Spending a day in Holmfirth
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 April 2019
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy
Take time to explore this prime destination in the South Pennines and you won't be disappointed, says Richard Darn.
They say that all roads lead to Rome - but if you want to freewheel downhill on a bike you’ll need to correct that to Holmfirth. As I cycled over the moors to visit this Pennine gem it struck me that virtually every route into the area, bar one, involves a steep descent. That means you can ease off the pedals and let the wind blow through your hair as you admire the countryside. And make no mistake this is a small town that makes a bold entrance, nestling in the valley bottom and surrounded by spectacular fells, which peak at a lofty 1,700 feet at Holme Moss.
The morning of my visit the sun was beaming down and for all the world I felt as though I was on holiday. Familiar sights were reassuringly still present, not least the splendid Nook pub, a watering hole for decades, and now with its own micro-brewery.
Astonishingly Holmfirth also has a vineyard, which last year enjoyed a bumper harvest of grapes due to the tremendous summer weather. Over 10,000 bottles of rose and white wine are produced each year and I discover there are other white rose vineyards at Woodlesford near Leeds, and Nun Monkton, between Harrogate and York.
On my journey into town I passed possibly the most intimate cricket ground in Yorkshire at Holmbridge. It’s a glorious place to watch the noble sport on a lazy afternoon and it represents the quintessential West Riding sports field, hemmed in by solid looking stone buildings.
Once upon a time Sunday cricket matches had to end by 6pm in a nod to services at St David’s church opposite, but since the 1970s games have been allowed to reach their natural conclusion without an adjournment to Monday.
Such is the ground’s diminutive size that a defensive nudge forward could easily result in a six, given the proximity of the boundary; just the place to notch your first century.
Holmfirth takes its name from the Old English holegn (holly) and Middle English frith (wood), hence ‘the woods at Holme’. In medieval times it formed part of a royal hunting estate and the oldest building in town dates to 1600 and is called the Th’Owd Towser, which has been a jail, mortuary and even a fire station during its long life.
One reason why no older structures survive is an elemental force that has shaped the area - water. A storm in 1777 saw the River Holme burst its banks, sweeping away a church built in 1476 and killing three people. Another deluge in 1852, caused by a reservoir embankment collapsing, resulted in the deaths of a staggering 81 people. More recent tempests in the 21st century have also led to havoc.
All this made sober reading as I poured over an excellent leaflet on Holmfirth’s blue plaques (available from the tourist information centre) whilst sipping a coffee and enjoying a Yorkshire curd tart at Longley’s cafe.
Things have moved on locally on the catering front since I asked for a cappuccino at a local establishment and was told I’d have to go to Leeds for one of them. Longley’s is run by the famous diary producer founded in 1948 by brothers Joe and Edgar Dickinson at nearby Hade Edge. Since then it has become a major local employer and it even manages to sell its cottage cheese into the French market. Its cafe doubles as an ice cream parlour and a youngster I saw with his face half covered in chocolate testifies to its quality.
A few doors along is the gallery of Ashley Jackson, a fellow Barnsley man. I’ve always admired his paintings, which I find both moving and melancholic. The beauty of the surrounding moors is sometimes best seen on a stormy day, when the full power of nature is laid bare, often mirroring our own moody nature.
Wandering the streets I sense Holmfirth is at a bit of a turning point. For a new generation of potential visitors the Last of the Summer Wine link will become increasingly irrelevant. There’s a template for what happens next in places like Hebden Bridge which has found vitality and creativity from the people who choose to live there rather than visit. Like its Calderdale twin, Holmfirth is a prime destination within the South Pennines, where moves are afoot to create a regional park. This will raise the profile of these beautiful places to a much wider audience and also help protect the local distinctiveness the region delivers in spades.
Leaving the town I was passed by a multitude of cyclists wearing the tops of the Holmfirth Cycling Club (they must have had better bikes!). You see them everywhere these days, which is not surprising as the club, formed the year before the Grand de Part Tour de France swept through in 2014, is one of the fastest growing in the UK, with 400 members. There are plenty of hills locally to have a go at, not least the iconic Holme Moss climb. And let’s not forget another local sports club – the much older Holmfirth Harriers, founded in 1907. The club has over 700 members and is one of the most active in Yorkshire, underlining the immense advantage of being located in such a beautiful area, which is often best explored by foot and from the saddle…
The next time I’ll be back in town is for the Holmfirth Folk Festival, an annual event since 1978, and which this year takes place from May 10th-12th. Expect a sublime weekend in a peerless place with good beer and, yes, local wine.