Tuesday, 10 January 2017

In Branwell's Footsteps - A New Year's Day Walk from Sowerby Bridge to Haworth.

2017 begins, as its gloomy predecessor ended, with rain. 
At six, its thin grey needles are still stabbing the black outside my window, faintly visible in the drowsy glow of a few far off streetlamps and attic windows.  I can just make out one of the horses in the field, plodding the sodden grass like one just risen after a night of excess, the bushy, puffy shapes of trees lumped against the far horizon where the hill melts into doomy sky, the rickety fingers of silver birch, leafless branches scraping cold air above the Rochdale canal, swaying in winter wind.   
Neither moon nor stars are glimpsed in a sky which stretches over roofs and chimneys, to the hills where Sowerby Bridge peters into Norland, and its sandy pathways, gulleys, laburnum bushes, sheep bones and standing stones, hammered by solemn salutations of endless rain.

I am up at this hour in order that I might head out in the footsteps of the Brontes, and walk the ten miles between my home in the Calder Valley to their's in Haworth, mirroring the trek taken most weekends by Branwell, the (in)famous Bronte brother who in the early 1840's was living here in Sowerby Bridge, working as a clerk at the newly constructed railway station.  It was on the moors to my south, walking one January morning in 2012, having just arrived in the Valley and discovering in Juliet Barker's acclaimed The Brontes that he had lived in the area, that my thoughts first focused on the idea of a film about Branwell. 
2017 marks two hundred years since Branwell's birth, and I have spent the months leading up to this anniversary working with cameraman, director and composer Alan Wrigley on a film - A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years.  I have seen two dramatic depictions of his life - The Dissolution of Percy by Caroline Lamb, and Sally Wainwright's television film To Walk Invisible, in which Branwell's character featured prominently.  Caroline is among many artists to appear in the film, and the sights between here and Haworth have become increasingly familiar.  But my journeys have all been in cars or busses.  For some time I have felt the need to take the trip on foot, and there seemed no better time than at the onset of Branwell's bicentenary year.

Branwell arrived here in the The 1840's, a time of scientific and economic expansion, as the railways boomed.  These new systems of transportation produced equal parts excitement and dismay - with one of Branwell's own heroes, William Wordsworth, scorning them. For Wordsworth, it was not so much the railways as their driving forces that posed problems - a greedy new class of capitalist bent on destroying the countryside in pursuit of profit: it is not against railways but against the abuse of them that I am contending, he assures a newspaper editor in one unhappy letter, while in another he frames his argument in poetry, appealing to the elements to fight his cause:

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault?
...if human hearts be dead,
Speak, ye passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.

Such reservations did not apply to the 23-year old Branwell, who in 1840, following an attempt at studying Art and several disappointing jobs in tutoring and commercial painting, grew fascinated by the emerging railways, and set out to start a new life in the Calder Valley. 

I set about collecting the things I will need.  Hooded coat.  Headwear.  Scarf.  Camera. Flask.  I stuff into my bag an extra pair of socks.
 Behind me in the kitchen, the piano music of Gabriel Faure plays softly, and the prospect of remaining in my warm flat is almost tempting, as I sit back with a coffee and play a few more records.  The dark is slowly lifting on swathes of frost clinging to the hills.  I am reminded of Emily Bronte's poetry:

     It is swelled with the first snowy weather;
     The rocks they are icy and hoar,
     And sullenly waves the long heather,
     And the fern leaves are sunny no more.

     There are no yellow stars on the mountain
     The bluebells have long died away
     From the brink of the moss-bedded fountain—
     From the side of the wintry brae.

The day could hardly be called bright, or in any way inviting, but the birds are singing and the stars are winking like lucky charms, and the thought of marching out into the frosty, bluish distance, the words of Emily Bronte rumbling through my senses like a gentle thunder, rouses me from my chair. 

     Awaken, o'er all my dear moorland,
     West-wind, in thy glory and pride!
     Oh! call me from valley and lowland,
     To walk by the hill-torrent's side!


