In search of High Sunderland and Wuthering Heights…


From one extreme to another, High Sunderland is one of the older houses I’m looking at for this project. The house was either completed 1587, for Richard Sunderland, or 1629, for Abraham Sunderland, his grandson. It’s not known for sure, though there are records show a structure on the site dating right back to 1274, so it could well have been a much older timber structure, encased in stone. Though there is nothing to see now, the house stood on the hills on the outskirts of Halifax, between Bankfield and Shibden Hall.

HS2The house was a peculiar mix of the secular and the sacred. The naked figures that stood above the door were winged, muscular and crooked.

HS7It had many Latin inscriptions on it’s outer walls, but it was also decorated with green men, griffins and other mythical creatures.


I’ve borrowed transcriptions of the texts from Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Companion: Written on the front wall

omnipotente facit stirps sunderlandia sedes, incolat has placide et ineatur jura parentum lite racans, donec ductus, formica marines ebibat et totum testudo perambulet orbem

“May the Almighty grant that the lineage of Sunderland may quietly inhabit this seat, and maintain the rights of their ancestors free from strife until an ant drink up the waters of the sea, and a tortoise walk around the whole world”

It sounds like a quotation from something, though i can’t find what.

And the text on the angel that stood over the gateway (above left):

fama virtutum tuba perennis

“the fame of virtue is an eternal trump”

I have no idea what it means, but it makes me laugh!

High Sunderland Hall fell out of the possession on the Sunderland family in 1646, following Langdale Sunderland’s involvement in the civil wars. By the beginning of the 20th century the house had been divided into tenements and was falling in to ruin. Photos of the house, just prior to it’s demolition in 1951, show the walls and front pillars bowing outwards. Mining works had damaged the foundations and the hall was dangerously unstable.

Though Top Withins, nearer to Haworth, is thought to be the site, High Sunderland is believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte worked at Southowram school, little over a mile from High Sunderland. She would have walked past it often. The description of Wuthering Heights in the novel fits High Sunderland:

“Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …”

The gateway, at right angles to the house:HS5

Descriptions of the layout of the Wuthering Heights also match the floor plan of High Sunderland. There is even a corresponding ghost story, associated with the hall: that of a disembodied hand, said to be that of a young lady whose husband cut it off in a fit of jealousy! Lockwood’s description in the novel:

“…stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in — let me in!”

It may be that the ghost story was elaborated on to echo that of Lockwood’s dream in the novel, once the association of the two buildings had been made. There’s much more about the ghosts on this brilliant website – Ghosts and Legends of the Lower Calder Valley.

The last owner of the hall offered it to both Calderdale Council and The Bronte Society, but neither could find the £6000 needed to restore it. It was demolished in 1951 and there isn’t a trace of it left on the site where it stood (I’ve looked!). I believe that the grand gateway (above) was purchased and rebuilt somewhere in Brighouse. I’d love to know more about this if anyone knows about it! The gentleman that bought it also purchased some of the decorative stone work and donated it to Shibden Hall Museum.

During half term I ventured out to see what was left of High Sunderland. It was a warm and windy day, and I walked up High Sunderland lane to the site of the hall. There are nothing but farm buildings and ponies there now. Though, with the help of these old photos I was able to work out exactly where it stood. The dry stone walls and the peculiar road lay out remain the same; It goes around something that isn’t there any more…


It’s very high, open and there are no trees at all…

Afterwards I went down to Shibden Hall where I met a very helpful curator. The High Sunderland stones aren’t currently on display; they’re all in a courtyard at the back. With my old photographs I was able to see where many of the bits of stone were from:


Here’s one of the figures from over the doorway. And the coat of arms from the inside of the gateway.


There were also some random body parts! The curator and I shared a bizarre 10 minutes pairing bare bottoms with their estranged fronts!

HS10So, at the end of it all, I have today completed a large painting of High Sunderland:


I’ve used the stone faces from the crenelations, and other bits of patterns found in the stones to decorate the front section of the painting. And the Latin text described earlier for the wall in front of the hall. I’ve tried to make it wind blown and exposed up on the tops….

10 Responses to “In search of High Sunderland and Wuthering Heights…

  • Wonderful blog!Exquisite picture,Bravo!

  • Loved reading the story. Fascinating history. Always love your paintings and having the back story on the blog makes them even more intriguing. Thanks!

    • Thank you Debbie. And thank you for taking the time to read it all. Kate

  • This is the place my cousins used to take us on walks and only wish my mother could see properly in order to read wonderfully your well-researched project. I was always led to believe that this was Wuthering Heights, and to me , it is and how I always imagine it. My mother would have seen High Sunderland Castle in situ as Shibden was a favourite ‘haunt’, so to speak. I will certainly talk to her about it. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this Denise. I’d love to know what she remembers. Will you let me know if she remembers any details, or colours, or atmosphere. It’s hard to recreate that with only black and white photos. I’m working on a second painting of it today; one of the grand gateway. Such a strange place!

  • I love your painting of High Sunderland . My father owns land surrounding where the hall stood. We often have people from all over the world visiting the site and in all weathers too! I know many a story a high Sunderland hall

  • FAO Emma.

    Hi Emma,

    I would be interested to know; does your farther know much about the history of the area? How long has he had it? Does he know much about ‘Oats & Green’? My Grandad apparently lived in the Hall, but was kicked out at a very young age. It is strange, many trails go cold once we get to this site.

    Great work Kate Lycett (your not related to any Lycett’s down south are you?)

  • If you go into the barn here are very wooden stall posts which a lot older than the barn, Possibly from the house

  • I have taken my dog on a walk that passes this site every day for the last 2 years and have only just , by chance heard of the name High Sunderland and its significance. Was disappointed to have missed your exhibition at Bankfield museum earlier this year.

  • I am a Sunderland by birth. I love your painting, Kate – is it for sale?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *