The changing Hebden Bridge stereotype

Monday, 1st January 2007

There can be no doubt that Hebden Bridge has changed considerably over the past 30 years. For a long while, the term "Hebden Bridge" was synonymous, in many people's minds, with alternative lifestyles, political radicalism and artistic types. As property prices have continued to rise and the more wealthy have moved here, is this image of Hebden Bridge disappearing? Penny Wainwright, who has written the following piece for the January edition of Yorkshire Life seems to think so.

She introduces her article: "All that 'New Age gibberish' is just a memory as Hebden Bridge is inhabited by a new breed of professionals."

How do people now see Hebden Bridge? How would they like it to be seen. We welcome your comments in the Hebweb discussion area

MENTION the name Hebden Bridge and many people picture hippies wearing hand-knitted jumpers, eating wholefood and smoking roll-ups. The alternative lifestylers first descended on this part of the Calder Valley 30 or so years ago, attracted by a characterful old town where house prices were cheap. But the stereotype is beginning to look a little outdated (though, admittedly, there still aren't many towns where a female builder goes unnoticed).

The New Age off-cumdens, brilliantly captured by John Morrison in his Milltown' books about a thinly-disguised Hebden Bridge, are still here but have been joined by a new breed of professionals with 'proper' jobs: 'After a generation of new-age gibberish,' said Morrison, 'Hebden Bridge echoes less often to the tinkling of wind-chimes, the riffling of Tarot cards or the somnolent chanting of positive affirmations. If you see somebody mumbling a mantra, it's probably the FT 100 share index.'

Hebden's Pennine location, only 45 minutes by train to Manchester and Leeds, makes it an attractive choice for commuters prepared to pay city prices. And much of the housing stock is extraordinary. The 19th century builder's answer to the problem of creating homes for mill workers on the precipitous slopes of the Calder Valley was to build one terrace of houses on top of another. The 'double deckers' were an ingenious answer to a difficult site that has also created unusual legal solutions to freehold ownership.

Whether old guard, New Age or more recent incomer, Hebden residents care passionately about their town. Opinions on planning applications, traffic plans, even a new punishments (or 'consequences') tariff at the local high school, fly back and forth on the town's regularly updated website, Hebweb, and in the Hebden Bridge Times. Currently, feelings are running high about the council's decision to pedestrianise the centre by paving Bridge Gate the new yellow and blue granite sets themselves a bone of contention and already nicknamed 'the yellow brick road' and turning St George's Square into a car-free area.

Public art planned for the square includes a giant paved sundial set in the ground and a series of sculptures, by local artist Mike Williams, inspired by milestones and engravedwith themes ranging from local legends to modern tourism.

As a focus for live music during the summer festival and site of the town's Christmas tree, the square should remain uncluttered according to some, while others applaud the idea of the public art which is also to include a fustian (or corduroy) cutter - more needle than knife as the sundial's shadow-caster.

Despite some access problems expressed by some of the local traders, the new traffic-free zone makes strolling among Hebden's small, independent shops a pleasure. They're not all funky - though you'll find Sixties LPs featuring Dusty Springfield and Ralph McTell when he had hair, and a rare comics specialist. Just as popular these days are upmarket delicatessens, jewellery shops, craft galleries, and many cafés, evidence that the New Agers have been joined by a different sort of visitor.

Parking is undoubtedly a problem for this little town wedged into a steep valley and it makes a lot of sense to arrive by other means. The railway station is only a short walk from the centre along the canal towpath. A popular stroll with families - narrow boats and locks to look at on the way - the walk takes you from Calder Homes Park, scene of vintage car rallies in summer and one of Yorkshire's biggest bonfire and firework displays in November, to the marina.

Here, boats that once transported goods across the Pennines between Manchester and Sowerby Bridge are hired out for holidays and theme nights, while others are permanent homes. The Rochdale Canal solved major transport problems for mill owners and you are never far from the chimneys that punctuate Hebden's landscape or old mill buildings, some of which have been found new uses.

Two very different conversions neatly demonstrate 'the two Hebdens'. Canal Works is a block of luxury apartments (its giant red brick chimney a reminder of the building's previous incarnation), and Hebble End Mill houses the not-for-profit Alternative Technology Centre. Aiming 'to make sustainability irresistible', the centre's permanent exhibition, One Planet, is certainly persuasive. Alongside its practical energy-saving suggestions - had you thought of recycling your old spectacles at a charity shop, for instance? - you will find in-depth information about the whole question of climate change.

Next door, the Green Shop has put sustainability into practice: everything sold here is either made from natural products, including paints and varnishes, beauty preparations and cotton clothing, or it's made from recycled material - estate agents' boards turned into (perhaps appropriately) nesting boxes, glass-bead jewellery and fun sculpture created from plastic bags. Many customers refill their own containers with Ecover cleaning products from 25 litre vats, and biodegradable
nappies are another big seller.

Nonetheless, it's not always easy to find new uses for historic buildings, however worthy. Wainsgate Baptist Church, for instance, a lovely stone structure with a classical front and galleried interior, has been taken on by the Historic Chapels Trust. The church is developing a community arts role and, most notably, is home to a Javanese gamelan band; even so, more users are needed to keep the building viable.

Less fortunate is the tin tabernacle, or Tin Tab, in Unity Street. Built in 1886 and later converted into workshops, its blue corrugated iron cladding was a distinctive corner of Hebden. It is to be demolished to make way for houses despite vigorous opposition.

Meanwhile, Gibson cotton mill, built in 1800 on the wooded slopes of Hardcastle Crags above the town was seen by the National Trust as an opportunity to create a model of sustainability. Its remote location and lack of mains services (except for a telephone line) made it an ideal site for demonstrating the water turbines, photovoltaic panels,-composting toilets and 'human-powered' lift that make for total energy self-sufficiency. Surprisingly for such an isolated spot, in the first half of the 20th century the mill was popular as an entertainments emporium - complete with dining-rooms, roller-skating rink and boating on the mill pond for day-trippers visiting 'little Switzerland'.

Hebden is by no means all historic buildings and shops, although those are what attract the day-tripper. It has a lively cultural life, too. There's the Picture House cinema no arthouse studio this, but a 492-seater that puts on blockbusters in tandem with less mainstream choices and the Trades Club, host to a variety of stand-up comics and bands (some of which the youth of Hebden are not embarrassed to dance to, despite the club's name conjuring images of a trade union members' drinking den). Meanwhile, classical music features in the summer festival, along with theatre, open gardens and studios. Clearly, Hebden is buzzing with activity. With all that's here, it would be easy never to leave. Perhaps that's why some people seldom do.

From Yorkshire Life

See also

View from the Bridge

4th funkiest town in the world

UK town with most local identity

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