Near the canal, two appropriate pubs fall into view: The Navigation and, half a mile or so down the road, The Turk's Head - both watering holes of Branwell Bronte.  Frequently dismissed as a heavy drinking gambler, who struggled with opium and money, Branwell has been frowned at by biographers - perhaps most noticeably Elizabeth Gaskell, whose excellent book nonetheless painted Branwell in less than complimentary colours.  How much of this is deserved is a matter of opinion (and a theme of the film), but one thing I feel with certainty is that were he living now, he would probably not be starting his New Year's Day without a sore head, and as I progress through the town the evidence of the previous night's festivities is clear to see.   Stale slops of half-eaten takeaways, fag ends and discarded plastic pint pots, fester in kerbsides.  A beer bottle glints from the gutter, like a tramp made of glass.
Turning down Wharf Street, I have never encountered it so quiet. As my old flat opposite the Roxy nightclub, comes into view, I recall the Friday and Saturday nights when the street below played host to its legless legions at chucking out time - drinkers collapsing in chaotic fights which would tumble into discontinuation almost as quickly as they began, the scrappers so drunk they forgot why their quarrels had begun.  I only ever went into the club on one occasion, and five years later I am still amazed I came out in one piece. I wonder if Branwell would have been tempted to dive in for a drink.
This eerily quiet morning, in the filmy grey of morning rain, Christmas lights still twinkle in the damp morning air, their bleary neon looking tired and faded, the puddly street momentarily illumed by the headlamps of trundling taxis.  The town feels like one sad, weary hangover on this stone-cold, wet winter morning, but I know its sluggishness is a temporary torpor, a necessary slump after its festivities, the decline it must embrace in order to return, revivified. 

Opposite the historic bridge over the Calder after which the town is named, I edge past the library, across the frayed edges of town with its disused garages and abandoned cars. I pass the gutted shell of the Puzzle Hall Inn, a 17th Century pub at which Branwell would undoubtedly have supped, and where many of my first forays into the local poetry scene took place.  It was at the Puzzle, a crooked little building hanging over the Calder in a weird kind of shape, as if three triangles had been squashed on top of each other at right-angles, where I first heard poetry being performed in this area, and it would be inconceivable that Branwell Bronte would not have been a regular reader at such events were he living in the area today.  
Climbing above the Puzzle, I thread my way through a tangle of iron bridges, from whose battlement-like pinnacle I am able to survey the whole town and its surrounding environs

including the site at which the railway station stood when Branwell worked there:

and of course the canal whose industrial decline the railways gradually provoked, and whose economic significance they eventually replaced:

Today the canals plays host to barges and boats used for holidays and even homes, and the pleasant wildlife corridors they have become are a far cry from the heave and hustle of their industrial past.
A few hundred yards down the towpath from the bridge, I reach the clearing with a bench and table and the wooden statue of Branwell, erected in the 1970's, and which used to show the troubled poet holding a book and gazing skywards like a thoughtful preacher, its earthy colours blending softly with the overhanging trees.  But in recent years it has been vandalized and, like Branwell's reputation, undergone severe blows. 

The damage done to this statue is a concern to many, and something we are eager to put right.  For the moment, though, it remains an eyesore, the ground about it strewn with cans and wrappers.  The patch of land is used by gangs of drinkers and drug users, and sometimes somebody will quip cynically that this is appropriate, and how Branwell would have joined them were he around today.

Happier by far is the lot of the wildlife which thrive in the canal.  This morning, Canada Geese glide along the waters with unhurried style.  Wrens flit branches. Two jays dip and dive among the sycamores. I always find it ironic how these man-made conduits of industry have come to serve the natural world, and the Rochdale Canal, stretching through these quiet woodland glades, safely distanced from the interference of industry, is certainly a glimmering example of the quiet triumph of biodiversity, a testament of the ability of animals to adapt and thrive when left unmolested and with the means to do so, and a bounty of great rewards for the patient bird watcher!

Continuing along the towpath, and entering the dank cocoon of a tunnel, I am surprised on reaching the light to notice a stack of 12" records, propped against the wall.  At the front is the 1982 Soft Cell remix album Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing. Already the proud owner of all Marc Almond's music, I resist the temptation of gathering up this slice of synthesized delights, hoping it will be chanced on by another unsuspecting fan, but cannot ignore the coincidence that just prior to setting out I had in fact been listening to Marc singing, among other things, the words of decadent poet Count Eric Stenbock (1860-95).  The lizard and bear collecting Stenbock was writing several decades after Branwell's death, but considering his love of the works of Thomas de Quincey and other writers who probed the darker depths of human experience, I can picture Branwell appreciating his the ghoulish, sometimes poignant visions. The sweetly mournful Gabriel, the very song I had listened to while gazing out across the moorland dawn, paints in my mind a picture of Branwell's Caroline poems, where he reflects on loss through the prism of an imaginary sister's funeral.  Stenbock's words:

The sweet slow sleepy solemn sound
That seems like incantations
Half heard in a dream
Or sad eyed siren singingsome
Strange sea spell:

elegise a fictional brother, murdered in a Stenbock story by a vampire (who, ironically enough, arrived in town by train.)

