Heptonstall is a little village atop a steep hill overlooking the lively, Bohemian town of Hebden Bridge in west Yorkshire. The ascent from Hebden valley is not for the faint-hearted. From the comfort of my seat on the bus I watched with admiration as we overtook those more firm of foot and resolve, as with gritted teeth they rose to the occasion and to the prize at the top. I reflected with a mixture of pity and awe on how the pack horses of yesteryear must have faced that steep climb, taking raw cotton and wool to the spinners and weavers whose cottages housed the wheels and looms which prevailed before the arrival of the waterwheels which would later power the multitude of mills which sprang up in the region.
In the Calder valley, textiles and farming put the food on most people’s tables, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of cotton spinning. The area became very run down in the second part of the 20th century, with parts of it being bulldozed. Row upon row of houses stood derelict, but paradoxically, it was this availability of housing in a beautiful part of the world which led to a second lease of life. In the 1960s, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-La of the north. Alternative lifestyles flourished and the area was transformed and regenerated.
Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa per se, the aroma of liberality is definitely detected on the breeze, especially on Market Street, where the vendors of the accoutrements of alternative living have their abodes. Artisans are plentiful, and bespoke hand-crafted items of great beauty fill many of the shops. Organic dishes made from locally-sourced produce and colourful and healthy-sounding snacks and smoothies are served in stone courtyards or cosy corners of shabby chic cafes. Those ’60s hippies – now in their 60s – have stayed on and very much made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx: the commuting professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are each just 40 minutes away by train.
Hebden and Heptonstall have seen an influx of towns-folk looking for a place to pursue a different kind of life. It’s a near-perfect compromise for many: a rural location away from the hustle, bustle, grime and crime of urban sprawl, but a new rurality which embraces 21st century thinking; an intellectual kind of country life: organic, fair-trade, open-minded. This is the pull for the creative, artistic, ecologically-inclined, forward-thinking souls who have followed the hippie trail, and made the old spinners’ cottages their own.
Up above the valley, Heptonstall has an air of mystique. Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to blend into this 21st century concept: the reinvented English village. Like Hebden Bridge at the bottom of the hill, Todmorden just a few miles away, and other similar locations in this neck of the picturesque west Yorkshire woods, there is a happy blending of old setting and new living. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land still provides the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.
Heptonstall is like a charming maze. You turn a corner and find you are back on the same little walk way you exited a few minutes earlier, but there is none of that feeling of frustration which usually comes with finding you are trapped inside a street-puzzle. The middle of the old village is tiny: cobbled streets at jaunty angles and challenging gradients. A pub, a post office and a fruit and veg shop are the obvious places of reference – and the newest addition and nod to gentrification, the vintage-style tea room. The old cottages are quirky, perhaps revealing clues as to the way their inhabitants choose to live. Artistic flair oozes out of the very mortar. On the periphery of the village there are newer housing developments and an estate, ironically much more conservative in appearance. Old village in the new; new village in the old.
A sign points in the direction of parking for ‘coaches’. Heptonstall is definitely delightful by any standards………..but coach parties? Intriguing………..
The village has two claims to fame, both connected to its places of worship. The beautiful octagonal Methodist chapel is one of the oldest of its kind in the world, and has been in continuous use for over 250 years. It is a hub of local activity and a popular events venue. By far the more famous is the Anglican church and in particular one of the residents of its graveyard.
In fact, the village boasts two parish churches : the original, dedicated to St. Thomas a Beckett, was built in the 13th century. During a ferocious storm in 1847, part of the building was badly damaged and although repairs were made, it was decided that a new church would be built. The present church of St. Thomas the Apostle stands just metres away at the other side of the graveyard. The shell of the old church is a special place for me and is somewhere I like to sit from time to time; a place of peace and quiet where it is easy to contemplate (although in summer it can attract a lot of tourists). There is a benevolent energy about the place; a sense of presence amongst the pillars and glassless windows. The clock face was removed and reinstalled in the new church, which is apt as there is truly a feeling in this space that time stands still. I know that many others feel the same way about St Thomas a Beckett and it is fitting that in a little part of the world where modern expressions of spirituality seem to have transcended traditional beliefs, this building has become a new temple for those of all faiths and none.
The new church – or more specifically the newest part of its graveyard – is the resting place of many. The final destination of the journey into the west. I have stood in that place many times and have always been struck by the serenity. Amongst the headstones is one which marks the grave of the American poet, Sylvia Plath, who tragically took her own life in 1963, aged just 30. Sylvia struggled against depression for most of her life and made several suicide attempts, finally succeeding after her husband, former poet laureate Ted Hughes, left her. Heptonstall church yard has become something of a pilgrimage site for admirers of Sylvia Plath from around the world, yet many struggle to locate the plot; simply adorned with a few wild flowers and daffodils, it does not stand out amongst its neighbours or announce its celebrity status. The epitaph reads:
Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.
Chosen by Sylvia’s estranged husband, Ted Hughes, these words are open to interpretation. Many think they refer to Sylvia’s struggle to thrive and bloom amongst the destructive force of her mental illness. The words are taken from one of the most celebrated Chinese works of literature, Monkey: Journey to the West. The words are based on a passage from the Hindu holy scripture, the Bhagavid Gita.
Whether ‘the west’ be India, the destination of the magical characters in the Chinese novel; a little church yard in the west of Yorkshire, or indeed a representation of an ideal or goal on a more personal journey, it is also where the sun sets at the end of each day, and this is a perfect place to see it dip below the Calder valley.
‘Even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted, the five elements compounded and transposed, and put to new use. When that is done, be which you please, Buddha or Immortal.’