Cream Of The Country: Hebden Bridge

The arty enclave has retained its individualism and prospered as a result. By Nick Lloyd Jones
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The Independent Online

The West Yorkshire market town of Hebden Bridge has been topping the popularity polls. One survey voted it the UK's most unspoilt town with the best shopping facilities while another went so far as to rank it the fourth funkiest place on the planet. Not bad for a former industrial revolution mill town that subsequently suffered severe economic decline and an epidemic of asbestos related poisonings in the 1960s.

So, what explains its remarkable renaissance? In the first place, it's still an extremely attractive spot with its distinctive stone cottages clinging to the slopes of a deep valley that is surrounded on all sides by rolling National Trust countryside. The Pennine Way passes within a mile of the town centre, while nearby beauty spots like Stoodley Pike and Horsehold Rocks are littered with Roman and medieval ruins and provide panoramic views across the moors and along the mighty River Calder.

There has been a settlement at Hebden Bridge since at least the 12th century although the town's central bridge, to which it owes its name, dates from some 300 years later. Apart from its distinctive stone cottages, the town is also famed for its unique "up-and-under houses' - two-storey dwellings that are stacked on top of one another but which face in different directions and which, due to the steepness of the gradient on which they are built, can each be accessed at ground level from parallel streets. Other attractive properties include a number of former mill-houses that have been converted into apartment blocks. The ancient bridge, meanwhile, still serves as the town's focal point.

Hebden Bridge also has a strong literary tradition: it is surrounded by beautiful Brontë country on all sides; Ted Hughes was born here, and his wife Sylvia Plath is buried in the local churchyard. This artistic heritage was no doubt one of the attractions that, in the aftermath of the town's industrial decline, drew increasing numbers of bohemians to set up home here in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these people were disenchanted youngsters from Leeds, Harrogate and Manchester.

"The hippies were the first to come,' remembers Margaret Ashworth, of estate agent Ryburne and Co, who has been selling property in the town for nearly 30 years. "They had heard that there were loads of ley lines in the area and were attracted by the relatively cheap housing. Quite a few have stayed on."

The town's character started to change, gradually becoming more cosmopolitan and bohemian as artists, performers, New Agers, gays and lesbians started following in the footsteps of the first hippies.

Chloe Wilson and her girlfriend Jodie Manson are fairly typical. They are both in their mid-30s and moved here 10 years ago from their home town of Halifax, downsizing from a three-bedroom semi to a two-bedroom stone cottage. They were attracted by the town's liberal atmosphere. "We'd encountered quite a lot of prejudice back in Halifax and it was a great relief to move here where people are so much more open and chilled out,' says Jodie. "There's a great buzz here,' agrees Chloe, who works in one of the town's many coffee shops that regularly stage exhibitions and other live events.

Newcomers like Chloe and Jodie have greatly contributed to the town's thriving art scene so that nowadays, apart from the traditional Pennine fare of Morris dancing and live brass bands, there are also regular poetry workshops, art exhibitions and screenings of avant-garde films at Hebden Bridge's magnificent Art Deco cinema.

The newcomers have also been largely responsible for pioneeringspecialist independent shops. Apart from twice-weekly open-air markets, shoppers can choose from a wide variety of organic greengrocers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers and delicatessens. There are also arts and crafts stores, antique and second-hand bookshops, and a selection of more exotic emporiums. The town is also fortunate in having two first-rate mixed schools.

It is no wonder that property prices in the town and in pretty outlying villages such as Heptonstall and Crag Vale have been steadily rising in recent years and are now, typically, a third higher than across the border in Lancashire. However, housing is still significantly cheaper than in Manchester and Leeds.

The lowdown

Cost of living: One-bedroom terraced houses from £90,000; two-bedroom houses from £110,000; three-bedroom "up-and-under houses" from £200,000; four-bedroom detached houses from £300,000; five-bedroom town houses or converted mills/barns in outlying villages from £550,000.

Attractions: Set amid stunning National Trust countryside; wide selection of independent specialist shops and businesses; lively local arts scene; bohemian and cosmopolitan atmosphere; sizeable gay community; good schools; fine cafés, restaurants and real-ale pubs; summer arts festival.

How to get there: Frequent trains from Hebden Bridge Station in the centre of town to Leeds (55 min) from where there are connections to London King's Cross (2.5 hours). Also regular services to Manchester (40 minutes).

USP: Specialist shopping.