A mill, a hill, a graveyard. Stepping out with a Maid in England

English.

What does it mean, now?

There’s been much fretting over recent years about that question. Scottish, Irish, Welsh – each nationality has its own identity. Whether you see a caricature, a historic hangover, a modern revival, it’s there – but English?

I suspect it’s partly the penalty for years of ‘English’ being synonymous with British when the kingdom still ruled the waves. We subsumed the others and lost ourselves in the process.

Or was it the two world wars that eroded our traditions and ideas of self?

A combination of both with loss of empire?

As 15 year-olds at school, studying English literature for public exams, we were dismayed to be allocated English and Scottish ballads where others did Wordsworth or other such lyrical rhyming bards.

But – rather like Latin – I see the worth of the dour verses more, the older I become.

They encapsulate history. Paint pictures of human nature. Tell us stories and, if we listen, teach us lessons.

We also sang folk songs.

‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,’ took us to Scotland, in Wales we mourned ‘David of the White Rock’ and his harp. Our convent school’s Irish nuns turned a blind eye to Republican songs at our folk club and officially taught us Yeats’s  lovely, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens.’

But we also sang English songs and shanties: ‘The North Country Maid,’  ‘Early One Morning,’ ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’ and many more tales with morals, put to music.

Including, of course, ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht At’ (On Ilkley Moor Without [your] Hat). A Yorkshire song.

Yorkshire.

Famed for its textile industry, its dominance once world-wide and emphatic. But among its proliferation of woollen mills, sprinkled, here and there, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, was cotton.

It was from a former cotton mill that I set out one December morning in the footsteps of another – arguably even more famous Yorkshire export – Emily Brontë.

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Bent’s Mill, Cullingworth, Yorkshire, early one August morning

Emily was born two hundred years ago but still her masterpiece (mistresspiece?) entices people to Haworth and its encircling moors.

‘Wuthering Heights,’ Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff – names to raise a shiver on a wintry night when the lights go out, the window rattles and the wind howls.

The weather had been right Yorkshire two days earlier, rain falling on frozen ground slicking the world with treacherous ice. But Monday dawned above freezing, still chilly, but fair.

I’d booked a set of headphones, a walk, an experience, for ten o’clock.

It began in a graveyard, with a cacophony of cawing corvids in the headphones. Weak sunlight glistened on dewdrops dangling from the branches of leafless trees, their sinister dark limbs, stretched against a pale morning sky.

e wet churchycard wiht trees

The graveyard in front of the Parsonage in Haworth

Then came the moving voices of that magical folk group, The Unthanks. English north-easterners themselves, they had recorded some of Emily’s poems. Not only that, they had recorded them to the accompaniment of the piano which still stands in the parlour of the Parsonage where the Brontë family lived.

Adrian McNally, part of the group, had set them to music. But first he had to accustom himself to the ways of the old piano.

 

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The Brontë family piano in the Parsonage, Haworth

As I learned from the commentary between poems, it had its own preferences. The piano sang best in its higher notes and, said Adrian, felt almost like a cross between piano and celeste.

Impatient for more sung poesie, I began to tire of his talking, but when the music returned I understood why he’d gone to such lengths.

My heart soared with the chiming high notes that flew me away from his words.

I stood in awe and wonder. On a hill, rising skywards out of Haworth, where Emily and her sisters often walked.

Penistone Hill.

c cloud moving in

Accompanying the headphones, borrowed from the Parsonage Museum, was a leaflet describing a circular walk, numbers on a map telling me which song to listen to – but it was barely needed.

It’s fair to say – as the Unthanks do between recordings – Emily may not have been happy for all her poems, including some of these, to be published after her untimely death as if they were proud, finished specimens.

But woven into the mournful, beautiful, soulful melodies of the Unthanks, I could not help but soaking up, dissolving in Emilyness. In death and decay, but also in a strange kind of acceptance, of love. Of hopeless hopefulness, if there can be such a state of being. (Perhaps that’s Christianity?)

b churchyard and parsonage

Once home for Emily, the since-extended Parsonage, above, the school to the right, seen from her final resting place, the graveyard

One more thing about this moving, inspiring experience.

As I stood atop Penistone Hill, watching dramatic banks of cloud skirt the lofty moors – those heights that withered – draping them with rapidly changing moods, I knew I was the first, other than those who had devised, recorded, created it, to do this walk.

And I felt like a bird flying over the world, seeing everything anew.

 

c view in cloud

Emily Brontë. A maid in Britain. A maid in England.

I’m proud – yes, proud – to have lived, for two happy years, on the outskirts of nearby Thornton, where she was born.

Proud to be surnamed Earnshaw.

Proud to have walked with the Unthanks and Emily. Immersed in their English creativity. But I can also set aside that pride. Don’t nationhood and pride so often end with antagonism?

She – they – speak and sing in that universal language, art. Of joy, sorrow, pain, pleasure, hope – and despair.

And I know that, at least in my head, those words, twined with music, linger on the winds roaring, whispering, crying over the Haworth moors.

 


 

The headphones and leaflet can be booked via this link between now and March 2019

This video promoting the recording of Emily Brontë’s poems by the Unthanks gives you a flavour of the fragile beauty they have created together.

