How a small abandoned mill town became Yorkshire’s LGBT+ capital

Homophobic hate crimes rose in West Yorkshire last year – but in Hebden Bridge, the LGBT+ community is louder and prouder than ever before

Local organisers of Happy Valley Pride, an annual week-long festival held in Hebden Bridge to celebrate LGBT+ life in Hebden and the surrounding area.
Local organisers of Happy Valley Pride, an annual week-long festival held in Hebden Bridge to celebrate LGBT+ life in Hebden and the surrounding area.

In most small UK towns, a piece of homophobic graffiti might be painted over, scrubbed away or even ignored.

But when some residents in Hebden Bridge found a homophobic phrase sprayed onto a piece of tarpaulin in 2015, they did something a little different: they turned it into a work of art.

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“We got people to write on it and draw on it”, says Dr Sean Pert, a local speech therapist and gay man who has lived in Hebden Bridge for the past five years. “All the artists joined together”.

Dr Sean Pert, a resident in Hebden Bridge.

It was this incident, in fact, that sparked the foundation of Happy Valley Pride in the town; an alternative, week-long LGBT+ pride event that’s got bigger and better year on year, punching above its weight with legendary acts and international performers.

If such a visible LGBT+ scene in an old mill town of just a few thousand people seems somewhat unique, that’s because it is.

In the early 2000s, it was reported that Hebden Bridge had a higher concentration of lesbian residents per head than anywhere else in the UK, and since then its LGBT+ friendly reputation has only grown.

“[Today] there’s a lot more gay men, there’s a lot more bi people and trans people”, says Sean, who had been visiting the area for around 25 years before moving permanently.

Cabaret stars Bourgois & Maurice at Happy Valley Pride.

“You can see all sorts of weird and wonderful families”, says Sean, heaping praise on Hebden Bridge’s “out there” attitude and pride in what makes them different.

Yet just a few decades ago, few could have imagined that Hebden Bridge would be the thriving, vibrant and alternative community it is today.

The town was once home to so many weaving mills that it was nicknamed “trouser town”, owing to the large amount of clothing manufactured there. By the 1960s, the mills were long gone and Hebden Bridge had fallen into decline, with many buildings left abandoned.

It could easily have become another former mill town casualty, left to crumble, were it not for students from nearby Manchester noticing the abundance of cheap and abandoned property up for grabs in the late 1960s.

Happy Valley Pride is one of the UK's most alternative pride festivals - typical of how Hebden Bridge does things "a bit differently", says Vice Chair Helen Baron.

Professor Darren Smith, who has conducted extensive research into the regeneration of Hebden Bridge, says that the modern day town has this initial move to thank for its unique community today:

“Once a group of students had moved in, pamphlets were produced about the abandoned property available for counter cultural groups. In the late 60s, early 70s, counter cultural people moved into the town...then the process accelerated quickly”.

Later, in the 1990s, Prof Smith was himself in Hebden Bridge conducting door-to-door research on the town’s regeneration when he discovered a high concentration of lesbian couples living there.

He believes that the lesbian community’s involvement in the anti-nuclear movement in the late 60s, 70s and 80s may have brought same-sex couples into the town along with other protest groups, artists and alternative communities.

Local DJ and Vice Chair of Happy Valley Pride, Helen Baron, says Hebden Bridge is "a great place to be if you're gay".

Once this had happened, he says, the reputation of Hebden Bridge as a liberal, open-minded place was forged, “attracting like-minded people into the area”, and growing the lesbian population.

Long before marriage equality, and at a time when homosexuality was still partially criminalised, lesbian couples found a supportive community in Hebden Bridge, with many raising families in the town.

The result in today’s Hebden Bridge is a large LGBT+ population, a supportive community around them, and a thriving music, arts and creative scene.

“There's lots of straight allies”, says Sean, something he believes has been “crucial” to the fight against homophobia and transphobia in the local area.

While 68 per cent of respondents in a 2019 UK-wide LGBT+ survey said they had avoided holding hands with a partner in public, Sean says that things are different in Hebden Bridge:

“You can hold hands here, nobody bats an eyelid. And the kids and young people are just the same, they have friends with same sex parents...it’s just this really lovely atmosphere where you can be yourself - I lived in Rochdale before, which was far from it”.

Of course, that’s not to say that Hebden Bridge hasn’t had its problems. Helen Baron, a local DJ and Vice Chair of Happy Valley Pride who lives in the town with her wife, says that while it’s “a really nice place to be if you’re gay”, she believes that most non-heterosexual couples “pick where they held hands”.

Both Sean and Helen speak of a “weekend effect” whereby homophobic abuse often comes from weekend daytrippers visiting from neighbouring cities or towns

“We've had people coming in clearly looking for trouble because they know the reputation [of Hebden Bridge]”, says Sean, adding that members of the community have experienced verbal harassment as a result.

Transphobia, says Sean, is also a pressing issue which the LGBT+ community is grappling with today in all areas of the country:

“I think the amount of transphobia is very similar to the amount of homophobia around in the 80s when the AIDS crisis within full swing”.

He believes, however, that education is the key to tackling these lingering issues. While a trustee for Happy Valley Pride, he went into schools to educate students about LGBT+ issues - something he never could have imagined happening when he was young:

“I grew up during section 28, we weren't allowed to talk about it, I was horribly bullied...that was a horrible time and we really didn’t want that to carry on [for kids]”.

Happy Valley Pride itself, believes Helen, is part of this education, which makes the postponement of the festival this year particularly gutting:

“We bring the community together, all ages, and all genders - everyone is welcome. And it’s nice to have online content... but it's really, really important for the LGBTQ+community to feel supported, to feel brought together...that continuous representation is the only way we're going to get the message across that really, we're just people”.

The appeal of Hebden Bridge, with its exciting festivals, independent shops and open-minded community hasn’t escaped notice.

In recent years, house prices in the town have rocketed, with the Financial Times reporting in 2016 that its homes sell for a 26 per cent premium against others in the Calder Valley. According to Zoopla, the average cost of a home currently stands at £214,596.

In a follow-up study on the Hebden Bridge community last year, Prof Smith says that he did encounter a feeling among some residents that the town has “lost its authenticity” in recent years, with “successful artists, photographers, musicians” now migrating there in place of the “fledgling artists” who arrived in the late 60s.

Yet while Sean admits that “if you want to live in a house two minutes from town you’ll have to really pay for it”, he says that there is still a stock of affordable housing in certain areas.

Helen doesn’t think that the Hebden Bridge has changed for the worse over the years, but quite the opposite:

“What we have [now] is a vibrant high street with a real variety of shops. You can go into a charity shop, an organic veg shop, bars, restaurants and cafes”.

If anything, Sean believes the community has become more inclusive over the years, with Sean himself running a local social group “Out in the Valley”:

“Before [the LGBT+ community] was more a kind of individual network...you’d have to get invited to places - whereas now we’re a lot better...we just say we’ll be here at this time, just come and join us or say hi”.

For everyone in the community, but especially those under the LGBT+ umbrella, Hebden Bridge is a rare haven in a nation that is still unfortunately battling the scourge of homophobia.

“To be yourself and not be on guard all the time, hypervigilant, it’s brilliant”, says Sean.

“The whole community, whether they’re straight or allied is really really proud of Hebden Bridge for that reason”.