It’s been called “the Hampstead of the North” and “home to waves of hippies, modern pagans and lesbian single mothers”.
More seriously, Hebden Bridge has been called “the suicide capital of Yorkshire”. Hebden’s own Sir Bernard Ingham, once Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, allegedly referred to the place as “tantamount to Sodom and Gomorrah”.
It’s also – as recently as last November – been named the best town in Britain. And it was once described as the fourth most “funky” town in the world, after Daylesford, Australia, Tiradentes, Brazil and Burlington, Vermont.
What a turnround for the little town at the heart of the Pennines that barely existed at the beginning of the 19th century, became an important mill town, then almost died along with the textile industry in the 1960s.
Today this picture-postcard market town nestling in the upper Calder Valley is the most important tourist resort in this part of Yorkshire, filled these days, it is said, with “thinking professionals – teachers, doctors and architects” – rather than hippies.
Despite the changes over the years Hebden Bridge retains a strong sense of community and creativity, with a wealth of artistic events and proactive, campaigning groups and individuals.
Two hundreds years ago there was not much more to Hebden Bridge than the bridge over the Hebden that gave the town its name. In ancient times the valley bottom was marshy and dangerous and the major settlements were on the hilltops or, at any rate, above the valley floor, as at Rastrick, Sowerby and Elland.
In this part of the Calder Valley the forerunner of Hebden Bridge was Heptonstall, an important settlement as early as the 11th century, with its ancient church and, later, its cloth hall and grammar school.
Many local people lived in isolated farmsteads, but farming was difficult on the bleak hillsides and the farmers also became textile workers, spinning yarn from local sheep and weaving cloth at home, producing kerseys and shalloons – varieties of lightweight, coarse, woollen cloth.
Hebden Bridge – originally Heptenbryge – was little more than a river crossing point on the trade route between Halifax and Burnley via Midgley and Heptonstall. This was one of the main packhorse trails, used by horses to carry deliveries of cloth, food, salt and other goods such as lime, used to fertilise the poor upland soil.
First there was a ford, then a wooden bridge, which was replaced in 1510 with a stone bridge, Old Bridge, which connects Bridge Gate and Old Gate over the Hebden stream.
There was a corn mill and, over time, inns were built close to the bridge, but not much else.
It was the industrial revolution that brought life to Hebden Bridge. The new textile mills needed water power and so they were built in the narrow valleys, tributaries of the Calder, in places like the Hebden Valley, Colden Clough and Cragg Vale. Among them was Gibson Mill, a water-powered cotton mill built in around 1800 at the heart of Hardcastle Crags, now Calderdale’s best known beauty spot.
As trade increased, better communications were created. First came the turnpike roads, paid for by tolls. The steep and narrow Old Bridge was superseded by the wider West End Bridge – or New Bridge – in 1772 as the main crossing over the Hebden, followed, 35 years later by New Road which was, in effect, an early bypass for the town.
In 1789 the Rochdale Canal arrived at Hebden Bridge and in 1841 the Manchester and Leeds Railway, the first transpennine railroad.
As steam power took over from water more and more mills were built in the Calder Valley, using the best building land. The shortage of flat land led to the building of Hebden’s famous four-storey “top-and-bottom” houses on the steep hillsides with, literally one house on top of the other, yet both entered at ground level.
Soon Hebden Bridge’s population had overtaken Heptonstall’s and had become the major settlement in this part of the Calder Valley. Its population reached a peak of around 7,500 just before the first world war.
Wool and cotton manufacture were vital industries, of course, with factories produced a wide range of ready-made clothing, especially trousers and jackets and blankets.
Edwardian Hebden Bridge became the largest producer of ready-made workers’ clothing made from fustian, or strong cotton cloth, and the town became known as Fustianopolis.
But there was a range of other industries, too, from machine tools to woodworking machinery, sheet metal and tinplate to furniture making and, notoriously, asbestos manufacture at Acre Mill, Old Town. Hebden Bridge even made clogs, at the famous but now closed Walkley’s factory.
But the tide was turning. In common with other textile towns on both sides of the Pennines the mills began to suffer from low-cost competition overseas, and the situation was in some cases not helped by British companies’ failure to invest and modernise.
By the 1960s Hebden Bridge’s industry was struggling. People started to leave the district, buildings became derelict and whole streets were demolished. The town was dying.