Visiting the Brontë sisters in Yorkshire

People say literary genius is a rare thing, something seen only once in a thousand or a million people. Maybe so, but the Brontës had three (and maybe five) literary geniuses in the same family.

From their father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, in northern England, the three Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne produced some of the most popular books in the English language. Works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still read more than 150 years after they were published. They’ve survived the test of time. The ebook edition of Wuthering Heights is currently ranked number 457 at Amazon’s Kindle store, and number 5 in the fiction classics category. Their work has been made into numerous movies and another version of Jane Eyre is coming out next year.

The sisters also prompted literary tourism to Haworth. It started not long after they died and has steadily grown ever since. While everyone comes to Haworth to see the Brontë home and related sights, they also enjoy a beautiful and well-preserved nineteenth century village full of shops and fine restaurants.

Now I have to be honest here and admit that until I went on this trip I had never read a Brontë novel. They were the classics I never got assigned in school and I figured I’d get around to whenever. Before I left for Yorkshire I read Jane Eyre and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The rich prose and sedate pacing definitely belong to the nineteenth century, but the smartass, independent female protagonist belongs to the modern world.

Much of Haworth remains as the Brontës knew it. The Brontë Parsonage Museum preserves their home and tells their story. House museums are tricky to do well. Despite being a museum junkie, some historic homes bore me to death. This one, however, gripped my attention. Besides the usual stuff like the desks they wrote at and the sofas they sat on (and Emily may have died on), there are the little details that make it stick in your memory. In the nursery where they spent their childhood faint pencil drawings can be seen on the wall. While it’s impossible to say if these literary giants doodled these when they were small, it makes you wonder.

There’s also the story of Branwell Brontë. Who? Yeah, that was always his problem. He was their brother, a failed artist and struggling writer living in the shadow of his superstar sisters. He fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and opium addiction before dying at 31. The above painting of his sisters is Branwell’s work. He originally included himself in the portrait, then unsuccessfully erased himself. He doodled constantly, illustrating letters he sent to friends. One at the museum shows himself in two images. The first is labeled “Paradise” shows him drunk off his ass and shouting, “I am the lord of the manor!” The other is labeled “Purgatory” and shows him hunched over an opium pipe.

%Gallery-104264%The museum also tells the story of their father Patrick, the local pastor who was also a published author. Many a young woman’s ambitions were crushed in those days by domineering fathers who wanted them to get married and get pregnant. Patrick Brontë was progressive enough not to feel threatened by his daughters’ talent and encouraged them in their careers.

Beyond the Brontë parsonage you can see traces of their life everywhere. Patrick Brontë’s church stands nearby and houses the family’s memorial chapel. The pub where Branwell got drunk is just a short stagger away from the apothecary where he bought his opium. The Black Bull Inn still serves up fine Yorkshire ales, but the apothecary shop stopped carrying opiates when they started requiring a prescription. Otherwise it’s a good replica of an early apothecary and still sells traditional cures.

Haworth’s main street is down a steep hill lined with little shops. You can find delicious local cheeses and preserves, a couple of fine tearooms, some excellent secondhand bookshops, and more gift shops than you can shake a copy of Wuthering Heights at. Several historic inns offer beers and beds. At the train station a traditional steam railway offers rides.

But Haworth isn’t all tea and scones and twee little shops. There’s a dark side to the town’s history, full of ghosts, death, and despair. On my second day I discovered I was all too close to the supernatural. . .

This is the first of my new series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Three nights in a haunted hotel room!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

[Photo courtesy user Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons]

Drug tourism and cocaine bars

What fun is travel without a little excitement? Rest and relaxation is a given, but excitement? That you have to look for, and it appears excitement for many is found in drugs.

I came across an article yesterday that made me cringe. The world’s first cocaine bar, it read. And while I have to admit it picqued my interest, I must also say the thought of sitting in a bar with nearly everyone high on cocaine scares me — beyond belief. I wonder, though, whether this cocaine bar in La Paz, Bolivia is on to something. There are heaps of traveling hedonists, eager for a new high, and while I don’t find that high in drugs, I’m almost positive many travelers in Latin America — and all over the world, for that matter — do.

