Todmorden - life on the Yorkshire and Lancashire border

Todmorden home of the Incredible Edibles movement

Todmorden home of the Incredible Edibles movement - Credit: Joan Russell

This frontier town stands in no one’s shadow, reports Richard Darn

The Incredible Edibles movement in Todmorden has just celebrated its 10th anniversary

The Incredible Edibles movement in Todmorden has just celebrated its 10th anniversary - Credit: Joan Russell

A few years ago a branding exercise was undertaken in the South Pennines asking residents to come up with words they most identified with. Quirky, nonconformist, eccentric were just some of the descriptions to emerge. And do you know – I agree with every one of them.

There’s something special about these towns and villages, for the most part nestling in steep-sided valleys, replete with canals, ancient woods, old chapels and stone buildings that combine to create a timeless sense of place.

And nowhere is that more true than Todmorden.

The quintessential frontier town, where the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire once ran through the town hall like a geological fault line, has been entirely within the White Rose County since the 1880s. And you don’t have to dig very deep to find its nonconformist roots. Let me cite just one example to get the ball rolling.

Mary Clear chair of The Incredible Edibles movement

Mary Clear chair of The Incredible Edibles movement - Credit: Joan Russell

Back in 1834 the Government was worried that workhouse conditions were too good and acting as a disincentive to work. So an amendment to the Poor Law Act was passed to make such places even grimmer and stop benefits going to families who had fallen on hard times whilst keeping them in their homes.

But the good people of Todmorden, led by John Fielden, MP, the radical son of the Quaker textile baron whose name is synonymous with the Upper Calder Valley, led a long campaign opposed to the new law on humanitarian grounds. When constables were despatched to enforce a levy on local worthies to pay for a proposed workhouse in the town they were intercepted by a crowd and badly beaten.

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Trade boycotts followed and Fielden even shut his mill in protest to put further pressure on the authorities. They responded by deploying troops in the town to quell trouble. In the event the opposition tactics worked – it took another 40 years for a workhouse to be built, a rather bleak affair at a place called Beggarington with views out to distant Stoodley Pike.

The moral to take from this story is clear: ‘Don’t mess with Tod!’

A mural celebrates the Incredible Edibles movement

A mural celebrates the Incredible Edibles movement - Credit: Joan Russell

Wind the clock forward and it’s a different kind of grass-roots action that is making waves. Todmorden is home to the Incredible Edible movement which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. In that time thousands of vegetables and herbs have been planted on spare plots throughout the town for people to pick – and it has sparked a minor urban revolution. The project’s strap-line is ‘believe in the power of small actions’, highlighting that it has always been about more than just eating healthy food, but also a way of bringing communities together.

And what a success it has been. The seed of the idea planted here has sprouted throughout the world and the Incredible Edible network has spread from Glasgow to Cornwall, and even further afield. That’s a birthday well worth celebrating and there has been more good news for the town.

Todmorden’s Burnley Road has just been declared England’s Rising Star winner in the Great British High Street Awards. For months locals have been sprucing up the area under the slogan of ‘Our Planet Tod’, picking up litter and encouraging better recycling bins. The competition drew hundreds of entries and those short-listed received a visit from eagle-eyed judges. The result was a tremendous boost and an example to other places in Yorkshire on how to create better public spaces by tapping into civic pride.

It is often said that Todmorden is overshadowed by its chic cousin of Hebden Bridge a few miles away. But that completely misses the point. This is very much its own place.

As I sipped a coffee in one of the lovely local cafes on my latest visit, I reflected that it was two buildings that first drew me to the town.

One was the remarkable Dobroyd Castle. Built high above Todmorden in 1866 for the son of the aforementioned John Fielden, legend has it that it was a wedding present to secure his bride. Whatever the motivation, the castle was a statement of wealth and power and cost over £71,000. Yet within a few decades it fell into disuse and was eventually sold for a fraction of that amount. (The marriage itself also proved dysfunctional.)

When I explored Dobroyd’s rambling corridors, servant’s quarters and amazing Victorian features, including a lovely twin grand staircase, it was used as a Buddhist retreat. The monks have since left and these days it is run as an activity centre for youngsters. One suspects Fielden might have approved.

The other building that brought me to these parts has also had a new lease of life. Grade II Woodhouse Mill was built in 1833 alongside the Rochdale Canal, but by the 1980s it had become derelict. Its parlous condition - windowless and missing a roof and a wall - was matched by scores of other defunct mills across Yorkshire. Indeed many had already been destroyed by fire or demolished. Few people it seemed had the foresight to see how they could be converted into desirable places for people to live and work.

Oddly, the saviour of Woodhouse Mill was a man who made his fortune in demolishing buildings. Explosives expert and engineer Charles Moran took on the job of restoration at a cost of £2million, employing six stone masons to ensure a sensitive outcome. From the brink of collapse, the five storey building was transformed into an aspirational place to live, drawing distinctiveness from its 170-year history and bold industrial architecture.

I’m glad to say there seems to have been a change of attitude among developers, with more of them realising old textile mills are assets, not eyesores, which can be part of braver urban future where past and present work together.

Overall my impression is that Todmorden on the move. It’s within easy reach of Leeds and Manchester and has become a refuge from both for commuters who want to escape city life. Recently the town hosted its first ever book festival and the amazing lamplighter parade saw exotic lanterns illuminate the streets. That almost proves my point - Todmorden stands in no one’s shadow.