Vancouver, moving on

It felt like the end of an era when I left Vancouver BC – nothing to do with me personally, but because the city’s three-term mayor Gregor Robertson had announced that he would be standing down after ten years in office. Still absurdly young and good-looking (he was a proto-Justin Trudeau, and like him is known just by his first name), he presided over an era in which Vancouver became known as one of the planet’s most desirable places to live, with its amazing sea-and-skiing setting, its lively culture, its innovative bars and restaurants, its wealth of cycle lanes… But being perpetually atop the world liveability rankings does mean that the whole world wants to move there, and housing in Vancouver has become absurdly expensive, partly because a lot of wealthy Chinese in particular have invested in grand homes which are then often left empty. In 2017 the city introduced a tax on empty houses, and the province of British Columbia introduced a 15% tax on non-residents buying property. Meanwhile, the federal government has just increased the annual immigration rate from 280,000 a year to 340,000 by 2020, and the Metro Vancouver area is expected to see between 1 million and 1.2 million new residents over the next 30 years.

Not surprisingly there’s a homelessness crisis – Robertson pledged to end it, but soon found that the mild winter climate, among other things, meant that Canada’s homeless will just keep on moving west. This is linked with the opioid addiction crisis that is sweeping North America (to the bafflement of the rest of the world), and the fact that the provincial and federal governments were controlled for much of his time in office by unsympathetic right-wing parties (thankfully now removed). The Downtown Eastside district, very close to the city centre and yes, just to the east, has been associated with drugs for a long time, and is now being ravaged by the opioid crisis; between January and September 2017 over 1100 people died of suspected overdoses in British Columbia (mainly in the Vancouver area and Vancouver island), and the synthetic opioid Fentanyl was involved in 83% of those deaths.

But there’s no denying that something special has been created here – ‘Vancouverism’ is ‘characterized by a large population living in the city centre with mixed-use developments, …significant reliance on mass public transit, creation and maintenance of green park spaces, and preserving view corridors’. In other words, a city where people don’t feel the need to travel by car and live in the suburbs (it’s also very multicultural, but that’s another matter). So it’s no surprise that public transport is busy and expanding – frequencies and service hours are being increased on buses (including the B-Line express routes), the SeaBus ferry to North Vancouver (now every ten minutes at peak times) and the Skytrain automated metro. Now that Skytrain has reached the airport (though with a stonking add-on fare) the next priority has to be to serve UBC, the university that’s the size of a separate town on the coast southwest of the city, which is reached by frequent but overcrowded buses. Skytrain’s Millennium Line (which currently dead-ends in the middle of some railway yards at VCC/Clark) is to be extended west along Broadway as far as Arbutus St (in trendy Kitsilano), less than halfway to UBC, perhaps by 2024. The existing Skytrain lines are largely elevated, apart from some old railway routes, but this extension will largely be in tunnel, and thus much more expensive. There’s an aspiration to eventually push the Skytrain all the way to UBC, but that’s a long way off.

Vancouver’s equivalent to London’s Oyster Card is the Compass Card, introduced in 2015; after some teething problems, it’s working well, and allows hassle-free transfers and much cheaper fares than for cash.

Another aspect of Robertson’s legacy (omitted from the definition of ‘Vancouverism’ above) is a huge expansion in cycle facilities – the ten years to 2016 saw a rise in Greater Vancouver’s cycle-commuting rate from 1.7% to 2.3%, and in the city itself the rate is 6.1%. Hardly Dutch levels, but pretty good by North American standards. There’s also a high level of leisure cycling – the one-way loop around Stanley Park is legendary, and by June 2018 a new route should follow the coast from the Burrard Bridge through Kitsilano (‘Kits’) to Jericho Beach, giving a total of 28km of safe cycling from the downtown Convention Centre much of the way to UBC. Incidentally, the pedestrian/cycle promenade around the Convention Centre has some excellent panels with fascinating nuggets of historical information; you also get one of the quintessential Vancouver views here, with the cruise terminal to the right, the mountains and ski slopes of North Vancouver ahead, and Stanley Park and Coal Harbour (where the seaplanes and the V2V fast ferry mentioned in this post dock) to the left.


