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.
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.