Day 1 – The Reunion.
I’ve always said I don’t do hills – especially steep ones – let alone those of the positively vertiginous type. Well, slap that out of me! Hebden Bridge, in the heart of the far flung wilds of West Yorkshire, is like the little mining towns I remember from my childhood excursions to Walhalla in Victoria—deep in the heart of a forest, the sound of running water, a crispy bite to the air and tall, seemingly insurmountable hills with only the tiniest patch of blue sky to remind us what will be up there if we climb.
My trip here is a pilgrimage of sorts. I am staying with Angie, my first (true) English teacher and her amazingly wonderful wife, Alex. And I am so warmly welcomed.
Let me tell you a little about Angie:
When I was just 12 years old and full of ideas and dreams and promise – Angie nurtured it. She opened my mind to all the great things the English language can offer but as a young impressionable mind not even vaguely aware of what I was capable of – she gave me praise (when I probably most needed it), encouragement and I developed the confidence to believe in myself. Ultimately she made English a journey behold. I’ve never forgotten her.
So when I saw her for the first time after 36 years – it really was a special reunion. You know here we are —living a world apart—reconnected by Facebook—yes, Facebook.
I love seeing Angie and Alex together. Angie still has the infectious and fierce intellect I’d known as a student and Alex clearly a brilliant intellect as well. They are clearly happy together, symbiotic. Chatting with them made me just want to sink into a chair and talk for hours by the fire.
But no. Nowt to do but head out for an evening walk.
Lovely! Genuinely keen, as I love walking—but as we step out the door, I surmise very quickly this will be a walk unlike most I’ve experienced of late.
‘There’s one steep hill,’ Angie assures me.
‘Is this it?’ I ask tentatively.
A little further on, we traverse across quite dangerous terrain; old footpaths used by former mill workers on their way to work – and I muse that we wouldn’t be allowed to use such paths in Australia unless they were on private property— such is the litigious state of our society. Australia has become such a nanny state, we’re warned off everything and anything fun.
We front up to another steep hill.
‘Is this it?’ I ask Angie, puffing a little bit by now. Actually, I’m suitably breathless.
‘Er, no. Nearly. We’re almost there.’ Even though she’s ahead of me I know she’s smiling. Yes, I know it. I can feel it. ‘Not far, Sare!’ Her eyes twinkle, even though I can’t see them. I can hear it in her voice.
Is this my first test? Angie and Alex are so flipping fit!
When we finally assail the ‘hill’, it’s near vertical. SERIOUSLY. I’m so puffed and my thighs are burning. These two are barely raising a sweat. SERIOUSLY. We’re talking so steep I’m almost face planting the mud.
But when we get to the top, I can see why why we’re here. Wow. A special view and a special achievement in my book, Although for Angie and Alex this is every day fare, of course. A mere canter.
This is the country of poets, writers and artists and there has to be a metaphor here. Mountains to climb. Milestones to overcome. Or something like that. There is a brooding romance attached to the landscape, I’m sure it can be quite mournful in winter. Melancholic. But right now it’s glorious in the early spring sunset.
I’m incredibly fortunate that A&A are exceptional cooks. The walk is rewarded by a hearty lasagne and good wine. We talk quite late about old times but also I learn lots about Alex, who’s a superbly talented actor. I’m a bit in awe of all she’s achieved in the theatre over her an impressive career.
I head upstairs to my pretty guest room and sleep like the dead. Angie says, ‘Sleep in. Rest.’
And I do. Eyelids and limbs heavy, I drift off to sleep and my eyes don’t open again until 8am. A rarity.
Day 2 – The Reckoning
Bronte Country. On my iPad keyboard I don’t know how to put the umlaut in. Sorry. Apparently it is an affectation anyway. Patrick Bronte changed his name from Brunty to Bronte while he was at Cambridge University. Vanity? Perhaps raw ambition.
The Bronte house is right beside the very church Patrick Bronte presided over. Atop a hill, but other than that, I’m not sure there’s much I can call a positive. Its bedrooms also overlook a foreboding graveyard in the most gothic sense, with still vacant trees holding spiky crowns. Crows.
Squawking in a sodden sky. Breaths of icy wind licking our cheeks.
We step inside, and while the house is warmer, it immediately it feels like a house of death – sadness seeping through its walls. I can’t really lay a finger on why, but Patrick Bronte looms and his presence is dark. Is that unfair? I only know him as Emily, Charlotte and Anne’s father. His drug addled son, Branwell, I thought I would feel – but he is long gone – from a Laudenum fog into a permanently starry sky.
No it is Patrick. Definitely.
Don’t want to alarm anyone. But a long time ago I learnt I could ‘feel’ energies. Some people think it’s poppy-cock. Others who know the feeling of being watched, or feeling as though someone is in the room with them—be prepared. This house is haunted.
Angie has inexplicably felt Patrick as well and says she’s never felt him there before. So by the time we leave, I feel like quickening my step – as though staying there will mean catching something I want to fling back to the universe. Weird, I know. I’m sure Bronte devotees will be disturbed by my assessment, but there it is.
We trek across the moors, rain spattering our faces…
No! Replay…not really, but I’m there in spirit.
We drive in superb comfort to the Wuthering Heights Inn, where I promptly channel Heathcliff. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find him? As Emily writes: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Romantic sook that I am, the brooding Heathcliff is the man, we all thought we could catch in our youth.
Quite naturally, he’s nowhere to be seen, but I’m busy imagining. We tuck into some beverages and all thoughts of the dimness of the Bronte museum are cast aside (Clearly.)
Angie then suggests we head to Salts Mill at Saltaire, Bradford, which I know nothing about – but David Hockney and an architect partner spearheaded the redevelopment of this colossal mill built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853. This building is truly extraordinary – and now houses massive retail and gallery space – with walls of Hockney artworks – which I found fascinating.
It really is an amazing setting and I revel in its vastness and the art on the walls is perfectly curated. We also take time to look at the historic gallery housing hundreds of photographs from the mill’s working days.
Angie points out all the ‘ERs’: by that I mean all the jobs ending in ‘er’ that are list dozens and dozens – from the obvious weave-er to the less obvious warp-ers. Slubb-ers (?), shuttl-ers, quench-ers, min-ers, wind-ers, ligg-ers… see the list below!
Day 3 – Literary Discussion
I feel very honoured on my last morning to be included in Angie’s literary group. She says, ‘I’ve never taken a friend along before.’ So it makes it all the more special.
Assembled is a group of very interesting women, coming to the table with diverse backgrounds and experience. The discussion revolves around Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ – of which I’ve managed to read 50 pages the night before, so I am a little prepared. Normal People was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 and young people in particular, are lapping it up. Set in modern day Ireland, the book negotiates through the minefield of a young adult relationship, which cannot help but be overshadowed by a pervasive cycle of domestic abuse and peer social pressures.
Despite this, there are moments of tenderness, hope and narrative beauty. I’m reading Angie’s copy and she has underlined sections, which I find just as interesting as the book. I point out something she’s marked with grey lead and I agree with her. We both love the line: ‘His figure was like a long elegant line drawn with a brush.’
We finish up my stay in Hebden Bridge with a hearty lunch and I hop back on the train to Thirsk. I am left thinking that with every step of this journey of mine to the UK, I’m finding something new, experiencing wonderful things —and there is so much more to come.
Thanks so much Angie and Alex. Had a blast. XXX