(* an earworm ever since I was drilled to sing the anthem in my girls’ school assembly.)
Mid June and it should have been a heat wave. When I booked the weekend in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, I had visions of striding out, slathered in sun cream, Panama at a jaunty angle. Along the Rochdale Canal I would go from our towpath cottage in Hebden Bridge, west to Todmorden one day, east to Sowerby Bridge the next, and then return to spend the balmy evenings outside enjoying a bottle of wine as the world floated by. Well, that didn’t happen. Too rainy the first day so instead it was off to the Todmorden Agricultural Show for T and me, picking our way across the soggy fields. And the long hot evenings? We battened down the hatches and switched on the heating. All very enjoyable, of course, but not what we had anticipated.
Next day there appeared to be a window in the downpour forecast so, encouraged by Yorkshire born and bred T, I decided to stop being a Southern sissy and step out.
I got 200m and it began to rain.
But enough of the moaning. Hebden Bridge is a really, really interesting place. There’s definitely a dissertation to be written there. It was known as Trouser Town back in the day being a centre for the production of corduroy, Nowadays it is better known as the lesbian capital of the UK if this rather dusty piece in the Guardian is to be believed (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/jul/29/theobserver.uknews2) (and look, someone’s already done the dissertation). Whatever. It’s post industrial, but prosperous, packed with creative types, independent shops and artsy crafty endeavours. Strung out along the River Calder and the canal, it sits at the meeting of two steep river valleys and is an attractive town in all senses.
We’d had a look at Todmorden the previous day when we’d changed buses on our way to the Show so Sowerby Bridge, on the outskirts of Halifax, was in my sights today. T had a bit of work to do so he decided to hop on a train and meet me at the other end. Yorkshire (North, South and West Yorkshire – all of them) is a bit of a foreign field to me so I was keen to see what it was like. The hills, the drystone walls, the building stone all looked different, the accents and the place names sounded different. I mean, I have no idea how to pronounce some of them – Mytholmroyd I didn’t attempt, Sowerby I was shaky on after my inept inflections over Todmorden. These sites were named by speakers of another tongue, not the Brythonic Celtic types that hold sway along the coastlines of Wales and the far South West.
I’d read that settlements along the Upper Calder Valley sprang up with the mechanisation of the textile industry in the early 1800s and the completion in 1804 of the Rochdale Canal (the major commercial link between Manchester and Leeds until the railway in 1841), so I was expecting urban and signs of manufacturing. But as the UK textile industry today is a shadow of its former self, I anticipated that, with production having left the valley (the country even), then I would find only remnants of the industrial heartland of the past. Unsurprisingly, many of the old mill buildings in Hebden Bridge have been converted into housing, studios and workshops but would I find this repurposing all the way along the canal?
Or would I find dereliction of the Turn Off The Lights, Close The Door, And Let The Roof Fall In variety? Well, no, not so much.
Some old sites have been purposefully razed, while elsewhere new industrial units are sidling up to the water’s edge. Others are reincarnated as bases for newer commercial enterprises, some more unexpected than others. If you’re wondering where the 89a to Blackheath has got to…
What can I tell you about this stretch of canal? It was a very pleasant walk. There were a couple of locks, a tunnel, a few villages along the way, and some tiptop waterside gardens. And more commemorations of local worthies than I had expected. There was Ted Hughes at Mytholdroyd, his birthplace; there was Bramwell Bronte at Sowerby Bridge station, where he’d worked for five months; and there was Edward Kilner with his eponymous lock,
The fragrant Lady This or Mrs John That may have graciously tapped a commemorative trowel on a foundation stone a century ago, but Miss Ainsworth made me stop in my tracks. It’s not often a woman in her own right is commemorated on a plaque.
Approaching Sowerby Bridge and just as I was trying to get a look at this place, squinting at what I thought was one of those Why Not Take On The Lease Of This Pub? banners that hang hopefully from the peeling woodwork of some forlorn inn, and wondering who on earth would ever go there for a drink there was a voice behind me. They’re doing a good job there, aren’t they? It’s looking really nice, isn’t it? Er no. A brisk woman fully kitted out for a long hike, lipstick exactly matching her fuchsia fleece (kudos for the attention to detail), had caught me up. Turns out the place is being renovated by a charity working to give homeless people in the town the construction skills to find work and move off the streets. So yes, they are doing a good job there actually. But I still don’t know who on earth would ever go there for a drink.
Sowerby Bridge is no Hebden Bridge. Sunday morning may not have been the time to see it at its best, but it remains more as it was than as it could be.
But when we got down through the town and up the other side to the station (I’d met up with T by now) it all began to get a bit Richard Curtis, a bit stereotypical soft focus, rosy glow, old time Yorkshire. First, there was the former station café, now an independent enterprise, offering a long list of refreshments to early morning commuters and later in the day a vast range of ales, whiskeys and gins – and coffee too – amidst a huge collection of railway memorabilia which cleverly hit the entertaining note rather than the specialist enthusiast one (www.jubileerefreshmentrooms.co.uk).
If I were a regular on the Leeds to Manchester line I think I’d be planning to hop off for quick one on the way home.
Then after a leisurely coffee (yes, it came with a Nice biscuit – when did I last have one of them?) and a quick train ride we were back in Hebden Bridge, in a main line station which appears not to have noticed the passing of the last 50 years.
And then, as we left the platform the sound of a brass band drifted towards us. Now we knew that there was to be a band competition that afternoon (it was billed as the Hebden Bridge Band March and Hymn Tune Contest) but hadn’t expected to come across bands limbering up in the town park. But there they were and there were more of them gathering in the centre of town ready to march down the street,
arrange themselves around a sculpture in a giant knitted condom and then to play their hymn and reprise their march tune.
12 bands were competing in all, 11 local and one from Canada (no idea) so it was quite a crowd. As the by now hot and sunny afternoon wore on and thirsts were addressed, the atmosphere shifted from pre performance nervous anticipation to post march relief. Ties were loosened, jackets were removed and instruments were scattered about.
A grand day out. Yorkshire? What’s not to like?