The rain is sheeting it down now.  I am heading for Luddenden Foot - at the foot of the River Lud (Valley of the Loud Stream, or named after Lud, a Celtic water god) - where Branwell was promoted to work as Clerk-in-Charge in April 1841.  Beyond the towpath, and the soaking football pitches, is the War Memorial, the children's playground, and the soggy fields and banks of rosebay willowherb.  Boats bob on the water, windows dark. Towering terraced housing veers above, irregular, box-like attics and extensions almost tottering over into the canal, poised above the sentries of birch and with views that loom across the Calder and its marshy banks of moss and Himalayan Balsam. Luddenden Foot features in a poem by Simon Armitage, who profiles the village's alleged Satanism, and I wonder what Branwell - or indeed Count Eric - would have made of these ghoulish goings on.  No doubt they would have lapped the poem up with zest!

 My approach to the village takes me to over the bridge that Branwell would have walked across, or at least the same structure: the first bridge was destroyed in a fire one Christmas, but the footings beneath the pedestrian walkway are remnants of this original. 

Beneath the bridge, the Calder is pushing by this chilly morning with a grumbling, surly purpose, flowing east all the way back to Sowerby Bridge and out towards the River Aire at Leeds. 

But I am heading to the immediate south, towards the railway and the site of the 19th Century station, where Branwell worked.

Over Burnley Road is another of Branwell's haunts - The Weaver's Arms, a swish and comfy bar, full of character and with a riverside terrace perfect for summer afternoons with a cold drink and a pizza, as expertly rustled up by the owner, Mario.  Mario is half Italian, half Persian, and struck me the first time I went to the Weavers as having a look of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Effortlessly cool and oozing a Mediterranean masculinity, he is one of the handsomest and most warm-spirited men I have ever met.  Alas, he is not there to brighten my uphill tramp on this rain-sodden January morning. 
Instead, I am heading towards the village of Luddenden its self, and a different licensed premises, which also held charms for Branwell Bronte.

Luddenden Lane and the single rows of houses on each side enjoy an atmosphere of suburbia, which is somehow unlikely in this climate of wooded hills, farms and rivers, but which, with its prefabs, car-ports, old fashioned grocery store and post-war semis, reminds me very much of my own suburban background in the east of Leeds.  It is like walking through a calm, understated mirror of the 1980's, and I almost expect to hear the jingle of the ice cream van, glimpse the faces of remembered neighbours not seen for decades.  Suburbia is its own microcosmic eco-system, with its own social codes and norms, off the scale of the sociological pigeon-hole and somehow beyond the confines of the class system.  As I cast my eyes above the telegraph wires and satellite dishes to the splaying fields of the valley, I know that wherever my life takes me, even were I to end up at the top of a mountain in Kathmandu or living on the moon, I will never leave suburbia - for no-one ever truly does.

Winding my way down the narrow cobbly lanes of Luddenden, once traversed by packhorses and host to a corn mill, later heart of the region's textile industry, I have by now well and truly given up hope of reaching Haworth in dry weather, the mid-morning downpour showing no sign of relent.   But I could hardly care less.  This labyrinthine village, nestling in one of the lushest niches of West Yorkshire, a green and pleasant fissure of two valleys, is one of the loveliest places on earth.  I am just sauntering down the High Street, almost laughing off the rain, when the bells of St Mary's, Luddende's village church, completed the same year Branwell was born, peal out in a joyous melody.

I've been walking to Luddenden for years, revelling in its understated majesty, the chocolate box charm of its houses, its venerable sense of history, its beautiful church.  But I realize as I scan my eyes across the top of the village, at the chimney pots stacked up like huge lollipops, the slates glistening in the after-sheen of rain, that it isn't any of these things that really puts the finishing sparkle on the area for me. It's the roofs.

Twisty, slippery slopes, like the dew-lathered backs of black, reptilian dinosaurs, these roofs loll and cluster, clumsily, unevenly, like no-one would ever slap up roofs today, yet standing proud for centuries. Bumpy pyramids, they stretch across the sky with wonky ridges, or taper bumpily to gable-ends, undulate like a rolling sea and withstand storms.  One such stoic and time-honoured roof tops the hipped, triangular structure of The Lord Nelson, a 17th Century coaching house which housed one of the country's earliest lending libraries, and where Branwell used to drink - along with fellow Calder Valley poets William Dearden, John Heaton and Thomas Crossley, "Bard of Ovenden."

Alan and I have been lucky enough to gain access to this library, or what remains of it, and enjoyed talking to the pub's owners and locals about its history, as will be seen in our film.  Today, though, I am not stopping: I am dipping down into the knot of lop-sided terraces and 18th Century cottages that slot together in the heart of the village, and towards the road into the moors.

