Hebden Bridge finds its reputation can be a burden

PUBLISHED: 19:55 22 June 2012 | UPDATED: 14:00 24 October 2015

Hebden Bridge finds its reputation can be a burden

Hebden Bridge finds its reputation can be a burden

The West Yorkshire town may enjoy playing up to its whacky image but its reputation can be a burden, reports Terry Fletcher Photographs by Joan Russell

Maggie Spencer and Ruth Trattles go shoppingMaggie Spencer and Ruth Trattles go shopping

Hebden Bridge has long been one of those communities far easier to caricature than to characterise. In the 1960s it was just another down-on-its-luck Pennine mill town, once bustling mills silenced by a tide of cheap imports. But as redundant millworkers moved out a steady trickle of hippies arrived, taking advantage of cheap housing or, in some cases, free housing by squatting in abandoned properties.

The town, tumbling down the sides of a valley so steep that ‘double-decker’ houses sit on top of one other, became a byword for alternative living.

‘Very Hebden Bridge’ was popular shorthand for just about anything quirky or New Age. Then in the 1980s it was colonised by a wave of artists followed by media folk who plied their trade in the TV studios of Leeds and Manchester and hippiedom matured into Bohemian chic, so chic that local author John Morrison felt free to satirise his neighbours as the ‘kind of cheery Northern folk who are always popping next door to borrow a cup of balsamic vinegar’.

Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham, a proud son of the Calder valley, was holding it up as a paragon of common sense. When political editors got over-excited about Westminster froth he would chide them: ‘Gentlemen, this is not what they are discussing in the
tap room of The Two Ferrets in Hebden Bridge.’

Karen Shaw and Samantha McCabe of Emily’s Kitchen in the market placeKaren Shaw and Samantha McCabe of Emily’s Kitchen in the market place

There’s truth in both versions. Town clerk Jason Boom admits that sometimes the town enjoys playing up to its whacky image but its reputation can be a burden.

‘There’s no doubt that a big part of Hebden Bridge likes to party but we can be sensible when required,’ he said.

Whichever version you choose, certainly no one can deny that Hebden Bridge has community spirit in spades. This summer sees two ambitious examples of it with the saving of the local cinema and the revamping and extension of the Victorian town hall, both thanks to local initiative.

Both had been in the care of Halifax-based Calderdale Council since 1974 and were looking in need of some love and care. Lesser towns might have accepted defeat and let them go but that’s not how they do things in Hebden Bridge.

Rebecca Spiller-Wright of the Old Tree Shop with customer Sam Ive and baby AuroraRebecca Spiller-Wright of the Old Tree Shop with customer Sam Ive and baby Aurora

So first a community association was formed to take over the town hall and then 18 months ago the town council decided it should take over the cinema and save that too. Despite a bill for more than £80,000 to update equipment and repair the building more than four out five locals backed the plan.

Susan Press, the Picture House chairman, said: ‘Without new digital equipment the cinemas simply could not survive. There are just not enough films left on the old 35mm format the Picture House uses. It was like having a record player when all they make is CDs. It was important because the cinema is used for a lot more than just films, it is a focal point of the community and people were not prepared to see it die. It’s also a lovely 1920s Art Deco building with a beautiful façade and interior,’ she said.

The first screening under the town’s own management was a black-tie gala showing of Fanny and Elvis, starring Ray Winstone, which was filmed in the town and featured locals as extras. The evening was a sell out. Even the VIP guests bought their tickets.

This month will see the opening of the even more ambitious £3.4m revamped Town Hall and Creative Quarter project, which is intended to be home to more than 30 small digital and creative businesses with shared public hall, conference and seminar rooms. Appropriately one of the first events to be staged there will be a national Ambitious Communities Conference.

Andrew Bibby,community association chairmanAndrew Bibby,community association chairman

Andrew Bibby, director of the community association said: ‘The town hall was really lacking a role after Calderdale took over and its glory days appeared to have gone but it’s an important building in the centre of the town and we believe we have breathed new life into it.

It’s created a public courtyard, a hall that seats 200, it’s licensed for weddings and civil partnerships and it houses enterprise units.
‘It’s easy to take the mickey out of Hebden Bridge and people do but this is a town that was in dire straits 40 years ago. Since then it is a community that has pulled itself up and done it mainly on its own initiative. We can be proud of that.’

But of course, this being Hebden Bridge there will be some more flamboyant moments, with no fewer than three festivals this month alone. ‘Sometimes even we struggle to keep up with everything that’s going on in the town,’ admitted Jason Boom.

There’s the Arts Festival at the end of the month plus a youth festival and, perhaps most spectacular of all, there’s the Hand Made Parade featuring giant puppets and works of art. Now that is very Hebden Bridge.

Susan Press and Jason Boom at the Picture HouseSusan Press and Jason Boom at the Picture House

Getting there: Hebden Bridge is at the junction of the A646 Halifax-Burnley road and A6033 from Keighley. Leave at junction 24 of the M62 if travelling from the north and junction 21 from the south. There are regular train and bus services run by Northern Rail and West Yorkshire Metro.


Parking: There are pay and display town centre car parks and metere street parking.


What to do: Plenty of places to eat, drink and to shop. Nearby Hardcastle Crags owned by the National Trust is a must-visit for walks, peace and tranquillity.

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