Cathy come home

HOME OF INSPIRATION: Julie Akhurst in her kitchen at Ponden Hall,
HOME OF INSPIRATION: Julie Akhurst in her kitchen at Ponden Hall,
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RENOVATING a Brontë landmark was a pleasure for Julie Akhurst and Steve Brown, but Heathcliff’s home is now up for sale. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

THE world’s most famous literary sisters inspire fanatical devotion but Julie Akhurst and Steve Brown only realised how besotted Brontë lovers can be when they bought Ponden Hall.

22/3/11   Ponden Hall.

22/3/11 Ponden Hall.

“We regularly find people weeping in the front garden. It’s quite extraordinary but I can understand it,” says Julie, whose home is said to have been the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. Its links with both Emily Brontë and one of literature’s best-loved novels are both powerful and verifiable.

Emily and her family were regular visitors to Ponden Hall and would walk across the moor to the Heaton family home. Branwell Brontë’s short story The Thurstons of Darkwell is based on it. The Heatons, who owned nearby Ponden Mill, also had what was reputed to be “the best library in the West Riding” and Emily certainly used it.

Although the Victorian portraits make her look severe, the dark-haired, intense woman is said to have captured the heart of one of the Heaton boys. She spurned him, but in the back garden of Ponden Hall are the withered remains of a now-dead pear tree, supposedly the gift of the lovesick teenager to the older woman.

“Fans love to see that too,” says Julie, who is selling the house after 13 years. “It’s a link with Emily. They can picture her here and that’s very affecting. There is something about her that makes people very emotional. They identify her as an outsider. She was John Lennon to Charlotte’s Paul McCartney.”

22/3/11  Ponden Hall.

22/3/11 Ponden Hall.

There is some debate over whether Ponden Hall inspired Heathcliff’s domain, Wuthering Heights, or Thrushcross Grange, the grander home of the fictional Linton family.

Many people, including Julie and Steve, believe it is Wuthering Heights, although there is another contender for that title – Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse with a wilder setting that looks the part, but has no recorded Brontë connection.

“We’ll probably never know for sure and it was all from Emily’s imagination. But this house is much more like Wuthering Heights. It is a much more humble dwelling than Thrushcross Grange. 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.

There is another important clue in an account by William Davies, who visited Emily’s father Patrick Brontë and wrote: “We went on to an old manorial farm called ‘Heaton’s of Ponden’, which we were told was the original model of Wuthering Heights, which indeed corresponded in some measure to the description given in Emily Brontë’s romance.”

22/3/11  Ponden Hall.

22/3/11 Ponden Hall.

For fans of the book, the most evocative part of the property is the tiny east gable window in the master bedroom. It is said to have given Emily the idea for Cathy’s ghost, scratching and crying at the pane to get in.

“It’s plausible because there was a box bed beside it at one point and that is just how it is described in Wuthering Heights,” says Julie, a former deputy editor of OK magazine, who bought the hall in 1998 when she moved up from London to marry Steve, a builders’ merchant from Bradford.

“We saw a three-line private advert for it in a newspaper and came up even though it was out of our price range. I’ve always been fascinated by the Brontës and as soon as we saw it we had to have it. The owner Brenda was lovely. She had blue hair and ran it as a B&B and yoga centre and did teas for walkers, but it really was in need of renovation.”

Ponden Hall was built in 1634 by the Heatons and as their fortunes flourished they modernised, added and rebuilt to suit their status.

Ponden Hall

Ponden Hall

The family eventually dwindled to a bachelor who died in 1898, after which the contents of the house were sold off. Books from the library were reputedly hawked in the market in Keighley. What didn’t sell was torn up for vegetable wrappings and mystery still surrounds what happened to a Shakespeare First Folio, one of the world’s rarest books worth millions.

The property was then used by farmers before Brenda bought it in 1975. She played host to Juliette Binoche, who stayed there with her voice coach rehearsing for her role as Cathy in the ill-fated film version of the book, and Sir Cliff Richard who visited before playing Heathcliff in the short-lived musical.

Steve and Julie, who have two children Kezia, 11, and Noah, eight, moved in 100 years after the last Heaton left and undertook extensive, vital restoration work. They also converted the 1680 peat loft into a stylish self-contained cottage,

“That first night we lay in bed and could see something twinkling above us,” says Julie. “Then we realised it was a star. When it rained the roof leaked all over the place and it got to the point where we’d just pull the covers over our heads and hope it would stop.”

Having stretched themselves to buy the property, they transformed it into a cosy, characterful home. The roof was replaced and raised three inches, timbers treated and fireplaces renovated. Stone flags on the ground floor were taken up and then relaid on top of new under-floor heating. Two layers of rotten floorboards were replaced in the master bedroom. “It was once used to house chickens, so the bottom layer of boards were covered in chicken poo,” says Julie,

New bathrooms were installed and the kitchen was given a makeover with a mix of free-standing furniture and bespoke units, including a floor-to-ceiling larder. A massive stone table-top recovered from the 16th-century cellar was used to create a new hearth in front of the Aga.

Steve and Julie also overhauled the drains and plumbing and installed a new water filtration system. “It was an enormous job and the worst bit was the roof. At one point we had a huge tarpaulin over it in winter and it blew off one wild, rainy night. We came home from a party and spent all night mopping up in a ball gown and dinner jacket. When our first child Kezia was born, we were living in one room with a microwave.”

Furnishing the enormous rooms was also a challenge, but fortunately Brenda left them the enormous dining table, which was once the cutting table from the Oldham Co-op and they have filled the house with other pieces over the years. The Heaton’s library on the first floor has been split to create a guest bedroom and a bathroom but some of the original shelves remain. “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.”

Unlike the fictional Wuthering Heights, Ponden Hall feels friendly and warm. “We’d never have bought it otherwise. It’s always felt welcoming,” says Julie. She and Steve are selling to move closer to their daughter’s new school.

“I’ll miss it. I love it for what it is and the little hamlet here is lovely. I’ve also enjoyed the Brontë connection. We’ve always been happy to show people round by appointment and we’ve had people from all over the world including the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations,” says Julie. “I just hope it sells to someone who loves the Brontës as much as I do.”

* Ponden Hall is for sale for £950,000 through Charnock Bates, Halifax. Tel: 01422 380100, www.charnockbates. co.uk or visit Julie and Steve’s website, www.pondenhall.moonfruit.net

MAKING OF A CLASSIC

Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s only novel. Its power and passion have made it a classic, although it initially had poor reviews. When published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, critics labelled it “coarse and loathsome...showing the brutalising effect of unchecked passion”.

Yet readers are captivated by the two untamed characters at its heart: dark, handsome and damaged Heathcliff, and the beautiful, wayward Catherine Earnshaw. The wild landscape is also part of the magic.