The cycle route to Jericho Beach mentioned above passes through Vanier Park, where the Museum of Vancouver has been revitalised in recent years. Like most of the Pacific North West museums, it now gives the First Nations their rightful place in local history, helped by recent research that’s revealed much more about their civilisations. It’s important to remember that, thanks to the plentiful salmon runs, these peoples had a much easier life than those inland, allowing them the leisure to develop a rich artistic culture, characterised by their ‘formline’ style of decoration on carvings and textiles. But it’s less well known that artistic production really exploded in scale after the arrival of Europeans created a retail market for the first time. Totem poles used to be pretty temporary constructions, their natural rotting and collapsing being part of the memorial process, but now far more are being made and they’re being preserved. What’s more, new crafts developed, such as argillite carving in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), and Salish basket weaving (previously the Salish people had just made hats). The best-known example, though not represented here, is Cape Dorset printmaking, which was created out of the blue in the 1950s when a government administrator in Baffin Island brought in materials and encouraged the Inuit people to discover their creativity.

The museum also has good coverage of the 1960s, when a popular uprising blocked a very destructive plan to build freeways through Gastown and Chinatown, linking to a third crossing to North Vancouver, when all the politicians were initially in favour. In 1972 a new party called TEAM (The Electors Action Movement) took control of the city council, eventually leading to Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson, which is where we started. Oh, and in 1969 a little pressure group called Greenpeace was formed in a Vancouver living room.

I don’t have a lot to say about food and drink here, but the current food fad is poké, a rice and fish bowl combo from Japan via Hawai’i which I don’t find very interesting (because I don’t eat meat or fish, and rice often doesn’t agree with me). I’d have been far more interested in sampling the many good local beers, but didn’t get around to it. Canada’s first microbrewery was founded at the Troller Bay pub in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, back in 1982 when nothing but industrial lagers were available; it closed down around 2000, but only after spawning other very successful outfits such as Spinnakers and Hoyne Brewing (both in Victoria), Howe Sound Brewing (in Squamish) and Strange Fellows Brewing Company (in Vancouver). In 2013 the Troller Ale House opened close to the original pub, serving the original Troller Bay Ale as well as offerings from local craft breweries.  Of course, every bar in the city now carries a range of interesting beers and ciders, not to mention gins.

More on Victoria and around

Further to my previous post on Victoria BC, I want to add an update on more specific infrastructure-related matters, and also to mention the Saanich Peninsula, immediately to the north of the city. The big event while I was there was the arrival on a barge of the main span of the long-awaited new Johnson Street Bridge – the current bridge is a major bottleneck (carrying about 23,000 motor vehicles a day, 4000 pedestrians and 3000 cyclists – 3500 in summer). It’s particularly fearsome for cyclists since the original wooden deck was replaced in 1966 by steel latticework, so that water would drain and not add weight to the lifting span; it now gets slippery, with the added thrill of the view of the Inner Harbour below, and it’s not easy to see the lane markings. After many years of campaigning the city agreed to fund a new bridge, costed at C$53m in 2009; it will in fact have cost C$105m, despite having been gradually de-scoped, but nevertheless half its width will be for pedestrians and cyclists, with on-road cycle lanes, an off-road shared-use track and a pedestrian-only footway. Anyway, it should be open in March 2018.