The sinister sounding Stocks Lane climbs out of Luddenden like a large, stiff snake - rigidly pointing upwards, and upwards, until I am sure it is the steepest street in Yorkshire, a straight, unforgiving trudge into a sharper altitude, where rocky roadsides crumble into frost-fleeced fields, stoic sheep plod tough, tussocky scrub, swathes of driving rain bounce against drystone walls which stretch out like the spines of sleeping dinosaurs.
From the summit of the hill, I gaze down on a rainswept blanket, the scene at once rural and industrial.  Everywhere in these parts, the essence of natural history is shaped and moulded by the grit and grist of old endeavours, the rust of old machines, the sweat and grind of yesterday's muscle.  Oats Royd Mill, its chimney soaring like a lighthouse above a lego-like assortment of stone rectangles and slate-blue millpond, is a replica of its 19th-Century self - destroyed in a fire in 1989.  Originally a hive of production, owned by the Victorian textile magnate John Murgatroyd, the mill was first built a hundred and seventy years ago, and is now luxury apartments. Even in the basin of the valley, it dominates the landscape. I want to stop and take in the view for longer, embrace its beauty and its contrasts, its vastness and its tiny details - the curve of a distant dry-stone wall, the blackened cylinder of a chimney.  But I know I must keep walking - if for no other reason than to just keep warm.  My hands in particular are feeling the chill.  Like a fool, I have forgotten to bring gloves.

On either side are dotted copses interspersed by flocks of sheep.  To the north, unfurls the long back belt of Mount Tabor Road, seeming to peel off into a fizzled distance of leafless trees and rainclouds.

My walk has now become a straight route into the moors.  Straight ahead is like a wall of grey rain, on either side the uneven edges of what look like wobbly walls, presaging steep dips down into black.  Occasionally a car zips by, a field opens out into a hectare of rusty looking grass, sleep sheep creep unassumingly beside fences of barb-wire.  Below, the climbing columns of St Mary's cemetery are staggered up a gradient, the misty foothills pricked by tall tombstones, ostentatious crosses, angels and Virgins.   The long, slab of a road beneath my tread is slap-bang in the middle of the route Branwell would have taken out of the valley. I think of his lonely trampses on those 1840's weekends, maybe undertaken in the gloom of autumn evenings, or the bracing blue of winter mornings, as he hiked past farmsteads, the stone cottages of the rural poor, perhaps a horse and cart or stagecoach occasionally trundling past him as he slogged along the aptly-named Cold Edge Road, a steepening climb to the flat rooftop of the valley, with its crossroads, pubs and chapel.  How often did the beleaguered Branwell, weighing up his struggles to establish a positive identity, carve out a career, to survive the economic difficulties and punishing search for literary and artistic recognition, stop to stare upon this vast panorama of distances and history, lives and death and try to figure out his place in a world which often did not understand him, a world which then as now could prove so often hostile to the characters and aspirations of poetic spirits, or to those who simply find life a difficult game to play.

Discomfort follows these reflections, though, as the wind is slicing at my fingers, by now cold to the bone.  Burying hands in pockets helps, as does the piping warmth of my flask cup hot with coffee.  My steps edge over into the frayed edges of Ovenden Moor, the rain seeming now to freeze in the air around me and condensing into a hard, cold dryness.  Within my sight comes a bright, juicy collage of oranges and yellows.  Like a strange oasis, this jumbled heap seems to bulge out of the ground, gleaming up at me and beckoning my inspection.  Across the chunky wall beside me, the few sheep still in evidence ae leaning down and munching on something similarly coloured, and I quicken my pace so as to discern the identity of this unexpected pile now before me, two mounds shaped like a camel's back.  Animal, vegetable, or mirage?

I suppose this would be called litter if we saw it town, or outside a takeaway shop on some suburban street. 
Watching the sheep tucking in prompts me to break into my breakfast, but the job of peeling bananas in this savage cold takes its toll on my nearly numb fingers, so it is with a satisfaction bordering on smugness that I remember the socks tucked in my bag - an afterthought this morning, a lifesaver now.  Having endured the misery of waterlogged socks on too many walks beset by unexpected downpours, experience had warned me that additional socks may come in handy. Little had I expected they would, literally, do so.
Newly eager, and feeling self-congratulatory, I speed off again, this time with my slowly thawing hands nicely wrapped in thermal socks.

On the horizon, piercing the mist like a shadowy god, is the dark stone spike of Stoodley Pike monument, poised on the brow of a far-off, fog-swept hill.  A 40ft, 19th Century tribute to the dead of the Crimean war, the monument surveys the Calder from 400 ft above sea level, and has often been my only guide on moorland walks, when even in summer the light levels dip early and with unexpected rapidity.

