Sowerby Bridge - the West Yorkshire town cruises into a new future

PUBLISHED: 00:19 20 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:45 20 February 2013

Sowerby Bridge - the West Yorkshire town cruises into a new future

Sowerby Bridge - the West Yorkshire town cruises into a new future

It has been slow but change for the better is arriving in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, as Terry Fletcher reports Photographs by Elizabeth Savage

Water has been the key to Sowerby Bridges destiny for centuries and now it is at the heart of a commercial and tourism renaissance that has been created by a partnership of local people, conservation officials, private developers, voluntary groups, lottery money and the intervention of the Prince of Wales.

Together they have raised millions of pounds worth of investment and breathed fresh life into a once derelict and appar89ently doomed industrial eyesore and transformed it into a magnet for businesses that is also drawing in visitors to make it a thriving corner of the town.

Sowerby Bridge grew up in the Middle Ages around a crossing of the rivers Calder and Ryburn. Water was again crucial to its expansion in the Industrial Revolution when the power of the rivers was harnessed to drive a string of textile mills that grew up along their banks.

Then in the 19th century it became an important transfer station on the rapidly growing canal network. It sat at the head of the Calder and Hebble canal which linked it to Wakefield and the national waterways network and then in 1804 it became the terminus of the Rochdale Canal connecting it to the booming markets of Manchester.

However the navigation builders never agreed a common size for their canals nor the locks which enabled barges to climb the Pennines. As a result vessels that could use one canal were often too wide or too long to transfer to another navigation and Sowerby Bridge grew plump not only from its mills but also on the business of transferring cargo from one kind of boat to another. Or it did until the coming of the faster railways and the canals slipped into obscurity. The Calder and Hebble largely fell into disuse and the Rochdale was abandoned while the once-bustling warehouses, workshops and offices slipped into disrepair.

They remained home to a few small businesses but were largely forgotten by the rest of the town. Viv Jorissen, who moved into offices by the wharf in 1994 recalls: It was utterly grim. The whole area had gone to rack and ruin. The access road was so potholed that exhausts were ripped off cars trying to drive in.

British Waterways was keen to see the old warehouses demolished and the land sold for housing but Viv and her fellow tenants had other ideas. The Rochdale was being reopened for leisure boating and the restorations were creating a ring which allowed holidaymakers to cruise a circuit through the South Pennines.

She and her business partner, Malcolm Gardiner together with Nigel and Susan Stevens, who operated Shire Cruisers, from the basin could all see tremendous potential for the area. Luckily, Calderdale Council agreed and paid for the entrance road to be rebuilt with traditional stone setts, opening it up for development. Slowly, over more than a decade, thanks to private finance, council grants, Lottery funding and Prince Charles support through his Restoration Trust the various warehouses were rescued and modernised.

Today the result is a range of offices and studios for lawyers, accountants and artists plus a clutch of cafs, pubs and eateries that draw in visitors and locals alike. More than sixty people live on boats moored near the wharf.

The work has transformed the area. It has not only brought more than 200 jobs it has created somewhere people want to be. It used to be a disaster area and now it feels like you are on holiday when you go there, said Viv. It has been a long slog, nerve-racking at times and frustrating at others but it has been worth it. You just have to put the setbacks behind you and be determined.

Nigel Stevens agrees. The buildings now look terrific and it is a place people want to come to. It also makes a much better impression on visitors.

The development is now viewed as a model for what can be achieved in other run down industrial areas. Sheena Campbell a conservation officer with Calderdale Council says: The whole area struggled with the loss of the textile mills but the Calder Valley has a rich heritage and Sowerby Bridge has shown how it can be used as a focus for regeneration and revival by restoring old buildings rather than demolishing them.

It is a real success story. And already Viv is eyeing another project in the town.

She said: The area round the County Bridge, library, the old swimming pool and old fire station has lots of potential; the whole of the riverside needs to be opened up. Weve increased trade massively around the wharf end of Sowerby Bridge but there is a lot more to do. It wont be plain sailing but the benefits to the town could be huge.

Rushbearing Festival

Sowerby Bridge celebrates the Queens Diamond Jubilee during its annual Rushbearing Festival in the first weekend of September. The festival was originally a one-off event to mark the Silver Jubilee back in 1977 but proved so popular that it has taken place every year since, and has grown to include a number of towns and parishes.

The custom of rushbearing dates back several centuries to the time when church floors consisted of little more than stone flags or beaten earth. Rushes were used to cover the floor. Once a year the rotten rushes would be cleared out and a new batch would be taken to the churches in carts. By the 17th century the event developed into a festival and cause for celebration involving revelry, music, dancing and much liquid refreshment.

At the centre was the celebrated rushcart. Rivalry between the supporters and builders of different carts was sometimes intense and open brawls often developed. And although the need for rushes as a floor-covering eventually disappeared the festival remained.

Sowerby Bridges modern festival is the only one of its kind in Yorkshire with its 16ft high, two-wheeled, handsomely decorated and thatched rushcart, pulled by 60 local men dressed in Panama hats, white shirts, black trousers and clogs. A team of women take turns to ride on top of the cart.

The procession winds its way along a 10-mile route through the South Pennine countryside over the course of the weekend. As a nod to the origins of the festival, token rushes are presented to the village churches along the route. These churches and a number of public houses provide a hub for entertainment and refreshment.

For more information visit

Getting there: Sowerby Bridge is three miles west of Halifax on the A58. Regular rail service from Leeds, Bradford and Manchester.

Parking: Car parking by the wharf and in signed town centre parks

What to do: Canal trips, towpath walks and a wealth of food shops, restaurants and cafs

Latest from the Yorkshire Life