In his poem Stubbing Wharfe, Ted Hughes wrote about sitting with Sylvia Plath in a pub “between the canal and the river” in the West Yorkshire former mill town of Hebden Bridge.
To the poet, who was born just down the road, the “gloomy memorial” of the Calder Valley in which the town stands was “a gorge of ruined mills” back in the 1950s: “The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution/That had flown.”
But while the old mill chimneys still stand as a testament to a lost industrial past, Hebden Bridge in 2017 could not be more different than the dour scene presented by Hughes.
This bohemian enclave with its craft shops, vegan cafés and stone houses rising in terraces up tree-covered hillsides, known as the “lesbian capital of Britain”, is now fast becoming popular with gay men who are abandoning areas such as London or Brighton for the small, valley town.
“Heben Bridge is a destination rather than a place to pass through,” says Charles Billot, 42, who runs a designer clothes store, District 21, after moving here from London, where he worked at some of the UK’s biggest advertising and marketing companies.
“You can express yourself here. When I was renovating the shop, the builders were really open-minded. Nobody is fazed by anything. In London, gay men and lesbians tend to go to their own places. Everyone gets on together here. I used to describe it to London friends as a mini-Brighton in the hills, but it’s better than Brighton. It isn’t as pretentious.”
Hebden Bridge is said to have more lesbian women per square foot than London or Brighton and is one of the most inclusive places in the country – a symbol of how much Britain has changed in the 50 years since the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. Locals say there is certainly something special about this quiet enclave – the setting for the gritty BBC crime drama Happy Valley.
“It was a stinky old mill town, but it’s really quite splendid now,” says Helen Baron, who runs a knitting shop and haberdashery called Ribbon Circus, in Market Street, and who moved to the town from Leeds more than a decade ago.
“People say it’s the lesbian capital and there are a lot of women, and therefore lots of lesbians, who run businesses. A community has built up where people feel happy and accepted and more people have followed. ”The main thing is that it’s a place where people feel accepted. You can be who you want to be. No-one really bats an eyelid. You only really notice how special it is when you go visit somewhere else. But best of all is that the countryside is right on your doorstep – you can be out walking in beautiful valleys in just a few minutes.”
Hebden Bridge earned a reputation for being easy-going when hippies moved into the area in the 1970s and kick-started a cultural revolution. They were attracted by cheap houses that had fallen empty and were in danger of being knocked down following years of industrial decline.
Official figures show that nearly 500 people are in a registered same-sex civil partnership and that there are around 10,300 to 14,400 LGBTQ people in the wider Calderdale district, which includes the larger town of Halifax. Recent data suggests demand to live in Hebden Bridge means that homes sell at a 26 per cent premium against the rest of the Calder Valley.
Tim Whitehead, 44, an agent for performers, who returned to Yorkshire to live in Hebden Bridge after eight years in London, says it is hard to explain why the small Yorkshire mill town has such a thriving LGBTQ commuity. Haworth, where the Brontë sisters lived, is just 20 minutes up the road but remains a “closed community by comparison”, he says.
“It has been said that Hebden Bridge is the best of England,” he adds.
“In some ways it is. It’s very tolerant, very accepting. People are kind to each other. If the rest of England was like that, it would be great.”
Hebden Bridge is set to hold its second LGBTQ festival – Happy Valley Pride – from 7 to 13 August, with acts including the comedian Zoe Lyons and speakers including Peter Tatchell.
“The catalyst for the festival was the discovery of a piece of homophobic graffiti in the town,” says Mike Stephens, the chair of the festival.
“We turned the graffiti into an artwork and launched the festival to bring people together. The graffiti was out of place here and we don’t want it to happen again. I can’t think of another place in the country that is so welcoming and where you can feel so comfortable walking down a street holding hands with your partner. It’s such a special place.“
Up on a hill overlooking the farmers’ fields in the valley, Bev McGregor is preparing for her LGBeats radio show in the small studio at community radio station 87.7FM Hebden Radio.
The best thing about Hebden Bridge, she says, is that a person’s gender and sexuality just isn’t an issue.
”It just doesn’t matter,“ she says. ”In Hebden Bridge, you’re invisible,“ she adds. ”There’s no particular group. The words tolerated and accepted just don’t come into it. There are actually more lesbians down the road in Todmorden, where the houses are a bit cheaper.
"Hebden Bridge is like an oasis in the desert. It's a paradise. You come over the top of the hill, and there it is. Everybody gets along and that’s how it should be. We just people living in the valley.“