Slaithwaite, a prime candidate for redevelopment in West Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 22:11 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013
Slaithwaite's wealth of old buildings and its scenic canal make it a prime candidate for development as a visitor destination like Hebden Bridge or Holmfirth reports Penny Wainwright PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRAHAM LINDLEY.
Slough-it or Slathwaite? You'll hear this Colne Valley town pronounced both ways; just don't call it Slaythwaite. The attitude of locals is best summed up by this story: as a train was pulling into Slaithwaite station, the guard announced the stop, in his usual West Yorkshire accent, as Slough-it, adding: 'That's the place that Namby Pamby Pampered Southerners think is pronounced [putting on an exaggerated posh accent] Slaythwayt.'
Outsiders might be derided for their ignorance, but there's a hint to be found in St James's churchyard that they might have been right all along. The stonemason who carved the date 1724 on the Rev Robert Meeke's gravestone also inscribed the name Slaighthwaite.Written at a time when spellings were largely phonetic, it's hard to see how the place was once pronounced other than the namby pampy southerner's way...
However they pronounced it, the folk of Slaithwaite got on with making a living here, largely from textiles. The River Colne powered the mills that still dot its steep-sided valley and at the end of the 1700s a canal linking Huddersfield to Manchester gave a boost to the industry as goods could be shipped to towns both side of the Pennines.
The huge Globe works, closed only a few years ago with the loss of hundreds of jobs, still dominates the town centre, though a new use has yet to be found for the building (while the mighty Titanic Mill, opened in 1912, the year its namesake was launched, and familiar to viewers of TV's Where the Heart Is, has been converted to flats and fitness centre).
Slaithwaite's Spa Mill is still in operation as are smaller ones, their doors open in fine weather to reveal bales of fabric alongside the canal. Here, too, are the sounds of sheet metal and powder-coating works and a pallet-making business. Slaithwaite's wealth of old buildings and its scenic canal make it a prime candidate for development as a tourist destination like Hebden Bridge or Holmfirth.
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal was reopened in 2001 after years of disuse. Locks were restored and new ones built, including an aptly-named Guillotine Lock, a fearsomelooking beast (fortunately with operating instructions). Now edged with smart railings and a gravel towpath, the canal runs right through Slaithwaite's centre. There's everything you need in the village: butcher (Grange's, famous for its pies), baker and greengrocer; optician, chip shop, newsagent, Co-op, off-licence, bank and building society, post office, library, motor spares, traditional gents and ladies outfitters and hairdressers (including one salon unable to resist that trade's tradition of punning names, Hairs and Graces).
A growing number of cafes, including one that doubles as a gift shop, suggests that Slaithwaite's charms are attracting visitors (though locals patronise them too). Getting there has been much easier since the railway station was reopened in the 1980s, after being mothballed for a number of years. The station is perched on the steep valley side, between the Hill Top residential area and the village below. Prepare for some steep gradients and a lot of steps - but that also means some great views. In St James's churchyard, you are still at the level of rooftops and can look across the valley to green fields and to the stone-cleaned frontage of the Globe Worsted Company mill.
'The views are breathtaking'
The precipitous terrain has given rise to some monumental building. The railway viaduct towers above and massive stone embankments support the church, while the youth and community centres perch alongside it. St James's was built by public subscription in 1789 in a plain classical style, while its non-conformist brothers and sisters were relegated to the outskirts because in the 19th century the Dartmouth Estate, still a major landowner in the area, wouldn't allow them to be built on estate property.
Below the church are the old Free School and Slaithwaite's most historic building, the Manor House, which is at least as old as 1570, the date carved on a beam inside. The manor passed via marriage to the Dartmouth family and today the building is used as the estate's main office. Some of those wealthy churchgoers would have lived in nearby Lewisham Street, known as Brass Handle Street because of its fine buildings.
The great and the good also paid for a lock-up; this small stone building, its crenellated top now concealed by ivy, is in the precincts of the manor house. It contained four poky cells and no windows. Maybe this was enough to put troublemakers off, as it was never actually used as a gaol.
But there were some baddies about in 19th century Slaithwaite, where smuggling was rife. The canal was a convenient place to hide contraband and legend has it that smugglers, caught hauling illicit barrels out of the canal by excise men, feigned stupidity and came up with the excuse that they were trying to capture the reflection of the moon. Amazingly, they were let off.
The Moonrakers name has been borrowed by Valerie Todd for her floating tearoom where she serves homemade soup and snacks on a colourful narrowboat. Valerie has spent all her life in Slaithwaite, except for a brief period when her children were young. 'I moved up to Wellhouse, but I was homesick.' And how far away was that? 'About two miles.'
Valerie thinks trade has increased since the canal was renovated in 2001, although she admits it coincided with her new ice-cream machine, so the evidence isn't entirely scientific. There are some lovely walks around Slaithwaite, a popular one being the 12-mile Colne Valley circle that takes you along the south side of the valley from Golcar to Marsden and back along the north side.
'The views are breathtaking,' said Valerie, who also remembers taking part in sponsored walks at Colne Valley High School to raise money for Slaithwaite swimming pool. 'One of the tiles is mine,' she says.
The pool changing rooms and toilets are shortly to undergo extensive refurbishment, after the adjoining sports centre's facelift is finished in September. With its historic interest, good facilities and photogenic looks, Slaithwaite has the potential to become a tourist honeypot - good for business, think some, but with the danger of altering the town's character.
'The balance between local needs and having enough for visitors is about right at the moment,' says Rowena Chantler at tourist information in the Rail and River Centre. Who knows? When the attractions of this Colne Valley town become known to a wider public, the streets might be ringing with people of the 'Slaythwaite' persuasion but for the time being, the 'Slough-its' are definitely in the majority.