Flower power rescues a gloomy Calder Valley town. Richard Darn explains
Yorkshire is full of stereotypes according to outsiders. We are gritty, dour and tight with our cash. You know the kind of nonsense I’m talking about. These supposed traits are rooted in the mists of time, but it’s surprising how quickly something or somewhere can become defined by a single word. So for me in my lazy way, Hebden Bridge means hippy and I suspect it does for countless others who don’t live there.
I arrived back in ‘Trouser Town’ (as it was dubbed during the heyday of its textile trade) ready to put such simplistic thinking behind me and what do I discover? An exhibition staged by the local history society entitled ‘How hippies changed Hebden Bridge’. This wonderful little show is now over, but the organisers have put much of the material online so you can discover the story while sipping your mocha on the banks of the revitalised Rochdale Canal.
Let me take you back in time to the 1970s. You couldn’t buy a clove of garlic in Hebden Bridge, the town was being drained of its young people, soot coated the crumbling buildings many of which were scheduled for demolition and the mills were closing. The local paper reported that a lecturer was shouted down when he suggested the Calder Valley should be ‘phased-out’, but that was happening anyway with the population shrinking at the rate of 10 percent in a little over a decade.
Who would have thought that the answer to the malaise would be a bunch of free loving, long haired folk who came in search of a greener life? Not that their regenerative potential was recognised as such at first. One councillor told a meeting: ‘the behaviour of the long-haired section of the community deteriorates year by year … we are trying to attract visitors to our town, but we do not need this sort of thing.’ A more conciliatory colleague reminded him that hair grew outward and did not reflect what was under the scalp.
By the mid-1970s nearly 1,000 houses in Hebden Bridge were listed for demolition with the owners receiving as little as £8 in compensation. Some of the condemned properties were occupied by squatters, initially creating more friction, but other councillors helped the incomers get home improvement grants. More New Age travellers arrived called the Tepee People with goats in tow, but their behaviour proved far more disruptive and threatened the embryonic relationship between valley dwellers and hippies. Their departure in the direction of Burnley was a relief to all concerned and got things back on an even keel.
Hippies also brought their energy and creativity to what was becoming a moribund place. Photographic studios, clothing workshops, music and arts venues put counter culture zest into the valley’s cultural life. And of course they also brought organic food! Aurora Wholefoods was set up in the early 1970s and became a workers co-operative stocking staples such as porridge, brown rice and lentils with customers travelling from up to 40 miles away. (You could even buy a garlic bulb!)
In doing so they began to cultivate our modern taste for local produce rather than mass produced food with an eye on sustainability. A walk down the high street in Hebden Bridge reveals the lasting impact they’ve had. I am pretty much impressed by everything I read and see in the exhibition….