• Michael Shann

Updated: Nov 7

I spent my childhood years only fifteen miles from where the Brontë sisters (and their brother) spent their childhoods and the all too few years of their adult lives. I’d like to say that I grew up in their shadow and that from an early age it was their influence that made me want to become a writer, but I don't think I actually visited Haworth until I was 19. I must have been aware of its vague literary connections, but I don’t remember the village ever being mentioned at school, and like our cousins in Horsforth (a mere 20 minute drive away) who we only ever saw at Christmas, it felt as remote as the Highlands.


My parents split up when I was 18 and in my first of four years at Trent Poly in Nottingham. On weekend visits back to Otley (or ‘Home’ as I still called it then) I’d alternate my stays with Mum and Dad and for the first time started to do things with them as individuals, rather than (with the addition of my younger brother) as the wider family we’d always been until then. With Dad it was drives out to see watercolour exhibitions, games of snooker at the Con Club and walks in the Dales; with Mum it was visits to museums, the occasional trip to the Grand Theatre in Leeds and walks on the moors.


Mum had always loved the old black and white film of Jane Eyre starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and perhaps it was watching the film together on a wet Sunday afternoon on one of my weekends home that prompted us to visit Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage Museum the next time I was up. And after that first visit we went again the next year, and the next, until it became 'our annual pilgrimage' as Mum called it. We didn’t always pay to look around the parsonage, and we didn’t always walk over the moors to Top Withens, but I’m pretty sure we always stopped for tea and cake at a café and had 'a little potter' round the galleries-cum-giftshops and second-hand bookshops on the High Street.


And it must have been around the time of one of these early visits to Haworth that I read Jane Eyre. Having loved books as a young child, I stopped reading in my early teens and didn’t start again until my uncle gave me a copy of Henri Charrière’s Papillon for my 17th birthday. How strange, I remember thinking, to give me a book for my birthday. And there it sat, untouched on my bedside table for six months or more until one evening, with nothing else to do, I gave it a try. Within a few chapters I was hooked, and after Papillon came Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then Great Expectations, then Jane Eyre. I was a slow reader, still am, and loved the way that this story of Jane and Rochester could transport me out of the depressing malaise of the late 1980’s. Or perhaps it was just lifting me out of my own personal malaise.


Reading Jane Eyre, quickly followed by Wuthering Heights and ElizabethGaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, made our visits to Haworth more vivid and strengthened my connection with the village and the surrounding moors, as if I was a personal friend to the sisters (and their brother) and they just happened to be out when I called in. Our 'annual pilgrimage' continued for several more years, but then, in 1996, our visits to Haworth suddenly stopped. I had resigned from my job as an NHS manager in Nottingham and moved to China to teach English with VSO for two years. While there I met the woman who would become my wife and on our return we decided to give London a try, liked it, and are still here. My literary influences changed and the writers who meant most to me were poets rather than novelists..


I rarely thought of Haworth or the Brontës, other than as early influencers, forever associated with my early forays into literature during my late teens and twenties. But 26 years on and soon after the last of the Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted, we went to stay in Haworth for four nights. It wasn’t with my Mum this time (who was on holiday with my brother) but with my mother-in-law and our three children. We stayed in a cottage a few minutes walk from the station and from the living room window could look across (as I did numerous times a day) to the tower of St Michael and All Angels’ Church where all of the Brontë family, apart from Anne, are buried.


I’d written a poem about Haworth around six years previously (one of a series about my Yorkshire childhood), but hadn’t been quite happy with it, so took the opportunity of staying in the village to revisit the poem and rewrite the third and fourth couplets. The original poem had ended with me sitting in the Black Bull pub with the sisters’ troubled brother Branwell, but just as he had clumsily daubed himself out of the only contemporary painting of the Brontë sisters (which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery), I scribbled over the lines that featured him.