The old and new Johnson Street Bridges

Almost half the cost of the bridge is coming from the federal government, which is also paying big bucks for highway improvements, such as a big interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway to serve the rapidly growing suburb of Langford, but people are beginning to think that there may be better options than constantly adding to the road network, and hence to the traffic levels. For one thing, the former rail line is still available west from the Johnson Street Bridge – it was a miracle it kept working as long as it did, with a single railcar trundling out from Victoria in the mornings and back in the afternoons (yes, the wrong way around), but it could be used for an effective LRT service, with modern trams running frequently from the new suburbs as far as the bridge, if not across it. The Greater Victoria area is already well served by buses (some of which are nice new air-conditioned double-deckers), although I’ve never seen so many showing ‘Out of Service’ messages (or ‘Out / Of / Svc‘, or just ‘Off’). The ticketing system has recently changed, with free transfers (a North American custom) abolished – now you pay C$2.50 for a ride or C$5 for a day-pass. But it’s possible to buy a strip of ten tickets at some grocery stores for C$22.50, and you can give the driver two of these for a day-pass (ie $4.50). As yet there are no moves towards an Oyster-style smart card, although that is working well in Vancouver, after a lot of teething problems.

The other way to go is of course by bike, and new segregated cycle lanes are being built in the city centre and elsewhere. The new lanes on Pandora St seem to have boosted cycle numbers on the Johnson St bridge, even though it’s far less cycle-friendly than the one opening in March, and the Dobosala Cantina at 760 Pandora is installing a cycle-through serving window! This is a good place to cycle, as drivers are just ridiculously law-abiding and polite, and positively desperate to stop and let pedestrians and cyclists cross; more than anywhere, a mandatory helmet law seems pointless here. Saanich Municipality, immediately north of downtown Victoria, built (and paved) a good trail system to celebrate its centenary in 2006, and while the more rural municipalities of Central and North Saanich have done less, there’s still the lovely Lochside Trail on a former railway up the east side of the peninsula. It’s possible to make a loop via the cycle track around the airport and the Interurban Tail, also on a former railway on the west side of the peninsula, but that’s much more patchy and requires more riding on busyish roads. The Lochside Trail also connects to the Galloping Goose Regional Trail, another former railway running 55km west from Victoria to Sooke. Between 2011 and 2016 cycling levels rose 16% in the CRD, and from 5.4% to 6.3% in Saanich – the proportion commuting regularly by bike in the CRD grew from 5.9% to 6.6%, which is pretty high for North America.

Just off the Lochside Trail

As I noted in my previous post, many people walk daily, and new trails are being built and new pieces of parkland opened up to link them. The Sea to Sea Green Blue Belt is a corridor of protected green space between the Saanich Inlet and the Juan de Fuca Strait near Sooke, within which the Sea to Sea Regional Park Reserve is a large wilderness area that’s home to bears, wolves and cougars. It’s not continuous, but parcels of land are being bought as available. It’s also worth mentioning that the Trans-Canada Trail – an amazing project linking the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and passing through this area to finish in Victoria – is now branding itself as The Great Trail.

Also on the transport front, there’s the new V2V fast ferry service between Victoria and Vancouver harbours; it takes 3 hours and their cheapest fare (known as Premium?!) is C$110; this compares with four and a half hours on the BC Ferries Connector service ($66.58) or $21.50 for a DIY version of the same route using public buses and the ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen ($2.75 more if you catch a bus in Vancouver before 18.30 Monday to Friday). The priciest option, but one that I absolutely have to try one day, is one of the seaplanes that one constantly sees buzzing in and out of the harbours – Harbour Air charge from $119 for the 35-minute hop. One day I’ll do it! You can also fly from Vancouver Airport to Victoria Airport, but that doesn’t make much sense except as a long-haul connection.

The Steamship Building, the former ferry terminal on Victoria Harbour, re-opened in 2013 as the Robert Bateman Centre, showing the works of the very successful wildlife painter and conservationist Robert Bateman (b.1930). It’s close to the Royal BC Museum, which I’m glad to say is still as amazing as I recall from my childhood. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, slightly out of the way to the east of the centre, is smallish but perfectly formed – as well as its famous collection by local artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), it has excellent contemporary and First Nations art, and a Japanese garden and shrine.

Actually, in a way the most exciting development for me was that the Anna’s hummingbird now stays here all year – it’s always been one of the unique features of this part of the world, but only in summer. For the last couple of decades it seems they’ve been over-wintering, due not only to the warming climate and the plentiful nectar feeders in gardens, but also to their ability to go into a state of torpor when it gets cold (reducing their metabolic rate up to 300-fold and breathing six times a minute instead of 250 times) and, it seems, to the spread of eucalyptus trees in California – although I can’t quite see how that helps them if they’re no longer migrating there.

Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula

The Saanich Peninsula was surveyed and sold to settlers in 1859, immediately after the 1858 Gold Rush that kick-started Victoria’s development. It remained a patchwork of forest and farms (and Anglican churches, dating from the 1860s) until relatively recently. Although parts are still surprisingly rural, it’s increasingly affected by suburban sprawl – though it’s a relatively elderly population, concerned about Medical Assistance in Dying laws and the facilities at Saan Pen Hospital. The only real town is Sidney, on the eastern side, which was linked to Victoria by rail from 1894 (closed in 1935). Now Victoria International Airport (created as an air force training base in 1939) sprawls across the width of the peninsula immediately west of the town, with one runway on the line of the rail branch to Patricia Bay, the seaplane base on the west shore (the modern Pat Bay Highway to Sidney and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal runs up the east side, oddly enough). It was named after Princess Patricia of Connaught, daughter of the Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916 – the Princess Pats (Canada’s most famous infantry regiment, properly Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), was also named after her when it was raised in 1914; like her grandmother, Queen Victoria, she was long-lived, serving as colonel-in-chief for 60 years.

Sidney is still a quiet town, proud of its walkability (although it also provides huge free car parks – and doesn’t do much for cycling) and is Canada’s only Book Town – it has half a dozen bookshops, the oldest dating from 1947, so before Russell’s and Munro’s in Victoria (see my previous post) – but, to be honest, not nearly as good. Victoria Distillers (owned by a family friend) are on the waterfront, offering excellent tours and tasting opportunities (check out the gin that changes colour as you add tonic). Like the craft breweries, distillers here feel freer than those in the old country to create interesting combinations (and not just gin, but rum and whisky too), and their cocktail baristas follow suit with their creative mixes.

There are also various wineries on the peninsula that welcome tourists, and I was impressed by Sea Cider, by the Pat Bay Highway on the edge of Saanichton, which makes an excellent range of organic ciders and has a lovely tasting room and deck with views across the water to Mount Baker, a volcano that’s actually in the USA but is the iconic sight of this part of Vancouver Island.

Mount Baker from Sidney

 

Tbilisi – lots for the new mayor to do

Tbilisi is a lovely, fascinating city, with its mix of cultures, cuisines and architecture, but it is also horribly congested and polluted, due above all to its population’s addiction to cheap and filthy second-hand cars, imported from Europe and Japan (many of them are right-hand-drive, which given the urgency of every Georgian driver’s need to overtake is also very dangerous). I wrote an open letter to the mayor in the pages of Georgia Today on my last visit, three years ago, and the city’s problems have only got worse since then. So I’ve written a new one (below).

Georgia held local elections on Saturday (21 October 2017), for mayors and councils, and Tbilisi elected a new mayor (the old one went off to be ambassador to Germany). The new mayor is Kakha Kaladze, who was captain of Georgia’s soccer team for many years and a key player for AC Milan. Since retiring he has been a leading figure in the Georgian Dream coalition, which was set up with the specific aim of removing the barnstorming and increasingly authoritarian president Mikheil Saakashvili from power. It was led and funded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was prime minister for a year before handing over the office but keeping the power behind the scenes. It’s a strange situation for a country to be in. Kaladze impressed as deputy prime minister and energy minister, I’m told, working hard to master an unfamiliar brief, until resigning in July 2017 to campaign for mayor.

