Social historian Paul Barker pays tribute to Hebden Bridge

Social historian Paul Barker's new book is an evocative and personal tribute to Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge, and the villages and hamlets round about it, have something magnetic about them. Their power of attraction always pulls people back. When I’m asked where I’m from – and the undertone of my voice hints that I’m not from the South East – I always say: ‘I live in London, but I’m from Yorkshire, really.’ To me, ‘Yorkshire’ means the upper Calder Valley.

I grew up in this narrow cleft in the Pennines, among the hills rising steeply to the moors. The skyline was, and is, defined by a tall Victorian church at the old hand-weavers’ village of Heptonstall, and by the bleak obelisk of Stoodley Pike, erected by grateful cotton mill-owners to mark Napoleon’s defeat and the re-opening of trade with Europe.

I am marked by this landscape, which is much prettier now than it was in my childhood. The smoky mill chimneys and the dye-works which could make the river run blue, have gone. Their departure was, at first, a slow process that lasted years. My earliest memory is of standing on a canal towpath watching the mill across the water burn down. The wood floors under looms were always sodden with oil. They went up like bonfires: a regular local entertainment. Accident? Insurance fraud? Local men tapped the side of their noses, knowingly.

The textile trade’s final, swift collapse took place in the 1960s and 1970s. The charm of the countryside, no longer smoke-shrouded, re-emerged into view. The few remaining mills have become flats, hotels, art galleries, tea-rooms and craft workshops. One former mill is a centre for ‘alternative technology’.

In the days of old technology, Hebden Bridge thrived on innovation and enterprise. Now it does so again. But the terms of trade have changed. Once known as Fustianpolis, because it was a leader in the corduroy business, it switched gear. From manufacturing textiles, it began to manufacture lifestyles. The French, as always, have a word for it: BoBo, ‘bourgeois with bohemian tendencies’.

The poet laureate Ted Hughes was born a mile or so downstream. His early poems capture the spirit of this magical place. I think notably of a poem called ‘Dick Straightup’, about a man who loved his pint and played the big bass drum in Heptonstall band. Dick’s birth name was Richard Uttley. There were so many interlocking, and interbreeding, family names in Hebden Bridge – Greenwoods, Sutcliffes, Uttleys, Pickleses – that ‘by-names’ had to be created to tell people apart : Dauber (painter), Spicy (sweet-stall owner), Tom o’Jacks, o’Sally (grandparents’ names). Few of those characteristic surnames crop up now in school registers.

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Newcomers, who saw (at the time) bargain houses in a lovely landscape, moved in. ‘A perfect mix of urban and rural,’ one of them told me, when I was researching my new book on the people and history of Hebden Bridge.

When I go back to walk these hills, I stride up past an old farmhouse with the wonderful name, Weasel Hall where my great-uncle Ira Greenwood lived. I carry on, up to Stoodley Pike. A cold wind blows in from Lancashire. I think back to family tales. Of a young woman jilted – but the family went on to the reception regardless, because they’d paid for it.

Of the same woman, in later years, taken for burial on a day when the earth was frozen hard. The coffin had to slide along by sledge.When I’d left school and graduated, I looked in to see the manager at the Hebden Bridge branch of Lloyds. I wanted to tell him that a wage would soon start coming in. I said I’d got a job on The Times. ‘Oh, good,’ he said, ‘I’ll see you around the village.’ The local newspaper is the Hebden Bridge Times.

My chequebook still says ‘Hebden Bridge branch’. The magnetism never loses its force.

Paul Barker’s book, Hebden Bridge: A Sense of Belonging, is published by Frances Lincoln on May 10th, price �16.99. Share your stories and memories of Hebden Bridge with us at feedback