I was keen to retain the walk to Top Withens though (the supposed inspiration for Wuthering Heights), and that sense of following the sisters across the moor and back to Haworth. We did the walk (senza mother-in-law) on a very wet morning, almost turning back shortly after crossing the little stone slab bridge at Brontë Falls, but ploughed on to shelter within the roofless walls of the old farmhouse when the rain was at its heaviest. Instead of the lines about Branwell, I felt I needed to include some reference to the sisters’ writing, and to their otherworldliness, far from the London literary scene, sequestered with their father in the stone parsonage at the top of the damp, unhealthy village, unaware of their impending greatness and that their work would be treasured for centuries. So I leave them in the parlour, as we look on from the churchyard, just the other side of their garden wall where the original gate would have been. The candle-light in the parlour is the only light in the house and the only sign that the three of them are sitting round the dining table, back at their writing.


On our final morning in Haworth we went to look round the parsonage and I savoured a couple of minutes alone in that small parlour, in awe of what they’d created there and pleasurably befuddled as always to be in a place where something momentous happened. From behind the barrier in the doorway, I stared at the conker-coloured table, took in the dark sofa upon which Emily died at the age of just 30, and acknowledged George Richmond’s portrait of Charlotte which I’d copied for Mum’s 50th birthday.

During our few days in Haworth I was working on my Walthamstow Village poem/print and enjoyed getting up before everyone else to add more details to the map of the village which sits within a square formed by the four couplets of the poem. I also made a rough sketch of the Haworth print which would be in the same format, with the revised poem running around an image of the parsonage at dusk with the looming moor in the background. Walking up the steep high street after so many years, I climbed through a corridor of stone: rain-darkened cobbles; the soot-blackened stone of houses and shops. I therefore chose to incorporate the stones into the title and parts of the image.


And in lieu of line-breaks between each couplet, I positioned an image of the church tower at each corner of the square. The tower didn’t have a clock in the time of the Brontës, but as the blue clock face, lit at night and clearly visible from our cottage, was one of my enduring memories of our trip to haworth, I decided to include it. Instead of the clock hands though, I added in the three sisters’ initials and then, like a sculpture placed on the vacant Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, I was able to add Branwell’s initials too. I’d cut him out of the poem, but kept him in the print.






Haworth


We'd follow the sisters to Top Withens

and back, our annual pilgrimage of sorts,


loving the moor as they did, as somewhere

to find that wilderness within yourself.


In the darkening village, we'd see them

to their gate, then wait in the churchyard


for a candle to be lit in the parlour,

and we'd leave them so in a blaze of writing.





Castiglione di Garfagnana, August 2022


To buy a copy of the 'Haworth’ print please visit the Prints page on this website or contact me directly at michaelshann1[at]gmail.com











Updated: Oct 23

I’d been learning the craft of printmaking for a couple of years, and was looking for ways to

incorporate my poems into my prints. I’d already produced around ten prints of my London poems which feature photos of the locations for each poem, but wanted to go a step further and make the poem part of the image.

I also wanted to make more of the poems. My Walthamstow and To London books (illustrated by Kirsten Schmidt and published by the Walthamstow based Paekakariki Press) have each sold around 800 copies, so I knew there was an audience for the poems (though I’d no idea who they were) and I wanted to find other ways to share them.


I was reading Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of William Blake at the time, and loved the way that Blake had invented his own techniques for creating prints which combined his poems and images for Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I didn’t have Blake’s etching skills though, and knew that it would be incredibly difficult to use linocut techniques to cut each individual letter in even a short poem.


So when I started to develop ideas for the Walthamstow Village image, I didn’t really know how I was going to print it. I’d found very few examples online of poems incorporated into prints, but I was influenced by Andrew Anderson’s linocuts of fragments of medieval poems which he’d combined with his own images. I liked the way Andrew had the lines of poetry going around the edge of some of his images and it occurred to me that, as all of my Walthamstow and London poems (influenced by English translations of the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Wang Wei) consist of eight lines in four couplets, I could have each of the couplets running around a square which would contain the image. The simple maths of this thrilled me more than it probably should have.


Initial rough design for Walthamstow Village print

So I produced a small, rough sketch in my notebook (my printmaking notebook, not my poetry notebook) of the Walthamstow Village poem running around a simple map of the village. I’ve lived in Walthamstow for 16 years and have got to know its streets and buildings and layers of history well. Or at least I thought I had. When I produced a larger sketch for the print, the map was a simple thing with Ordnance Survey type symbols for St Mary’s Church, the (old) Town Hall and the Vestry House Museum. I showed this to a couple of local poets and printmakers, who liked the concept and encouraged me to take it further.


