England is a wonderful place to hike. When the weather is fine the countryside is as beautiful as you’ll find anywhere, and it seems that every step is steeped in history. There’s variety too, from idyllic hikes along the Thames to challenging treks along the length of Hadrian’s Wall.
One of the more unique places for hiking in England is the Yorkshire Moors. Moorland is found in uplands that have acidic soils. There aren’t many trees and most of the vegetation is grass or heather. When a river cuts through it, like in the photo above, you’ll find trees and a richer variety of plant life. The moors in Yorkshire are some of the biggest in England and in the summertime are purple with blooming heather. Sheep graze on the slopes and a wide variety of birds can be seen. Parts of it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands but with gentler terrain and no lochs.
The Brontë sisters were inspired by this brooding yet subtly beautiful landscape and many of their stories are set on the moors. Local historian and hiking guide Steven Wood led me and my group out onto the moors to visit some of the Brontë’s favorite spots. In fine English tradition it started pouring as soon as we left the hotel. Waterproof gear is essential on any English hike. Even if it’s beautifully sunny, bring it anyway just in case. You won’t be sorry because the weather can change quickly. While it can go from bad to worse, it can also go from terrible to lovely. That’s what you get for being on an island between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Within half an hour the weather had cleared and we were walking through open fields. Yorkshire has been cultivated since Neolithic times and while there’s no shortage of civilization, it’s quite easy to walk away from it and into land that looks as it did centuries ago.
%Gallery-104950%Our first stop was Top Withens, an isolated stone farmhouse that may have been the inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Located on a highpoint surrounded by low, undulating hills covered in heather, it’s a spot that could certainly inspire a novel. You can see for miles in all directions, the dull browns and greens of the land matching the slate gray of the arching sky. While this abandoned farm has been a pilgrimage site for Brontë fans for a century, today we had it for ourselves. With no other people about, no animals, and the jet contrails hidden by lowering clouds, it felt like we were the only people in all of Yorkshire.
We then headed to a waterfall that the Brontë sisters liked to visit. At least it’s said to be the waterfall. Like a lot of “George Washington slept here” kind of spots, the waterfall’s reputation is based on a slim bit of fact (they mention frequent visits to a waterfall) and a lot of local lore and wishful thinking. The main thing is that it’s beautiful. A little stream, stained brown by the moor’s soil, rushes through a narrow valley thick with greenery. Another stream cascades over a nearby hill, making a sparkling little waterfall before joining it to flow on towards Haworth, where the Brontës lived. A natural stone seat has “C. Bronte” carved on it, along with the mysterious initials “DWW”. A nearby bridge has a plaque talking about how this was probably where the Brontë’s like to spend their spare time.
It’s all a bit iffy, but who cares? If it wasn’t for its reputation, I wouldn’t have whiled away an enjoyable half hour watching the water flow between the heather. People from all over the world come to see this stream, and if they want to believe this was the place the Brontës visited, that’s fine. It may even be true. The crowds of Japanese Brontë fans who come here seem to think so. The Brontës are huge in Japan, and so many Japanese travelers show up that the signs marking the routes are in Japanese as well as English!
There are many different hikes in the Yorkshire Moors. Some are easy day hikes like the one we did. Others are long-distance paths that take days and pass by the rugged coastline. The Walking and Hiking website has a good listing of routes to get you started. The Welcome to Yorkshire website has free downloadable maps of several popular routes. The Walking Englishman has an amusing description of the walk we did (including a photo of a sheep stealing his lunch) and a map of the route.
Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.