Exploring Huddersfield's rich cultural heritage
PUBLISHED: 20:36 30 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:46 01 November 2017
Joan Russell Photography
Richard Darn enjoys a visit to Huddersfield
The last time Huddersfield were in the top flight of English football was back in the 1970s, but for the club’s heyday you have to go back to just after the Great War when they chalked up three league titles.
However, on May 29 this year the Terriers wrote a new chapter in their history with a Wembley play-off victory against Reading. I was actually in a Huddersfield pub that day, crowded around a crackly radio in a scene that belonged to a bygone age.
My footballing loyalties lay elsewhere, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Town, so I just had to be here on this special day.
As the game veered to its climax with a penalty shoot-out it was left to me to explain to an increasingly fraught and confused bar that the club had actually just been promoted. The incredulity on their faces was a delight to behold. Nothing is taken for granted in these parts.
Promotion has put the town on the global map – worldwide the premiership is watched by billions of fans, which is sure to help investment and has already put a spring in the step of locals.
It left me musing on the part sport and culture (both the high and low varieties) have played in the town, bringing people together in pride and offering an escape from the drudgery of the mills.
A few weeks before the Wembley game I was checking the football news in the paper when an article caught my eye reporting that Kirklees Council’s art collection has soared in value.
What art collection? Well apparently the city burghers have assembled an impressive portfolio of municipal “heritage assets” over time to enrich of the life of its citizens. It’s also proving to be a canny investment as the haul is now worth £49m, up by £12m in just one year. That’s largely down to two works in its ownership by LS Lowry and a sculpture by Henry Moore, all of which can be seen in the town’s art gallery (open Tuesday to Saturday).
I had no idea the iconic Lancashire artists famed for his matchstick figures journeyed outside Greater Manchester for inspiration. But I was wrong and he was particularly keen on Huddersfield and would stay for a couple of days. One of the scenes in the gallery shows a view of Chapel Hill looking towards Lockwood and it was commissioned by Huddersfield Borough Council in 1965. The painting is classic Lowry – industrial landscape, bent figures going about their business, dogs crossing streets and chimneys belching smoke. London might have been swinging in the sixties, but this was a view stuck in time and could easily be mistaken for a much early decade. For all the grittinesses it portrays there is love in the painting and a sense of life. Pop into the gallery where you can buy Christmas cards depicting the colourful scene.
Of course Huddersfield is no stranger to the arts. The town has a worldwide reputation for its Contemporary Music Festival (November 17-26, 2017) and the Huddersfield Choral Society was established as long ago as 1836. There is also the Mrs Sunderland Music Competition, founded in 1889, giving local performers a chance to shine, and the town’s university has one of the best music departments in the UK. And let’s not forget that the area has a rich tradition of hunting songs, particularly from the Holme Valley. You can hear old and new music at the excellent Holmfirth Folk Festival, May 11-13, 2018.
But if Huddersfield can be proud of its artistic traditions, it also had a seedy, but transfixing sub-culture. For those without a taste for music or a stomach for a fight (the area was a hotbed of political radicalism with assassinations of mill owners) there was always the attractions of Victorian night life.
The story is well traced in Professor David Wyles new book Beerhouses, Brothels and Bobbies which plots the shady careers of the town’s criminal underworld and highlights notorious streets like Castlegate where bars and prostitution combined to earn the town the sobriquet of the “brothel of the West Riding”. It provides a useful corrective to those who think everything was better in the past and the book is available from the University of Huddersfield Press, priced £25.
As I wandered around the town centre waiting for my train home, I caught the view painted by Lowry. Now dotted with anonymous new buildings, time has finally caught up with the vista and in all honesty Lowry had the best of it.
Nearby, in a strange cultural juxtaposition is the location of what was once the town’s top live music venue, the Ivanhoe, which occupied the 1921 Grand Picture House (the facade still exists). This was the scene of the Sex Pistols very last UK gig 40 years ago this Christmas Day, described at the time as “pretty hardcore” by the band’s manager.
No-one can ever say Huddersfield is boring.