I keep hearing the same old complaint here that ‘our politicians are all useless, they never do anything for us’ – and it’s true, they’re not producing any of Saakashvili’s grandstanding projects, but it’s quite wrong to say that the government is doing nothing – in a month of travelling around the country I’ve seen roads being built and paved, railway tunnels being excavated, gas supplies being brought to more villages, and museums and theatres closed for major refurbishments. Of course, what people really want is a massive boost to the economy and some serious job creation – and tourism is booming, with guesthouses and hotels bursting at the seams this summer and many more being built. In foreign policy, the government has managed to keep a balance between looking west and not annoying Russia. So what more do people want from their government? I was fascinated to see that the Czechs have also this week elected the billionaire oligarch Andrej Babis to lead their government. Is this all part of the same rebellious phenomenon which led to Brexit and Trump? But in fact the Georgian Dream, having comprehensively outspent the other parties, managed to win just over 50% of the vote in most cities, conveniently avoiding the need for run-off elections.

Anyway, here’s the article (also – with a couple of minor cuts – on the Georgia Today website) – I’ve added a few photos here :

 

Dear Mayor Kaladze, congratulations on your election and the best of luck in your new job. Now it’s time to get to work! I am the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia and I am currently in Georgia researching the 6th edition of this book. Three years ago I wrote your predecessor, Davit Narmania, an open letter in this newspaper pointing out various problems with Tbilisi’s streets and its transport system and suggesting some ways to tackle them. Very little has been done since then, and the fundamental problem, the addiction of the Tbiliselebis to their cars, has clearly got worse.

There are various reasons for this, but one is that there is absolutely no real enforcement of parking restrictions and other traffic laws – people leave their vehicles wherever they want, on footways, in the middle of roadworks, blocking disabled access points. This is illegal, and in June 2016 your predecessor promised to clear the pavements/sidewalks of parked cars by September of that year – you’ll have noticed that this did not happen. It is simply a matter of enforcement – we know that the Georgian police can be reformed more or less overnight, and they have recently managed to crack down effectively on drinking and driving. I think it’s time to do it again – instead of driving around with loudhailers telling stopped drivers to move on, they should enforce laws against using phones while driving, not wearing seatbelts (sitting on the lapbelt does not count), red-light jumping and speeding – and above all ticket, clamp or tow cars that are parked on the footways and sidewalks. The points-based driving licence is a good start, but only if the police actually take an interest in these offences. And while you’re at it, tell them not to drive around with their emergency lights flashing – otherwise what have you got when it’s a real emergency? As in so many cases, Georgia needs to look at basic standard practice in the countries to the west. Somewhere like, oh, maybe Milano.

The problem, of course, is not just traffic congestion, the fact that it takes so long to get anywhere and then there’s nowhere to park when you get there, it’s also that it’s almost impossible to cycle in Tbilisi or to go out in a wheelchair, and it’s also the fact that the city’s air is foul and dangerous. Georgia has become a repository for Europe’s crappiest worn-out cars – half of the cars in Tbilisi are apparently over 20 years old, and every day another 170 cars enter Georgia, 130 of which are over ten years old. Naturally these are filthy – and as I’m sure you know, an International Energy Agency study identified Georgia as having the world’s highest mortality rate due to air pollution (household and outdoor) in 2012. I was astonished to hear that air pollution is checked at just three sites in Tbilisi, and not 24 hours a day (and that the government roadworthiness test was actually voluntary for over ten years). At least the government is finally acting to restrict the imports of right-hand-drive cars, which are obviously accidents waiting to happen.

The absence of an effective city planning system also creates huge problems – not just the aesthetic impact of out-of-place tower blocks suddenly appearing in residential districts, but also the number of vehicles that suddenly have to use those narrow residential streets, and to find parking spaces – not to mention the pollution caused by the construction process. And the city has to stop selling plots of land off for one Lari – whether to Bidzina Ivanishvili or anyone else, it doesn’t matter, but this just feeds the chaos. Roadworks are another disaster area in the city – I couldn’t believe that pedestrians had been forced to walk right on Rustaveli Avenue without any protective

barriers for the years that the Galleria has been under construction! It’s very easy to oblige contractors to install signs and barriers. Again, look at standard practice to the west.

