The mist that exhaled slowly from the remote Upper Heights fanned across the gully that separated Stanbury and Howarth Moors.
We leaned into the wind as the path twisted uphill towards a distant blackened ruin. We had to pinch ourselves; it was early January and, incredibly, we were alone on this famous stretch of land.
For it was here that the Brontë sisters carved tragic incident and character out of a barren and beautiful landscape – unchanged for thousands of years. In the 1840s, Charlotte, Emily and Anne hitched up their dresses and strolled across this desolate moorland and, in the process, gathered ideas for their much-loved novels and poetry.
Our hearts skipped a beat at the sight of that distant ruin, its location accentuated by a pair of trees situated behind the roofless farmhouse, thought to be the inspiration for Emily Bronte’s gothic masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. We spent hours walking around the old farm, Top Withens, and the Brontë Waterfall further down the trail, and during that time we only encountered three other walkers.
If we were fortunate on the moors, we were less fortunate at the Parsonage, in nearby Haworth, where the sisters had lived with their father, Patrick, and brother, Branwell. The Brontë Parsonage Museum closes for the month of January which meant there were fewer visitors in town (and on the moors), the main street of which is a steep, pretty, cobblestoned throwback to another era.
Yorkshire, the largest county in England, is not short of literary landmarks: in Thirsk, there is the home/museum of James Herriot, writer of the semi-autobiographical All Creatures Great and Small; in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the vampire’s ship washes up on the windswept North Sea coast of Whitby; and Castle Howard was the majestic setting for the celebrated television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Luckily, the house and grounds of Castle Howard are open to the public, and fans of the acclaimed TV series can immerse themselves in the cultured home and surroundings of ‘Charles’ and ‘Sebastian’, or simply enjoy the grandeur and tranquillity of the 18th century demesne.
The castle is just a half hour’s drive from York city, a walled medieval wonder full of intrigue itself. Wandering through York’s web of narrow streets and alleyways may be a little disorientating – avoid further confusion by remembering ‘gate’ means street and ‘bar’ means gate.
Historically, and visually, its most prominent landmark is York Minster, the largest medieval cathedral in northern Europe and one of the world’s most impressive gothic buildings. The seat of the Archbishop of York, it is second in importance only to Canterbury.
In more recent centuries, York has also become known as a railway hub and as a celebrated confectionary centre – stroll along The Shambles, where buildings either side lean in on each other, and count the number of home-grown chocolatiers.
Its railway museum is a marvellous attraction. And no, you don’t need to be a trainspotter; revel in the steam and diesel engines on display and the various railway paraphernalia. Or step aboard the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive, and peruse the lavish carriages used by Queen Victoria. There is even a steam engine out back you can board, or stand on the platform and enjoy the evocative ‘chuff chuff’ sound it makes as it sets off.
One of the pleasures of holidaying in England is the quality of its pub accommodation and food; it could be argued that owners of our own traditional Irish pubs could learn from their English counterparts in the ways of maintaining an old hostelry and keeping it relevant in today’s marketplace.
Each of the pubs we stayed in was 18th century, but the accommodation was comfortable and the food at all times was varied and innovative. Another feature about the inns in North Yorkshire is that most of them are ‘dog friendly’. In York we were fortunate enough to stay in one of the city’s ‘haunted’ pubs. (Being the Christmas/New Year season, though, the resident ghost was away on holidays!) While, for some, the English moors may have darker associations (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried four of their victims in Saddleworth Moor, near Manchester); for most people, they are a wonderful amenity, providing ample hiking, cycling and horse-riding.
The North York Moors National Park has a right-of-way network that stretches to almost 2,300km. Popular trails there include the Cleveland Way, a 177km route that includes a section along the coast, and the shorter Lyke Wake Walk, which follows a route through the heart of the moors. Alternatively, you can just relax in a rural cottage or inn, nestled in one of the many postcard-pretty towns.
North Yorkshire is an idyllic escape from the urban whirl, with its opulent country estates, wonderful old villages, and large expanses of unspoilt countryside. If you only have a few days, you might have to choose between the North York Moors, in the north-east, or the Yorkshire Dales, in the north-west.
Ryanair flies into Leeds Bradford Airport. There is a good public transport network in North Yorkshire: for further advice, see www.yorkshiretravel.net. Otherwise, the North York Moors or Yorkshire Dales are within easy reach via an airport car rental.
York – York Minster cathedral, yes, but do make sure to see the National Railway Museum on the other side of the river (entry is free; donations gratefully received). Find time also to walk along the fine public footpaths of the River Ouse, which runs north-south through the city.
North York Moors – it’s a hiker’s paradise. Each season brings its own splendour and colour. Escape into an unspoilt landscape.
Haworth (Brontë country), is a village located in West Yorkshire. From there, you are within easy reach of the Yorkshire Dales.
York – The Golden Fleece, one of the city’s oldest pubs, is beside one of York’s most iconic streets, The Shambles. (For details, see: www.thegoldenfleeceyork.co.uk) North York Moors, Lockton – a quaint village (an apt but much-used description of any village in North Yorkshire) is located just south of the North York Moors National Park. We stayed in a B & B, Argyll Cottage, run by Chris and Tim (for details: www.locktonbedandbreakfast.co.uk; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org) North York Moors, Osmotherley – another lovely village, this one nestled in the Hambleton Hills on the western fringe of the North Moors National Park. Stay at the very welcoming and comfortable Golden Lion Inn. (For booking details: www.goldenlionosmotherley.co.uk).
In York Skosh is a must. The name ‘Skosh’ comes from a Japanese word ‘suskoshi’ meaning ‘a small amount’ (or so our waitress said). You will be served tapa-sized offerings that are exquisitely cooked and presented. The restaurant opened last summer but has quickly become one of the ‘in’ places in a less touristy part of town. (For bookings, email email@example.com; or see www.skoshyork.co.uk) Mannion & Co is another popular spot, a good place for lunch, with comfortable seating, friendly service and locally-sourced food. It’s at 1 Blake St, although you may see the queue outside first before you see the sign (Ph: +44 1904 631030; or www.mannionandco.co.uk) On the North York Moors the Fox & Rabbit Inn is located six kilometres from Pickering, one of the gateway towns to the North York Moors. It serves good food.
The Golden Lion, Osmotherley has good service, quality food and it’s open to all walkers and their dogs (www.goldenlionosmotherley.co.uk). In West Yorkshire The Black Bull, Haworth (119 Main Street; ph: +44 1535 642249) is the hostelry where Branwell Brontë is thought to have spent most of his spare time (while his sisters were busy writing). It’s a stone’s throw from the Brontë Parsonage Museum.