Todmorden the place for good music, independent shops and an interest in UFOs

If you like good music, independent shops and have an interest in UFOs, then Todmorden could well be the place for you, writes Adelle Stripe. Main pictures by Tony Johnson.

Stoodley Pike seen from the Rochdale Canal in the centre of Todmorden. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Stoodley Pike seen from the Rochdale Canal in the centre of Todmorden. Picture by Tony Johnson.

In the Upper Calder Valley, between the villages of Walsden, Mankinholes, Lumbutts and Portsmouth, lies the market town of Todmorden. With a wild and changeable climate of high rainfall and the occasional blast of glorious sunshine, as well as precipitous topography, it is a place at the mercy of the elements. Once defined by its culture of “cotton, co-op and chapel”, the town now has a changing demographic.

With recent arrivals moving in from Manchester and Leeds, it has become the affordable Hebden Bridge for those turned off by its eye-watering property prices and tourist hordes. Ex-ravers have moved out into Todmorden and its surrounding hills; the area is now a melting pot of designers, artists, musicians and writers who have formed a new bohemian community in this former industrial weaving town.

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Historically, the community was reliant on cotton, and boasted of 10,000 looms in its cathedrals of industry. This was a town of back-to-backs, where few escaped the tyranny of the mills. Children were viewed as mill fodder, and the women, hardened battleaxes who were often deafened from the clatter of weaving machinery, could lip-read fluently.

Volunteers from Todmorden in Bloom tend to the floral displays outside Todmorden town hall. Picture by Tony Johnson

Photographer Roger Birch was born in the town and captured many characters of Todmorden’s industrial age on film. His images of shuttlemakers, printing presses, sheep dippers and turkey farmers serve as a reminder of the area’s former past – one of rural life and hard work, comradeship and stoicism. With a rich tradition of dissent, it was once a hotbed for Quakers, Chartists, Baptists and other radicals. So it comes as no surprise that in contemporary times, the area continues to attract an alternative community seeking a new way of life. The Rochdale Canal, which once was the main transportation route for cotton, is now home to houseboats with permanent moorings.

There is certainly plenty to attract new residents – a reliable train service that connects to Manchester Victoria in 25 minutes, a well-maintained park, a swimming pool, three supermarkets, an array of good pubs, cafes and restaurants and just a short drive to the M62. Perhaps the jewel in Todmorden’s crown though is one of the finest glass-roofed small market halls in the North where the Exchange Coffee Company sells over 30 varieties from its vintage counters alongside stalls of locally-sourced vegetables, fresh flowers, and various cheese and butchery counters.

It’s here, too, that the original Incredible Edible group, the much admired grow-your-own-food movement, started out. The idea was pretty simple, to grow fruit and veg on unused public land and make it freely available to people. This was back in 2008 and since then it has grown, with more than 500 groups sharing its philosophy worldwide (it’s particularly popular in France).

Like much of Calderdale – recently wryly nicknamed “Calderfornia” – Todmorden has a creative energy that has blossomed in recent years. Previous residents include prog-rocker Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, easy-listening maestro Geoff Love, and allegedly a former member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Astrid Proll. More recently, the thriving community hub of the Golden Lion – crowned “Yorkshire’s coolest music venue” by Vice magazine – has become the epicentre of Calderdale’s burgeoning music scene.

Willow sculptures in the centre of Todmorden. Picture by Tony Johnson.

With DJs, live bands and club nights, the venue, whose exterior is painted in acidic yellow, has hosted an array of acclaimed guests including Massive Attack, the late Andrew Weatherall, Dexy’s Midnight Runner Kevin Rowland and former snooker world champion Steve Davis, who played a charity game on the pub’s table before performing a DJ set to a sold-out crowd.

During lockdown, the pub was transformed into an international supermarket with fresh produce sold in place of beer. Gig Nilavongse and Richard Walker run the venue which is situated in the town centre. It is symbolic of Todmorden’s resilient spirit and has recently set up a record label, Golden Lion Sounds, selling music and merchandise to support this creative hub.

Todmorden’s popular UFO society meets regularly at the Golden Lion to discuss the town’s reputation for unexplained events and extra-terrestrial sightings which date back to the 1950s.

Bookshop owner Colin Lyall arranges the monthly meet-up, which was inspired by the infamous “alien abduction” of Alan Godfrey, a retired police officer who in 1980 claimed to have seen a bright light hovering above the road ahead while checking reports of escaped cattle wandering around a local council estate. He described it as a rotating “diamond-shaped” object, about 20ft high and 14ft wide. Godfrey tried to radio for help but said the equipment wouldn’t work, and when the object suddenly vanished he found himself 30 yards away further down the road.

Four years later, there was another sighting by two girls on horseback towards Bacup, which earned Todmorden the moniker of “Valley of the UFOs”.

This is a town on the hinterlands of Yorkshire – the border with Lancashire runs straight through the centre. Some properties have a different postcode and are resolutely one county or the other, depending on their owner’s affiliation. There are indicators in the accent that this is where one county ends and the other begins. It can be traced in the rolling “r” of its dialect, or the food, such as the bakery selling dried fruit-filled sad cakes (how can a cake be sad?). Just beyond the boundary with Lancashire, fish and chip shops sell pea wet, a delicacy depending on how you view the idea of warm tinned pea water over chips.

Many Burnley supporters live in Todmorden and at home games will happily drink a Benny and ’ot (Benedictine liqueur and hot water) before the game, which is certainly a rarity in white rose country. One notable pub on Halifax Road, the Duke of York, has a painted sign by its door which gives a nod to the ingrained black wit of its customers: “Husband Day Care Centre – Need Time to Relax? Want to go Shopping? Leave him here… FREE CRECHE! Just pay his tab when you pick him up…”

Two-and-a-half miles north of Todmorden, however, is the recently infamous village of Cornholme where a resident took umbrage at an erotic novel that had been left in the free community library box. A hand-printed notice, more akin to the religious fervour of the area’s former evangelical past, was stuck to the glass door.

It read: “Whoever is placing the copys (sic) of pornographic literature in here, stop! Cornholme is a God-fearing Christian village.” The sign’s author then took a swipe at the neighbouring town, a few miles down the road: “If this filth is to your liking may we suggest that you move to the cesspit that is Hebden Bridge.”