supplies, poor sanitation and disease, the town of Haworth was killing its own community in the nineteenth century” (Walford & Rayner, 2018, p. 8).
The chapter of the walk around the graveyard attached to the Parsonage, chapter 8, reads at times like a gothic horror novel, with graves piled up 10 to 12 high, and rainwater running from the moors down the graveyard filtering into the drinking water, and likely being the cause of cholera, typhoid fever, and some of the other illnesses common at the time. (Life expectancy was 25 at the time). On the other hand, this same chapter also includes information on the symbolism of the carvings on the graves (for instance, a Celtic cross would mean eternity, and an angel with open wings, the flight of the soul to Heaven).
One of my favourite chapters (and yes, if I go back to the area I’ll be sure to take the book and follow as many of the walks as I can) is the last one, on the art of walking. It is a fascinating reminder of a time when people mostly walked everywhere, and they didn’t have appropriate clothing or shoes in most cases (the authors remind us that the father of the Brontës never owned a horse, and tells us of a visit of Branwell [their brother] to Charlotte that would have meant a 65 km (40 miles) round trip, walking, in one day. If you didn’t have a lot of money, there weren’t many options then, and your health could suffer if the weather was bad. But nowadays, we are lucky, and walking is a healthy option with many benefits, for our bodies and minds.
In summary, this is a fantastic book for people planning a visit to Haworth and the surrounding area, but also for anybody who loves the Brontës and wants to learn more about their time and lives in a visual and tangible way. It will inspire readers to visit (even if it is only with their imagination) the landscapes and the streets the sister walked, and will help them understand better what makes their voices so haunting and distinct. This book is also a beautiful gift to walkers and historians who want to learn more about this time and area in an engaging and enjoyable way.
As the authors say:
It is important to remember the old ways and the people of the past and the efforts they made to improve and enhance society, so that in the 21st century people in this country, and many others, can live healthier, easier and more entertaining lives. There is still much evidence of the past remaining which can help modern society to recall and appreciate its heritage. (Walford & Rayner, 2018, pp. 273-4)