Blazing a trail in Bradford with the Brontës

Michael Stewart has organised the project
Michael Stewart has organised the project
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This weekend sees the unveiling of the Brontë Stones project at Bradford Literature Festival. Yvette Huddleston spoke to the man behind the idea.

It all started back in October 2013 on a three-day walk from Marsden to Ilkley.

Bradford-based writer Michael Stewart was leading a group of writers across the Stanza Stones Trail. Commissioned by Ilkley Literature Festival. the project saw a series of poems by Simon Armitage, responding to the landscape of the Pennine Watershed, carved into stone by letter-carver Pip Hall and placed at atmospheric locations along the 47-mile trail. “On the walkshop, as it was called, we took it in turns to read the poems each time we came to a stone,” says Stewart. “Some people did the whole walk, some came just for parts of it, but by the time we got to Ilkley there were about a hundred people with us.

“I was really inspired by that project and the idea behind it. I live just opposite the birthplace of the Brontës in Thornton and I felt that it gets a bit left out – there is so much focus on Haworth and the Parsonage. I wanted to draw attention to the birthplace and its role in the Brontë story, to conncect Thornton to Haworth. I also wanted to find a way of making the links between the Brontës’ writing and the landscape that surrounded them.”

Stewart approached Bradford Literature Festival with his initial thoughts and out of it came came the Brontë Stones project, a multi-site art installation, which will be launched at this year’s Festival next weekend.

Four new original pieces of writing, by leading contemporary women writers, have been engraved onto stones in locations between the birthplace and the Parsonage along a trail of about eight miles. Three of the works – by Kate Bush, Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay – respond to one of the sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne respectively, while the fourth by Jeanette Winterson is a response to the whole Brontë legacy. The idea was that there should be a chronology to the trail, so it begin’s with Charlotte’s stone placed on the wall of the birthplace.

The family lived in Thornton from 1815 to 1820. During that time Charlotte was born in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820. “Patrick Brontë is recorded as saying that it was the happiest period of his life,” says Stewart. “Shortly after they moved to Haworth 1820, tragedy struck. He lost his wife and two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, in quick succession so Thornton was a particularly significant place for them.” The second stone, engraved with Winterson’s poem is in Thornton cemetery, the third, for Emily, has been placed high up near an outcrop of rock (“I wanted it to be somewhere ‘wuthering’,” says Stewart) – in a nice piece of synchronicity as well as marking Emily’s bicentenary, this year is also the 40th anniversary of the release of Kate Bush’s classic hit song Wuthering Heights – and Anne’s stone is behind the Parsonage in Haworth. “The idea was that Anne is the only one who is not in the family vault as she is buried in Scarborough so we are bringing her home in a way and Jackie Kay’s poem really acknowledges that homecoming.”

The Brontë Stones: Meet the Writers, July 7; In the Footsteps of the Brontës, a guided walk led by Michael Stewart, July 8. Details bradfordlitfest.co.uk

Stones, walks and poems

There are four walks relating to the Brontë Stones Project which author and originator Michael Stewart has worked on with cartographer Chris Goddard.

There is a linear walk from the birthplace in Thornton to the Parsonage in Haworth – a route which the Brontë sisters are said to have often taken themselves – and three circular walks relating to each of the siblings.

The Charlotte walk takes in various significant sites including the chapel where the Brontës were baptised and Thornton Hall, thought to have been the inspiration for Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall. Appropriately enough the walk commemorating Emily, the sister most associated with being outdoors in the landscape, is the longest, at 15 miles, and the most strenuous. Stewart describes it as “a great big yomp across the moors”. It takes in Top Withens and Ponden Hall, often cited as the model for Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. “The walk really gives a flavour of the wildness of the landscape.” says Stewart whose latest novel, Ill Will, is based on the untold story of Heathcliff. The Anne walk is a shorter, gentler stroll of approximately seven miles from the Parsonage to Newsome Green. “I tried to make the walks reflect the personality of the writers,” says Stewart. “The idea is to get people out walking and engaging with the writers through the landscape. I really don’t think you get a true sense of Wuthering Heights, for example, if you haven’t gone out on to the moors.”