Currer Bell

Hathersage, the village that inspired one of England's most famous writers

“The panoramic views from the millstone crags of Stanage Edge picture for us the green valleys topped with the purple heathers of the moors. Hathersage sits tucked into the end of the Hope Valley as the Derwent turns south towards Chatsworth.”

Leadmill to Ashopton through Hathersage : Circular Walk - Map and Directions : Google Earth Tour for this Walk

The writers on the Currer Bell route:

Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte), Sir Walter Scott

With short abridged extracts from The Literary Way, written by Terry Goble and published by The Creative Peak

Hathersage

We are outside the George Hotel, Hathersage. Try to picture the scene. In 1845, a coach draws up outside this well-known coaching inn. A young lady, 29-years-old with a pretty and delicate face, her hair parted in the middle and drawn to a bunch at the back, steps down from the coach. She is immediately greeted by a friend with whom she went to school. Standing in the background, to welcome the travellers to his inn, is Mr Morton, the manager. However, our slim, pretty traveller would not be staying at the coaching inn. Instead, she would be staying with her friend at the vicarage. And this leads us to one of the most famous novels in English Literature. And on this walk, let us also add a story which has become a legend in the re-telling over the centuries. It entertains and grips us, as much now, as it did people in medieval days.

In addition, we have a picturesque village that is tucked under the dark and brooding crags of gritstone, which is where we are headed. From there we will have views over hills and valleys across which, The Literary Way will wend its route.

The Vicarage Visitor

At the time of her visit she had only written a few juvenile stories, which were never published in her life time. She was to become one of the most famous names in English literature, and her renowned book drew insight from this village. The year following from her visit to Hathersage, she would collaborate with her sisters Acton and Ellis on their first literary adventure. They would self-publish a book entitled, Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book had no success at all and sold very few copies.

The names were pseudonyms in a similar way as when we started at Ellastone with George Eliot. Marian Evans had taken the masculine pen-name, because of resistance against woman writers. The three sisters did the same. Two years later, in 1847, Jane Eyre by Currer Bell would be published in London. Charlotte, Emily and Anne became one of the most prominent literary families in the nineteenth century. Their work endures through to the present.

Charlotte had four sisters and a brother. They lived with their widowed father in the Parsonage at Haworth in West Yorkshire, which is now the Bronte Museum. The moors around Haworth and Hathersage are very similar, as both consist of wide landscapes of heather with craggy millstone grit outcrops. A slight difference is that the edge of the crags are more noticeable in Hathersage, both behind and to the east of the village. The three girls, who survived to adulthood were Charlotte, the eldest, Emily and Anne. They would all write novels that would become well-known with Wuthering Heights, by Emily, perhaps one of most haunting novels in English literature.

The tragedy for the family was that they would all die as young women. Anne was twenty-nine, when she died of tuberculosis. Emily, was only a year older, when she succumbed to the same disease. Charlotte would live ten years more than her sisters and would be the only one to wed. She married her father’s curate. All the sisters rarely ventured far from home, although after her novels were successful, Charlotte did visit London more often and, amongst others, enjoyed the friendship of G H Lewis, who was the live-in partner of Marian Evans.

Ellen Nussey had invited her school friend to stay with her at the vicarage in Hathersage. Ellen’s brother was the vicar at St Michael and All Angels Church. It was during her stay, in 1845, that Charlotte conceived the sense of location for the novel. Hathersage becomes Morton in the book, after the name of the manager of the George Inn. The title, in itself, is interesting. Eyre one of the most prominent family names in the local area. The name is still very evident locally, as it was in Charlotte Bronte’s time. Charlotte used many local locations as part of the story. Before we investigate some of these, let’s give the link with one of the books we have already encountered on The Literary Way.

Samuel Johnson’s book Rasselas was conceived while visiting Ilam Hall. In Jane Eyre, Jane has just gone away to school. She meets another pupil who she wants to befriend, who is called Helen Burns. It is Helen who is reading Rasselas.

The turreted North Lees Hall on the hills above the village, and which we will shortly pass on The Literary Way is thought to be Thornfield Hall and the home of Mr Rochester, the lead in the story. This is Jane’s view of Thornfield Hall:
Gathering my mantle about me, and sheltering my hands in my muff, I did not feel the cold, though it froze keenly; as was attested by a sheet of ice covering the causeway, where a little brooklet, now congealed, had overflowed after a rapid thaw some days since.
From my seat I could look down on Thornfield: the grey and battlemented hall was the principal object in the vale below me; its woods and dark rookery rose against the west. I lingered till the sun went down amongst the trees.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

On a drive near the side of the George Hotel, a path leads to Brookfield Manor which is Vale Hall in the novel and is the industrialist’s home. Moor House in the book is the farm, called Moorseats which is up towards the moors from Hathersage. This comes into the story when Jane sees a light and is attracted to the house. Jane Eyre has been popular since it was published and has been made into a film at least thirteen times with many of the recent productions being filmed in the local area.

