‘We joked about the club being shabby chic, but it was probably just decrepit’

Hebden Bridge Trades Club manager Janet Oosthuysen.
Hebden Bridge Trades Club manager Janet Oosthuysen.
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In the first in a mini-series tracing Yorkshire’s musical roots, Chris Bond visits the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.

AS you drive into Hebden Bridge you know you’ve arrived somewhere a little bit different.

On entering many towns and villages nowadays you’re often greeted by signposts telling you to “please drive carefully” or offering some other, usually pointless, nugget of information. Not here. As you head into this West Yorkshire town a sign simply reads: “Hebden Bridge - 500 years of creativity.”

Back in the 1970s, Holmfirth was dubbed Yorkshire’s “Left Bank”, these days it’s a title that seems to have been passed on to Hebden Bridge, nestled between the fertile walls of the Upper Calder Valley. Last year, it was crowned the best town in Britain and Ireland at the Urbanism Awards with judges praising its vibrant arts scene and eco-friendly policies such as encouraging people to stop using plastic shopping bags.

Historically, Hebden Bridge played a key role in the wool trade in the North, but more recently it has gained a reputation as a thriving cultural hub with an arts festival and fringe arts festival taking place each spring. Last month, it also launched the inaugural Hebden Bridge Blues Festival with 50 bands taking part from as far afield as Europe and the US.

Among the venues involved was the Trades Club. Tucked away down a side street off the main road that bisects the town, the Trades Club Social Club (to give it its official name) has evolved into a popular concert venue. The club occupies the first floor of the Trades Club building, built in 1923 as a joint enterprise by tailoring and textile workers and their trades unions. An impressive three-storey stone building, it must have looked magnificent when it first opened its doors to locals back in the days when the cotton industry was still thriving.

The unions collected a small contribution from each member per week, and when finally built, the building was equipped with a fully sprung dance floor for ballroom dancing which was reputedly the best in West Yorkshire. The dance floor is still there, although these days the dancing is a little more energetic than its designers originally envisaged.

By the late 60s, the cotton industry had collapsed and with factories closing down the Trades Club building fell into disuse. It lay empty until 1982 when it was taken over by the combined Hebden Bridge and Luddendenfoot district Labour parties and the social club was set up as an independent operation run by volunteers.

“It was in a pretty bad state when we took it over,” says the club’s general manager, Janet Oosthuysen. With an active committee at the helm it soon found its feet and has since become a popular meeting place and watering hole, while at the same time remaining true to its trade union roots. It now has more than 1,000 members who help keep the club, a not-for-profit organisation, afloat.

“The members are who keep the place going, and they are members because they want to support a socialist club in not very socialist times,” says Janet.

It’s not only the political landscape that has changed in recent years, the economic outlook has worsened sending many pubs and venues to the wall. “You only have to drive down the main road from here to see how many pubs have shut down recently. We’re keeping going and one of the reasons is because we are a not-for-profit organisation that is seen as a local community centre.”

Another reason it has survived is it’s popularity as a music venue. “It’s a great place to come and have a dance and it has got very good acoustics so it’s a great place for live music.” Over the past 25 years it has become something of a mecca for music fans, with bands playing everything from folk and roots, to contemporary jazz and African blues.

The corridor walls are adorned with photos and posters of many of the singers and musicians that have passed through its doors. It’s an impressive list that includes Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford from Squeeze, Roy Harper, Labi Siffre, Ali Farka Toure and even comedian Peter Kay. That’s not bad for a venue which can only hold 180 people.

“We have a tiny capacity when you think about it but a lot of people like that about the gigs we have here. We had British Sea Power playing about six months ago, in all their other gigs they were playing to 2,000 people so their fans went loopy when they played here because not only did they get to see them close up, but they could touch them when they walked past,” says Janet.

“Bands like coming here because it is small, it is intimate and it’s personal. I’m the manager so I pay the bands and cook for them and the bar staff are the same, we all work together. I’m not going to say we’re a family because that’s too cliched, but we’re certainly a team and that’s very different to a lot of the more corporate venues. We used to make jokes about it being ‘shabby chic’, it’s probably just decrepit, but now we’ve moved on to ‘quirky’ because that’s our style.”

Pete Lazenby is a former president of the social club and worked for many years as a volunteer. He says the club’s musical reputation stretches way beyond the confines of Yorkshire.

“The Trades Club was one of the first venues in Britain to champion African music and some of the biggest names in world music have played there. A lot of big African bands would come to Britain as part of a European tour and they’d play Wembley, they’d play a big venue in Birmingham and the Trades Club.”

Among those who performed there was the late Ali Farka Toure, the “king of the desert blues.” “He was a wonderful fella,” says Pete. “He was a farmer from Mali who happened to be very good at music, he’s played with people like Paul Simon and Ry Cooder, and he turned up at the gig with this fly whisk and went round the club whisking the walls. It turned out he was quite superstitious and he was warding off evil spirits to make sure the concert went well. There must have been something in it because the gig was fantastic.”

The Trades Club’s name has also reached some unlikely places. “A guy called Vince Robson used to be the Trades Club’s sound engineer and he went off with a British band that was doing a tour of Africa. He was in a provincial town somewhere in Tanzania setting up his gear and a couple of locals came over to talk to him and asked where he was from. When he said Britain they said, ‘you must know the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge?’ It turned out that one of the biggest bands in Tanzania had played at the Trades Club during a tour and a review of the gig had somehow appeared in a newspaper in Tanzania, so everyone knew about the club and Hebden Bridge.”

Despite this international profile, the club depends on the goodwill of volunteers and its small, dedicated staff for survival. “I suspect we wouldn’t have survived in a lot of places, but we have and we’re seen as part of the community,” says Janet.

With the lingering smell of last night’s beer and an appearance that suggests it’s held together in places by masking tape and a wing and a prayer, the fact it’s still going is testament to the hard work of those who believe in what it stands for. “We always say we punch above weight and our slogan is ‘the best little gig venue in the north’. It’s intimate here and I think the more corporate the world gets the more we need places like this, to show people that there are still places with character.”