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BBC Look North's Christa Ackroyd reveals her secret passion for Bronte

17:38 01 September 2011

BBC Look North's Christa Ackroyd reveals her secret passion for Bronte

BBC Look North's Christa Ackroyd reveals her secret passion for Bronte

One of Yorkshire's most famous faces has a secret passion. She gives Chris Titley the headlines Photographs by Joan Russell

Christa Ackroyd first read Wuthering Heights when she was 13. Her reaction? It terrified me.

But it did more than that. Emily Bronts unhinged Gothic masterpiece sparked an obsession with the writer and her family which burns to this day.

Best known for hosting BBC Look North five nights a week, Christa is the hard-nosed interviewer whos ever ready to do battle with politicians. But that public image only tells part of the story, she says.

I seem like the tough TV journalist but Im very sentimental. Im typically Taurean life balance is all about home. I can work hard and be as tough as you want as long as homes neat and fluffy and cosy.

Home is a handsome Georgian property found at the bottom of a quiet lane near Ogden Reservoir north of Halifax. You quickly discover why she moved here. The drawing room, decorated to match the chandelier left by the previous owner, gives wonderful views of the Bront moors through large French windows.

In her sentimental moments, Christa imagines Emily Bront struggling against the wind and rain on those moors. Having researched Emily and her family since that early encounter with Wuthering Heights, she believes weve got the sisters all wrong.

This idea that they were just these sweet, simple, uneducated, virginal women living in a hilltop village is not true, she says.

All the darkness of industrial Britain was there they lived in the middle of the Luddites, the Poor Laws, it was the time of the Factories Act. These were not sweet girls closeted away. Emily fascinates her the most. They were all born to be brooding. They lived among those moors which can look as dark as any satanic mills.

But Emily was the home-bird. Shes the one who wrote the really mad book yet she was the one who didnt last as a governess and went back home and baked bread.

Charlotte was a moaner. You read her letters oh my goodness, nothings right. But she too was passionate, falling in love with a married man only to marry late, become pregnant and die at just 38.

Anne, meanwhile, was the grafter. She was out being the governess, six years here, five years there.

The sisters adored Branwell, the brother who fought his demons one drink at a time, his own talent squandered. And all four were excellent artists as well as writers.

But where did this family get its creativity and drive? Their mother died before youngest daughter Anne turned two, so they were brought up by their father Patrick, a man from a poor rural Irish family who, by sheer will, put himself through Cambridge to become a respected Church of England priest.

Its said Patrick turned a blind eye so Luddites executed at York could be buried in consecrated ground. Christa is sure his crusaders zeal had a huge influence on his daughters.

I have this image of Patrick saying to them go away and write. Imagine another world. These children were encouraged to be as avant-garde and creative as they dared to be. And they really went for it.

Now its Christas turn to go for it, by opening up her home, Brook House, as a boutique bed and breakfast. and husband Chris enjoy entertaining and regularly host gatherings of friends and family so the B&B seemed like a natural next step.

She would love to attract guests who share her passion for all things Bront. So it helps that Brook House bears more than a passing resemblance to the Haworth Parsonage.

And everywhere you look theres evidence of the West Ridings celebrated literary family: books, a picture of the sisters by Branwell, who later painted himself out, and DVDs of various TV and film adaptations of their work. So which is her favourite?

Its a really bad thing to say because its ITV, but I loved Tom Hardy in Wuthering Heights. I loved the depth.

This autumn two more Bront movies are due out: Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska, who starred in Tim Burtons Alice In Wonderland, and Wuthering Heights featuring Leeds-born newcomer James Howson as Heathcliff.

Christa plans to take interested visitors on tours of Bront country. But her fans neednt worry. Shes has no plans to quit the small screen, where shes dominated Yorkshire television news for two decades, first as the host of ITVs Calendar and then as Harry Grations co-anchor on BBC Look North since 2001.

I have no intention of leaving television for quite some time, she says. I love my job. I dont want anyone to think that the passions faded. But Ive never been one to sit knitting.

Like the Bront sisters, Christa was heavily influenced by her father. A Bradford policeman, he loved Yorkshire and its history. He used to take me round Bradford. He would tell me to look up I knew where the Hapsburg Eagles were in Little Germany, where the kings and queens of England were on the town hall, and the story of Titus Salt and Saltaire.
The Bronts lived in an age of poverty and early mortality. The main street of Haworth was an open sewer and four out of ten children died before the age of six.

Life has improved immeasurably since then, but Christa is still shocked by the conditions in which many people live. She covered the Ripper case, remaining friends with many affected by his crimes, and more recently reported on the Crossbow Cannibal murders.

I couldnt believe that in my city of Bradford there was still a Dickensian area of deprivation with girls forced because of drugs into prostitution. Its not acceptable that we tolerate that in this day and age.

Her rise to prominence from an ordinary background and her success in a male-dominated industry have parallels with the Bront sisters lives. But Christa doesnt like to compare herself with them.

The lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne make a damn good story, she says. Thats the connection. As a journalist its a good story still.

The print version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life

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