Fay Godwin’s brooding photo of Top Withens on the Brontë Moors in west Yorkshire arrested my attention on the underground. It was the poster for the exhibition Writing Britain at the British Library, and it reminded me of the 1980s and our battles for freedom to roam, long before the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act gave us those rights on open country in England and Wales.
Fay (who died in 2005, just as the CROW Act access was fully implemented) took some brilliant photos of the secret moors from which we were excluded; some were published in her book, Our Forbidden Land (Cape, 1990). Top Withens wasn’t forbidden land, it is ‘urban common’ with rights to walk and ride, but the adjoining land was barred to us.
On 5 October 1986 I joined the rally at Top Withens on Ramblers’ Access Day and from there we spoke via radio link to Ramblers on Lad Law near Boulsworth Hill on the Lancashire side, because the land in between was forbidden moorland. I issued a press release (which got good coverage) claiming that ‘Wuthering Heights might never have been written if the Brontës had been made as unwelcome on the moors as walkers are today’. Top Withens is thought to be the scene of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
The then landowner, Yorkshire Water Authority, did not allow people to roam free on Stanbury Moor and had even refused the Ramblers permission to walk the ridge to Alcomden Stones from Ponden Kirk and Top Withens. ‘How Heathcliff would have raged about that,’ I observed in my press release.
Thankfully, it’s all different today, but the poster on the underground stirred up memories and I went to, and enjoyed, Writing Britain.
The exhibition, which is at the British Library, is in six parts: rural dreams, dark satanic mills, wild places, beyond the city, cockney visions and waterlands. I had hoped, in wild places, to see some of Fay’s forbidden moorland photos which helped us to win the CROW Act, but there was none. However, there were some striking ones from Remains of Elmet, a Pennine sequence, in which she illustrated Ted Hughes’s poems with photos of Calderdale, which included Top Withens. The exhibition was an excellent celebration of writing and landscape, with photos, books, audio and much else: though it was a pity that not all the book-cover illustrators were identified. It’s well worth visiting before it closes on 25 September.
But back to Fay Godwin. That poster on the underground serves another purpose. Top Withens is on the Pennine Way which, along with the other English national trails, is threatened by government plans to transfer the maintenance to cash-strapped local authorities and volunteers. The Ramblers (of which Fay Godwin was president, 1987-90) is running a campaign to save our trails and secure their future. The poster is a timely reminder of how important the national trails are to us all; I hope ministers look at it carefully. And I’m sure Fay would have wished it to have a present-day campaigning function.