Merry Men

You might think that because of the section title we should be in Nottingham, with the famous outlaw, who triumphed the plight of the poor, but we are in Hathersage with Charlotte Bronte. She is staying with lifelong friend, Ellen Nussey. They would have, on many occasions, walked through St Michael’s church grounds amongst the headstones of the generations of villagers. One grave stands out from the rest. It is claimed that it is the resting place of one of Robin Hood’s most loyal lieutenants, Little John.

There is much speculation about the historical accuracy of many of the Robin Hood claims. It is not our intention to debate the issues here, as there are many people better qualified to assess the complex historical validity of the evidence. One of the main issues is that the stories and ballads have been handed down through time. There have been many variations and interpretations made as a result. Also the exact person is difficult to identify and hence the period he lived is also unclear. It therefore follows, whether he had merry men, which included the typically depicted giant of a man, Little John, may also be questioned.

However, it is a wonderful story, full of heroics and has been committed to literature in many forms. The recent decades of film and television media have also seen its portrayal. So let’s take a romantic view of the man and legend. We’ll enjoy some of the speculation as we leave the church and we begin the climb to the moors past Bronte’s Thornfield Hall. As we clear the valley slope, onto the moors, we are near the rocky crags of Stanage Edge. Routes were difficult in Robin Hood’s time. Forests were very prevalent in the valleys and the moors were high and their peat bogs handicapped easy travel. Careful routes were chosen either on foot or horseback that avoided both of these perilous areas. To the north-east of us about five miles away, is a village on the fringes of Sheffield called Loxley. In many versions of the historic hero stories, Robin Hood is taken to be Robin of Locksley. Let’s add some other information to help confirm at least a plausible story of Robin Hood in this area.

Peveril Castle is about five miles to the west. This eleventh Century Norman Castle perches above the village of Castleton. We are going to visit Castleton later, for it has a close association with many writers stretching over centuries, but for now let’s consider a little background to the castle, which we can see from our vantage point on Stanage Edge. Peveril Castle was at the heart of the English King’s hunting forest, which was renowned for its deer. The name of a village, a few miles from Castleton, Peak Forest, is a remnant of the times. Also the nearby Chapel-en-le-Frith, was named as the church in the forest, by French prisoners of war. The castle is named after the original owner, William Peveril, who was the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror. He gained the large estate for his services in the invasion of England. There was a descendant of the original Peveril, who would also have a wide influence in the area. His principal role was as Sheriff of Nottingham.

If you know the story of Robin Hood you will immediately see the connection. Speculation again, but as well as Nottingham Castle, he also owned and occupied Peveril Castle, Haddon Hall and a small hall near Bradwell, called Hazelbadge. So at least we have a tenuous link that suggest the local area could have been the heartland of Robin with the Sheriff of Nottingham also linked with the vicinity.

The popularity of the story of Robin Hood was greatly enhanced in the ninteenth century, by Sir Walter Scott, in the novel Ivanhoe, in which Robin of Locksley appears. For Ivanhoe’s inspiration, it is thought Walter Scott used the castle at Conisbrough, which is between Sheffield and Doncaster.

Let’s leave our mythical hero and move on so that we can reach an area with a true and well-known twentieth century hero. As we cross the moor along the Causeway we see the relics of the work that was done here. Scattered around in the heather are partially shaped millstones. Some of them are broken, yet others have not been finished. There are many that while they appear complete, have remained here where they have been hewn from the rocks. It’s a fascinating reminder of the source of the key tools that brought not only the grinding of corn, but also the crushing of ore. We cross the road which links Sheffield to Manchester and walk along the path, past Cutthroat Bridge, that will take us down to the Ladybower Reservoir.

Let’s rest awhile at Ladybower

The legend of Robin Hood has become a very well known story over the years and has appealed to many generations, and we are happy to leave it as a myth, along with Hathersage’s Little John, although it would be intriguing to know the truth behind that grave in the churchyard. Within the church itself are the many memorials to the Eyre family, who had been a local presence for centuries with their name still very prevalent in the Hope Valley, which runs from Hathersage to Castleton. When Charlotte visited Ellen, whose brother was the vicar, the two women would have entered the church on many occasions, and it could well have been then that Charlotte conceived the name that was to be imprinted on the literary world. From the longitudinal high street of Hathersage, with the church perched on the rising ground above the village, we went past an old hall, previously owned by the Eyre family, but designated Mr Rochester’s house by Charlotte. The path took us to the millstone strewn edge with the ancient causeway running its length. Along the path, through the heather, we were met by the frequent sounds of the grouse. Before we began the descent, we had some distant views of the reservoirs, and then crossing the main road we finally reached Cutthroat Bridge. It was then a short distance down the path to come out on the edge of the very impressive Ladybower Reservoir.