How Hebden Bridge is bouncing back after the floods

PUBLISHED: 16:00 13 September 2016 | UPDATED: 20:10 13 September 2016

Hebden Bridge Photo Joan Russell

Hebden Bridge Photo Joan Russell

Joan Russell Photography

Fabulously quirky Hebden Bridge does what it does best - fights back, as Richard Darn reports

Crown Street.Crown Street.

Flooding has been a fact of life in Hebden Bridge ever since the town began 500 years ago at a river crossing point on the pack horse trail between Halifax and Burnley. Tall hills, steep valley sides and a moist climate make the occasional deluge inevitable. Perhaps that’s why the original settlement was built 800 feet up the hill at nearby Heptonstall.

However, altitude also has its disadvantages. The village’s 13th century church was shattered by a violent storm in 1847 and its replacement struck by lightening 28 years later; all stark reminders of the power of nature. But even acknowledging the obvious realities of topography, few were prepared for the scale of the Boxing Day floods last year.

Hebden Bridge recorded its highest ever river level and the centre was submerged under six feet of water. The soggy scene was beamed across the world, interspersed with similar disaster updates from York and Tadcaster. Wider interest quickly subsided, but the clean up has meant a lot more for locals than just mopping up. Three months after the storm, nearly 40 per cent of Hebden Bridge businesses were still closed according to a survey. But one thing this place has always had is resilience and the town is back to its vibrant best. The wonderful 1921 Picture House fully reopened in June after a huge effort by volunteers, whilst locals celebrated their ‘Alternative Christmas’ the same month to replace the one they had ruined.

More than 1,000 people also took part in the zany Handmade Parade, which this year was devoted to the ‘muck in’ attitude that has helped the town recover so well from the epic downpour. You see no one needs an excuse for a party here and that’s what is so impressive.

These days the population is more eclectic, but the community spirit remains unadulterated. Being knocked down is simply an invitation to get up and stand taller. And that could be said of the town’s entire history. Nowhere in the UK has reinvented itself so successfully.

View towards Hebden Bridge from Horsehold Road.View towards Hebden Bridge from Horsehold Road.

Once upon a time Hebden Bridge earned its living by making and selling things, including trousers. Today it also specialises in selling itself. After the war, a government committee looked at designating the area as one of outstanding natural beauty, but concluded the scene was just too industrial and smoggy for its liking. If they had visited again in the 1970s they could have added derelict to that list as the economic bottom fell out of ‘Trouser Town’ and the mills closed.

What has emerged since is a cleaner, alternative, quirky and profitable Pennine outpost that regular tops quality of life polls. One report put the town in the nation’s top six for its independent retailers and unique shopping experience.

The feel good factor starts as soon you arrive. Ditch the car – the choked A646 is one thing that has not improved – and come by train. Last time I was here Michael Portillo and his film crew were pulling out as I arrived, but he must have loved the railway station’s old time charm. It really does look like they polish the rails. Linger if you can because the buffet is tremendous.

From here it’s a pleasant ten-minute stroll into town alongside the Rochdale Canal, opened in 1804 and home to narrow boats and ducks. It too has had a Lazarus-like revival. Redundant after the war and strewn with rusty prams and shopping trolleys, it was fully reopened as a cross-Pennine artery in 2002 and now earns its corn through tourism.

Glancing up and down the main street, eating options are so varied that it’s impossible to make recommendations. The Incredible Edible organic movement began just up the road in Todmorden so, not surprisingly, there is a wholesome offering of local produce. The same can be said of beer – the area has the greatest concentration of micro breweries in the UK, well over 20 at the last count.

Bridge GateBridge Gate

Hebden Bridge is also festival town and the next big celebration is the popular South Pennine Walk and Ride Festival with a host of possibilities to explore the breathtaking landscape.

The town has certainly changed over recent times. So it’s good to learn that a community photographic archive based locally has won an award for its efforts to encourage people to document everyday life. Called the After Alice Project, it is inspired by the remarkable story of Alice Longstaff, a farmer’s daughter who spent 70 years from 1918 capturing scenes in the Calder Valley. The project uses old fashioned film cameras (remember them?) to produce negatives and prints and wants the public across Yorkshire to get involved and carry on Alice Longstaff’s work.

