Sowerby Bridge - canals, arts and community

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 January 2015 | UPDATED: 17:02 13 January 2018

Sowerby Bridge.

Sowerby Bridge.

Joan Russell Photography

A strong sense of community is helping to make a former textile town a force to be reckoned with, says Martin Pilkington

Major textile mills and the engine works that served them left the West Yorkshire town of Sowerby Bridge long since, but proud legacies of such times remain central to its character. And there are plans afoot to make more of that past in the future – with music a key component. What brought the industrial revolution to the town in the first place was its rivers, the Calder and the Ryburn, offering power and a route for transporting goods further enhanced by canal development. That work is still paying off, albeit in a different manner. Today it is about holidays and leisure. ‘We’re at the junction of the Calder & Hebble Navigation and the Rochdale Canal, so people can take the narrow boats to Hebden Bridge and Todmorden west of us, or head east down the river navigation in the Calder Valley,’ says Susan Stevens of Shire Cruisers, based at Sowerby Bridge wharf. ‘With 19 boats we handle 500 holidays or more a year.’ Susan and husband Nigel have run the company since 1980, their arrival pre-dating much of the wharf’s refurbishment including the sculpture Jack o’the Locks at its entrance. The railway still serves the town with another of Sowerby’s hidden treasures found on the station forecourt, The Jubilee Refreshment Rooms in what was once a ticket office.

A stone’s throw from the bridge that gives the town its name is an ambitious project to redevelop the former council offices into a much needed, vibrant community entertainment and business hub. ‘There are layers of buildings going back, far more than you’d guess from the frontage,’ says Phil Hawdon, a member of Fire & Water, the not-for profit organisation run by trustees and advisers from Sowerby Bridge, who lead the regeneration programme. ‘We’ve got about 10 different structures within this, including a 1890s swimming baths.’

Volunteers are well into the lengthy job of stripping away decades of dry rot and damaged décor. ‘It’s been ignored since the 1970s,’ says group member Viv Jorissen. ‘But we hope that we’ll have everything done over five years. We want to make it a really exciting modern space for the people of Sowerby Bridge. There are a fantastic number of musicians here and they want rehearsal rooms, recording studios, teaching spaces and so on.’

Early plans include the creation of a 250-seat drama and music venue, band rehearsal rooms, an extended library, business start-up units as well as a café with riverside garden. But there is a long way to go before this social enterprise becomes a reality. Fire & Water is seeking charitable status to help raise millions of pounds to complete the project. Volunteers are also an important part of the programme and Fire & Water is encouraging everyone in Sowerby Bridge to get involved in any way they can.

Folk singers Pete Coe and Alice Jones from Sowerby Bridge, West YorkshireFolk singers Pete Coe and Alice Jones from Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire

One musical institution likely to benefit from the new venue is The Friendly Band, a brass band established in 1868 (in the district of Friendly), some of whose members are also part of Fire & Water. ‘The band’s origins are closely linked with the Wesleyan Sunday School at Friendly,’ explains its historian Ian Le Page. ‘People involved with the choir decided to set up a brass band when brass bands were the big thing. When it was founded there were 12 bands in the area. For whatever reason, Friendly’s is the only one left.’ The band, whose president is retail billionaire Lord Kirkham, has its own rehearsal rooms but an aging membership. ‘We have a few youngsters coming through, but we’re keen to recruit more,’ says its treasurer David Butterworth. ‘It’s an ideal way for kids to learn music - we teach people one-to-one at no cost to them, they have an instrument on loan without charge, uniform provided, and the chance to play with other people.’

You don’t necessarily need a wealthy patron or even a great new venue to keep musical traditions alive, as doyen of Sowerby Bridge’s folk scene Pete Coe and a bunch of his enthusiastic friends have proved. ‘We call ourselves Ryburn Three Step as it’s about song, music and dance, and past, present and future. A number of folk musicians, some professional, some semi-professional relocated to Sowerby in the 1970s, and we became catalysts to get things going here.’ They began with ceilidhs, still thriving today, added a folk club to accommodate the many musicians seeking an outlet, set up a longsword dancing group, again in fine fettle, and in the late 1990s established a New Year’s mummer’s play. ‘We’ve built things up bit by bit over the years, tried to involve youngsters, some of whom have come through to be performers in their own right, like Alice Jones with whom I’ve recorded recently,’ he adds.

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