The classical buildings of Halifax, West Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 14:56 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:45 28 February 2013
A West Yorkshire town with fine architecture
A recent poll of national newspapers travel writers asked them to vote for Britains most beautiful towns and cities. All the usual suspects featured in the top ten, with York appearing as Yorkshires only entry in the list. No-one, it seems, voted for Halifax.
The old Pennine market towns omission may come as no surprise to many people but while it may not have Baths majestic sweeping Georgian architecture, Edinburghs commanding castle or Oxfords dreaming spires, there are plenty of reasons why Halifax should have been included on the list.
What those travel writers clearly dont know, or cant see, is that Halifax has a raw industrial beauty with stunning buildings on a grand scale which echo the towns proud heritage. This is a town as solid and dependable as the stone it is built from, but this is a kind of beauty too often overshadowed by the more obvious charms of those towns and cities which made it to the top ten.
John Betjeman described Halifax as a town of hidden beauty, but ever since he visited the towns beauty has been gradually uncovered.
Its a beauty born of industry and one which displays its monolithic grandeur with typical Yorkshire matter-of-factness. This is not beauty for beautys sake, this is beauty with purpose a thinking mans beauty.
The buildings which dominate the Halifax townscape are the buildings which gave the town its status; the mills where industry took hold, the Piece Hall where hundreds of merchants sold their wares in Italianate arcades and the huge granite edifice of Dean Clough which stretches two thirds of a mile and once employed 5,000 people.
Halifaxs remaining mill chimneys challenge the church steeples in reaching for the heavens but the beauty here is decidedly down-to-earth.
Halifax has grown into the valley, with developments spreading into habitable nooks and crannies in the hillsides like gravy poured into a Yorkshire pudding.
The giant mills, imposing civic buildings and magnificent Victorian station fascade are sturdy reminders that this is no northern industrial backwater Halifax was an important centre of industry, the equal, in its day, of our modern economic powerhouses.
The tiny terrace houses, churches and pubs which line the towns neat streets reflect generations of pride in the town but in spite of the wealth of traditional architecture and a history entwined with wool and textiles, Halifax is as forward thinking and contemporary as any identikit glass and steel fronted city in the country.
Much of the architecture here is of national importance and the hills and moors which surround Halifax provide a backdrop which is vast, dramatic and brooding but always beautiful.
The author of the definitive history of the town and chairman of Halifax Civic Trust, John Hargreaves said: There are very few places which have such a spectacular location, with Beacon Hill as a backdrop. I have lived in Calderdale since 1972 and I love the place, I wouldnt want to live anywhere else. The mix of the built environment and the natural makes Halifax rather special.
The Piece Hall is one of the finest examples but when Betjeman first visited it was probably a fruit and veg wholesale market and was not appreciated in the way it is now. In that sense he was right to say the beauty of Halifax is hidden.
The Clean Air Act of 1959 helped to reveal a lot of Halifaxs beauty. Cleaning Victorian buildings of the generations of grime has had a great impact and one civic trust initiative which has played a part in bringing the beauty to the fore was the scheme to reveal the magnificent faade of Somerset House
It had been concealed behind a row of shops but the shops have now been removed so that is another of the treasures that is no longer hidden. The scheme was given a gold award by the Georgian Society, too.
Another reason for the civic trust to be cheerful is the reclassification of the parish church as a minster. I think it deserves a much high profile, added John, a retired history teacher. It is the oldest building in Halifax and its a treasure of historic interest, with a mix of architectural styles covering about 400 years. Its a wonderful building but its often overlooked because the town has developed away from the church.
The town has gradually developed more to the west but part of the masterplan, is to re-populate the east of the town.
That masterplan aims to catapult Halifax into the nations consciousness and to ensure that never again will the town be overlooked. The Piece Hall is at the centre of the efforts hidden no longer and admired as one of the finest public squares in Europe. Its hard to imagine the sense of relief John and his colleagues at the civic trust and the Antiquarian Society must have felt in 1972 when the 18th century textile market was saved from demolition by just one vote.
The masterplan grew out of a renaissance programme for Halifax and includes wide-reaching proposals to revamp the railway station and shopping streets, to reveal more of the hidden beauty and to ensure the town is never again overlooked.
Need to know
Shibden Hall, which stands in public parkland less than a mile from the town centre, was built in the early 15th century and the estate has recently been the subject of a 5m restoration project.
Parts of Halifax Minster date back to the 1100s, although additions were made over the next 400 years. The organist there in 1766 was William Herschel who later discovered Uranus. Minster status was conferred lon the old Parish church last November.
Halifax was famous for the production of wool from the 15th century. Wool was traded at the Piece Hall which opened on January 1st 1779 and houses more than 300 traders.
Dean Clough mill was built in the mid-19th century for the Crossley carpet company which was at one time the largest carpet manufacturer in the world.
John Mackintosh and his wife Violet opened their toffee shop in 1890. The family business merged with Yorks Rowntree in 1969 and was bought by Nestle in 1988.
Having practiced with the Houses of Parliament, one of architect Charles Barrys final major commissions was to design Halifax Town Hall.
Actor Wilfred Pickles, Blue Peter presenter John Noakes, footballer Frank Worthington and Percy Shaw, inventor of cats eyes are among a long list of famous Haligonians.
Where is it?:
Halifax is about four miles north of junction 24 on the M62 in West Yorkshire. The A646 passes through the town centre and there are good rail links. Type HX1 1RE into your satnav to find the Piece Hall. The Halifax Visitor Centre is on the first floor.
Where to park?:
There are pay and display car parks around the town centre and some on-street parking is available.
What to do?:
There is no shortage of galleries, museums, shops, restaurants and attractions but if you should find yourself at a loose end, simply marvel at the beauty of the place.