 

In July 2017 your predecessor produced a Green City Action Plan, aiming to control congestion and construction, to improve bus services (including continuing to replace the old yellow buses with blue ones fuelled by compressed natural gas, as well as introducing bus lanes and bus-priority traffic lights), and to produce a cycling strategy. I live in Cambridge, where over a quarter of the population cycles to work, and this is not unusual across Western Europe. Obviously the kilometre-long cycle track on Pekini Avenue has attracted some derision, with people asking how on earth they’re meant to get to it, but do please stick with it! Yes, a cycling strategy has to be about getting people from door to door, on safe roads throughout, but it’s also important to have some visible headline projects to spread the message. But why is there no indication whether cycling is permitted in the contraflow bus lane on Davit Agmashenebelis? Why is there no cycle route through Rikhe Park, or behind the Public Service Hall – and indeed why can’t we have a riverside route the whole length of the city? Having double three-lane highways on either side of the Mtkvari just feeds the city’s car addiction.

But the first and simplest thing to do is to install cycle parking across the city (but especially at schools and universities) – and proper Sheffield Stands, please, not those thin things we see in a few places now that don’t actually support a bike.

In my letter of three years ago, I asked why so many buses terminated at Baratashvilis Street – couldn’t they be linked up to allow longer more useful journeys that people are currently using cars for? Likewise for the routes terminating at Orbeliani Square – link them up! Keep them moving! But alas, I see nothing has changed – I was at Ortachala the other day, wanting to go to Chugureti – but every single bus was going to Baratashvilis Street. Luckily I was able to change on the embankment to route 31, going to Station Square. And where did it go? To Baratashvilis Street! And then the whole length of Rustaveli, and not to the Marjanishvilis Bridge but all the way to the Circus and Tamar Mepe – so I had quite a walk back to where I wanted to be. I know the ticket inspectors like to do all their checks at Baratashvilis St, but that’s really no reason for all the buses to go there.

At least the airport bus (route 37) is now operated by the bigger new blue buses, a huge help to all the people just trying to get from Rustaveli to Avlabari without waiting at Baratashvilis St. Speaking of the airport, the train is utterly pointless at the moment (I was the only passenger going all the way when I tried it out) – to be any use it has to run hourly (calling at Samgori and Didube for metro and marshrutka connections) to say Gori. If you were really ambitious you could look for a Park-and-Ride site near Mtskheta.

I also mentioned Galaction Tabidze as an example of how NOT to do pedestrianisation – the recently pedestrianised east end of Davit Agmashenebelis is a far better piece of work, so could you please now go back to Tabidze and fix it?

 

 

 

 

 

And I haven’t even mentioned rubbish and recycling! You have lots to do, Mayor Kaladze – good luck!

 

Tod and Heb

You may already be aware that Hebden Bridge is the Totnes of the North (I mean the North of England), with its organic veg shops, its organic reiki practitioners, its organic… well, a bit like Glastonbury but without the crystals. You may not be aware that Todmorden is the new Hebden Bridge, now that property in Hebden Bridge has become relatively unaffordable – after the cotton mills closed in the 1970s they were originally squatted by artists and hippies but now they’ve been converted to cool lofts for media types commuting to Manchester. Todmorden is just four miles up Calderdale, one stop closer to Manchester by train or a pleasant cycle ride along the Rochdale Canal. As with Hebden Bridge, it has gritty industrial buildings, lots of independent shops, an independent bookshop (there aren’t many of those left these days, thanks to Amazon, so to have two towns so close each with its own bookshop is amazing); in fact there are very few chain shops at all apart from the Boots pharmacy.

Both benefit from remarkably good public transport services, with pretty frequent trains on the Manchester-Halifax-Leeds axis, and buses that reach the smallest hamlets, it seems, as well as running constantly up and down the Calder Valley. And they both have tourist information centres too, the Hebden Bridge one still professionally run, the Todmorden one run by volunteers and supported by its Friends, who pay £10 or more a year to keep it going.