 

 

13 thoughts on “A mill, a hill, a graveyard. Stepping out with a Maid in England

  1. Though we left when I was young, only returning for the long holidays on the farm, the Scotland of that time formed me….though not to the point of antagonism to other nations even if my father’s verdict on the English rises often to mind just at the moment, given the antics in Parliament..’They are like kippers…two faces and no guts.’

    I don’t -or can’t or won’t- relate to the Brontes at all, but what a supérb project that is, and the sound of the pianoforte on the clip was brilliant.

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    1. I can understand the lack of Bronte empathy – I think mine was brought on at an early age when I stood outside the bakery in Thornton and realised I was seeing the house where they were born – I went home and read Jane Eyre and was hooked. I can’t say I have read all their works – Shirley is on my to do list as it has elements of industrial unrest I want to pursue for other reasons… I admit I find these older works quite challenging to read nowadays, but I have been enjoying re-reading Wilkie Collins.
      The music is heavenly. Hearing it now in my head – High Waving Heather…
      Wishing you all the best, Helen, for the coming year and the remainder of the Christmas season.

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  2. I’ve read all the Bronte sisters’ novels, but not the poetry. Each one is amazing in its own way. I’ll defend Jane Eyre to anyone (principally, my own daughter) who thinks it’s dull and prissy (It’s anything but) and Anne Bronte’s two novels ‘Agnes Grey’ (a campaign for the rights of governesses) and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ (about a woman locked into a ill-advised marriage with an alcoholic) are breathtakingly fresh and original. Funnily enough, Emily is my least favourite, but did anyone see the programme about Kate Bush last night, about how she came to write (song) ‘Wuthering Heights’? That song makes sends tingles down my spine every time I hear it.
    I’ve also visited Haworth Parsonage. What a place! Black, grim, unrelenting. I’m glad it rained for you, Mary – did black clouds loom overhead? – because only in the rain do you get the full Yorkshire experience.
    Thank you for reminding me of those English songs too, ‘Green Grow the Rushes oh’ and ‘Early One Morning’.

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    1. Happy 2019 Rosemary. Publication of the novel awaits…
      I agree with you about Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildlfell Hall, though Agnes Grey is a bit of a blur now in my memory. I have a volume of Emily’s poetry and I agree with the Unthanks that she probably would not have wanted some of it published. There are verses that are wonderful and others that in my unqualified-to-judge opinion are not particularly good. I’d hate to see any ‘poetry’ I wrote published – other than as a dreadful lesson! But she has some very memorable thoughts, lines and descriptions.
      Having lived around those parts I have seen the great moors in all weathers and yes, people do associate gloom with the sisters and gloom fills much of the work, but I love to see them on a summer’s day and imagine them chattering as they walk, noticing the wildflowers and birds and butterflies, Charlotte going home and painting a wild rose…
      I love Green Grow the Rushes O: ‘Three, three, the rivals, two two the lily white boys, clothed all in green o – o – one is one and all alone and ever more shall be so! Such a good singsong song.

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  3. Via Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Charlotte and Emily Bronte had me mesmerised at an early age. Wuthering Heights is one of my desert island books. Which goes a little way to explain my fascination with your traverses around Yorkshire, especially “Haworth and its encircling moors” gratified by the image of “The graveyard in front of the Parsonage in Haworth”. Such excellent pictorial accompaniment to your tale… “Bent’s Mill, Cullingworth, Yorkshire, early one August morning”… just wow.

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    1. Hello Dale. Happy 2019 to you. My your fingers grow ever greener.
      Jane Eyre reeled me in age 7 when I lived near the birthplace and I have remained hooked, though can’t say I have read them all, the Professor, Shirley (just trying it) being the main missing vols. So glad you like the images, it’s a wonderful, inspiring place.

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  4. ‘I suspect it’s partly the penalty for years of ‘English’ being synonymous with British when the kingdom still ruled the waves. We subsumed the others and lost ourselves in the process.’ –

    I think the English have had a bad press over this British issue, since most of the major power brokers of Empire were in fact Scots, but the British Empire seems to be blamed on the English by those who want to blame.
    In Alexander King’s autobiography ‘Let the Cat Turn Round’ [he was a Scot and one of the two founders of the Club of Rome, whose report ‘Limits to Growth’, if it had been taken as seriously as it deserved, might have enabled us to avoid the catastrophioc climate change that makes itself more apparent every year] he mentions a Scottish worthy, who had returned from a business trip to London being asked how he found the English, ‘I never met any’ he said, ‘I only saw the highheedjens’ [high head ones],implying anyone of any importance in London was a Scot! The English political class still has a huge number of Scots in leading positions. It may have been convenient for the English to be blamed for the British Empire.

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    1. I really should know better that o launch into subjects about which I know nothing 🙂 Good to hear from you and yes, perhaps indeed it has been convenient to blame the English. I guess the language is partly the reason for the identification, as even Scots speak ‘English’ when abroad, don’t they? Very true about Scots in positions of power and influence.

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  5. Enjoyed that – though I need to try again to listen to the Unthanks. Did you make it to Top Withens? Englishness is surprisingly illusive – I keep meaning to have a go at trying to inadequately write about it, ever since publishing a post on “For England and St George!” I like the idea of a ‘mistresspiece’!

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    1. The Unthanks can be terribly depressing – I left a concert at half time I got so stressed! But I also love their sound. No, we didn’t go to Top Withens this time, the recording took a circular route from the Parsonage to Penistone Hill and back. It was wonderful.

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