Top Withins

These late winter days on the cusp of spring are a gift: the air still cold but the strengthening sun warm and the light piercingly vivid. We leave as the sun is untangling itself from the beech-bristled horizon for a day-long walk under cloudless skies, 13 miles over the moors to Haworth. We spend much of the first two hours within the woods, first rounding the oak-cloaked shoulder of the Colden Valley, then after emerging into the dazzling morning light to cross Popples Common, plunging back down into the pine and beech of Hardcastle Crags. I time our arrival at the National Trust’s Gibson Mill to coincide with the opening of its cafe, where we fuel ourselves with chocolate cake for the short, sharp ascent back out of the valley.

Above the woods, the north wall of a little ancient lane is slung across a hollow between two enormous boulders, forming a perfect defensive position. My son climbs past one of the boulders to become the fort’s defender, and we assail each other with an inexhaustible supply of artichoke galls that a sheltering oak discarded in the autumn.

At Mansfield House Farm we chat with Trevor and Anne about their preparations for the upcoming lambing season, due to start for them on April 15th, and about the authenticity or otherwise of the growing number of TV farming programmes. We’re pleased to hear our favourite, the BBC’s This Farming Life, come off well. Down the lane, Trevor passes us on his quad bike with a trailer-full of hay, and we give him a last wave as he unloads it into the bale feeder, surrounded by hungry sheep. But it will not be long before this daily labour is at an end when the grass in his smart fields starts growing.

Beyond the ruin of Moor Cock we leave the greening fields for the fawn grasses of the open moor, far horizons spreading at our backs, the wind rising. Old snow is seamed into the moor’s folds, more than enough for another skirmish, and making use of the wind he scores some impressive hits. Shaking the crystals from my collar, we descend to the imponderable blue of the Walshaw reservoirs, joining the Pennine Way for a last climb over the watershed, leaving the catchment of the Calder for that of the Aire.

Just below the shallow pass, at 1479 feet, the limit hereabouts for cultivation, we step over the topmost tumbledown wall of the nine fields that once belonged to Top Withins. For perhaps four centuries, from at least the 1560s until its abandonment in 1926, these 20 acres supported a succession of families, generations of Bentleys and Crabtrees, Feathers and Greenwoods, Sunderlands and Kershaws, all long forgotten. Then after the last of them had left, their decaying home secured its place in history on the basis of a tenuous claim to be an inspiration for the eponymous farmhouse in Wuthering Heights.

In an effort to make sense of the potential futures of the Pennine landscape I am always trying to understand its past, and I find farmhouse ruins a helpful imaginative aid in this. But Top Withins cannot help with this because of its fame; for public safety it has been secured and smoothed into the oxymoronic state of being a neat ruin, a facsimile of what I suspect its pilgrims actually want to experience. So here I must take us one step further into its past. We climb a little way above its two sycamores – iconic companions of so many Pennine hill farms – up onto Delf Hill, where a crumple of snow-filled hollows betray the remains of a quarry which likely provided stone for the farm’s construction. While my son plays in the snow they cradle, I trace into the distance the two-way stream of the Brontë faithful, which marks out the miles we still have to cover to Haworth and the bus home.

Ascending to Mansfield House Farm.
Inspecting an inspection hatch of the remarkable conduit that takes water from Widdop Reservoir to 8-mile-distant Halifax using gravity alone.
Approaching the imponderable blue of the Walshaw reservoirs.
On the Pennine Way, leaving Walshaw Dean Middle Reservoir, the smoke from a moor burn drifting beyond its dam.
Entering Great Hey, the topmost of Top Withins’ fields.
In the Delf Hill quarry, source of the worshipped stones of Top Withins.
Descending to South Dean Beck, miles to go before we sleep.
The remains of Forks House, one of 17 vanished, and, unlike Top Withins, unheralded farmhouses that once stood between Haworth and the moor.
Fields below Oxenhope Moor. A further 27 farms disappeared on these hillsides above Oxenhope, mostly after the creation of its surrounding reservoirs.

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