The independent spirit behind the renaissance of Halifax

Halifax-born marketing entrepreneur Chris Sands says: “People are hard here. A lot of comedians used to try out their new sets here, because the idea was if you could make people laugh in Halifax you could make them laugh anywhere.”

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The likes of Ken Dodd, Victoria Wood, Billy Connolly and Michael McIntyre have played to audiences in the town down the years, and a new generation of young comics still beat a path to Halifax to test their mettle.

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Perhaps it’s because they know that any round of applause will have been earned in a town that’s never been handed anything on a plate.

Kate Bastow set up Ve.Gang in the town's Borough Market last year. (James Hardisty).

Halifax isn’t somewhere that clamours for the spotlight. Maybe that has something to do with the geography of the place, shielded as it is from the outside world by the verdant walls of the Calder Valley.

And yet it has been garnering praise in recent times.

A couple of years ago, the national press ‘discovered’ the town’s many charms and dubbed it “the Shoreditch of the North”, to which one wag responded by saying the east London hipster enclave was “the Halifax of the south.”

Such epithets can be taken with a pinch of salt, but what isn’t in doubt is that Halifax is experiencing a resurgence in fortunes right now.

Sarah Shaw who manages The Book Corner in The Piece Hall. (James Hardisty).

At the heart of this renaissance is The Piece Hall, the only surviving 18th century cloth hall in the world. For decades, its elegant colonnades and sweeping courtyard were left neglected, that was until 2017 when it was reopened following a major restoration.

It was a welcome tonic for a town that’s endured more than its fair share of economic and social woes since the 2008 recession.

Anyone familiar with Halifax will know it’s a handsome town blessed with some of the finest Georgian architecture you will find anywhere in the country.

Like any industrial town in the north of England it’s a little frayed at the edges and not without its concrete carbuncles, but show me one that isn’t.

Halifax-born brand and marketing expert Chris Sands in the majestic Piece Hall.

The Piece Hall project gave the town the impetus it needed. Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, and the hugely impressive Dean Clough, a mammoth complex of former mills now a hub of art and commerce, have both benefited from its success. Last year, Eureka welcomed 313,538 visitors – its busiest year for two decades.

Then there’s the Anne Lister effect. The popularity of Gentleman Jack, written by Sally Wainwright, led to a 700 per cent increase in the number of visitors to nearby Shibden Mill, the Listers’ family home.

The Piece Hall, in particular, has had journalists falling over themselves to dish out superlatives, describing it as ‘the Covent Garden of the North’ or ‘Venice minus the odd canal.’ When Antiques Roadshow filmed there two years ago, more than 20,000 people turned up – a record for the programme.

Last year it hosted the world premiere of ZARA, an astonishing theatrical spectacle that featured a cast of over 100 actors, an army tank, cherry pickers and 3D illuminations, and this summer a series of open air concerts are planned featuring the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Kaiser Chiefs and Richard Hawley (though these will now depend on the coronavirus situation).

Joe Bates, owner of the Temperance Movement in Halifax. (James Hardisty).

Speaking to business owners, you sense a DIY spirit of collaboration that you rarely find in big cities. And it’s not confined to The Piece Hall. Thanks to places like The Elder, Glor, København and Meandering Bear, the town has a flourishing bar and restaurant scene, and it’s largely being driven by people from the town or those returning to their roots.

Joe Bates opened The Temperance Movement, a coffee shop next to the historic Borough Market Arcade, seven months ago. Joe was born and grew up in the town and after spending time running bars in Leeds swapped Yorkshire for more exotic climes, spending 15 years working in the scuba diving industry in places like Bali and the Galapagos Islands. But after getting married and with a young child in tow, he and his family upped sticks and moved back to his home town in 2016.

With its minimalist, white-washed walls and vibrant artworks, his coffee house has the appearance of a hipster hangout, though you’re as likely to find mums with young children as you are local writers and artists.

“When we first moved back it felt like something was happening and there was a sense of community here that I hadn’t seen before in the UK,” says Joe. “A lot of my friends are still in the bar business and they were saying, ‘why aren’t you coming back to Leeds, or going to Manchester?’ And I said ‘no, Halifax is ready.’

“When I was younger, Halifax was always kind of a rugby town with a weekend drinking culture, but not much else was going on. Now with the rejuvenation of The Piece Hall and Square Chapel it’s helped attract other like-minded businesses and things have started to change quite quickly.”

Joe believes the devastating floods at the end of 2015 also had a galvanising effect on communities right across the Calder Valley.

“It brought people together,” he says. “The Calder Valley has always been a little bit off centre and maybe ten years ago it hit a low point whereby something needed to happen, and now it’s looking up and standing on its own two feet.”

Chris Sands worked on the reopening of The Piece Hall and on the branding for the town’s historic Borough Market. He says Calderdale Council deserves credit for encouraging small businesses to flourish and for taking risks. “The council have been really brave, and while other towns were shutting their libraries we built a beautiful new one.”

He believes there is ‘can-do’ spirit in the town and he’s right. You see it in people like Kate Bastow. After being made redundant from her last job, she set up Ve.Gang, a one-woman stall in the Borough Market. This corner of the arcade is crying out for a makeover, but it’s people like Kate, who does a tasty line in vegan street food, that give visitors a reason to venture here.

She moved to Halifax two years ago from Cleckheaton. “I got a good vibe when I first came here and you do feel like you’re part of a community,” she says.

This sense of community extends to independent businesses collaborating with one another, with Kate often running pop-up events at some of the local bars. It’s a similar story at the Book Corner, in The Piece Hall. Until it opened in 2017, Halifax had gone four years without a dedicated bookshop.

Sarah Shaw runs the shop and she and Michael Ainsworth, who owns a couple of local bars and is another influential figure in the town, teamed up to create Halifax’s Festival of Words, which involves a weekend of poetry, music, spoken word and author events.

The bookshop is also a big supporter of local authors, like Benjamin Myers. “He’s our bestselling author. We’ve sold 1,500 copies of The Gallows Pole which is more than any other bookshop.”

For Chris Sands, it’s this sense of support and solidarity that sets Halifax apart.

“People here just get on and do things. They don’t really shout about it much, and maybe that’s a Yorkshire trait. It’s the people who make a place better and that’s what is happening in Halifax.

“We get people coming here from all over the world now and they’re coming for all kinds of different reasons – and for a northern town after ten years of austerity that’s pretty impressive.”