"Lesbians head for the country"

Friday, June 24, 2005

Once again, Hebden Bridge is featured in the world's press. A Reuters' news article, see below, has led to features in newspapers from India to San Diego.

The Reuters news agency article by Ben Blanchard

Unlikely lesbian capital revels in openness

HEBDEN BRIDGE (Reuters) - Britain's lesbians are swapping their Birkenstocks for rubber Wellington boots. In fact, they have been doing so quietly for years.

No longer do they only live in urban areas, where gay men and women have long gathered for strength in numbers, avoiding the perceived rural bias against non-traditional households.

Hebden Bridge, a small town nestled in the valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, is the self-proclaimed lesbian capital of Britain, leading the way in gay small-town living.

For Sarah Courtney, looking for somewhere to bring up her children outside a city, its welcoming, alternative feel made it a natural choice.

"We wanted to move somewhere where we weren't going to be the only lesbians with children," Courtney said.

"It's just not an issue to be out here," she added, referring to being open about her sexuality.


Four years ago, she and her partner swapped the bright lights of London for the town, far from the throbbing clubs and bars of the capital's gay hub of Old Compton Street.

"It's a clean and safe place to have children, and women have children whether they are gay or straight," Courtney said as she prepared vegetarian food in Hebden Bridge's gay bar.

The town of 5,000 people, with its imposing stone buildings and genteel high street, has more lesbians as a proportion of its population than any other in Britain, according to academic studies and census figures.

Some Web sites even say lesbians outnumber their straight sisters by six to one, though most residents laugh at that.

Hebden Bridge has been a hippie retreat since the 1960s. Its left-wing, arty reputation was one the reasons so many lesbians began moving in.

Even today the town, which is less than an hour from Manchester, has an alternative feel to it, with organic, vegan restaurants and health food shops.

There is a plethora of lesbian-run businesses, from coffee shops and juice bars to trades such as plumbers and builders.


The United States has seen the phenomenon of gay men and women moving out of the cities to places like Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Palm Springs, California.

The shift to the countryside in Britain was pioneered by Wild Lavender, a housing cooperative formed in 1980 by a group of gay men, though they never got further than Leeds, 40 km (25 miles) east of Hebden Bridge.

"Women could come up from London and for very little buy a terraced property," said Jo Turton. She moved to the town next door, Todmorden, with her partner a quarter of a century ago and runs a "straight-friendly" cafe and bar.

"It's a different pace of life."

Notice boards in Hebden Bridge's cafes offer same sex civil partnership ceremonies, which are due to be legalised in Britain later this year, while the gay pride rainbow flag proudly flies outside gay-run venues. Showings of lesbian films are advertised in local shops.

There is even a lesbian bird-watching society and hill-walking group.

That is a big change for a town abandoned decades ago by people who lost their jobs as the industrial economy crumpled under the weight of competition from Asia.

There are no abandoned factories with broken windows or rows of grim terraced houses today. They are more likely to have been converted into chic apartments with wind chimes and Mediterranean-style kitchens.

The area is even starting to attract a larger crowd of gay men, more usually more drawn to big cities.

"You don't feel as isolated as you would in some small towns," said Chris Furminger, 34. "It makes you feel a bit more comfortable now with more gay men moving in."

The transformation of Hebden Bridge has not been without its critics.

"We go to this pub regularly and you couldn't move for lesbians," said Judith Inman, 52. "It makes me feel awful, really uncomfortable."

But many others from outside the gay community have been more welcoming.

"They helped bring jobs to a dying area," said Gareth Richards, who remembers the area before the lesbian influx.

"Everybody just gets on with their lives here. It's a very tolerant place."

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