Hebden Bridge is one of my favourite places and I’m not alone. I have never met any visitor who has not been absolutely charmed by this quirky, cool little market town in west Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge sits in the upper Calder valley, 8 miles to the west of Halifax. It grew up around the pack horse route from Burnley to Halifax where it passed through the valley and over the bridge that crossed Hebden Water. Fast flowing water, lots of Yorkshire rain and a plentiful supply of wool from ample local flocks meant that the region was ideal for weaving, first by hand loom workers in their cottages and later in the many water-powered mills which sprung up.
For centuries, textiles and farming used to put the food on most people’s tables in this region, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of weaving. 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 and 70s, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-la of the north, a paradise for creative types. Alternative lifestyles flourished, and the area was transformed and regenerated.
Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa, 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 chic cafes. Tourism is important to the local economy, and there are a lot of pubs, restaurants and cafes for a town of Hebden’s size, many of them catering for diverse tastes and offering healthy and novel choices.
It can be difficult to find a table at busy times (such as today and most Saturdays) and yet again my plan to feast at the Vegan Kitchen was thwarted by those who got there first. So popular is this newish funky eatery that I have not yet managed to get through the door. That can only be a good sign!
My other regular spots were also full, and I was all but ready to pop into the Co-op for a sandwich when I decided to try the organic bakery which I had walked past dozens of times but never gone inside. I am so glad I did!
As well as the bread I went in for, I came away with a supply of vegan cakes and croissants and a meat-free ‘Hebden Cornish’ pasty, which I devoured in the fresh air whilst listening to folk musicians giving it their all in a pub garden. Very tasty it was too! That’s the pasty, not the singers of sea shanties.
Such entertainments are not commonly available, but this weekend is special. Every year, the second weekend in May plays host to the Hebden Grass and Roots Folk Festival. Folk music takes over many of the town’s venues, and Morris dancers and musicians perform for the public.
I particularly liked this troupe of local ladies in their colourful vintage-style attire.
Those ’60s hippies and artists – now getting on in years if still youthful in spirit – have stayed on in Hebden Bridge and made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx of professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are both very accessible. They are looking for a place to live 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 in the footsteps of the 60s pioneers and made the old weavers’ cottages their own.
Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to meld into this 21st century concept: the happy blending of old place and new lifestyle. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land is still the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.
Hebden Arts Festival is at the end of June – I’ll be back for that! Two years ago, as part of that event the community launched its blue plaque project whereby locals were encouraged to find out who lived in their houses 100 years earlier in 1916. It is so interesting to see some of the ‘plaques’ in the windows of shops and houses, celebrating residents of yesteryear.
I wonder what those folks would make of the town now….