I decided to ditch the symbols and draw the buildings instead, starting with the church and the Ancient House. I was pleased with these, but asked myself why I was including some old buildings and not others. So I added the Squires Almshouses and St Mary’s National School (now a community center) on Orford Road. At the time I was still walking our younger daughter down to Walthamstow School for Girls each morning. I’d usually kiss her goodbye on Church Lane or at the top of Vinegar Alley (well away from the school, so that it looked as if she’d walked in by herself!), and I’d then loop through the village to take photos of the old buildings to sketch later. Drawing a building helps you to know it, and I loved these morning rambles when I’d take in the symmetry of weathered facades and the proportions of windows and doors planned many generations ago by unknown architects.


I also noticed other buildings that I’d walked past hundreds of times without any curiosity as to what they used to be. The lovely old sorting office on Vestry Road was one of these, and what used to be St Mary’s National School on Orford Road with its huge round window and twin entrances (for girls and boys). I took photos of them and then tried to reproduce them in miniature in my notebook after work, reducing each building to its key features.


I decided to add the old-style lamp posts to each corner in lieu of a line space between each couplet. They also seemed to me, flanking Orford Road with their low-wattage bulbs at dusk on a winter’s evening, to offer a glimpse of how the old gas-lit village would have looked before the train line was extended out to Walthamstow and beyond in the late 1800s. I remember going for one walk at dusk especially to observe the lamp posts, and there it was again, the excitement of creation, of taking something seemingly mundane and turning it into art.



When it came to the printing method, my decision was influenced by a tutorial with Anna Alcock, a highly accomplished printmaker who runs the Inky Cuttlefish studio at Blackhorse Road on the eastern edge of Walthamstow. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours asking her questions, listening to her tips and printing some of my older linocuts (the first time I’d used a proper printing press, rather than the wooden spoon method). I then showed her my ‘Walthamstow Village’ illustration. Going into the tutorial I had planned to have a metal plate made of the image which I could then run through a press, but after talking through the pros and cons of various methods I was slightly surprised when Anna suggested that I get it printed digitally. You need to think about the kind of journey you want to take people on, she said, and pointed out that we live in different times to William Blake and can take advantage of modern printing methods.


And finally a word on the poem. I wrote ‘Sunday morning, Walthamstow Village’ in 2014, several years before ‘Mini-Holland’ led to Orford Road becoming pedestrianised but soon after the Eat 17 cafe/restaurant opened and the first of the pavement tables gave it a touch of Lyon or Bordeaux, or perhaps Utrecht. I can’t remember if the poem was based on one walk or a few walks, though at some point I must have felt the need to capture the particular feeling of passing through the village on my own and being lifted by a sense of everyone else’s elation.




Sadly, if you now make the walk on a Sunday morning, it will no longer be “under a shower of St Mary’s bells”. From our garden on Greenway Avenue, which connects Wood Street with Epping Forest, I used to love hearing the prolonged pealing of the bells (“the poor man’s only music”*) on a Sunday morning. They had the same effect on me as they must have had on tens of thousands of other people over the last five hundred years and more, drawing me down to the village, though rather than pulling me into the church, I walked on down Vestry Road, along East Avenue, up Orford Road (where people were sipping their coffees and buying their olive bloomers), then onto Beulah Road before turning for home.


I’m not sure when the bells stopped ringing. I just remember the first time I noticed their absence, and missed them, as I still miss them, and hope that one day their Sunday morning music will return.



Sunday morning, The Village


As if we walked in the sunshine of all

our Sunday mornings, and all the people


we saw on Beulah Road and Orford Road

were quietly celebrating what it means


to buy the olive bloomer, the paper,

to sip the coffee’s lovely bitterness


and breath the secular September air

under a shower of St Mary’s bells.



Walthamstow, July 2022


To buy a copy of the 'Walthamstow Village’ print please visit the Prints page on this website or contact me directly at michaelshann1[at]gmail.com


‘Sunday morning, the Village’ was published in Walthamstow (2015, Paekakariki

Press) and can be bought from Paekakariki Press or by contacting me directly.


*From ‘Frost at midnight’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge





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