Pushing on, I'm whipped by winds sharp as hatchets, my vision hazy in the chilly drizzle, but all along the skyline I can see the hills and villages melting into blurry blue, as the morning skyline shimmers in a silken mist.

To the immediate north, the borders of Calderdale and Bradford merge in a shapeless sweep of flats and fields.  In bedrooms, people will be waking up, kitchen lights will glimmer to the sound of kettles boiling.  Even up here amid the rumbling insistence of an angry wind,  on the airy moors, the sound of morning birdsong can be heard.

Its a wholly different kind of air up here - a thick, tangible sheet of ice-like cold, a fresh, fast air, racing, pulsating in gusts of wind, a wind that slaps the face, chaps lips and pummels into cheeks in rushing punches. 

But I am not alone. 

From time to time, walkers - kitted out much more professionally than me - march by in luminous jackets and with technical looking sticks.  A car wheels by, and sitting on the back seat is a boy whose ginger hair might have been Branwell's.  At one point, pacing past a reservoir and purifying my lungs in the cool, indescribably fresh moorland air, I swing my arms in a swagger, and begin to sing.  I am normally a shy singer except in two particular environments: the library "Rhyme Time" sessions I run at Morley Library, where the joy of simple nursery rhymes and an audience whose average age is two help to put me at my ease, and when I am out in the liberating and, crucially, largely unpeopled, freedom of the open country. I am somewhat surprised then, when I notice from the corner of my eye a cyclist, top to toe in gleaming lycra, spool by and, almost equally bashfully, nod and say hello.  I laugh off my embarrassment, as if to suggest that I am often to be found striding across the country singing songs, and we exchange enthusiastic nods.  A few years my senior, he is strikingly handsome, and his expression betrays a kind of "each to their own", unruffledness, the way athletes and cyclists often seem at ease with the world, like he was a sparkling bolt of living endorphin.  I watch him pick up pace, zipping ahead in a spangle of neon blues and greens, like some low-flying kingfisher nose-diving for prey, as I troop on, already missing the short-lived companionship of this unlikely encounter.  Minutes later, the cyclist returns, swooping towards me and slowing as our paths approach.
"Its a lovely day, isn't it?" he offers, casually. 
I nod, and, knowing that the words I choose have power to tilt the interaction into a full-blown conversation, to magnetise my momentary friend's attention and persuade us both into something more than the brevity of a snatched, fragmentary moorland encounter, muster up no more than a mumbled, "Yes."  The cyclist does not slow down.  He aims his bike the way I came, and torpedoes down the hill back towards the doomy downlands, mist-thickening, with their chimneys, pubs and cemeteries.  This time, he does not return.

Deeper into the moors, I am wondering of the fortitude and sheer brute strength of the shepherds and farm folk who must have worked these moors in Branwell's time.  I pass a broken down sheepfold, a ramshackle barn, the wreckage of what must once have been a dwelling. I wonder what would happen now, if I were to stumble and lay concussed out here for hours, find myself by nightfall lost and alone. This must have happened.  People must have walked these moorland miles, or in places like them, drunk or lost, in centuries gone by maybe seeking shelter at scattered farms or praying for a coach and horses to emerge from the folds of the dusk-coloured hills.  How long, one wonders, would it actually take to freeze to death?  And how long to be found, blue and decomposing in the bone-tough, icy, acidic earth?

A distant, dreary, dim blue chain
Of mountains circling every side;
A heaven so clear, an earth so calm

Emily Bronte, 1834.

I have crossed these stony moors many times, but always within the comfort of a car.  Now I am traversing them in the full pelt of winter wind, it feels like an embrace, and like the peat and heather, in its winter widow's weeds of skeletal grey, are tugging at me, drawing me to them and yet pushing me on, as I cast my eyes across an eggshell sky, faint traces of towns like scribbles in the background.  Jagged standing stones stand their ground like totem poles.  At a distance, wind turbines revolve. Beside me, a surprisingly strong beck wriggles through the groove of a hill.  Remnants of rock formations are strewn across the immediate distance, evidence of former activity and habitation, as noted in 1836, by the Halifax historian John Crabtree, who described the remains of a Carne, formed of loose stones, which for centuries has been called by the country people, Sleepy Low. Several broken fragments of rock are strewed over the moor, these are rendered more remarkable from the fact that the common is one vast morass.
Like whispers from another age, the bubbling chatter of grouse teases my ears, for nowhere can I see them.  So often in these parts, I have watched the bumpy skitter of a Moorcock, black bullet ruffled by a snow-white scarf, as he almost trips upwards off a rock and into the air. But not this morning. Everywhere, birds can be seen and not heard.  But up here, this may be to their advantage. I am still following the course of the beck when I come across a cardboard sign, stuck crudely into the boggy soil, advising caution for any walker not wanting to be hit by bullets.  There has been a shooting party on the moor, not this morning, but clearly in the recent past: and the shooters were clearly too lazy to bother removing this gloating sign, which they probably feel adds a moral legitimacy to their cowardly practise.  I can see them now - fat-faced and self-satisfied, strutting across the stones, swaggering with proprietorial priggishness - successful lawyers, accountants, surveyors, puffed-up dukes and gin-riddled countesses, thick, blue-blooded thugs and morons, hangovers of the 19th Century dripping with a lust for blood, the violent desire to kill for sport, wearing the sickly smiles of those who know that their perverted pleasures will never be checked by the authorities - for, more often than not, they are the authorities.  And so, with the sight of this clumsy, lop-sided sign, my moorland sanctuary is invaded and defiled, by an ugly reminder of the evil of which human beings are capable.

