Fate must surely have played its part when Julie Akhurst and Steve Brown walked through the door of Ponden Hall and agreed to buy it on the spot.
The house in Stanbury, near Haworth, had found its perfect custodians. An English literature graduate and Bronte fan, Julie was already fascinated by its connection to Charlotte, Emily and Anne. The property’s breathtaking setting at the edge of the moor and overlooking a reservoir sealed the deal.
The hall has a significant role in the Bronte story and is said to have provided inspiration for Emily’s Wuthering Heights and for Anne’s Wildfell Hall.
Back in the early 1800s, the world’s most famous literary sisters regularly tramped across the moor from the parsonage to Ponden Hall, the grandest house in the area.
Their first visit was in 1824 when they were caught in the great Crow Hill Bog Burst, a cataclysmic mudslide caused by a thunderstorm after days of rain, Anne, Emily, their brother Branwell and servant Sarah Garrs were out walking on the moor and terrified, they took shelter in the hall’s peat loft.
They and Charlotte later became firm friends with the property’s owners, the Heatons, and borrowed from what was described as “the finest library in the West Riding” full of the best books money could buy, including a Shakespeare first folio.
The original bookshelves are still in place.
“It’s incredible to think Emily would have sat here reading. We have a catalogue of the books that were here then and they probably influenced her. There were gothic novels and books on necromancy and dark magic,” says Julie.
When she and Steve bought the Grade II star listed Ponden Hall 21 years ago, it was suffering from benign neglect.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Brontës and as soon as we saw it we had to buy it,” says Julie. “It’s a magical place in an incredible location. You can feel the presence of history in this house yet it’s also very warm and welcoming.”
The nine-bedroom house certainly feels warmer than it did thanks to a sensitive renovation that has turned the hall into a family home and a B&B that attracts Bronte fans from all over the world.
Saying farewell to all that is going to be difficult but Julie and Steve are retiring and downsizing, which is why the hall is on the market.
For sale with Fine and Country, the asking price is £1.25m and Julie hopes another Bronte fan will buy it and enjoy it as she has.
The B&B and a self-contained annexe make it a thriving business. It has won a top award for having Britain’s most friendly B&B hosts and was listed in a Trip Advisor top ten most spectacular B&B’s in Europe.
“I’ve loved meeting people from all over the world, including a few famous people too. Almost everyone stays here because of the Bronte connection,” says Julie.
The majority of guests are from America with a healthy contingent from Belgium and others from China, Japan, Korea and Moldova.
“There is a big Bronte fan base in Belgium because of Charlotte’s connection to the country,” says Julie, referencing Charlotte and Emily’s time as pupil-teachers keen to learn French at the Heger school in Brussels.
Charlotte’s unrequited love for Monsieur Heger resulted in heartache. He tore up love letters later sent from Haworth but his wife stitched them back together and in the 1920s, his family gave them to the British Library.
It was a desperately sad one-sided romance that has since captivated the Belgians who are proud that Charlotte used her experience to inform her books “The Professor” and “Villette”.
The most popular B&B room at Ponden Hall is the Earnshaw room. It features a tiny east gable window that exactly fits Emily Brontë’s description in Wuthering Heights of Cathy’s ghost scratching furiously at the glass trying to get in.
The words of the story’s narrator, Mr Lockwood, still gives readers goosebumps: “I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand.”
“We think that Emily based that scene on this room because old documents relating to the house describe a box bed in a room across from the library and you can see where it was bolted to the wall by the window. It is just how it is described in Wuthering Heights.
“Plus the date plaque above the main entrance identifies the hall as being rebuilt in 1801 and Emily’s story starts with that exact date,” says Julie who has had a replica box bed made for the room.
It pleases Emily fans, who Julie says are the most ardent of all. “There is something about Emily that makes people very emotional. She is a complete enigma. People cannot work out how a woman who had a very sheltered background wrote this dysfunctional, violent, sexual, amazing novel.”
The replica bed is indicative of the attention Julie and Steve have paid to historical detail during a renovation that has preserved and uncovered historic features while providing modern day comforts.
The Bronte sisters would certainly still recognise the property, near Haworth.
The door, the mullions, beams, wide staircase and the fireplaces are still there, along with their favourite room, the library.
Its shelves may soon contain Julie’s own book. She has enjoyed using her academic skills to research the hall’s past and is hoping to write a history of Ponden Hall.
“It would be a fitting tribute to a home that we have loved so much,” she says.
*Ponden Hall is on the market for £1.25m.
It sits in four acres in a peaceful spot on the outskirts of Stanbury, near Haworth and dates to 1634.
The ground floor has a hall, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living/dining room, kitchen with Aga, utility room and cold room. There are another seven bedrooms, including the annexe, which has its own entrace.
Contact: Fine and Country, tel: 0113 203 4939, www.fineandcountry.com