Drawn to Top Withins

Top Withins, near Haworth, West Yorkshire, England

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, Ch. 1

The firs no longer remain.  Instead, two sturdy hardwoods stand out against the rolling moors, the waves of grass that undulate in the constant wind, and the low heather and bilberry bushes that cling to the edges of the path as you crest the first hill and spy the trees and ruins in the distance. 


Top Withins in the distance.

Top Withins is a singular place.  It is almost chthonic, seeming to have risen from the earth itself, rather than being built from the stones on the moors that engird it.  It is a destination that pulls you towards it.  It stands out on the horizon, nothing taller than the shoulder-high stone walls, themselves worn and rent in many sections by wind and rain and years of them. 

The inscription on the side of the farmhouse, what remains of it, notes that the Earnshaw home in Brontë’s novel bore no resemblance to what once stood there.  But that is not the point of the solitary building and the trees atop the moor.  You cannot help being drawn towards them, even though the countryside, the constant sideways spitting rain, the chill that permeates you all warn you to stay away. 

There is no warm hearth to welcome you there.  And yet, you cannot help but be drawn towards it.  The trees grow larger, the farmhouse becomes more distinct, and the pale paths carved into the meander their ways to the doorstep of Top Withins.  It is a gothic place, haunting and foreboding, but there is something magnetic about the place, as if it were the center of something. 


The path draws you closer.

I am reminded of the Wallace Stevens’ poem The Anecdote of the Jar, in which Stevens places a jar on a hill, and suddenly that jar becomes the center of its world:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

In the same way, the moors rise up to the shell of the farmhouse and its sentinel trees.  The location has captured the imagination of numerous individuals over the years, both before and after it was immortalized by Emily Brontë. American poet Sylvia Plath was fascinated by Top Withins.  I visited Plath’s grave in the churchyard of St. Thomas A. Beckett in nearby Heptonstall, where her husband Ted Hughes played as a child. 


Sylvia Plath’s headstone.

Plath wrote two poems, Two Views of Top Withins and Wuthering Heights, recorded numerous journal entries, penned an article in the Christian Science Monitor, and mentioned the shell of the farmhouse that so fascinated her in many letters.  I understand why the place fascinated Plath, why it inspired Emily Brontë, and why I am drawn to it every time we go to England.  As Plath noted in her 1961 poem, Wuthering Heights:

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

This fragment of Plath’s poem captures the singularity of Top Withins so perfectly.  The only things that rise above the grasstops and the sheep are the resolute stone walls that possess no life themselves.  They are like ghosts.  One questions how the farmhouse ever stood, ever housed a family.  If they were ruins from their inception, this would, perhaps, be comforting.  It is no wonder why writers and poets are pulled towards the solitary beacon on the horizon. 



How can something so foreboding be so inviting?  It is this gothic tension that drew me in the first time I hiked to Top Withins with Anna sixteen years ago, and what drew me back to it this last trip.  I did my best to capture the atmosphere as I hiked between the heather and bilberry bushes that engird the paths up the winding way to Top Withins. 

The trees and the ruins are really like the jar on the hill in Tennessee.  The paths rise up to it, and the moors encircle it.  Admittedly, it would be a beautiful walk if the farmhouse and its two tall trees were never there, but then it would be just another idyllic moor.  Because they are there, because they exist and feel as if they have existed and will exist eternally, when you first catch sight of Top Withins in the distance, you are within its dominion.  It is the center, and it will fascinate you and draw you closer.

Until next time.

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