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The Brontes' Country

November 22, 1987|ELAINE BERMAN and ART BERMAN

HAWORTH, England — On that bleak hilltop the earth was hard with a black frost. --"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte, 1847

Bleak but ruggedly beautiful, the Yorkshire moors remain an irresistible lure for lovers of the Bronte legacy.

During the day, tourists wander the steep cobblestone streets of the village where the Bronte sisters spent much of their brief lives and produced their classic works. Little has changed at the parsonage where they lived, the nearby stone church where their father presided and the Black Bull Hotel, where their only brother drank himself to an early grave.

At night the streets are nearly deserted as shops and eating establishments close, but business remains brisk in the ground-floor pubs of the Black Bull and the White Lion, two of the several hotels and bed and breakfasts in the village.

Somewhat out of the way, 30 miles northeast of Manchester in West Yorkshire, Haworth draws a steady stream of visitors who arrive by car, train and bus to visit the village and surrounding moors. The area is second only to Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon as an English literary shrine.

Best remembered as the site of "Wuthering Heights," the moors are treeless, heather-covered pastures dotted with grazing sheep whose thick coats fend off the biting breezes and chilly rains that often lash the countryside, even in summer.

A 6 1/2-mile round-trip hike from parsonage to pinnacle of the rising pastureland takes the visitor to the crumbling stone walls of Top Withens, the farmhouse that is thought to have been Emily Bronte's inspiration for "Wuthering Heights."

Wuthering , according to the narrator of the novel, is a local term meaning constant harsh wind. The farmhouse in the book is the home of Mr. Heathcliff, and Bronte tells of his passionate relationship with Catherine, a drama that is played out under the dark clouds and against the bitter winds of the moors.

We felt very much part of a Victorian novel this summer as we hiked through the moors. We slipped on muddy trails, climbed over low stone walls that divide the green hills into separate pastures and squeezed through turnstiles or openings too narrow for livestock.

And yes, we couldn't resist shouting an occasional "Heathcliff!" or "Catherine!," knowing that our words would be quickly swept away in the wind.

While our travels have taken us to other places with literary ties (we also visited Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorchester and walked in Jane Austen's footsteps in Lyme Regis and London on this trip), nothing gave us the sense of what the author must have felt as much as our walk over the moors.

Our suspicion that other tourists react this way, as well, at first could only be confirmed by the looks of bemused contempt we seemed to get from the occasional sheep. We talked with other travelers and learned that they also were enthralled by the atmosphere.

The walk was invigorating. On a more practical note, it clearly requires good shoes, warm clothes and a firm resolve. A sturdy umbrella might come in handy, too.

At Top Withens a plaque embedded in a stone wall cautions that the farmhouse that once stood there, "even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house (Emily Bronte) described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of The Heights."

After a rest on a bench placed thoughtfully at the site, and a good look at the magnificent view of the green rectangles of the moors, we returned via a slightly different route that took us past 200-year-old farmhouses, still in use, and through a charming village.

We had taken along a picnic, but in the face of a cold wind and occasional drizzle, we carried it back to our room above the pub at the Black Bull.

Sagging Upper Floor

The old stone hotel, built alongside the church, has only a few rooms on its sagging upper floor. The rooms are small but comfortable and include the addition of electricity and plumbing.

Outside our window was the churchyard with its aged tombstones, which made for a delightfully spooky atmosphere, especially at night when leaves rustled in the wind and branches slapped against the stone walls of the hotel.

During late afternoons, when English pubs are closed by law--something that is due to change next year--the front door is locked. Hotel guests are given keys that enable them to come and go by a rear entrance. That means walking through the semi-darkened and abandoned pub, where dish towels are draped over the lager and bitter taps.

It is an odd feeling, indeed, to stand alone beneath the low ceilings and alongside the burnished dark woods of the silent pub, with a sense of lifetimes of imbibing and socializing all around. We tarried only briefly.

Our upstairs room for two, with the key to the back door, cost $48 a night and included a generous English breakfast. Dinner in the hotel dining room featured entrees such as scampi or mixed grill for about $12.

Legacy Draws Pilgrims

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