Down the tumbling hills I stamp, through a stile, over a fence, in and out of criss-crossing jumbles of rock and rusty grass.  Half the time the terrain looks the colour of a beach, fine and sandy.  The other half, it resembles some moony meteor, baked to the bone and studded in fossils.  Did wolves once stalk these undulating contours, haunt its megalithic shadows?  Did wildcats prowl its sandy pathways, Lear's Old Tom wander its lonely desertscape of thorn and wild gorse?

The Brontes, certainly, would have known these stretches, and Branwell definitely would have walked upon them, the sloping road I'm now descending being my route towards Oxenhope, the Victorian mill village whose railway station is the terminus of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway - a heritage railway operating on steam. Looking down towards the village, I catch sight of Leeming Reservoir, constructed in the 1870's to supply the many mills in the area, whose trades in wool and cloth had grown prosperous.  The construction of the reservoir depended on the destruction of many homes and two mills, and it was a major cause of depopulation.  Today it sits calmly, glacially, its blue cabin poised delicately at the end of its long, pier-like bridge, like some sapphire pagoda.

My journey is taking me now into, if not exactly urban, then certainly more built up parts.  Rustic pubs, rows of cottages, a winding alleyway between a primary school and neat, suburban houses.  I run into a group of ramblers, ten or fifteen of them, sprightly and good-humoured, some with energetic looking greyhounds, all wearing the beaming greenish yellow high-visibility jackets of seasoned walkers, proper walkers, as I slope along in my weathered blue jacket, feeling unqualified.  Nor can I quite find my way, as the roads here do not appear to have names. I dig out my A-Z and keep heading north.  The village beckons me below, even if I am not entirely clear how I might reach it.

At the foot of the hill, is the church of St Mary the Virgin, founded by the Reverend Joseph Brett Grant at the behest of Patrick Bronte.  According to Charlotte Bronte, Rev. Grant was so enthusiastic to drum up funds for the building of the church that he wore out eighty pairs of shoes collecting funds.  I am beginning to understand how he must have felt. It is a lovely building, containing glass from the William Morris company, and I long to visit - but today time does not permit this. I pass a farm, bid the sheep good morning, watch a goose saunter by a shed, before a zesty pheasant dips his glinting turquoise head from behind a log, and jump-dances along the wall, russet body bouncing through the grass, tail pointing upwards like the end of a witch's broom. 

A crisp afternoon sunshine glazes the dark stone of the village as I enter, feeling very much at ease amid the unimposing terraces, the schools set among grounds of wide woodland, the village pub and the views of the surrounding hills.

I take the opportunity to meet some locals:

and wend my way to the railway station.  Nestling in the bowl of a valley, Oxenhope station, like everything else in this beautiful village, is understated and almost easy too miss from the road above.  But its soft-stone station house vies for my attention this afternoon with the additional magnet of a familiar face:

And so I have arrived at the final stop on a line which once thrived through these hills and villages, home to the proud, powerful steam engines which Branwell would have hourly checked in and out on his line in the Calder Valley, and which are somehow a key and heart-stirringly important piece of the jigsaw of Britain's history and heritage. 
Erected in 1867, Oxenhope was not, as is commonly suggested, the station used in the 1970 film The Railway Children (that honour goes to Oakworth, a few miles down the tracks) but the area around it forms a part of the film's backdrop, and it is easy to see how it might have featured in the imagination and consciousness of Edith Nesbit, author of the 1905 story on which the film is based.  The whole area, with its steep embankments, stately lamps, water tower, railway huts and disappearing track, form a part of the novel's geography and convey a sense of history. 

