The stuff of poetry amid the gritstone

Mark Turner of Pennine Prospects and community archaeologist Louise Brown on the moors above Hebden Bridge.
Mark Turner of Pennine Prospects and community archaeologist Louise Brown on the moors above Hebden Bridge.
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The South Pennines are not as well known as our National Parks but a European award from Placido Domingo would put the area on the map. Michael Hickling reports.

Louise Brown pauses on the steep track and kneels down to examine a boulder of millstone grit. To the untutored eye, it’s an unexceptional lump of rock but for the professional archaeologist it bears an imprint of history.

She points out a couple of marks on the rugged surface that suggest someone once tried to split this boulder. From the evidence, Louise thinks the workman used a “plug and feathers” method, hammering a metal wedge between two metal shims driven into a drilled hole.

It’s a technique that been around since the Egyptians and what we are gazing at on this tussocky moorside may be the abandoned handiwork of some ancient builder. Who would have thought so humdrum an object, casually encountered, could be so significant in opening a door on the past?

To reach this spot we had climbed from Hebden Bridge to Stoodley Pike, a stark, black monument erected by local businessmen to celebrate the downfall of Napoleon. It’s a rare spring day, sunny and warm, and the view north across the Calder Valley is a panorama of dramatic folds of high country stretching up the spine of England.

It’s miraculous and it’s a picture that chimes with a description by a local man from Mytholmroyd, a town lying below us down the valley. Ted Hughes wrote in one of his poems that these moors, which he roamed widely as a boy, were stages for the performance of heaven.

On this heavenly day community archaeologist Louise Brown is making a nature ramble twice as interesting by revealing the story of the landscape through the marks left by our ancestors. This is an area whose natural resources have been worked and reworked time out of mind; people have settled and shifted and settled again as their needs and the changing climate dictated.

Louise comes from Wiltshire but she studied in Bradford and is now a committed evangelist for the South Pennines. So successful has she been in spreading the word she will shortly be off to Athens with hopes of collecting a European award from Placido Domingo.

Her enthusiasm has galvanised teams of locals, mostly retirees, to sign up for lessons on how to be an archaeologist and dig into the past of their own locality. The data from their investigations now provides an invaluable body of knowledge available to other professional specialists as an online archive.

Louise’s efforts played a part in the South Pennines becoming a winner in the Education, Training and Awareness-raising category in the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/ Europa Nostra Awards.

There are 30 winners already and, at a ceremony in Athens later this month, the South Pennines may receive additional honours. They are in the running to be one of six Grand Prix winners announced by the president of Europa Nostra, Placido Domingo and could also lift the public choice award, based on an online poll.

If the area does receive the thumbs up in Athens, then the 250 member organisations which make up Europa Nostra (a Europe-wide heritage lobbying organisation) may have a clearer idea of what the South Pennines is actually all about than we do.

We might guess it’s the border country, those remote and once hostile badlands where the red rose contended with the white. But does it have a discrete identity of its own?

The fact is it has several, all recognised worldwide. These are the landscape of the Brontës and of Last of the Summer Wine. It is not short of famous eulogists either. As well as Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage is closely identified with the area of his birth.

Geologically, its millstone grit is an extension of the Dark Peak and it is defined by a watershed. Water floated the economic boat when three canals were cut and the area was re-shaped again when the fastest growing cities in the world – Manchester, Bradford and Leeds – grew ever thirstier. The result is the densest collection of reservoirs in the UK.

The allegiances of the people who live here are probably more local than most. But there is growing common ground between even the most rabid Yorkshire and Lancashire chauvinists.

It’s what Pennine Prospects has been seeking to cultivate for the past eight years. The diplomatic skills within this organisation – a partnership of local authorities and public, private and voluntary bodies – must be considerable. It gets three Yorkshire councils and three from Lancashire to work together for the common good.

Pennine Prospects’ offices stand beside the Rochdale Canal in Hebden Bridge. A blown-up photograph on the wall of the office of chief executive Mark Turner, says all there is to say about their mission.

It’s a picture of the canal in Hebden Bridge in the 1980s which shows a town not so much down on its luck as bombed-out. Today that identical viewpoint from Mark Turner’s window shows a picture which has no trace of a shabby working canal. Instead, there’s a leisure water asset, all pretty boats, serenity and scenery.

A government review in the 1940s considered recommending the South Pennines as a National Park, but concluded its mills made it too industrial. Mark Turner is wary: “Every now and again the idea for a South Pennine National Park is floated,” he says. “I worry that you’d lose the South Pennine identity, so I’d say be careful what you wish for. This area has a lot to offer. We should celebrate it for what it is and not think about what it isn’t. If AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty) status was available we’d be interested.”

Mark, an Aston Villa supporter from Birmingham who lives in Manchester, is as passionate about the South Pennines as Louise Brown. Its vibrancy probably owes a lot to the energy brought by incomers like this.

Academics have also found the handy rail access and the interesting stone-built houses to their liking. “Todmorden is only 20 minutes from Manchester,” says Mark. “I think if the railways ever stop, the universities on either side of the Pennines will grind to a halt.”

This influx from academia has also made once inward looking places open to radical new green ideas. Todmorden has reinvented itself as a destination for “vegetable tourism” under the umbrella of an outfit called Incredible Edible founded by Pam Warhurst, now the chairman of Pennine Prospects.

Nearby Marsden has picked up on the Todmorden food model and other towns also see the economic benefits.

In the window of the tourist information centre in Hebden Bridge, newly-reopened after the ravages of floods this year, is a bottle of beer labelled Light Twite. In marketing terms it kills two birds with one stone.

The twite, a small dun-coloured bird of the finch family, used to breed in a dozen counties but is now only found in the South Pennines where about 100 breeding pairs remain. To try and revive it, the equivalent of about 120 football pitches have been re-seeded by volunteers with plants that twite like.

The work is part of the overarching Watershed Landscape project which has so far harnessed the energies of 1,300 volunteers and caught the imagination of 1,700 pupils at 36 schools.

Twite Light also draws attention to the fact that microbreweries are one of the area’s other big success stories. It claims to have to have more of them, 38, per square kilometre than anywhere else in the country.

The South Pennines is the backdrop for the second stage of the Tour de France next year and Mark is working on inserts for the “Yellow Book”. This is a compendium of local facts and pictures made available to the journalists covering the tour. It’s aimed especially at those commentators operating from the half dozen tour helicopters who will need some facts to add to the aerial shots which will sell this moorland and these hillsides divided by deep wooded cloughs to the world.

Pennine Prospects have asked locals what words they would use to define the spirit of the area. The favourites included “independent”, “non-conformist”, “quirky” and “higgledy piggledy”.

Hebden Bridge is the place which started off the gentrification of the labouring Calder Valley a generation ago. It ticks all those boxes, although not where they have tried to improve on the original.

The creation of a central pedestrianised area has been achieved with a dull, off-the-peg sort makeover which lacks the sense of the unexpected which is the key to the charm of the town as a whole.

The railway station, however, is great. The station buffet shuts around 2pm but reopens on Friday night as a café bar.

It’s £1.90 here for a cappuccino of the size that costs £2.15 in Costa Coffee. Just before lunchtime closing, I ordered a filter coffee with milk.

“Half milk or whole?”

“Half please.” A half bottle of milk was placed on the counter with the invitation
to help myself. Hebden Bridge: a stage for the performance of quirkiness.