The architectural gems of Halifax
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 March 2016
Richard Darn visits Halifax in pursuit of West Yorkshire quirkiness
As a South Yorkshireman I’ve always envied my cousins across the border in the western portion of the county. Striking honey-coloured stone buildings, a sense of civic pride reflected in astonishing architecture and quirkiness built on centuries of non-conformity and bolshiness. These thoughts swam around my head as I sipped a pint of real ale and gazed at Yorkshire’s very own version of the Sistine Chapel paintings.
In this case the artist did not paint angels, but three pigeons (what else?), set in a pastoral scene adorning the ceiling of a lovely Halifax pub, called, not surprisingly, The Three Pigeons. But oddly the bible does figure in Halifax’s history. During the medieval period the town was bizarrely hyped as the burial place of John the Baptist’s head. You can see the saint’s face on the town’s coat of arms.
Halifax sums up all that’s good about West Yorkshire. Dramatic location, a deeply imbued sense of identity and in its glorious buildings it wears its pride on its sleeve. The poet John Betjeman called it ‘a town of hidden beauty’, while Historic England declared it to be one of the nation’s ‘greatest historic industrial towns’.
Take the town hall for instance. Built in 1863 at a time when coffers were swollen with woollen revenues, Halifax wanted a grand building to outdo Leeds and Bradford. It was the civic equivalent of thumping the chest and roaring in an easterly direction. The sumptuous interior was designed by Sir Charles Barry (who built Parliament) and its opening by the Prince of Wales was witnessed by 70,000 locals. Staggering stuff. Other Victorian wonders come thick and fast.
Not far away is People’s Park, lauded as the finest designed by Joseph Paxton and given to the people of Halifax in 1857 by textile magnate and philanthropist Sir Francis Crossley, who helped make Dean Clough the world’s largest carpet mill. It was one of the first public parks anywhere in the world. In recent times it had become neglected, but grants and local action have restored this green oasis so it soothes the senses and offers a respite from the urban bustle – all of which were Crossley’s aims when he pledged £40,000 for its creation.
Talking of Dean Clough, Crossley would also be mightily pleased with developments over there too. The factory closed in 1983 and faced the same bleak future as many other defunct mills – demolition. Had that been its fate one of the wonders of the industrial world would have been lost. Fortunately, it was bought by a consortium led by businessman Sir Ernest Hall which developed the Grade II listed site for commercial and cultural uses. Today it’s a hive of activity. Whilst it may not employ the 5,000 people who worked here at its 19th century peak, it is home to 150 businesses, numerous arts venues like the Crossley Gallery and the Viaduct Theatre, home to the Northern Broadsides.
Anyone of these wonderful places would singularly grace any town. But the fact that amazing buildings loom around every corner suggests Halifax possesses an embarrassment of riches.
Arguable the town’s most important building is Piece Hall, which is surely one of England’s most elegant structures. It takes us back to the early days of the woollen industry when it offered 300 loom weavers private rooms to conclude their deals. Designed by Thomas Bradley and opened in 1779, its dramatic design features classical gallery arcades overlooking a large courtyard. They could have erected a big wooden shed to do the same thing, but they didn’t. Instead they built something marvellous as befits an age of optimism when Britain flexed its industrial muscle. Today it is the only surviving cloth hall in the UK and was listed as a protected monument as long ago as 1928. A £19m facelift is on the verge of completion to add an extension, new visitor centre, shops and restaurants to embellish what many believe is Yorkshire’s finest non-religious historic building.
All of which will help Halifax punch its weight as a tourism destination. And why not? This is one of the most distinctive places in the UK, which survived the bulldozer blitz of the 1960s and 1970s when so much damage was done in the forlorn pursuit of modernity. The good burghers of Halifax should be on their soap box trumpeting its glories.
I rounded off a lovely day by making a pilgrimage to the minster church of St John the Baptist (yet another Grade I building). But it wasn’t the fine detailing or ancient stonework which piqued my interest, but rather my pursuit of West Yorkshire quirkiness. You may not have heard of him, but one of the greatest astronomers in history, William Herschel, once plied his trade here when he was appointed as the church’s first organist in 1765 at the tender age of 22. Besotted by the stars, he went on to transform our understanding of the Universe, becoming a favourite of King George III, and discovering the planet Uranus en route. He is a hero of mine and if Halifax was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.