Juliet Barker can see wild moorland and open countryside from almost every mullioned window of the 100-year-old former vicarage in the Yorkshire Pennines that has been her home for more than two decades. Not surprising, then, that the historian and biographer — her definitive The Brontës sold more than 70,000 copies shares a talent for predicting the weather with Charlotte, the eldest sister of the prodigious literary family, who lived just 12 miles away in the village of Haworth.
Charlotte’s first biographer and friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, noted: “I was struck by Miss Brontë’s careful examination of the shape of the clouds and the signs of the heavens, in which she read, as from a book, what the coming weather would be.” The Brontës were hugely affected by the landscape, so it ties me to them like an umbilical cord. (...)“
We had only seen a rather unprepossessing picture of the house,” she says. “When we turned off the main road, it was like heading into the land time had forgotten, and the house was fantastic.”
It was built in 1901 by Helen Strickland, the only daughter of a wealthy mill owner with with the wonderful name of Hinchliffe Hinchliffe, in his memory. A plaque on the end wall of the property, built using stone from one of her father’s burnt-out mills, records his name.
“Everything is so Brontë-esque, and Hinchliffe is such a Heathcliff name — yet it’s away from Haworth, with all the tourists ,” says the Yorkshire-born Barker.The daughter of a Bradford wool merchant, she was “obsessed with the Brontës as a child”, and later beat other Brontëphiles to the job of librarian and curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, at the house in Haworth that Charlotte, Anne, Branwell and Emily shared with their father, Patrick, a vicar.
Barker and James, a company director, settled in their own former church property. The six-bedroom family home is, says Barker, “large but very adaptable". She charted the lives of the Brontës from a first-floor study overlooking the church and rolling countryside. When her daughter, Sophie, was born, it became a bedroom. Next, she researched and wrote the life of the equally weather-obsessed Lakeland poet William Wordsworth, followed by Henry V, from a second-floor attic with views of bleak Yorkshire moorland. Her dedication prompted her son, Edward, then eight — he is now 25, and a lieutenant in the Royal Dragoon Guards — to write a school essay entitled, “the mad woman in the attic”. (...)Now the couple have decided it is time to downsize and are leaving the Pennines for a home in the Yorkshire Dales, one with open views.“I love living in Yorkshire,”
Barker says. “I like the anonymity — it’s something the Brontës appreciated. Charlotte enjoyed being lionised in London, but liked being anonymous in Haworth.” She also has no illusions about her status locally. “We were once approached by the churchwarden hosting the annual fête,” she recalls. “He said they were looking for someone famous to open it — I thought for a moment they were going to ask me. But instead they chose the local damp-proofing and dry-rot expert.” (Lynne Greenwood)The Old Vicarage is for sale at £1.1m with Charnock Bates.