Literary Yorkshire

(High Life magazine, September 2008)

The release next month of a new screen version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited will once again put Yorkshire and Castle Howard on the map. But the county is no stranger to bookish links. From the boyhood haunts of Ted Hughes to Brontë country, Richard Askwith explores the literary tourist trail

‘Suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us. We were at the head of a valley and, below us, half a mile distant, grey and gold amid a screen of boskage, shone the dome and column of an old house…’

The house is one of the most famous in fiction: Brideshead Castle, where the charmed, cursed Flyte family lived out their decadent tragedy in Evelyn Waugh’s most popular novel. Who could resist a visit to the real-life house from which it was drawn?

The trouble is, more than one house has a claim to have been Waugh’s model for the novel. The fashionable view is that he wrote with Madresfield, the Worcestershire seat of the eccentric Lygons, in mind. Yet in the popular imagination there is only one ‘real’ Brideshead: Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

Both views may be correct. The human story that inspired Brideshead Revisited clearly came largely from Madresfield, but Castle Howard almost certainly supplied much of the architectural detail, from the shining dome to the spectacularly ornate fountain by which several crucial scenes are set. And with Castle Howard about to feature in its second major screen adaptation of the novel, opening next month, the connection between place and book seems irreversibly fixed – not least in the minds of the 200,000 people who visit the house each year.

Waugh himself would not have approved. He despised ‘trippers’. (‘Oh, Charles, don’t be such a tourist,’ says Sebastian Flyte at one point in Brideshead, when Charles Ryder expresses an interest in the origins of the dome.) But Castle Howard has literature – and showbusiness – running through its veins.

It’s not just that it was designed by a playwright, John Vanbrugh. The whole place pulsates with drama: a vast architectural explosion of aristocratic extravagance, with giant statues glowering haughtily from its domed roof; all set in 1,000 acres of immaculate grounds. I doubt if anyone sees it for the first time without a sharp intake of breath.

It’s hard to imagine living here happily, amid so much grandiosity, but the outrageous scale makes it a great place to visit: the vastness soaks up the crowds so you hardly notice them. And the Brideshead connection adds a layer of interest few other stately homes can offer.

‘Brideshead has been extremely important in bringing Castle Howard to the attention of many people who might otherwise never have heard of it,’ says Simon Howard, the current owner. ‘The house and estate would have survived without Brideshead, but we would not have moved on as fast as we have without it.’

You can see what he means most clearly if you inspect the castle’s heart – the Great Hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1940. Its dome was rebuilt and redecorated in 1960-62, but even then the rooms beneath it remained derelict – until Granada Television came, two decades later. They used the Garden Hall on the ground floor as a set for much of their famous 1981 Brideshead Revisited adaptation. When filming finished, the hall was left in a largely rebuilt, semi-restored state: that is, as a kind of permanent filmset, with contemporary frescoes painted on fake marble.

The new Miramax production has worked a similar transformation on the upper rooms, three of which are now open to the public for the first time. They are delightful, but the line between fiction and reality is blurred: the newly painted murals evoke the age and spirit of Vanbrugh and are both filmset and, for the foreseeable future, real castle.

Such ambiguities are the life-blood of literary tourism. Do you visit a site in search of historical authenticity, or for a trigger that will propel you into the imaginary world of your favourite writer? Few of us could say, but the good thing about looking for Brideshead at Castle Howard is that, once you are there, you are in Yorkshire, which may well have more sites of literary pilgrimage, catering for a wider spectrum of tastes, than any other county.

Drive northwest from Castle Howard, and you are almost immediately in Herriot Country: the lush patchwork of green fields, ragged lanes and remote villages associated with the It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet books. Fans can stop at Thirsk to explore ‘The World of James Herriot’; others may prefer to discover Shandy Hall, in Coxwold, where Alf Wight (Herriot’s real name) was a regular visitor in his real-life role as a vet. The Hall – actually a modest, rose-draped red-brick rectory – no longer has cattle in its sagging outbuildings but is dedicated instead to the memory of Laurence Sterne, who wrote much of Tristram Shandy while curate there between 1760 and 1768.

It has changed considerably – the house passed out of Sterne’s family soon after his death, along with most of his possessions. But it has been restored in authentic 18th-century style, with lots of Sterne memorabilia, and lovers of this most irresistible of shaggy-dog stories will have no difficulty sensing Sterne’s whimsical spirit in the nooks and crannies of his house, or among the lopsided fruit trees and uneven lawns of his old garden.

