Walk and Talk with Michael Stewart

The writer and Ramblers member reveals the inspiration behind his unique Brontë Stones tribute to the literary sisters and explains why we must get more young people out on the moors.

By Natalie Hoare

A man seated on a large stone, with arms up in the air

How did you first discover the joy of walking?

I’m originally from Salford, an inner-city area, and didn’t start walking for fun until I was in my early 20s. I only took it up seriously in the last 12 years, more or less when I acquired my border-springer cross – you cannot walk him enough. It was around then that I joined the Ramblers and got into the political side of walking. I became really mindful as I walked on some of the moors where I live that there were these skirmishes with landowners. I’m constantly having arguments with farmers who are blocking rights of way. Lots of landowners used Covid-19 as an excuse to block paths and I’ve challenged it and reported it – Bradford Metropolitan District Council has been great. The thing is, even if a blocked path is temporary, after only three months everything gets overgrown, people don’t walk the path and that’s the end of it.

How have the Brontës influenced you?

I first became aware of Wuthering Heights through the Kate Bush single, which was number one in 1978. I was only 10 at the time, but as a young boy it really struck me. Then in my late teens we studied the book and in 1995, when I was at university, I discovered an essay about why Heathcliff changed – he runs off when he’s 18, is gone for three years, and when he returns he’s different, more sort of sadistic in his outlook. So it got me thinking what could have happened to him? This was the inspiration for my novel [Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff] about Heathcliff’s missing years, which came out in 2018. I researched it by going through archives and libraries and walking the moors.

How did the Brontë Stones project come about?

I moved to Thornton, the village where the three Brontë sisters were born, in 2000 and became fascinated with their literature and their lives. I wondered what the village would have looked like in 1815 and how it’s changed. Then I started to think about how to connect Thornton with Haworth, where they grew up and wrote their literary works. I came up with the idea of four stones placed in the landscape and connected by a series of walks. I didn’t want it to be a heritage project, but rather celebrating the works of writers today. I wanted to commission writers now that were equivalent to the Brontë sisters then – who were popular but also quite experimental and shaping the literary landscape in some way.

Who did you get involved?

We commissioned four writers for each of the stones: the then poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem for the Charlotte stone, which is in the wall of the Brontë birthplace – Charlotte was the first born there. Kate Bush somewhat surprisingly agreed to write the Emily Stone, which is high on the moor, halfway between Haworth and Thornton – Emily was born in 1818, halfway between Charlotte and Anne, so that’s very significant. Jackie Kay, the Scots makar [the national poet laureate of Scotland], wrote a poem for the Anne stone, which lies in a wildflower meadow behind the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Anne is the only one not buried in Haworth. She’s buried in St Mary’s in Scarborough, so that’s her sort of homecoming really. Finally, Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, wrote a poem for the Brontë stone, which connects all three sisters and is situated in Thornton cemetery. I worked with a cartographer called Chris Goddard and devised a series of walks linking the stones. The linear Brontë Walk takes in all four stones and is nine miles long; the Charlotte walk is a gentle stroll of about five miles and the Anne walk is a secluded seven miles. The Emily walk, as you would expect, is a sizeable 15-mile yomp across the moors that surround Haworth. This has only been possible thanks to the CRoW Act – Alcomden Stones is a grouse moor, so it didn’t have public access before 2000. It’s great to get people out there as it fits very closely with Emily’s story and Wuthering Heights and the landscape that inspired it.

A green valley and moor

And you also lead walks in the area?

I’ve led a number of walks now for various organisations including the Brontë Parsonage, Bradford Literature Festival and I’m currently working with First Story [the creative writing charity] on a project to get young people between the ages of 14 and 16 from five Bradford schools out on to the moors. Bradford is a very diverse city, but it’s geographically quite segregated, and there are areas where there is quite a high level of people with South Asian or Pakistani heritage who don’t necessarily feel comfortable coming out onto the moors. I think there is a kind of divide there and a perception that the countryside isn’t for them – it’s a white space – so I’ve been challenging that trying to get people out there because it is for everybody. I’m from a very working-class area of Salford so I totally get it. I didn’t feel like the countryside was for me either. Then I think about the mass trespass of Kinder Scout and those mill workers who also felt that it wasn’t for them and asserted their rights to walk those areas. We’ve fought a long battle and we’re still fighting.

How will the project work?

I’m trying to dip between the Parsonage, First Story and Huddersfield University to provide the funding to encourage young people to get out and about on the moors and also to provide them with equipment, which is another economic barrier. Some people can’t afford to fork out on something they’ve never done before. But if you walk out on the moors and you’re not in the right gear, it’s a perilous place to be. We can also give them maps and guidance, and so on and hopefully change the way that they experience the countryside for good. The first walk was supposed to happen in May, during lockdown, so in the interim, we’re making a film of the Brontë Stones Walk to show in schools this autumn – a virtual tour. Hopefully, it will whet their appetites, so that when they do get out there on the moors, they’re already anticipating it and excited about it.

Two people looking at inscriptions on a stone

What’s your favourite

Country walk?

From the Cat I’th Well pub in Wainstalls, through Luddenden Dean over Warley Moor to the Rocking Stone, then over to Cold Edge Dams, past the waterfall at Wainstalls and back to the pub.

Town walk?

York City Walls.

View?

Stanage Edge.

Kit?

Salomon Cross/Pro trail shoes.

Post-walk tipple?

A pint of Goose Eye Chinook blonde ale.