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27 November 2013

Hebden Bridge: a hippie idyll scarred by heroin

Despite the weather, this town in Yorkshire is routinely listed as one of the most desirable locations to live in Britain.

By Ben Myers

The locals call it “valley bottom fever”. It’s that growing feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia that comes from spending too long in a town that sits in the narrowing throat of a steep-sided Pennine valley. The fever heightens as autumn sets in and the clouds go scudding over Calderdale at speed and the old rain-worn flagstones of Hebden Bridge become slick with ankle-threatening algae. The overwhelming urge to take flight takes hold – to the dark moors above, to a foreign beach, to anywhere. And if you do you’ll pass the incomers – the “blow-ins” or “offcumdens” – heading up to the hills on the promise of fresh air and cheaper living.

Despite the inclement weather, Hebden Bridge is routinely listed as one of the most desirable locations to live in Britain. There’s certainly plenty going for it: dramatic countryside, a creative community, a fiercely independent streak that favours small businesses over high-street chains. There are one-off places such as the intimate Trades Club, a former working men’s club that has hosted over-subscribed gigs by Patti Smith and the Fall and was voted one of NME’s best small venues; or the sole record shop, Muse Music, where you won’t find a single Miley Cyrus album but there are Magma and Mahavishnu Orchestra releases in abundance.

But Hebden Bridge is also a place of contradictions and controversies. An online search reveals headlines ranging from “Fourth funkiest town in the world” to “Why has Hebden Bridge become Suicide Central?”. Per capita, Hebden Bridge is the gay (specifically lesbian) capital of Britain, yet the MP is a Conservative, Craig Whittaker, who in 2012 argued against legalising same-sex marriage.

Hebden is a stronghold of anarchists, hippies, feminists, punks, socialists, Marxists and free thinkers – a place where freedom of speech and expression is encouraged. Yet when a woman called Heidi Bang Tidy announced her forthcoming burlesque festival at the local (community-owned) cinema via a banner, someone hastily put up another one beneath it retorting “MIDDLE CLASS POLE DANCING”. Meanwhile, one of Hebden Bridge Times’s columnists was, at least until recently, local lad and Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham. He was finally dropped earlier this year after a petition drew attention to the fact he has always refused to apologise for comments he made in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. That said, once likening the town to Sodom and Gomorrah can’t have helped his cause. And the fact he filed his copy from Surrey.

The modern incarnation of Hebden Bridge was founded on a spirit of resistance. As the textile industry declined, by the late 1960s many houses became uninhabited. Soot marked the town that Ted Hughes described in his poem “Stubbing Wharfe” as “this gloomy memorial of a valley” and “a gruesome dead-end tunnel”. But the bohemians took advantage of the situation and a burgeoning community of creatives from Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and beyond gradually moved in to squat the derelict properties. They took over entire streets and saved them from demolition. They baked vegan flapjacks, opened Steiner schools and attended laughter therapy workshops. Some of them gained positions of power. Consequently Hebden is now a green town.

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It is a place of poetry, too. Hughes was born a mile down the road in Mytholmroyd and his first wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried a short, steep hill climb away up in Heptonstall: the “Hughes” part of her headstone has frequently been chiselled off by those who believe the former poet laureate’s philandering contributed to Plath’s suicide. Hughes’s house at Lumb Bank, which he once described as “an eyrie over the crevasse of trees and water”, is now a residential writing school run by the Arvon Foundation.

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The rural hippie idyll is only half the story. Hebden Bridge is also full of families who go back generations, whose stories are less likely to be told in broadsheets supplements or property programmes. And there are darker sides to the town, too: every autumn, posters appeal for information concerning the 13-year-old Lindsay Jo Rimer, whose body was found battered and weighted down in the canal five months after she disappeared one damp November night in 1993. As her mother, Geri Rimer, said in 1999, “It happened in this community – it still affects this community – and I believe that someone from this community did this to Lindsay.”

Some might also argue that the relaxed approach to child-rearing and the proliferation of recreational narcotics among previous generations have led to drink and drug problems in the town. Alongside Plath are buried young men who have died of heroin overdoses. It’s a subject covered in the filmmaker Jez Lewis’s 2009 documentary Shed Your Tears and Walk Away. Many locals were irked by the documentary’s portrait of – as one teenager put it – “a drug town with a tourist problem” but Lewis only shot what he saw. The film was prompted by the director’s repeated returns to the town to attend funerals of friends who had died prematurely. The problems in Hebden Bridge are those of any post-industrial town, but perhaps the utopian backdrop illuminates them more dramatically.

Ultimately, there is no black and white in Hebden Bridge. It is a town of modern ideas and problems lived out among the skeletal, stony remains of past industries. It represents an England in perpetual transition.