You won’t see many crowds there. The house rarely gets more than 2,500 visitors a year, and is open only on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. (The garden is open every day except Saturday.) But Patrick Wildgust, the curator and current tenant, is an infectiously enthusiastic champion of Sterne’s comic genius: he gives lectures and courses in ‘non-linear narrative’, hosts Sterne-inspired art exhibitions, encourages leading authors to spend periods as writers-in-residence, and enjoys pointing out the property’s little Shandean quirks, such as the iron handrails for the disabled, made by a local blacksmith, which precisely mimic the exuberant squiggles that Sterne includes in Tristram Shandy to illustrate the flow of his narrative.

If that all sounds a bit academic, you might prefer to head north across the North York Moors in order to spend some time on the coast at Whitby, a place with more sensational literary associations. I don’t think many people go there with the express intention of giving themselves nightmares. Yet the town was crucial to the creation of the most notorious horror story of all: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Stoker was working as the London-based business manager of the actor Henry Irving when he came to Whitby for a holiday in the summer of 1890. He had dabbled in fiction, with little success. Then, in the space of a few days, a succession of incidents and impressions planted the seeds of his masterpiece: bats fluttering in the ruins of Whitby Abbey; a huge bird perched on an acquaintance’s windowsill; a shipwreck involving an apparently unmanned ‘ghost ship’. By the end of the holiday, the book was taking shape; and Whitby was to be the backdrop of several of its ghastliest chapters.

It is hard to sense much ghastliness in Whitby today – unless you are the sort to be horrified by the biannual Whitby Gothic Weekends (in April and October), when thousands of goths from around the world descend on the place. The rest of the time, it’s far too pleasant to chill the blood: an old-fashioned seaside town devoted to fishing and tourism, with a reassuring tang of suncream and chips in the fresh sea air. Even the ruins of Whitby Abbey, which overlook the town from an adjoining cliff-top, seem romantic rather than sinister.

The main visible signs of the Dracula connection are a blue plaque at 6 Royal Crescent (where Stoker stayed), a photograph of the author in the Royal Hotel, and a bizarre but largely deserted walk-in attraction called Bram Stoker’s Dracula Experience on a seafront that pulsates with crowds and amusement arcades.

Yet there is one spot in the town where the spirit of the vampire lives on. On an obscure spur of grassland called Spion Kop, somewhere between Khyber Pass and Pier Road, an old, broken bench – popular with incontinent sea birds – marks the spot where Stoker first conceived the novel. Pause there (look for the little metal plaque) and you can see why. You are in a different Whitby with, suddenly, neither crowds nor amusement arcades; instead, you see only the sights Stoker saw: the dark skeleton of the Abbey on the cliff opposite; the serpent of steps winding up to St Mary’s church; the plain houses of old Whitby, east of the river (which is, by the way, by far the nicest part of the town); and the sands by Tate Hill pier where the Demeter (in real life, the Dimitri) crashed ashore – and Count Dracula, in the form of ‘an immense dog’, leapt from the bow and ‘disappeared into the darkness…’

But it’s hard to sustain the spell. After sitting there one evening, I crossed the river and climbed the so-called 199 steps (I swear there are only 198) towards St Mary’s, where I sat in the churchyard, wondering if I could recapture some of the wild terror that haunted my teenage nightmares the first time I read the book. Crowds of wind-blackened gravestones leaned impatiently towards the sea; bats darted among them. But all I was really aware of was the warm, sweet-smelling breeze and the peaceful glittering of the timeless sea, shining silver below the clear grey sky, just as it must have appeared to another literary Whitby-dweller – Caedmon, the fifth-century cowherd – when he felt heaven’s call to become the first English poet.

Even a hideous scream from the shadows – emanating, it turned out, from a hungry seabird – could not dispel my sense that, on this quiet seaside evening, all was right with the world. As for the gravestones: ‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ Which is, of course, a quotation from a quite different Yorkshire novel. Haworth, 80 miles to the west of Whitby – is the mother of all literary destinations. The town has Brontë written all over it: Brontë Street; Brontë Square; Ye Olde Brontë Tearooms & Gift Shop; the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The latter (‘family home of the world-famous authors, Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë’) celebrated its 80th anniversary as a tourist attraction in August, and it is obvious that the local economy would be lost without it. The Brontë Country brand has been promoted internationally for nearly three decades, and tourists come from all over the world. The Japanese are keenest: the Brontë sisters’ novels – notably Wuthering Heights, from which the above quotation is taken – are said to have a special resonance for Japanese women.

Perhaps the brand has been too successful. The coach parties and commercialism will offend some tastes (Emily’s Eating Parlour; Villette Coffee House; the Heathcliffe bed and breakfast; the Wuthering Heights pub); so, perhaps, will the noisy crowds and the Japanese signs that line the paths on the ‘wild’ moors behind the town.

