"Were you ever at Helstone?" Mr. Bell asks Thornton in Gaskell's book, North and South.
"I have seen it. It was a great change to leave it and come to Milton."
John admits that he's been there, but he doesn't explain why and it doesn't occur to Mr. Bell to ask. If Bell had been a bit more alert, Thornton's answer should have piqued his curiosity --because you don't just swing by Helstone! It's not on the way to anywhere. It's not on the railroad schedule. To get to Helstone you would need to take the train to Southampton, and then take a cab of some distance.
Clearly, John has made a deliberate effort to visit the remote hamlet where Margaret grew up. If nothing else, it's a romantic gesture that shows how much he still thinks of her. He even picks a few flowers to save as a treasured symbol. [He pressed those flowers and kept them with him. How romantic is that?! There's a fantastic post about this here.]
Before we talk about John Thornton's reasons for visiting Helstone, let me point out that the book and the BBC mini-series place John's journey to Helstone at different points in the story.
In the book, John goes off on a business trip to Le Havre about the same time Mr. Hale goes to Oxford. And it's on John's way back home to Milton when he apparently makes a point of stopping to see Helstone. It's been about nine months since he declared his love, and he's still struggling with the pain and loss of Margaret's rejection. He meets Mr. Bell on the same train to Milton and discovers that Mr. Hale has died.
At least in the original storyline John expects to see and interact with Margaret again after secretly visiting Helstone, even though he expects that they will continue to have a distanced relationship. In the film adaptation, John runs off to Helstone for no apparent reason -- certainly he has no commercial affairs to conduct, because he has just closed his mill. Margaret has been gone from Milton for months already. When John is on that train home from sunny Helstone, he expects he may never see her again. That's pretty powerful.
The BBC adaptation gives us a lovely visual of John walking through the sun-drenched open greenery of Helstone. It's such an astounding contrast to see the Master of Marlborough Mills, dressed in his usual sober work clothes, surrounded by the lushness of nature -- with not a brick or sooty wall in sight.
And here he is, tromping around the grounds of Helstone in southern England, without a word to his mum of where he has gone! I wonder how long he was away. Did he stay overnight in Helstone at all? That really would have troubled Hannah! Or was it just a long day trip? It would be at least 3-4 hours to get there from Milton, as far as I could figure, given Victorian train speeds. (In the book, he stays at the local inn.)
So why did he go there and what did he gain? Did it give him some closure, or did it only intensify the pain of his loss?
I believe he is gaining some closure by taking this pilgrimage. He doesn't intend to ever be 'cured' of his love for her. He absolutely knows that this is the great love of his life. He only longs to understand it better -- to understand her as completely as he can. That's why he goes to see where she grew up, to understand how her environment might have shaped who she is and what she must have experienced in giving up Helstone to come to Milton.
It's this quote from Gaskell that illuminates the depth of his connection to Margaret:
He had known what love was - a sharp pang, a fierce experience, in the midst of whose flames he was struggling! but, through that furnace he would fight his way out into the serenity of middle age, - all the richer and more human for having known this great passion.
(And note Gaskell's punctuation - the exclamation point after 'struggling' really socks you in the gut.)
What do you think of that quote? He's bound and determined to get through this, although he knows it's going to be a tremendous struggle, he expects he will nevertheless be enriched by this experience. He can never see his love for her as a negative thing, even though he's not able to have that love returned.
Here's another quote to elucidate his feelings on that score:
Yes! whatever happened to him, external to his relation to her, he could never have spoken of that time, when he could have seen her every day - when he had her within his grasp, as it were - as a time of suffering. It had been a royal time of luxury to him, with all its stings and contumelies....
So his walk in Helstone was to understand more of this great love. For though he could do nothing to lessen it or forget it, he could try to understand what it was -- who Margaret was -- and why she had affected him so.
I think it speaks of great maturity to seek this understanding. He's not wallowing in despair or self-pity. He's trying to move on by understanding what has happened to him.
How wonderful that all his steadfast devotion to what Margaret means to him is rewarded at the end of the story! His love is certainly profound. No garden variety type! Maybe that's what the one precious wild rose symbolized -- that unique beauty and glorious character that was Margaret.
[If you remember some of these words, you may have encountered these exact remarks before! This post is largely taken from my own comments on this topic from the C19 discussion board.]