Brontë fans travel from all over the world to stay in Ponden Hall which provided inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in literary history. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
Years of benign neglect followed by loving care and a grade two star listing have combined to protect Ponden Hall’s historic features. Charlotte and Emily, who knew it well, would certainly still recognise the property, near Haworth, which has escaped the ravages of excessive modernisation.
The old front door, the mullions, beams and the fireplaces are still there, along with the extra wide staircase that led to the sisters’ favourite room – “the finest library in the West Riding” full of the best books money could buy, including a Shakespeare first folio. The box bed next to the tiny east gable window, said to have inspired one of the most famous scenes in literary history, is there too. It is not the original but a faithful replica, crafted by cabinet maker Andrew Feather for Ponden Hall’s owners Julie Akhurst and Steve Brown.
They commissioned it after turning their idyllic family home into a B&B. Guests can now stay in the Earnshaw room, sleep in the box bed and look out on to the moors through the window. It exactly fits Emily Brontë’s description in Wuthering Heights where Cathy’s ghost scratches 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 reception 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,” says Julie, an English literature graduate and former journalist, who has researched Ponden Hall’s Brontë heritage.
In 1824, during the great Crow Hill Bog Burst, a cataclysmic, huge mudslide caused by a thunderstorm after days of rain, Anne, Emily and Branwell were walking on the moor with their servant Sarah Garrs. They took shelter at the hall owned by the Heaton family. Later, Emily and Branwell became firm friends with the Heatons and Ellen Nussey wrote of how she and Charlotte had “fun and fatigue” at Ponden Hall.
The Heaton family built the property in 1634 and as their fortunes flourished, they modernised, added and rebuilt to suit their status. The library was a great draw for the Brontës and the original bookshelves 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,” says Julie.
The raven-haired and intense Emily is said to have captured the heart of one of the young Heaton boys. She spurned him but in the back garden of Ponden Hall are the withered remains of a now-dead pear tree, supposedly a gift from the lovesick teenager to the older woman.
“We regularly find people weeping in the front garden. It’s quite extraordinary but I can understand it. Emily inspires such passion and emotion.”
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 as it is a more humble dwelling than the 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.
These connections have brought Brontë fans from all over the world to the B&B. Moldovan, Taiwanese, Australian and Japanese guests have all checked in.
Among the most memorable were the honeymooners from Venezuela who had a Jane Eyre-themed wedding. The bride had scenes from Charlotte’s book painted onto her wedding train.
Chinese visitors also love Jane Eyre and admire Charlotte, while those from Japan tend to worship Emily.
“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. There are so many unanswered questions about her,” says Julie, the perfect custodian for the hall, which she and Steve bought in 1998.
“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,” she says.
Brenda bought the building in the 1970s. It had been used by farmers after the Heaton line had dwindled to a bachelor who died in 1898. The contents of the house were sold off, along with the library’s 1,300 books which were hawked in the market in Keighley. What didn’t sell was torn up for vegetable wrappings and mystery still surrounds what happened to the Shakespeare first folio, one of the world’s rarest books and worth millions.
Julie and Steve’s restoration project turned the ten-bedroom property into a family home for them and their children, Kezia, 16, and Noah, 13.
They decided to try B&B and cream tea and tours four years ago to allow fans access to what has always been a Brontë shrine.
“We didn’t know what to expect but everyone is so enthusiastic about the house and we have met some wonderful people,” says Julie,
Mindful that guests would want modern facilities, they carefully installed discreet en-suite bathrooms and other mod cons without spoiling the character of the building.
However, to protect the features, there is no central heating upstairs, which means that guests can have a truly authentic experience. They walk on the moors and come in from the cold and damp to a welcoming, roaring fire in their rooms, just as the Brontës did in the mid-1800s.
Ponden Hall (ponden-hall.co.uk) has three B&B bedrooms and a self-contained annexe and also runs residential courses in photography and poetry.