It’s early evening on a cold and miserable mid-December day. The rain is bouncing off the pavement and most people are getting ready to shut up shop and head home.
But amidst this gathering gloom the shimmering lights that adorn the street lamps and window displays offer a welcome dash of festive warmth.
Clinging to the verdant walls of the Calder Valley Hebden Bridge is a striking town in an even more striking location. Perhaps it’s this that fuels its long held independent streak and the off-kilter approach to life of many who live here.
It is a hardy place but also a hugely welcoming one and earlier this week it was crowned Best Small Market Town at the Great British High Street Awards, seeing off stiff competition, gratifyingly it must be said, from the likes of Chipping Norton and Thame.
It wasn’t the only Yorkshire winner either with Pateley Bridge, in Nidderdale, picking up the Best Village award. But what makes Hebden Bridge’s award all the more significant is that it comes just 12 months after the town was hit by the devastating Boxing Day floods.
As well as winning in the ‘Best Small Market’ town category, Hebden Bridge also received the special ‘People’s Choice’ Award for the most votes ever cast for one place in the history of the competition.
The fact that so many visitors purposely supported Hebden Bridge in the town’s hour of need has been a huge boost.
Many feared the worst after numerous shops were forced out of action, but the floods didn’t dampen the town’s resilience which has seen most of the businesses bounce back during the course of this year.
Helen Collins, owner of The Willow Garden, on New Road, has been running the boutique garden florists for 25 years and is delighted that the town has picked up the awards.
“It’s amazing that we’ve won and I think it shows what a great community we have here,” she says. “There’s a kind of village togetherness here, we’ve got more independent stores here than in most places and everyone looks out for each other.”
A large part of Hebden Bridge’s appeal is its difference. It might not have swanky shopping malls and luxury brands at eye-watering prices, but what it does have in abundance is artisan products that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. It’s also far removed from so many of our increasingly identikit town centres.
Heidi Rushton is co-owner of Rubyshoesday, which she runs on the popular Market Street with her business partner Vicky Butcher.
Their business has been going 10 years and Heidi believes the awards are vindication of the town’s independent spirit. “It’s absolutely brilliant and a real morale boost to the group of traders here. The fact so many people voted shows there’s a vested interest in keeping the town going and making sure it continues to be an interesting place.”
The number of independent shops is one of its big selling points. “Something people are always telling us is how they see less and less independent shops on the high street in other places, so the fact we have so many is one of our strengths.
“We try and seek out things that are different that you’re not going to find elsewhere and shopkeepers here work very hard to achieve that.”
The sense of community is also very important. “When my dad first came to visit he said it was like going back 50 years because all the shopkeepers know each other. The population here truly want it to be like that and are willing to invest their time and money to make it happen. People do shop locally and sometimes that needs to be a conscious effort because these days it’s so easy to go online.”
Heidi believes the town’s location, roughly halfway between Manchester and Leeds, helps, too. “There are people who commute and bring back money and visitors and they come here because we have something different to offer.”
A little further down on Market Street Ed Chadwick runs Snug gallery. He, too, is pleased that the town’s fortitude and ethos has been recognised.
“It’s a great spot because there’s so much diversity and for the town to go and win these awards is really positive, it raises people’s awareness about us so from our point of view it’s great news.”
His gallery was among the homes and businesses left under several feet of water after large parts of the town centre flooded last December.
“After what we had to cope with last Christmas and the recovery from all that this has been a nice boost. What happened has galvanised the town, we’ve had to show a lot of resilience and this feels like a bit of a reward for that resilience. We’ve bounced back and overcome adversity.”
Ed says what started off as a year fraught with uncertainty has ended on a high. “The flooding was awful for a lot of people and it was difficult to deal with but we knuckled down and got on with it.
“People were encouraged to come here and the support we’ve had this year has been phenomenal.
“It’s not all rose-tinted and there are issues just like anywhere else, but there’s a tangible sense of community spirit.”
Many towns would have struggled to get back on their feet and while some people have cut their losses and moved out, others have moved in to replace them.
Hebden Bridge is no stranger to flooding but what the events of last Christmas, and those during the summer of 2012, have done is strengthen what already were tight bonds between shop owners and local residents.
A town is only as good as the people who live there and in Hebden Bridge you see this ‘community spirit’ in action. You see it in the way people talk to one another and the way they help one another out. It’s an approach that not only deserves applauding it’s one we should be looking to replicate elsewhere.
“We’re a tenacious bunch,” says Ed. “There are a lot of small business owners in Hebden Bridge and we choose to live and work here for a reason. It’s a stunning environment, you’ve got this wonderful landscape and you’ve got a lot of like-minded people, there’s a lot of positive things going on.
“Some friends of ours moved here a couple of years ago and they said Hebden was like a ‘city in miniature’ and I think that’s it. We’ve got a lovely little cinema, we’ve got theatres, bars and bistros and real ale pubs, and we’ve got great independent shops and cafes that you don’t really get anywhere else.
“Put together they create a little hub of energy and that’s what makes Hebden Bridge so special to a lot of people and it’s what makes you want to continue. There’s a unique feel about the place. We do the best we can and people seem to appreciate that.”
Yorkshire pride in place
We know that Yorkshire has some of the best high streets in Britain and now the rest of the world does, too, after the county claimed a number of accolades this week.
Hebden Bridge was crowned Best Small Market Town at the Great British High Street Awards. It was in recognition of its resilience and community spirit following last year’s devastating Boxing Day floods.
And Pateley Bridge, in Nidderdale, was named Best Village following the community’s efforts to fill vacant units on the high street and work to develop new businesses and jobs. Judges said that by working with schools, churches and residents, the village has secured its place at the heart of the community. Pateley Bridge also took home the Social Media Bronze Award.