Even though Hebden Bridge is in the Rough Guide to Yorkshire and Todmorden isn’t, Todmorden is not necessarily second-best, a pale copy of Hebden Bridge – it was for instance the birthplace in 2007 of Incredible Edible, now a global network of groups building communities through growing and talking about food. It all started with runner beans planted secretly outside a disused health centre, and vegetable plots with Help Yourself signs. Now commuters pick herbs at the railway station as they head home, there are vegetable gardens along the canal and outside the police station – and the police report that vandalism is down. There’s even a fish farm at a village school. One crucial idea was the community growing licence dreamed up by the council’s director of communities – now people can apply for a licence to plant on council land and as if by magic the council has less waste ground to care for.

Remarkably, there are two excellent vegetarian cafés immediately next to each other in the centre of Todmorden, the Old Co-op and the (slightly better, it seems) Káva. I’m also hearing good things about The White Rabbit, a Modern British restaurant with vegan choices and vegetarian tasting menus. However Todmorden doesn’t seem to have any particularly good pubs (the Queen Hotel and Wetherspoons’ White Hart are decent enough), and you have to go to Hebden Bridge to find West Yorkshire’s first pub co-op, the Fox and Goose, on Heptonstall Road, and Calan’s micro-pub (closed Tuesdays) in the central pedestrian zone.

Hebden Bridge also does better in the cultural stakes, with its Picture House (since 1921; cash only, no booking), the Little Theatre, the Trades Club and the Hippodrome (rechristened the Hipper Drome, and home to the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival and similarly metropolitan entertainments); there are lots of festivals too.

Stoodley Pike monument (1815, to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars)

I visited with my friend Rob (who was with me cycling in Taiwan; he’s blogged about Hebden Bridge too), and we stayed at Mankinholes youth hostel, which is up a hill to the south, closer to Todmorden but easily reached from Hebden Bridge. It’s a good base for walking, with Stoodley Pike and the Pennine Way just above, but we used it as a base for cycling, with some very pleasant loop routes over to Burnley or down to Halifax. There’s plenty of information elsewhere (including GPS trails and so on), so suffice it to say that there’s a great range of rides available, from 70-mile road rides with several big climbs to family pootles along the canal. There’s no wifi at the hostel, but it’s a pleasant stroll from the hostel to the Top Brink pub in Lumbutts for a pint and an online catch-up.

I’ve never seen so much Victorian plumbing (actually stone spillways) to get excess water out of the canal, but it’s definitely needed, as there were serious floods here in 2000, 2012 and 2015, and they’re still making good the damage. Even so, the spillways are an impediment to cycling, requiring regular dismounting.

One nice loop ride was to follow the Rochdale Canal to Littleborough, via the highest broad canal lock in Britain (just 14m below the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s summit, which is 197m above sea level), then a steady climb to Blackstone Edge Reservoir and then the longest unbroken descent in Britain, 8km or five and a half miles down Cragg Vale to Mytholmroyd. Obviously it’s tempting to charge straight down, but you could also take a one-mile (each way) detour to The Craggs Country Business Park, New Road, home to a branch of Hebden Bridge’s excellent Blazing Saddles bike shop and to Craggies café-deli-butchers, offering great lunches and cakes etc, and also the products of the two breweries that share the business park. Cyclists with lightweight bikes and lycra naturally prefer to ride up Cragg Vale, but that’s too much like hard work for us.

Next time I’ll make a point of getting to the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags and the information centre/café at Gibson Mill, just north of Hebden Bridge, via Heptonstall, which features frequently on film and TV. I might also take a look at Gaddings Dam, on the moor just above Mankinholes – built in 1833 to supply water to the mills of Lumbutts and long disused, it was rescued in 2001 by a local group determined to preserve Britain’s highest beach – yes, it’s usually freezing, but being shallow it can warm up nicely in high summer.