How the Hebden Bridge community is coming together to bring a 700-year-old mill back to life as an arts venue

One of the oldest buildings in the Calder Valley will soon reverberate to the sound of cabaret nights and drumming workshops when a landmark mill conversion is completed.

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 3:00 pm
Callis Mill in Hebden Bridge

Parts of Callis Mill in Hebden Bridge are nearly 700 years old, and in its operational life it was a Victorian cotton spinning mill owned by the Lacey brothers. In the 1970s, it was an aluminium manufacturing site, but by the 1980s it was derelict and the remaining buildings - which were once weaving sheds - began to crumble.

The renaissance of this fascinating industrial relic owes itself to an alliance between the site's current owners - the Wade family, who use the land to store sewage and water pipes for their business - and a newly-formed Community Interest Company who have now agreed to rent the entire building and run it as an arts and performance venue.

Completion is expected in May, although it could be a further two years before the entire space is accessible, depending on funding grants.

The story of Callis Mill's conversion encapsulates everything that has come to be associated with Hebden Bridge - collaboration, creativity and a healthy dose of eccentricity.

Former Bradford Playhouse director Adrian Todd admits he is 'breathing and sleeping' the project as it approaches its opening date, having first become aware of Gina Wade's restoration work when he was looking for a new home for his 40-piece band, Drum Machine, who are regulars on the festival circuit and had been forced to leave their former rehearsal space.

Looking around the reclaimed mill, it was soon obvious that the cacophony created by 40 drummers using the whole top floor would preclude landlady Gina from being able to persuade business tenants to rent the offices below. Instead, Adrian came up with a more ambitious plan - to take over the entire building under the auspice of a CIC named What is Drum.

"Drum Machine has a community branch which runs courses and workshops, some for vulnerable adults and young people, and I met Gina when she came on one of these courses. She flagged up the mill when I told her we were looking for a new home, and when I looked round it was amazing - she's kept the exposed beams and iron pillars, and there's a new heating system. We agreed it would be impossible to rent the top floor because of the noise, but I came away gutted - I really wanted that room. I got me wondering whether we could occupy the entire mill."

What is Drum, having been formed at the end of 2020, has now signed the first part of a lease to fully manage the site - which will include three large open-plan rooms and four smaller office spaces. Gina Wade turned down reliable offers from local businesses interested in renting the units to support Adrian's vision instead.

"Gina really wants us to have it, so we can reach out to forgotten people and build bridges between them and the people who might have forgotten about them. As an arts centre, the majority of the programme content will be open to everyone."

Half of this weekly programme will consist of daytime workshops, many aimed at people suffering from mental health conditions who are referred by partner organisations such as Halifax's Basement Project. Drum Machine and a new children's drum band will rehearse there, as will a new dance-based brass band run by Amy Winehouse's former saxophonist.

There will be a cafe, gallery and shop selling locally-produced art, while the offices have an eclectic mix of uses that encompass one of Adrian's biggest personal coups.

He was overseeing a Drum Machine rehearsal in their old premises one day when they had a knock on the door from an unassuming man carrying a bottle of wine.

"He asked us if he could have a listen and said he was a record producer. We thought he was a blagging - everyone's a record producer in Hebden Bridge! But then we Googled him and realised who he was."

The mystery interloper turned out to be Simon Ellis, former musical director of the Spice Girls, Westlife, Britney Spears and songwriter for S Club 7 who had recently left London to move to Hebden Bridge.

Simon has been persuaded to move his studio to Callis Mill and act as a kind of anchor tenant - he will pay no rent, but instead give his time for free to hold workshops and masterclasses for five days of each month. His son, a videographer, has been recruited on similar terms.

The £12,000 monthly running and staffing costs are to be met by an idea Adrian believes is unique to the area - a high-concept cabaret night for 200 people.

"All of the acts have to be interactive, so there will be audience engagement. Simon will lead the house band and his daughter Daisy has agreed to sing."

He has also agreed to work collaboratively with other Hebden Bridge venues with smaller capacities, including the Trades Club and Todmorden's Golden Lion, which has famously attracted acts of the calibre of Jarvis Cocker.

"Our plans are constantly growing and changing. The cabaret night will cover the month's activities - the numbers add up but it is still daunting. Hopefully we can pull in all these amazing musicians and artists, we can host residential workshops using the hotels and guesthouses in the town, we can start pull-down cinema screenings."

A Crowdfunder appeal has been launched and 7,500 leaflets will be delivered to homes in the Calder Valley to whip up support in the former of pledges - £10 a month entitles a patron to unlimited coffees in the cafe. Corporate sponsors are also being sought.

"We'll make sure we offer something different to other venues, but there will be no stepping on toes. It's not a community centre, so we won't be offering hire space to weekly external groups, as that doesn't generate enough energy or revenue. But we will offer space for free for ideas that are imaginative and we are open to suggestions."