The station was closed when the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway was discontinued in 1962, a casualty of the Beeching Cuts.  But volunteers resurrected it in '67, and today it plays a major role in boosting tourism for the area. I took a look around the wonderful museum, housed in the station's former shunting yard, still draped in festive finery:

In the station shop, I take a look at some slightly smaller engines:

and at some of the other gifts on offer

including much merchandise connected with Edith Nesbitt's classic

as well as a selection of books by certain other authors:

The station shop is a treasure trove of train-themed gifts, mementoes, sweets and toys, as well as books and dvds on the local area and its history.  The man behind the counter, a retired volunteer I surmise, could not be more helpful as I scan the goods, and is only too happy to answer my questions about the station, reeling off railway facts and figures with encyclopaedic expertise, and looking interested when I tell him I have walked across from Sowerby Bridge, and about the film.  He asks what part of Sowerby Bridge I've come from, and I tell him the name of the area I live in, and name a local pub as landmark. 
"I know it well," he says, "I know it very well - above that bridge they've just re-opened, aren't you?"  I affirm, and take his knowledge of the town as a good excuse to expand on the purpose of my visit. 
"I'm making a film," I say, tentatively, "about Branwell Bronte, and his time on the railways.  He used to live and work in Sowerby-"
"Oh aye, I know that bridge alright," he resumes, fixing me in a stern stare, "its only been re-built two weeks and I've pronged my car twice already."  The man then proceeds to describe at some length the details of these accidents - neither of which, he is at pains to explain, were in any way his fault - and the wonky layout of the bridge that caused them.  "Aye, and they've put up these 20-mile an hour signs now, I see ... near a school or a hospital I can understand it, but there's nowt else there - its just daft, if you ask me."  He shakes his head, returns to the subject of the badly designed bridge. The whole street, he feels, presents confounded obstacles to motorists.
"Well," I say, with a smile and a neutral nod, before delivering the line I, being a non-driver who can never think of anything useful to say regarding roads or cars, always reserve for conversations with those who drive, "the roads round there weren't built for modern cars, I suppose..."
"No, they weren't," he agrees, and reels off a list of complaints about the council and their many road-related errors.  I return to railways, and remind him of the film.  It is as though, gently steered back to this less hostile, more familiar territory, the assistant's peace of mind has been restored.
"Sowerby Bridge, you say?  If you want to know about the trains over there, its the Jubilee you want - pub on the platform: Chris who runs it, he's the man to talk to."
I enthusiastically assure him that Chris Wright, who with his brother Andrew has successfully run the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms (named after the Jubilee class of steam train) for going on ten years, is featured in the film.  "He's a wealth of knowledge - I interviewed him in the Jubilee and-"
"Yes, aye, its Chris you want to ask," the man continues, completely unaware of what I've said, "anything you want to know about the railway there, its Chris you need.  Just pop in and ask him."

Alan has driven to join me at Oxenhope, where I adjourn my walk for a spot of lunch, before we plan to set off for some shots of me walking towards Haworth.  We sit in his car overlooking the tracks, and he describes the progress he has recently made on our film, the edits he has embarked on and the scenes he has identified which still require shooting.  A Humble Station, which began life as a hazy daydream in my mind one freezing January morning on the moors, has grown and developed into something recognisably filmic and professional thanks to Alan's incredible powers of attention, and determination: having never made a film before, he set his skills and experience as a photographer to a task which neither of us expected would become so huge a part of our lives as it has done. I had dabbled in film before, but was clueless about any of its technicalities, yet from our early efforts pitching up a camera by the Rochdale Canal, to the gradual piecing together of a film, his panoramic landscapes and perfect blending of natural lights, and his patient, insightful direction of me as the narrator, Alan's influence has been nothing short of miraculous in the creation of the film, and it literally could not be happening without him. 

Lunch concluded, we each decide to take advantage of the imminent steam train for our own photographic purposes, Alan repairs back to the bridge, while I slip down to the station, pay my 50 pence platform entry fee, and head to the farthest point, just as the sunlight is beginning to dim over the russet-tinged embankments, glinting through the trees. 

