Yorkshire mill town weaves new life

A busker plays in St George's Square, the focal point of Hebden Bridge. Picture: Steve McKenna

Arm in arm, the striking young female couple - one half with spiky green hair, the other with a purple mohawk - mosey past The White Lion, a 17th century coaching inn-cum-gastropub and boutique hotel.

Across the road, a pair of besuited 20-something businessmen with 1950s-style quiffs pass a dreadlocked busker playing Oasis tunes on his acoustic guitar.

Shuffling beside them are three perm-haired sexagenarians who are struggling to keep their boisterous, shaggy-haired grandchildren in check.

The kids are eyeing a toyshop set in a beautifully preserved but long-defunct cotton mill smothered in greenery; the grandmothers are inching towards cobbled streets lined with stone terraces housing local- produce stores, organic delis, artsy- craft joints, trendy cafes, bookshops, cosmopolitan restaurants, cosy tearooms and a few good ol' fish and chippies.

This is Hebden Bridge, one of England's funkiest little towns. It's nestled in a valley in the South Pennines - the windswept hills that roll between Manchester and Leeds.

While economic depression gripped swathes of the north following the demise of its once-mighty textile and coalmining industries, this once-dying mill town reinvented itself as a beacon of alternative living; a quirky commuter hub where artists, writers, hippies and new-age gurus rub shoulders with teachers, estate agents and earthy Yorkshire folk whose families have lived here for generations and are proud to "speak as they find".

With Manchester and Leeds just 45 minutes away by rail, tourists come too, drawn by Hebden's charming natural setting, cultural heritage and left-field vibe, which encourages ethical, eco-friendly policies (like the banning of plastic bags and the promotion of Fairtrade products). There's also a notable lack of the chain stores that have turned much of Britain into a conglomeration of cloned towns.

Formerly nicknamed Fustianopolis and Trouser Town, Hebden has, in recent years, been labelled the Hampstead of the North, the Cotswolds with Cojones, the Lesbian Capital of Britain or "tantamount to Sodom and Gomorrah" to local boy Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Ingham has criticised some of Hebden's more liberal leanings but recently said: "I've seen most of the world (with the exception of New Zealand because Mrs Thatcher didn't want to go there on the one occasion when we could have gone) and I still think Hebden Bridge is one of the prettiest towns anywhere."

It's hard to disagree as I stroll beside the town's two rivers, cross the photogenic stone 500-year-old Packhorse Bridge and enjoy a pint by the Rochdale Canal, the once- thriving trans-Pennine waterway, which still carries cruise barges.

Of the town's array of independent stores, I'm drawn to Feathergills Emporium. Fronting on to St George's Square, this engaging apothecary is crammed with antiques and vintage memorabilia, including a sign advertising Baldwin's Nervous Pills. Dating back to 1883, the pills pledged to cure "nervousness, irritability of temper, fear, dread, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholy, disturbed sleep, insomnia and all nerve pains and diseases".

While Hebden is, in its own inimitable way, quintessentially English, Australians may see elements of Daylesford and Nimbin here, especially during July's annual Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, an eclectic feast of drama, comedy, literature, music, theatre and street entertainment.

Traditional attractions remain strong, however.

Edging town, the Pennines are a walkers' (and painters') delight, with trails scaling hills and through secluded wooded valleys rich in birdlife, flowers and industrial relics (including disused weaving mills).

Literary lovers can follow in the footsteps of some legendary scribes. Britain's ex-poet laureate Ted Hughes was born in nearby Mytholmroyd, while his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in the graveyard at Heptonstall, an old weaving village perched above Hebden.

It is a slightly enervating walk up. But, thanks to the panoramic Pennine vistas and Heptonstall's atmospheric cobbled streets, it is definitely worth it. I reward myself with a milky mug of tea and a bacon sarnie at the village tearoom.

North of Hebden Bridge, Bronte Country looms. You can explore the brooding landscapes immortalised in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights - and visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum, set in the home that Emily shared with her writer sisters Charlotte and Anne.

  • fact file *

·Hebden Bridge's community website is a mine of information on the town, with suggestions on places in which to eat, drink and sleep.

·Trains run between Manchester Victoria and Leeds about twice an hour, stopping at Hebden Bridge. See

·For more on visiting Britain, go to

Tourists come too, drawn by Hebden's charming natural setting, cultural heritage and left-field vibe.