Hebden Bridge is on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines. It was a small mill town producing wool and woollen goods. The water from the hills powered the first mills of the Industrial Revolution. The town takes its name from the packhorse bridge over Hebden Water and was the scene of the famous battle of Heptonstall between the Roundheads and Cavaliers in 1643 during the English Civil War.
By the end of the sixties, the town was in bad shape. Shops were empty and blocks of terraced houses were being pulled down.
There is not much space to settle and build in the valley, so much building took place on the many hillsides above Hebden Bridge. Blocks and blocks of terrace houses cover the hillsides. They are interesting buildings, known as “double-decker” housing: four stories tall but only two floors belong to a flat. The entrance to the lower flat (lower two floors) is from the lower road while the entrance to the upper flat is from the upper road. The views from the upper terraces can be quite pretty.
My first connection to Hebden Bridge was from the music video, “Life in a Northern Town” by The Dream Academy. I found out later that there are two versions of this video: one shot in the Newcastle area with many scenes shot across the bridges crossing the Tyne. The other version was videoed in Hebden Bridge.
Hilly, grey, drizzly, windy, and dark. Washing hanging outside in weather, strung across the street or narrow side walks. This was one of my earliest views of Northern England (I had passed through the North in 1981 on my way to Edinburgh, but didn’t really have a sense of the entire place…it was a spot on the Island that I needed to pass through to get from Chester to the Lake District and then on to Edinburgh.)
My recent day trip to Hebden Bridge was quite different from the Dream Academy video, though I could picture many of the locations they filmed. My trip was a warm, sunny, summer day.
The climb from the train station in the bottom of the valley to the upper moors is quite steep and takes a good 30-45 minutes. Taking hidden pathways between terraces up into groves of trees is preferable to following the busy lanes. Surprises are around every corner and over every stile.
It is fun to walk past people’s gardens and look into their houses through their windows.
First a wooden bridge was built, then the stone one you can see today, dated 1510. The town’s name comes from ‘hep dene’ or ‘rose valley’. The town remained a tiny settlement at the junction of packhorse routes until the Industrial Revolution when the town became much of what we see today.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the town was repopulated by a mixture of artists, writers, photographers, musicians, teachers, and New Age practitioners. More recently, wealthier young professionals have begun to settle. On nice weekends it can be quite busy with day visitors.
The area has a rich literary history. The Bronte sisters wrote their famous novels just a few miles away in Haworth; the American poet, Sylvia Plath is buried at Heptonstall on the hill overlooking Hebden Bridge; the poet laureate, Ted Hughes, was born in Mytholmroyd, two miles away.
In 2005, Hebden Bridge was named the most creative and artistic place to live in Europe by British Airways’ in-flight magazine, “High Life”.
I’ve been trying to explore as much of the Island whilst I’m living here. Since I live in Manchester, the Pennines/Peak District is on my door step and easy to get to by train. I’ve taken many day trips to walk the fells and dales and try to picture what it must be like for the people who live and lived here. There are dozens of old mill towns on the many streams and rivers and as many more villages tied to the commerce of the canals that were used to ship raw goods (cotton, wool, coal) and produced goods (textiles) across the Pennines to the large industrial cities of the North, such as Manchester and Liverpool.
Most of these towns have clung to life in one way or another; some have flourished. Marsden, in West Yorkshire, was once a busy mill town, but is now a prominent stop on the Real Ale Trail that runs from Staleybridge, outside of
Manchester, through Marsden to Huddersfield to Batley in West Yorkshire.
Marsden is surrounded on three sides by moors — an expanse of open, rolling, infertile land that is usually boggy and peaty and dominated by grasses and sedges. The most (in)famous of these is Saddleworth Moor, known for being the burial place for the moors murders. The moors murders were carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between July 1963 and October 1965. The victims were five children aged between 10 and 17. The murders are so named because two of the victims were discovered in graves dug on Saddleworth Moor; a third grave was discovered on the moor in 1987, more than 20 years after Brady and Hindley’s trial in 1966. The body of a fourth victim is also suspected to be buried there, but despite repeated searches it remains undiscovered.
In spite of this rather haunting occurrence, the moors are beautiful in their barrenness surrounded by rolling hills of green, the purple of heather, and ferns in gullies as tall as your head. The wind never seems to stop on the moors and it’s often hard to stand upright at the top of the moors.
Down in the valley, you can walk for miles alongside the Huddersfield Narrow canal next to Marsden. At the western edge of Marsden is the Standedge Tunnel, the longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain, stretching for 3.25 miles through the Pennines from Marsden southwest to Diggle. To the east are 42 locks dropping 438 feet (134m) from Marsden to the start of the canal in Huddersfield, with the occasional canal basin to hold water and allow barges to wait for locks to fill or wait for other barges to pass.