Top Withens, Yorkshire: Visiting Brontes' home and setting of Wuthering Heights

The hike to the ruins of the Yorkshire farmhouse known as Top Withens is a pilgrimage into a landscape of bleak weather and fierce emotions.

It's a glorious tramp out on the wiley, windy moors, even if you've never read Wuthering Heights. The 12-kilometre circuit loops from the Bronte parsonage on the edge of the pretty village of Haworth to rolling dales covered in blasted heather and cut by icy streams.

For me, this was a walk in the footsteps of ghosts. The Bronte children roamed these paths, telling stories of imaginary worlds as they scrambled across ravines. Every rocky outcrop I passed could shelter a glowering Heathcliff, and every figure in the distance Jane Eyre marching away from Mr Rochester.

I towed my good-natured husband on this trip, though he had never read a Bronte. In the local pubs, the prissy 1939 Laurence Olivier film of Wuthering Heights was on permanent loop, and the bartender was pulling Branwell ale. In the steep, cobblestone streets, gift shops were crammed with souvenirs straining to add a little Mills and Boon romance to the savagery of the source material.

But the Bronte parsonage, where that gifted, cursed family lived and died, remains a place of powerful melancholy. This year, it celebrates Emily's 200th birthday with a special exhibition on her life, and the return of the famous family portrait.

The severe old home on the edge of the village is now a museum, with many of the rooms restored as they would have looked when the Brontes lived there.

There's the dining table where Charlotte, Emily and Anne would sit and write their competing manuscripts. The saddest scenes are dedicated to brother Branwell – his room in disarray, empty bottles cluttering a desk filled with scrawled artworks and ink-blotched pages.

He died in September 1848, aged 31, his tuberculosis sped along by gin and opium. His sister Emily followed him to the grave three months later, aged 30, refusing to admit until her final hours that she was gravely ill. Charlotte, the longest lived of the siblings, died aged 39 of severe morning sickness in 1855 in the airy upstairs room now dedicated to her.

We began the walk early one bright clear morning in May. The weather is not wuthering, exactly, but the "pure, bracing ventilation" of the winds were keenly felt, clouds shredding overhead.

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Turning away from the Brontes' bleak house, we walked up Cemetery Road to the moor path, where Bronte Walk directions are carved into timber finger posts in English and Japanese.

It was surreal to walk into a landscape that had been made into literature. Like Jane Eyre, "we reached the first stragglers of the battalion of rocks, guarding a sort of pass, beyond which the beck rushed down a waterfall".

This was South Dean Beck, a babbling stream that tumbled over what is now called Bronte Falls, which we crossed on Bronte Bridge.

On the other side, we scrambled up a steep bank and squeezed through a gap in a dry-stone wall to the top of the ridge. From here, we could see Top Withens on the horizon, just as gentleman tenant Mr Lockwood caught sight of his destination in the opening chapter of Wuthering Heights.

The ruins of this old homestead looked nothing like the manor in the book.

That was a rich man's stately home, with stables and servants' quarters. But it's not impossible that Emily Bronte, walking the moors with her dog, could have been inspired by the setting.

"The house is not so buried in trees, and it is not quite so large," she wrote in her one weird and extraordinary novel, "but you can see the country beautifully all round; and the air is healthier for you – fresher and drier. You will, perhaps, think the building old and dark at first; though it is a respectable house: the next best in the neighbourhood."

No ghost would claw at these windows begging to be let in, but I climbed through. What remained now were a few stone walls blotched with moss and open to the sky, the only windbreak a pair of twisted sycamore trees.

But we really could see the country beautifully all around, back across to Haworth and Keighley, and north along the Pennine Way to the truly wild moors of the Yorkshire Dales national park.

A stone plaque from 1964 cautiously acknowledged the link with Wuthering Heights, adding, with what might be a note of exasperation, that the sign "has been placed here in response to many inquiries".

The pilgrims have been coming for well over a century, climbing the hills to see if the landscape could match the energy of the Bronte sisters' descriptions. Poets and newlyweds Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes came by in 1956, and both would wrote poems about the place.

"I never thought I could like any country as well as the ocean," Plath wrote to her mother, "but these moors are really even better, with the great luminous emerald lights changing always, and the animals and wildness. Read Wuthering Heights again here and really felt it this time more than ever."

The walk back to town was easier, swerving left at a junction to the corrugated farm road that slopes down to the tidy village of Stanmore, where we were too early to stop for a drink at the Old Silent Inn.

We continued past the Low Laithe Reservoir, where signs warned that the icy temperature could kill you, and back to Haworth.

Crossing the impractically steep field owned by the local cricket club, we navigated through back lanes until we returned to the parsonage.

The Brontes are not buried in the crowded cemetery outside their front door, but in a crypt below St Michael and All Angels, the church rebuilt after the Bronte patriarch, Patrick, finally died in 1861, having outlived his wife and all six children.

Reading the names of all the Brontes but Anne – poor dutiful Anne, buried at the seaside town where she tried to recover – I was struck by the losses of this brilliant, wretched family, and in awe of what they left behind.

The epitaph engraved in the marble was bleak, "the sting of Death is Sin". But I thought instead of the perfect final sentence from Wuthering Heights, set in the landscape beyond:

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/britain

bronte.org.uk

FLY

Various airlines fly from Australia's eastern capitals into Manchester including Etihad, Singapore and Virgin.

STAY

Weavers Guesthouse has rooms overlooking the parsonage and cemetery. See weaversguesthouse.co.uk

WALK

Maps available in the village and at the parsonage. Many guides online. For detailed maps and description, see happyhiker.co.uk

Michelle Griffin travelled at her own expense.

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