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Take it to the Bridge

October 2002

Take it to the Bridge is a piece written about Hebden Bridge for The Leeds Guide by freelance writer Hazel Davis and reproduced here on Hebden Bridge Web with their kind permission

Tantamount to Soddom and Gomorrah (Sir Bernard Ingham), The Hampstead of the North, or just another tourist trap? Hazel Davis investigates

Until the 19th century, Hebden Bridge consisted only of the bridge over Hebden Water and the White Lion Hotel. Apart from this there were a few smallholdings and cottages dotted around the moors. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, things changed and, along with the Leeds-Manchester railway, two new thoroughfares were built, creating jobs, local shops and important links for the textile industry. When local entrepreneur William Barker discovered the market for locally produced clothes, Hebden Bridge was ripe for a population overhaul.

Fast forward to the 1960s and Hebden Bridge was just another Yorkshire mill town, afflicted by the same problems as most Yorkshire mill towns. But because of its proximity to the Pennine Way and its quiet idyllic scenery, the place soon became a haven for people seeking a cheap alternative lifestyle. As alternative lifestyles have become de rigueur, the navel gazers have come flocking, and in 2002 Hebden Bridge is the self-proclaimed ‘lesbian capital’ of Great Britain, housing writers, artists, actors and musicians, and has sold itself as a filming location more times than the Trevi Fountain to bring us delights such as Wuthering Heights-inspired weepie Sparkhouse, a remake of Nicholas Nickleby, atrocious Kerry Fox-Ray Winstone box-office howler Fanny and Elvis, and various snippets of League of Gentlemen.

And as the town enhances its reputation as a desirable location, house prices follow suit, rising at an alarming rate. These days on a Sunday you literally can’t walk down the main street to buy a paper for the hordes of tourists/house hunters.

With the devastating combination of wealthy, creative, alternative individuals, Hebden Bridge has seen the development of numerous arts projects, galleries, environmental campaigns, social events and even an annual arts festival which draws thousands of visitors each year and culminates in the two-day Riverside Festival, a sort of mini-Glastonbury in the town’s large park.

What is so different about this small, admittedly picturesque, mill town which has made it so fashionable? Is it the fact that it maintains excellent transport links to Leeds, Manchester, York, Blackpool, Bradford and Halifax? Is it the award-winning railway station which looks like the set of Brief Encounter? Is it the fact that there is so much culture crammed into a town of 10,000 inhabitants, with art exhibitions on every street, a beautiful 1920s cinema showing a variety of old classics, arthouse movies and mainstream blockbusters to watch with your china mug of tea or coffee? Perhaps it’s the Trades Club on Holme Street where you can watch legendary acts such as The Animals and Dick Gaughan alongside up and coming local bands like Wild Ginger and Busride (formerly Lesbian Busride), and buy a pint of Guinness with change for a TVP buttie. Or maybe it’s the deluge of organic shops and cafés, where you can stock up on Forest Friendly Toilet Tissue and vegan pate whilst unwinding with a soya-based latte.

"It’s like living in a bubble" one soft-spoken, bearded and impossibly liberal man told me outside Pennine Provisions, healthfood and grocery essentials shop. "There are so many like-minded people here, so many people with the same agenda. It’s great to know you can go for a swift half in your local and know that there will be someone there who shares the same opinions as you, someone with whom you can have an ‘intellectual’ conversation." If he hadn’t made the inverted commas gesture himself I’d have made it for him. He’s right of course. In how many other towns can you scour the Age Concern shop seeking Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and find three copies? In how many other towns can you sit in on a workshop on Afghan human rights at noon, go salsa dancing at 2pm, join a writers’ group at 3pm, attend a communal street barbeque at 6pm, finishing the evening with a dose of French blues in the local? Accompanied, of course, by your five year old twins, Tabitha and Tarquin who, after a hard day’s personality and life skills development at the local Montessori School (in nearby Cragg Vale) will of course be allowed the basic human right of imbibing as much culture as possible regardless of their age, gender or establishment-dictated sleep requirement.

It’s a place where children can grow up naturally, it’s a place where mothers can breastfeed in public without fear of reproach, it’s a place where people can ‘be themselves’ and sing in the library if they feel like it. It’s a free-wheeling, tree-hugging, nature-worshipping community, full of love and fertility.

But it’s not all (organically grown) roses. Many locals are starting to protest at the way they and their families are steadily being nudged out of the area. Rent prices have risen dramatically in the last few years and non-home owners who work in the area are having to move to Halifax and outlying areas in order to afford to live. Many home-owning original Hebden Bridge residents have cashed in on the property boom and abandoned living there altogether, making way for a whole new generation of ‘off-cummdens’. In fact, it’s a curious linguistic phenomenon that children under the age of eighteen in Hebden Bridge have developed a whole new accent based on a fusion of their parents’ standard Southern/Estuary accent and the soft Pennine lilt of the local inhabitants, producing a kind of artsy ‘mockney’.

And for a hippy, multicultural society you would be hard pushed to find a single person with a suntan, let alone ‘ethnic colour’, despite the vast amounts of multicultural foods and clothes on offer in the town, and despite its claims to be a cosmopolitan and egalitarian community.

It’s a place which, in its often naïve new-age piousness, leaves it open to mockery. In fact local writer John Morrison upset locals in 1998 with the publication of his books, View from the Bridge and Back to the Bridge in which he made fun of a ‘fictional’ mill town bearing alarming similarities to Hebden Bridge. His hilarious pigeonholing struck so much of a chord with many inhabitants that complaints were lodged, and a ban imposed on publicity of the book in local papers. Centering round local characters like ‘Wounded Man’ and ‘Willow Woman’ (I think I know her), the book contains glorious snippets like this:

Wounded Man is a founder member of the Holistic Plumbers Collective who, when called out, try to put plumbing problems into a more global context. Instead of just mending leaks or plumbing in washing machines they like to sit around at the customer’s house, drinking coffee and consulting the I Ching. Only when they have fully explored their feelings do they make any effort to get down to work. By which point, in an unconscious homage to more conventional plumbing procedures, they usually find they’ve forgotten to bring any tools with them.

It’s a criticism often levelled at the place that the inhabitants are nothing but wishy-washy hippies without an idea of what goes on in the ‘real world’, often too blinded by their own ideals to actually make a difference to anything.

It’s also a place where, despite its claims to being ‘one big friendly community’ it can be mighty hard to fit in if you don’t have the right principles, job (preferably home-based or earth-related) and, dare I say it, clothes. For all its free living, all-embracing pretensions, Hebden Bridge has become just as much of a snobs’ enclave as Harrogate or Cheltenham, and if your face don’t fit then you might as well forget it.

But I digress. The town, for all its petty snobberies and self-aggrandisement, remains one of the prettiest and best kept parts of West Yorkshire, with all the ingredients for a great day out, night out and even fulfilling weekend away. The scenery is lovely, the amenities are abundant, the town is well cared for and its history is fascinating. You feel safe when you walk home at night and you can almost certainly leave your front door open if you pop up the road to borrow a bag of lentils.

Yes, Hebden Bridge is a great place to live in lots of ways. But although you don’t necessarily have to be called Cressida or Malcolm to live there, it helps.

Hazel Davis

View from the Bridge and its sequels Back to the Bridge and A Bridge Too Far are available online from the Pennine Pens website www.penninepens.co.uk, or via special order from local bookshops

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