But why do we need a new film archive when we take thousands of pictures everyday using digital cameras and mobile phones? Well, it’s because we actually keep very few of them, not least because they are stored on computers and devices that are wiped clean or thrown away. Experts warn we are leaving a very poor visual record of the 21st century. To find out more, visit afteralice.org

Meanwhile, there’s a major debate locally on what can be done to reduce the town’s vulnerability to flooding. There’s no quick fix, but one plan that caught my eye is to redouble efforts to improve land management in the rainfall catchment area. Over the last 200 years the blanket mires on the surrounding hills have been badly damaged by acid rain, reducing their capacity to soak up water, which instead plummets into the valley bottom. Rapid run-off equals more severe floods. Work to restore them is ongoing, but 9,000-year-old bogs need time to heal, so it’s a long term project. Tree-planting and measures to reduce wildfires which can devastate peat are also being implemented.

Whatever the weather, Hebden Bridge has shown itself more than capable of coping with a smile. I can happily report the dark clouds have receded and the party is back in full swing.

About the Handmade Parade

Flood sirens sounded in Hebden Bridge but this time heralding not the dread of floodwater but the deluge of music, fun and creativity that is The Handmade Parade. The streets were flooded with joy when six months to the day, the parade celebrated the community spirit which has seen the town get back on its feet after the floods.

More than 800 people took part in the 9th annual parade and more than 5,000 revellers lined the streets to watch an array of colourful community art made at open workshops and giant puppets made by professional artists parade through town to a party in Calder Holmes Park.

This year’s theme was Muck In!, a mythical retelling of the story of how Hebden Bridge was flooded on Boxing Day and all those who mucked in to help the town emerge from the mess it left behind.

Spectators were treated to mud zombies, dung beetles, busy bees, an army of worker ants, sunshine warriors, one-eyed trees and a polluting machine.

Stars of the parade were an Earth Spirit made by Thingumajig Theatre, a dung beetle made by lead artist Kerith Ogden, a queen bee by lead artist Fran Sierevogel and a giant sun with helping hands made by lead artist Sue Walpole.

The parade also involved the first ever UK appearance of Russian and international artists representing Cardboardia, who create and experiment with cardboard sculpture and performance at festivals across the world. Calder Valley Voices entertained the waiting crowds with their moving song, Calder Valley Rising, and Cardboardia bureaucrats made space for the parade.

The parade, complete with a women’s dance ensemble and participants from Ravenscliffe High School and St Augustines Centre in Halifax, bands Drum Machine, Handmade Samba Band, Skiband, Les Panards de Dansant, Juba de Leon, Peace Artistes and Hope Street works band, set off from the Handmade Parade workshops in Victoria Road and headed down Valley Road, through a packed St George’s Square and Bridge Gate to Holme Street and finished in Calder Holmes Park, where there was a mini-festival with live bands, dancing and food stalls from local vendors.

Handmade Parade artistic director Andrew Kim said: ‘We danced down the very streets which were flooded just six months ago and filled it with creativity, energy and joy. I’m proud of our team of organisers and artists and all our fearless participants who took the brave step to turn this difficult chapter into a celebration of the generosity and spirit of our community.

‘We loved having so many artists working with us, sharing their skills and spirit, and no doubt taking a little bit of Hebden energy back to their communities. Thanks to this co-commission from the Yorkshire Festival, our local parade has gone global!’

Executive director of Handmade Parade Kathleen McGrath added: ‘Huge thanks to our amazing professional artists, guest artists Cardboardia and the ever-growing band of volunteers and visiting artists who make it happen. We have had visiting artists and volunteers from Russia, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the UK, thanks to the local people who have hosted our guests in their homes.

‘A special thanks to Yorkshire Festival for commissioning Cardboardia, Arts Council England, Hebden Royd Town Council, Calderdale Council and Community Foundation for Calderdale for supporting the parade.’

Hebden Bridge Handmade Parade was supported by Arts Council England, Hebden Royd Town Council and Yorkshire Festival and is working in partnership with the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival and Calderdale Council.

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