"Well it said nine minutes past - its fourteen minutes past now," says the woman, becoming exasperated.  Until now, her taciturn husband has stayed hunched over the rails with his eyes clamped either on binoculars or his dog-eared timetable.  I haven't dared to bother him.  His surly presence, like that of the veteran birdwatchers I often encounter in nature reserve hides, looking glumly academic or too serious to be disturbed, has discouraged it.  His wife has segued back and forth along the platform, disappearing for minutes on end and returning with dispatches from the station master's office.  Now, all three of us are restless.  "They said the train's left Ingrow three minutes ago.  But no sign of it!"
"No sound of it, either," grumbles husband, who for the first time turns to frame me also in his deadpan glare.  "We'd have heard it tooting by now, usually."  This doesn't sound like the language of straight-laced trainspotters, and I begin to loosen up. 
"It must be delayed, like a real train," I offer, to a slim offering of bland smiles. "What could it be," I wonder, "the wrong kind of leaves on the track?" 
The ice broken, we laugh again as our hopes are raised then quickly dashed when what sounds like the rumble of an approaching train turns out to be a far off car.  But by now, we are all focused firmly on the tracks ahead.  The couple explain to me the rudimentary sounds to listen out for, and crucially the point at which the engine's smoke should be visible. 
We are like the Railway Children, glued to the station to await the 9.15, on edge with anticipation.  There is something fundamentally moving about a steam train, the sense of history it evokes, perhaps a pang of lost identity, of heritage, of the child locked in all of us.  Far ahead, I make out the faint tresses of escaping smoke, and we hear the growing rattle and toot as the plume enlarges, until the curve of the track is slowly enveloped in a cloud of steam.  My heart beats faster. I feel a strange oncoming of innocent joy. It is at around this time that I realize I have now become a trainspotter.

"And that just shows," whispered Phyllis, "that trains really are dragons in disguise, with proper heads and tails."

Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children.

And before I know it, the village of Oxenhope is fading in the background, a cosy collage of cobbles, cottages and smoke, melting into the late afternoon sunshine.  I am on the road to Haworth.

As the Brontes travelled the five miles from Thornton to Haworth in April 1820, explains Juliet Barker in her book, they would have noticed that the moorland grew wilder, with less land under cultivation, and that the hills grew steeper.
To those who love bleak and dramatic scenery there is something almost heart-wrenching in the beauty of the sweep of moorlands around Haworth.  The great hills rise, one after another, horizon beyond horizon: as Mrs Gaskell described it to a friend ... 'the sinuous hills seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent, and for my part I don't know if they don't stretch up to the North Pole.'

Haworth's equidistance between various towns and proximity to great cities, helped it to build up a steady prosperity based on the 19th Century staple industry of wool, enlarged by the ready supply of water: the mills which dotted the River Worth, as Juliet explains, were among the very first in Yorkshire. 

There can be no doubt, though, of what drives the town today, and magnetises tourists from the world over.

For all its former reputation as a town of gloom, for all its industrial past of steam-clogged lungs and early deaths, and for all Mrs Gaskell's mythical serpents, Haworth today is one of the brightest and friendliest towns I know.  Arriving at its steep, winding Main Street is a pleasure, and so it is today, at the onset of the year, as I step onto its familiar cobbles in the splash of early evening sun. 

One of Haworth's many book shops happens to be owned by someone with the surname of a certain former football manager.  The owner's namesake once managed Tottenham Hotspur, and as a fan of the club I am delighted to find among its shelves today a fat biography of Spurs legend Jimmy Greaves, which I immediately buy - it will make a great present for a fellow fan: Alan Wrigley.

I am less surprised to see the following!

Among Haworth's many famous sights is The Black Bull, the pub where Branwell often drank

And The Cabinet of Curiosities, being a purveyor of scented soaps and lotions, on the site of the apothecary where he bought his laudanum.   

But ultimately I am here on this New Year's Day because of the appointment of Patrick Bronte as Perpetual Curate of St Michael and All Angel's Church, Haworth, in 1820. 

The Haworth encountered by Patrick Bronte in the winter of 1820, though bolstered by trade, also held great poverty - industrialisation causing loss of jobs - and with a growing population, faced considerable challenges of public health, with mortality rates similar to those in the poorest parts of London.   Infant mortality was almost at 50%, and the average age was 25.  Patrick Bronte, as an Anglican Minister, was instrumental in enabling new irrigation systems to the area, established a school, and wrote influential letters to newspapers on the issues of the day.  He was also the first Bronte to see his poetry in print, releasing his religiously inspired verses - Cottage Poems - through a publisher just up the road from where my journey this morning began, in Halifax. 

Haworth Parsonage - "The Bronte Parsonage" - stands at the head of the village, the final man-made monument before the unravelling moors, the proud emblem of a phenomenal literary family, visited by millions.  In the Brontes day, the scene was rather different, lacking the trees which front the face of the house and turret the graveyard laid below.  These trees also are a testament to Patrick Bronte.  It was thanks to Patrick that Haworth was visited by an inspector from the General Board of Health, who found that the churchyard contained up to 40,000 bodies, with stones laid horizontally which prevented vegetation, aiding the dispersal of gases during decomposition.  One remedy for this was the planting of new trees, and today the churchyard is surrounded by woodland, its earth sparkling with snowdrops.  The Parsonage gardens are a font of colour in the spring and summer, and the entire scene is in such contrast to the austere sight which must have met the infant Brontes on their arrival at this imposing, dramatic, beautiful place.