Anyone living in the UK this winter will know how wet it has been (and continues to be). Britain is well-known for its rain, but this has been unprecedented. Large swathes of northern Britain have suffered from flooding. First Cumbria, then Yorkshire, then Scotland.
One part of Yorkshire which saw the first of the county’s flooding was the Calder Valley. This is an area I know well, having spent a good portion of my childhood here. And, whilst I don’t live there currently, we visit frequently as some of my family still do. Most of my childhood friends lived in the pretty market town of Hebden Bridge. Nestled in a steep valley and overlooked by the village of Heptonstall, made famous by Ted Hughes’ poem Heptonstall Old Church, which is incidentally the final resting place of his wife, the American poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath. In the 19th century Hebden was a mill town, specializing in trouser manufacture. Most of the town’s architecture dates from this age and consists of beautiful stone buildings, mills and terraces. The steep sides of the valley mean that some of the houses can be two storeys on one side and five storeys on the other. The bridge that gives the town its name is a 500-year-old cobbled packhorse bridge which runs over Hebden Beck. This small river comes into town from a beautiful valley to the north. There is a lovely walk from the town through the woods passing Gibson Mill (National Trust) at Hardcastle Crags, leading out on to the desolate moors of Widdop to the Packhorse Inn. Every time we visit the town we try to get a walk at Hardcastle Crags.
After the textile industry declined, a large number of artists and other like-minded people moved to the town. Quite a bit of the information you can read about Hebden will suggest it was/is a hotbed of lesbians and ‘New Age’ folk. I like to think of just as a great place to live, full of nice people who are pretty open-minded, and where a lunch containing hummus is never too far away. The arts are well catered for in Hebden. When I lived in the area I used to perform at the Hebden Bridge Little Theatre, which 20 years later is still going strong. I had friends who performed in a local Gamalan group (traditional Indonesian music), and there used to be a fantastic jazz night in the town’s wine bar. On top of this most of the local pubs offered live music nights and seemed to thrive. There is a true sense of community here. The town has a refreshing lack of big chain stores, in fact apart from the Co-op I can’t think of another chain. This means that there is a real mix of interesting shops to keep even the most shop-a-phobic person engaged.
On Boxing Day the local topography got the better of the town. The River Calder fuelled by so much rain falling in such a concentrated area on the surrounding fells, burst its banks upstream at Todmorden, through Hebden, Mytholmroyd and onwards to Sowerby Bridge. When I lived in the area I saw the river flood, but I have never seen it flooding over into the Rochdale Canal, and never seen it so high through the centre of the town. Quite a lot has been spent on flood defences, and this did seem to help many parts of Todmorden, but they couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of water further downstream and the whole of Hebden centre flooded. The are pictures of it almost up to first floor level on Market Street, the main street through the town. Most of the businesses in this area haven’t been able to get flood insurance after the floods of 2012, so this time they have been left to fend for themselves. As I say, these are not the big multinationals who can afford to absorb the cost of starting again. They are local, often family run independents – people whose whole livelihoods depend on the income they bring in.
One of the shops on Market Street which was deluged is the Snug Gallery. Here Ed and Jill sell beautiful contemporary crafts, including Ed’s photography and Jill’s ceramics. Not only was their business flooded, but also their home and allotment. Their whole world turned upside down. Fortunately, they were able to save their stock, and a month later are back open again. But, it’s not enough to be open if potential visitors are put off by so many other businesses which are still closed. So now is a very precarious time for places like the Snug and the whole town. Fortunately we can do something to help. A Crowdfunding page has been set up for anyone who would like to pledge a donation, however small: Save the Snug. What would you do if you lost everything you had worked for?
Ed and Jill have also come up with a series of tiered rewards for pledges, which include one of Ed’s fabulous photographic prints or one of Jill’s stunning vases. For more details take a look at their Instagram page. There are so many demands on our money, and I know there are so many worthy causes out there, but I have no idea how I would cope in Ed and Jill’s situation. I therefore had to do something, so we have pledged to help. If you think that community, the arts, and small businesses are important to our lives then I hope you can too. Any figure, however small, will help them rebuild their lives and give them a fighting chance of holding on to their business.
We are also planning on helping out some of the other businesses affected by the flooding over the coming months. It would be such a shame if a vibrant town like this should go the way of so many others in this country.