Better Together - the thriving culture of co-operatives in Hebden Bridge

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 September 2014

View towards Hebden Bridge from Horsehold Road.

View towards Hebden Bridge from Horsehold Road.

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The spirit of co-operation is still strong in Hebden Bridge, as Jo Haywood discovers

Rochdale Canal at Eastwood.Rochdale Canal at Eastwood.

Many communities claim they work together but few, if any, have put their money where their mouth is to the same degree as Hebden Bridge.

This industriously creative West Yorkshire market town has led the way in co-operative working since the late
19th century. Townsmen Jesse Grayand Joseph Greenwood were leading advocates of productive co-operation in their day, the former as general secretary
of the Co-Operative Union from 1891 to 1911 and the latter establishing Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative in 1870.

Greenwood’s pioneering Nutclough Mill – a landmark in Hebden Bridge for generations – was the first workers’ co-operative textile mill in England, providing a living and a strong sense of pride for many local families as well as inspiring other community-minded ventures across the country.

‘There’s always been a strong seam of co-operation running through the West Riding,’ said Jonathan Timbers, Mayor of Hebden Royd, which includes Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Cragg Vale. ‘It originally had a lot to do with the nature of the townships themselves, but the key things were poverty and hardship. In nearby Bradford this led to a strong streak of radical politics, while Hebden Bridge was characterised by co-operation.

Jonathan Timbers, his wife Aeisha and daughter Sophie as Mayor Polar Bear and family at Hebden Bridge Homemade ParadeJonathan Timbers, his wife Aeisha and daughter Sophie as Mayor Polar Bear and family at Hebden Bridge Homemade Parade

‘Nutclough Mill was the outstanding worker co-operative of its day. And, later, consumer co-operatives became important – most people bought their food and clothes and enjoyed a social life through the co-operative.’

In modern Hebden Bridge, the spirit, drive and enthusiasm for co-operation remains strong – even the grade two listed Town Hall is run by the community on a 125-year lease from Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council.

Among the many admirable co-operatives flourishing in this fascinating market town are Valley Organics, which was set up as a Workers’ Co-op in spring 2013 with the aim of promoting the growing and eating of good local food; Northlight Art Studios, established more than 20 years ago to offer quality-affordable studio space to artists, designers and makers; The Bakehouse, which was established as an Industrial and Provident Society to champion the Real Bread Campaign and provide better bread in an ethical way; and the Fox & Goose Inn, a popular real ale hostelry taken over by regulars and supporters in February 2012, making it West Yorkshire’s first community-owned pub.

‘There is still a huge interest in co-operation,’ said Jonathan. ‘The difference now is that it is no longer in response to poverty; it’s an aspirational desire to make a better world.

‘There was a lull in co-operation in the Sixties when the Hebden Bridge Co-op closed down. But it has picked up in recent years. There’s a new spirit of co-operation. People really do feel very strongly about it.’

And it’s not just in Hebden Bridge – this inspirational spirit of co-operation can be felt in the surrounding communities too.

‘I’m mayor of three very different areas but they all have their own DIY ethos,’ said Jonathan. ‘They all have a huge desire to get things done. There was a time when Hebden Bridge was perhaps seen as a community where things got done, but in quite a haphazard way. Now it’s very much more professional.

‘Some of the eccentricities and, shall we say, wild behaviour of previous years is now not so apparent. But it’s still a place where people have all manner of interesting opinions – and the community is all the more interesting for it.’

Hebden Bridge has a reputation that reaches far beyond its West Yorkshire borders. Perhaps it’s down to the literary legacy left by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath or by Martin Parr’s wonderfully evocative photographs. But Jonathan has another interesting theory.

‘It helps that a lot of journalists live here,’ he said, with a wry chuckle, ‘including a number of BBC staff who commute to Salford Quays.’

Putting that aside, it’s easy to see why Hebden Bridge gets a lot of attention, especially if you include the positive attributes of its near-neighbours in Mytholmroyd, Cragg Vale and Heptonstall. The area as a whole is incredibly beautiful, making it a great draw for walkers, climbers and off-road cyclists.

It’s also great for anyone interested in history because of its strong connection with the Cragg Vale Coiners, who famously produced fake gold coins in the 18th century to boost their small incomes.

‘We also have some lovely places to eat and some great independent shops,’ Jonathan continued. ‘Oh, and there’s the cinema and the Trades’ Club. And we’ve got two butchers…’

Forget a day out, you’ll need a weekend at least to make the most of what this spirited corner of West Yorkshire has to offer.

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