Yet one shouldn’t be too scornful. Come on a quiet day and you can still be astonished by, in particular, the contents of the Parsonage Museum: the small, bare rooms hung with religious texts and pictures; the neat diaries and letters; the spartan furniture; and the drab, undersized clothes. The remarkable thing is not just that the Brontë Society should have preserved so much exactly as it was in the sisters’ lifetime but that these cold, pinched lives should have produced such a profligate outpouring of creativity. To stand in the austere dining room and think that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were all written within that cramped space is to discover something humbling about the human spirit.

There is, of course, much more to Brontë Country than Haworth itself: hard-core enthusiasts will want to include Thornton, Mirfield, Lothersdale, Southowram, Hartshead and more in their pilgrimage; and no lover of Wuthering Heights would consider a visit complete without venturing on to the moors. The obvious destination is the ruined farmhouse at Top Withens (thought to be the original for Wuthering Heights), about four miles from Haworth; but you need to go further, preferably out of season, to find much of the ‘bleak solitude’ that Emily found there.

But the good thing about these parts is that you can go further: over Haworth Moor, Keighley Moor, Wadworth Moor and beyond – on the Pennine Way, if you like. If you’re prepared to make the effort, there are enough lonely spaces to stir the most romantic spirit: wild oceans of heather, harebells and ‘cloud-stained bogland’ where – as Ted Hughes put it – ‘a wind from the end of the sky/buffs and curries the grizzly bear-dark pelt/of long skylines…’

Hughes grew up about seven miles south of Haworth, in Mytholmroyd. The former mill town has only recently begun to boast of the connection and, in the past few years, a concerted effort has been made to celebrate the fact that the poet not only lived in Mytholmroyd until he was eight, and spent part of his teens in nearby Heptonstall, but also found much of his deepest inspiration there.

Now Mytholmroyd railway station is festooned with extracts from The Iron Man, with illustrations supplied by the nearby infants’ school. Calder High School, the local comprehensive, has just built an impressive new Ted Hughes theatre, which will be used by the whole community. In June, Hughes’s childhood home – an end-of-terrace house at 1 Aspinall Street – was opened to the public. Refurbished in the 1930s style of his childhood, it will henceforth be used principally as a holiday let (ideally to writers) but will also be open sometimes for more casual visits (see theelmettrust.com for details).

Next month sees a week-long Ted Hughes festival (22-28 October), marking the tenth anniversary of the poet’s death. Visitors to Mytholmroyd can enjoy poetry readings and competitions, plays, films, concerts, an opera, exhibitions and guest appearances. Best of all, in my opinion, they should have the chance to explore the streets and hillsides on three waymarked walks that identify specific spots as the inspiration for several poems by Hughes. The walks are largely the creation of Donald Crossley, a local artist who was one of Hughes’s closest childhood friends and who has spent much of the past decade researching the relationship between the poet’s childhood and his work. I spent an exhausting but exhilarating afternoon being shown around by Donald, as he unlocked the secrets of poem after poem from the underrated 1979 collection, Remains of Elmet. Here, just opposite Hughes’s bedroom window, was the former site of the Mount Zion chapel (the ‘building blocking the moon’ described in Mount Zion); here was the ‘slime-brink’ under the bridge where Donald and Teddy (as he then was) used to fish (The Canal’s Drowning Black). Here was the spot where they used to throw stones at the ‘500 glass skylights’ of the old foundry (‘Under the World’s Wide Rims’); and here, on the steep green fellside behind the town, was where Teddy shot his first rat, where he saw his first hawk, where he and his brother Gerald first smoked out weasels (‘The Weasels We Smoked out of the Bank’).

‘This is where it all began,’ said Donald, eyes bright with excitement. ‘This was nature as a little boy comes at it.’

Striding towards the windy hilltop, he explained how Gerald – ten years older than Ted and now living in Australia – used to take young Teddy up this same rough path and ‘learn him how to fish, how to light fires’. The brothers often used to camp out, and it was on one such adventure – just over the hill at Crimsworth Dene – that Hughes later claimed to have had ‘the dream that later turned into all my writing.’ I don’t suppose many literary tourists are energetic enough to follow Donald’s itinerary to the letter. But the very fact that such guidance exists marks a significant step forward not just for Mytholmroyd but for our understanding of Ted Hughes. It may be a few years yet before Mytholmroyd becomes a place of literary pilgrimage to rival Haworth, but the town’s growing Hughes cult can only be good: for the townspeople, for tourists, and for Yorkshire – England’s richest literary county.

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