Meeting Mr Rochester in Wycoller Valley
And so to the village of Wycoller outside Bradford on a spring day to die for (white sunlight, black shadows sharp as knives, a green mist on the white tree trunks), to see what else might be lost if Lancashire County Council carries out its threat to end all cultural funding.
What makes Wycoller different from the many isolated, beautiful valleys across Lancashire is that at its heart is a ruined, 16th century manor house surrounded by woods, where – so legend has it – Charlotte Bronte stood and took inspiration for the last home of Mr Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’, which in the book she renamed ‘Ferndean Manor’. (We are not far from Haworth Parsonage; the Brontes used to walk this way.)
‘The Manor House of Ferndean,’ wrote Charlotte Bronte, ‘was a building of considerable antiquity, moderate size and no pretensions, deep buried in a wood . . . To this house I came, just ere dark, on an evening marked by the characteristics of sad sky, cold gales and continued small, penetrating rain. The last mile I performed on foot, having dismissed the chaise and driver. Even when within a very short distance of the manor-house you could see nothing of it, so thick and dark grew the timber of the gloomy wood about it’ – thus capturing perfectly the shady magic of Wycoller Valley and the gothic feel of Wycoller’s ruined manor.
There is also a beck that runs down the valley, eight stone bridges, some of them more than a 1,000 years old, a lot of birdsong, winter mud melting in the spring sunshine, and a Visitor Centre, which – along with the post of a Ranger – is under threat of being closed. At which, well – what? – what does it matter if you close a Visitor Centre and cancel a Ranger’s Post?
It matters because without a Ranger the place becomes less cared for. Without a Visitor Centre the place attracts less families. And without either of them the stories of the valley start to be forgotten, particularly its association with the Brontes. Long before the invention of the printed book (and long after it), people knew that if you wanted to keep a memory alive you had to mark the spot – with a cairn, a heap of pebbles, a memorial stone. If you didn’t, the knowledge sank back into the shifting ocean of oral memory, there gradually to become garbled and confused. Visitor Centres are our memorial stones, our ways of remembering. Without them we forget things like Wycoller’s association with Ferndean Manor and Charlotte Bronte, and without that the landscape gets less rich and less meaningful.
I am always amazed at how much time human beings will devote to looking after the past. The Friends of Wycoller have been restoring this valley for more than 50 years. But sometimes you need a Visitor Centre to capture and formalise the knowledge.
Lancashire County Council needs to make £262 million of savings over 5 years. As well as 5 museums threatened with closure there are question marks over the Historic Environment Service, which supports archaeology in the County, and the Countryside Management Service, which supports Wycoller’s Ranger Post.
Remembering is what human beings do. Maybe as a culture we have to decide what and how we want to remember?
Wycoller is on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Getting there isn’t easy. Public transport is slow and with lots of changes. In the end I went by train to Bradford and after that by taxi. Not cheap but Wycoller is beautiful and worth the trouble.