Exploring Haworth and the Brontes with Young Children

We recently returned from an epic trip around the north east and north west of England, with stop number one being Haworth, the village where the Bronte sisters once lived.  This literary mecca is a top destination for grown-up tourists from around the world, but just how can you get children interested in its history?  Is Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage Museum suitable for young children?

Now picturesque, even pretty, Haworth was once the edge of the world for its inhabitants, with only the rich few able to travel further afield to larger towns and cities (think of Mr Earnshaw returning from Liverpool's docks with Heathcliff).  Busy and overcrowded this mill town was also a kind of frontier town, not the safe but bleak world we imagine for the famous sisters.

Tell the kids a dramatic tale (we included mills, chopped hands, robbers and vagabonds), and join them in looking for the pistol shot embedded in the tower of the church.  Although now you are more likely to see bunting than gunfire, of course.

Walk up the cobbled hill and imagine the Bronte family traversing the same stones.  We had watched the 1939 Laurence Olivier version of Wuthering Heights and read an abridged version of Jane Eyre before we went, and discussed a potted version of the Brontes' history.  Sophia was most intrigued and kept saying 'I can't believe they were really here'.

Gift shops abound all the way up and down the hill of Main Street, but be careful as several of the shopkeepers were not at all child-friendly and actually quite rude.  A shame.  The most delightful exception was the small ...and Chocolate, where the owner went out of his way to welcome and entertain the girls, encouraging them to play shops, ring up their own purchases, explore the shop, and even to sneak down to the stock room.  Delicious chocolate was handed round too!

As Main Street opens out to a small square at the top, there are more cafes, shops, and a small tourist information shop.  The Bronte parsonage is to be found up a short passageway to the left and is well signposted.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum has a wonderful collection Bronte manuscripts, letters, early editions of the novels etc, as well as rooms laid out as characterised in the girls' letters and other documents.  Having driven for several hours the girls were fractious and more keen to be outdoors, so we did not go in this time, but would do in future.  Perhaps more suitable for teens, especially those studying or  with an interest in the literature.

The Old School Room, situated between the parsonage and the church, was built in 1832 by Patrick Bronte, a passionate social reformer.  Originally a Sunday school, it was open on week days from 1844 and at some point all of the Bronte daughters taught there.  It was also managed by Arthur Bell Nichols, Charlotte's future husband, from 1845 and was the site of their wedding in 1854, accommodating some 500 guests.

The current Haworth church is not the one Patrick Bronte preached in, being the third building on the site built in 1879-81, but earlier parts do survive, such as the tower, the lower parts of which date back to the fifteenth century.  The graveyard however does date from that time and reveals the sorry statistic that life expectancy was just 22 years in Haworth at the time of the Brontes, with 40% of children dying before their 6th birthday.

Our daughters were fascinated by the gravestones, and happily got chatting to some of the locals who could recount family histories including some of those buried here.

Inside the church a small memorial marks the final resting place below in the crypt of Patrick and Maria Bronte, and five of their children: Elizabeth, Maria, Branwell, Emily, and Charlotte.  Only Anne is buried elsewhere, at Scarborough.  Just 7 of the 40-42,000 bodies estimated to be buried in Haworth's churchyard.

Head on past the parsonage to open moorland, great for walks, or head left across the top of the church yard and up hill to Penistone Hill Country Park.  From here you can walk to pretty Bronte Falls and Top Withens, the supposed inspiration for Wuthering Heights. Both are reasonably easy walks, but do leave enough time to get there and back, especially with children, wear sensible shoes, and bring food, water and extra layers as it does get breezy up there!

And what of the practicalities?  Park down at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway station (£3 all day) and walk across the wooden bridge and up the hill to the bottom of Main Street.  You will pass through pretty Central Park, which has an excellent playground and lots of space to play and picnic.  (If the railway is running, a journey to Oakworth, setting of The Railway Children, is highly recommended too.)

We stopped at the playground on the way up, having bought snacks from the shop opposite the station, and had a longer stop on the way back down.  Walking uphill at the beginning of the day is certainly preferable to doing it on the way back!

For food, there are many, many pubs, cafes and tea rooms in Haworth.  There is also a good bakery at the top of Main Street which makes sandwiches to order and sells great sticky buns!  Or bring a picnic to eat in Central Park or on the moor.  The Spar opposite the station is surprisingly large and offers a wide range, so you could easily pack up a lunch from here.

So can you enthuse young children about Victorian literature? Yes!  Do a bit of prep before you go, and create some enthralling stories to tell, and they'll be eating out of your hand.  A wonderful opportunity to see the harsh realities of Victorian life, see what the Industrial Revolution did to the countryside, and introduce some fantastic literature.  Go!

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