The Gallows Pole: How a Yorkshire museum which closed three years ago has been reborn as a BBC filming location and the drinking den of the Cragg Vale Coiners
The 17th-century building in the hilltop weaving village, formerly a grammar school and then a penny bank, had been deemed unviable by Calderdale Council, who withdrew funding and staffing, having run the museum since 1972.
Yet on May 27 it will re-open again, after spending the closure period as a film set, appearing as ‘Barb’s’ inn in BBC period drama The Gallows Pole.
The timing is serendipitous, as the now-volunteer-run Heptonstall Museum’s first exhibition is about the Cragg Vale Coiners, the 18th-century counterfeiting gang who roamed the area and who are the subject of The Gallows Pole, based on local author Benjamin Myers’ book. The series begins on May 31.
The old schoolroom became a dressed set – a Georgian public house based on the real Barbary’s, long vanished – and it remains in situ, and there are even some of the gang’s forged gold coins on display. The Friends of Heptonstall Museum have undertaken detailed research about the Coiners’ lives – their ‘king’, David Hartley, is buried in the village churchyard and his descendants still live locally. The entire BBC production is infused with local participation – the Barb’s landlady is played by singer Jennifer Reid of Northern Broadsides, while a Hebden Bridge jeweller who was consulted for his expertise as a goldsmith ended up being cast as an extra. Even the museum cat, Scarf, makes an appearance on screen.
There is a recreation inside the museum of Hartley’s farmhouse, and even a shoe mould used to murder a man who spoke too indiscreetly about the Coiners’ activities in The Cross Inn, a pub which still exists today. There are costumes, coining dies and weaving looms. When the Coiners were active, the museum building was already in existence – it dates back to 1600 – but was a warehouse and still a few years away from conversion into a school.
Yet the Coiners are only one part of the museum’s offering. Volunteers have already opened a contemplation space to dissuade too many visitors from making pilgrimages to Sylvia Plath’s nearby grave, and there is a programme of artist workshops, open studios, musical performances and poetry sessions. More areas of the site will eventually be brought back into use.
"There’s been a lot of interest in what we’re doing. Heptonstall normally keeps itself to itself, we’re not Hebden Bridge; but The Gallows Pole starting around the time we re-open is a beautiful stroke of luck. The date has fallen very nicely for us!” said trustee Nicola Jones.
"We are working with local artists to open a merchandise shop where everything on sale will be produced in the area, and no tat. We want to bring the Undercroft and two cottages back to life and use them for events like the open studios. There’s an excellent author space for readings, and we want to offer social use for the community too. It’s all about local inclusion.”
The council-run museum was only open two days per week by the end, but the Friends have already committed to Thursday-Sunday from 11am-4pm. Entry fees are just £3, and there is a membership scheme with a £2 monthly subscription.
Talks and future events will focus on other topics with local significance, such as Plath, the 18th-century weaving industry, and the socialist writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.
"It’s a step into the unknown for us, but we have got there one way or another. The TV production will give us a boost, but we are still a bit of an unknown quantity. It’s done the village a lot of good.”
Shane Meadows’ The Gallows Pole launches at 9pm on Wednesday 31 May on BBC Two, with all episodes available immediately on iPlayer.