On the trail of Charlotte Brontë

Last year when I stayed at Judith’s in the tiny estate village of Birstwith I had commented on the large building on a hill overlooking the village. Originally the entire village belonged to the Greenwood family and all the buildings were constructed for the people who worked at the cotton mill.  Swarcliffe  had turrets and towers and looked very

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Swarcliffe today

imposing. Judith told me that it once belonged to the mill owner but was  now a private school. It was only when I got back home  and read about it that I discovered that Charlotte Brontë had resided in this house for the summer of 1839 when the Sedgwick family for whom she was a governess to the two small children moved here for the summer. The home belonged to Mrs Sedgwick’s parents. So on my visit this year I wanted to see if I could get a closer look at the building. As luck would have it Judith knows a teacher there and so we arranged to meet, first in the teacher’s home (next to the post office) which was once the mill manager’s home and then she would give us a short tour of Swarcliffe. In her elegant home she provided me with a copy of a letter that Charlotte wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey, describing how dreadfully unhappy she was at Swarcliffe. Charlotte just


The school library

wasn’t a ‘people person’ and with the entertaining of guests and the care of the youngsters (she was not fond of children either) she felt very lonely. “As it is I can only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me thrown at once into the midst of a large family – proud as peacocks and wealthy as Jews – at a time when they were particularly gay, when the house was full of company – all strange people whose faces I had never seen before – in this state of things having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoiled and turbulent children, whom I expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct.”


It was a steep climb up to the school, passing the church, but one that Eleanor Bird does each day on her walk to work, where she teaches English. Once a boys’ boarding school it is now an expensive day school for children from nursery school age to eleven years old. Fees are 10,000 pounds per year. Little of the original building that Charlotte knew remains. In fact, probably  only  the original stable block (which is now a classroom)


The stable block that Charlotte would recognize

remains, which may account for the place having no’ blue plaque’ but for me to simply take in the views that she would have looked out on was simply magical. Again it was a very warm day – 80F – and the scenery and extensive grounds looked idyllic, but as Eleanor pointed out, in poor weather (i.e most of the time!) chaparoning the students from one building to another between classes is an arduous duty for the staff. I noticed a noticeboard with the names and successes of about 20 students in the ABRSM music exams. I think I could teach here! I suspect that most of the students go on to ritzy boarding schools and there were some fliers on hand for places like Seburgh and Uppingham, though Eleanor said that some go to local schools too.

The interior has been kept up to look as much like a stately home as possible, though the children won’t see how unusual a school it is until they leave – or become adults. The ornate ceiling and large mirror in particular caught my eye, as well as the amazing views. Eleanor said that she could sometimes see Middlesborough, 70 miles away, on a very clear day. The maid’s bells were mounted and labeled in a corridor and one was the school room. IMG_8262

In the afternoon we took a stroll along the river Nidd passing Mr Greenwood’s old mill, now a fertilizer factory, which make a very intrusive noise, and then we drove about 5


Strolling along the River Nidd from Judith’s house

minutes to Cold Cotes, the Bed and Breakfast where Judith took up a job last month helping to serve breakfast. The extensive gardens were open to the public as part of a fund raiser for the Royal Gardens. I met the owners, who moved there quite recently. The

property was listed for one million pounds. There are eight rooms for BnB, beautifully landscaped gardens and lovely views in all directions. What a difference from Hebden Bridge where the population is all squished together on the steep hillsides. Here we were greeted a lady from the Royal Gardens with a plum in her mouth, and the visitors were showing up in their BMWs and Mercedes convertibles. I sipped a glass of wine and took in the scene.


In the ‘Secret Garden.’

For our evening’s entertainment we watched Brassed Off, one of my family’s favourite movies, and I was surprised to see places that I now recognize – the Piece Hall in Halifax, and I’m sure I caught a glimpse of Studely pike in the distance.


1 Comment

  1. Sue

    Not sure who told you that the mill at birstwith is a fertiliser factory, but you have been wrongly informed. I and my parents worked at the mill from the 1960’s till the 1990’s and it was and still is a flour mill and rusk making plant.

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