If you think about it, drug tourism has been around for decades. It was no secret that drugs came easy at Studio 54, and it wasn’t really a surprise to me when I heard recently of Kokie’s, a bar in Manhattan that sold cocaine on the down low. I guess the name gave Kokie’s away, because it’s now closed.

And cocaine’s not the only thing people travel for in the world. Consider all the cheap prescription drugs you can get in Tijuana. I even took advantage of that and bought a bottle of Cipro. Or what about the opium dens in Laos. There were all kinds of “special” pizzas on the menu in Vang Vieng. In a lot of ways, drugs and travel mix perfectly, and in a lot of ways, it’s not wrong to mix them unless you’re over-using and forgetting about reality — or not even bothering to understand the place you’re in.

Nevertheless, could this cocaine bar in La Paz be a sign of the times, and will drugs be the new draw for certain destinations abroad? Only time will tell…

Museum Junkie: England’s most unique museum reopens

Oxford’s famous Pitt Rivers Museum has reopened this month after more than a year of remodeling.

The famous Victorian displays, a massive collection of diverse anthropological objects in a large gallery and two upper floors, have remained untouched, preserving an almost unique set of displays dating back more than a century.

One of the most popular cases is the one involving death rituals, which has a spooky group of skulls and shrunken heads. A display about smoking contains a Chinese opium pipe with some suspicious-looking resin and a diagram of how to make a pipe by poking a hole through the ground. The museum as an especially good collection of Native American art, such as this woodcut print entitled “Hungry Bear” by Coast Salish artist Jody Wilson, depicting a grizzly bear in the act of catching a salmon.

The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects from Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in the evolution of objects and organized his collection typologically, placing all items of the same use into a single case in order to show the evolution of form within and across cultures. The collection now boasts half a million artifacts from hundreds of cultures. The cases are cluttered with objects, and below them are drawers that can be opened to reveal more artifacts. The staff hand out free flashlights (called torches in England) so visitors and peer into the deeper recesses of the cases where even more treasures are hidden.


This style of organization, so different from most modern museums, makes for a fascinating visit. For example, the case labeled Animal Forms in Art has dozens of animal representations from various cultures, some stylized, some realistic, some for worship, some for play. There’s an ancient Egyptian ram’s head made of wood, a nineteenth-century Danish piggybank, and a wooden owl carved by the Ainu about 1900 A.D., packed in with dozens of other objects.

An example of how objects can change their meaning over time is shown in drawer 29.3, labeled Amulets, Religious Artifacts, and Offerings. Inside are nine ushabti, little glazed figurines that the ancient Egyptians put in their tombs to act as servants in the afterlife. But these particular ones date from only a hundred years ago and were carried by Egyptian peasant men who went from village to village. Women would place them on the ground and jump over them in order to become fertile. One wonders if the wandering ushabti carriers had anything to do with it.

The whole effect of all the world’s objects crammed together in the same room is somewhat dizzying; even the walls and ceilings are decorated with totem poles, kayaks, and outrigger canoes.

The upper floor containing an immense array of weapons from all periods and cultures won’t be open until spring of 2010, but the two floors that are already open to the public will give any museum junkie several days’ worth of exploration.

China releases Olympic visitor “do and don’t” list

Visitors planning a trip to the Beijing Olympics have had a lot of information to absorb in recent weeks. Between the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake, the ongoing controversy surrounding the Olympic torch and somewhat inevitable construction blunders, there’s been no shortage of China-related news. And if you weren’t already on China Olympics information overload, the Beijing Organizing Committee saw fit on Monday to release a list of 57 “Do’s and Don’ts” for foreign Olympic visitors.

The rules run the range from the fairly obvious (best take your Opium smuggling elsewhere) to the practical (how to file a complaint to the health department if you get food poisoning) to the more draconian (no materials detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and moral standards). While I can understand the need for visitors to be conscious of local cultural customs, this list oversteps its bounds. Aside from the fact it reminds everyone of all the ongoing controversy, it does nothing but serve to frighten your potential visitors. What kind of host would do that?

Headed to Beijing for the games? Don’t let travel bogeymen like “Do’s and Don’ts” lists or potential controversy scare you away. Like any unknown travel situation, the rumors often overshadow the true story on the ground. By the time that opening ceremony kicks off you’ll remember why you showed up in the first place.