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A look at the thriving art festival scene in Holmfirth

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 March 2018

Holmfirth, once home of the TV series Last of the Summer Wine, now creating a new legacy

Holmfirth, once home of the TV series Last of the Summer Wine, now creating a new legacy

Joan Russell Photography

After the last drop of summer wine has been quaffed, what other local success stories will Holmfirth be toasting?

A gentle comedy about three elderly Yorkshiremen enjoying their twilight years in a quiet Holme Valley town doesn’t immediately scream ‘smash hit!’. But Last of the Summer Wine won over a legion of fans to make it the longest-running comedy programme in Britain and the longest-running sitcom in the world.

It began life as an episode of Comedy Playhouse on January 4th 1973 before being launched as a series in its own right ten months later, making unlikely stars of its three main protagonists, Bill Owen as the scruffy, child-like Compo, Peter Sallis as meek, thoughtful Clegg, and Brian Wilde as quirky war veteran Foggy (he replaced the original third man, Michael Bates as authoritarian Blamire, who had to drop out due to ill health after the first two series).

It also put Holmfirth firmly on the television map, with viewers around the world falling for the charms of the picturesque West Yorkshire settlement in the same way Nora Batty’s stockings fell for her ankles.

The BBC broadcast the final – 31st – series of six episodes in 2010, bringing to an end 37 years of television gold. But, while eight years later the legacy of the show still shines across the valley, the people of Holmfirth are not relying entirely on its reputation to attract tourists and to boost the local economy.

People are undoubtedly still rolling up in coaches, cars and, taking their lead from Compo, on roller-skates to have a bite to eat at Sid’s Café, to pick up a gift or two from the Last of the Summer Wine Exhibition shop and to stay the weekend at Nora Batty’s Cottage, but there is now much more on offer than just a walk down memory lane (accompanied by three old men hurtling by in a tin bath).

Holmfirth Artweek, for instance, is one of the largest open exhibitions in the UK, featuring more than 2,000 artworks by more than 400 artists, plus dozens more fringe events shining the spotlight on thousands of art and craft creations. The event, which runs this year from July 1st-7th, is also a major fundraiser, with 20 per cent of all sales going to Macmillan Cancer Support. To date, that stacks up to an incredible £925,500. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Holmfirth Macmillan Committee, which helps run Artweek, was given the 2017 Committee Award from Macmillan Cancer Support, a national award to recognise the special impact it had made on the local community.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Holmfirth Arts Festival (June 14th-17th) is equally ambitious, offering four days of community-led projects and events.

‘Holmfirth will come alive with street theatre and free family events and we will be making use of our indoor venues to bring the best quality live music, comedy and theatre to the Holme Valley,’ said new festival director Bev Adams. ‘I’m passionate about getting people involved, so we will start to build the festival soon after the Easter break. This year we are inviting local people to really get engaged, to let their imaginations run wild and help create some fantastic art.’

Later in the year, Holmfirth Festival of Folk will be drawing crowds from far and wide with the help of a small but mighty army of volunteers. It’s been going for more than 30 years, changing hands about 13 years ago to a fresh committee with fresh ideas.

‘Nothing is ever easy when you rely on volunteers, but with a lot of hard slog we get the job done every year,’ said festival chair Alex Bywaters. ‘It would help considerably if more local people weren’t so reluctant to buy tickets, but sometimes we just have to admit defeat if the sun is cracking the flags and they’re opting to enjoy their beer outside instead.’

The festival attracts around 10,000 people to town and is part of a packed calendar of events that also includes Holmfirth Food & Drink Festival (September 29th-30th), Holmfirth Film Festival (date to be confirmed) and Holme Valley Brass Band Contest (date to be confirmed).

The year’s Festival of Folk, which runs from May 11th-13th, includes performances by, among others, Norwegian indie-pop, post-rock combo Einar Stray Orchestra; Roger Davies & His Band (who’ll celebrate the launch of their new album at the festival); Fran Wyburn, fresh from revealing her debut album, Wood for the Trees, at Holy Trinity Church in Leeds; multi-instrumentalist Dave Bainbridge, who’ll join forces with Lord of the Dance vocalist Sally Minnear; and the Dark Horses duo Flossie Malavialle and Keith Donnelly.

‘Like everywhere, people in the town are struggling and no one has shed-loads of money to give away, but it is still a thriving, bustling community with a lot to offer,’ said Alex. ‘Last of the Summer Wine still plays its part – the cafes are still going strong and the tour bus still trundles around town – but it’s not the only thing Holmfirth has to offer.

‘This is a beautiful part of the world and a fantastic place to bring up your kids. There’s a huge amount of stuff to do, and virtually all of it is aimed at families.’

One key element of the family fitness sector is Holmfirth Cycling Club, recognised as the fastest growing club in the UK by British Cycling. It was set up four years ago, inspired by the success of the Tour de France and the subsequent Tour de Yorkshire events, and now has a staggering 500 members aged four-78.

‘We have training sessions throughout the week, all run by volunteer coaches, and on your average Sunday we’ve probably got more than 100 people riding out,’ said club secretary and lead coach Andy Akers. ‘Some members just want to improve their fitness, some are here for the social side, some people haven’t been on a bike before and others are training to race competitively. We’re a very broad church and everyone is welcome.’

A positive knock-on effect for the town as a whole is that more and more people are getting out of their cars and on to their bikes, boosting individual fitness and town-wide morale as it develops an active, can-do mindset. It’s also made drivers more aware and respectful of cyclists on the roads, so they’ve slowed down and are taking it easier as they traverse the hills.

The club also runs an annual sportive event, raising money for the Dave Rayner Fund, which supports young riders who want to turn professional, and boosts the club’s own developmental pot, so the 170 or so under-18s members have access to even better training and support.

‘We’re a very inclusive club,’ said Andy. ‘And we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved in a relatively short time. I think the passion and enthusiasm of the small group of volunteers who run the club fires up the passion and enthusiasm of our members. The atmosphere is just brilliant.’

All this adds up to a town with a high level of community involvement or, as parish councillor Rachel Hogley puts it, ‘even when we’re facing economic challenges, there’s a wealth of social capital for us to draw on’.

She’s originally from the suburban South-East and feels extremely lucky to have built a home for herself and her family in Holmfirth, where rural peace is successfully combined with an inclusive town bonhomie.

‘Last of the Summer Wine gave the town a much-needed shot in the arm and its legacy will continue for years to come,’ said Rachel. ‘But it’s just one side of Holmfirth.

‘For me, it’s all about the people. They recognise they live in a wonderful place, but that doesn’t stop them constantly striving to make it even better. This attitude is typified by Holmepride, a Facebook group that spots problems around town and sorts them out. It might be litter that needs picking up or some railings that need painting. Whatever it is, we get together and we sort it.

‘That’s what Holmfirth is all about – helping each other and showing how much we love our town.’

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