Heptonstall – A Pennine hilltop village
The ancient village of Heptonstall is on the hilltop above Hebden Bridge, directly opposite Pecket Well. There are wonderful views of Heptonstall from Elmet Farmhouse across the steep wooded valley of Hardcastle Crags, with the church tower silhouetted on the horizon. This view is constantly changing depending on the seasons, the weather and the angle of the light at different times of day.
The ancient township of Heptonstall
Heptonstall is considerably older than Hebden Bridge and has a fascinating history dating back to Saxon times. ‘Hep’ means ‘high’ and ‘Tonstall’ means ‘township’, the name given to the early settlements in this part of the Pennines, most of which were on the hilltops, rather than down in the valleys.
Heptonstall’s historical significance is indicated by the fact that it was mentioned in the Domesday book survey of 1068. The ruined chapel in the centre of the village, dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, dates back to 1256. Allied to the Parish Church in Halifax, the chapel was extended during the 14th and 15th centuries and most of the surviving stonework dates from this period. Some of the houses in the village date back to the 16th century. Heptonstall’s first Cloth Hall was built between 1545-58 and its Grammar School was endowed in 1642.
Heptonstall’s heyday was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the village thrived from the flourishing local ‘dual economy’ of farming and textiles. Income from cattle and sheep reared on the hilltop meadows was supplemented by the production of woollen cloth, woven by yeoman clothiers in their farmhouses and by handloom weavers in their cottages. By the 18th century ,water-powered spinning mills were being built in nearby valleys such as Colden Clough. Lumb Bank, the house of one prosperous millowner, was later bought by local poet Ted Hughes and now houses a creative writing centre run by the Arvon Foundation.
Following the building of the Piece Hall, a large cloth market in Halifax, in 1777, Heptonstall’s pre-eminence in the textile trade declined. During the 19th century, it was eclipsed by Hebden Bridge, where large water-powered and steam-powered factories were built following the development of the canal, railway and roads in the Calder Valley.
Heptonstall village is remarkably well preserved, having been designated as a conservation area in 1967 . The steep narrow cobbled main street is flanked by handloom weavers’ cottages. The ruined chapel makes an evocative contrast to the 19th century church with its pinnacled tower constructed just a few yards away. Nearby, on Northgate, is the striking 18th century octagonal Methodist Chapel, built at the instigation of John Wesley in 1764.
David Hartley, the so-called Cragg Vale Coiner, who was hanged in 1770 for his role in a notorious counterfeiting ring, is buried in the old graveyard. Ted Hughes’ wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, is buried in the new churchyard, along with other members of his family. Ted Hughes retained close links with the area throughout his life. Remains of Elmet, featuring several poems about Heptonstall, was published in 1979.
Lumb Bank and Colden Clough
Colden Clough is another gorge-like valley near Heptonstall, on the opposite side of the village from Hardcastle Crags. These photographs document winter walks through Colden Clough via Lumb Bank – an 18th century millowner’s house formerly owned by Ted Hughes, now a creative writing centre run by the Arvon Foundation. The towering mill chimneys poking out above the trees are virtually all that remains of a substantial complex of textile mills next to Colden Water, the fast-flowing running through the valley.
The Colden Loop
An early morning walk along a stretch of the Pennine Way on a sparkling winter’s day on 25 February 2016, starting and finishing at the delightful May’s Aladdin’s Cave, a fabulously well-stocked farm shop tucked away on Edge Lane above the village of Colden, near Heptonstall.
Overnight the temperature had dipped several degrees below freezing so there was an extremely hard frost at the start of the walk at 7.45 am. The fields below Stoodley Pike were so white that it looked as if it had snowed. Up on the Pennine Way crossing Heptonstall Moor above Hardcastle Crags, the heather and grasses were laden with glistening ice crystals. The low winter sunshine reflecting off the frosty Pennine hills created wonderful hues ranging from pale orange to pinkish purple.
On the crest of the hill heading back over Colden, the distant cries of curlews and golden plovers and the first lapwings of the season, dipping and diving erratically in their inimitable way. Next to the lane along to Colden, a large of flock of fieldfares grazing on the meadows.
Back at May’s Farm Shop, a cheery smile from the tireless proprietor and a huge sticky slab of delicious Yorkshire Parkin. The perfect end to the walk and the perfect start to the day.
Slack Top Alpine Nursery and Garden
If you’re interested in alpines, the award-winning Slack Top Alpine Nursery and Garden near Heptonstall, above Hebden Bridge, is the place to come – not just in Yorkshire, but nationwide. Situated in a stunning location on top of the Pennines above Hardcastle Crags, the nursery specialises in hardy alpine plants which flourish at high altitude. Run by alpine experts Michael and Allison Mitchell, Slack Top Alpines has been profiled in the RHS magazine The Garden and featured on Gardeners’ World. All the plants are grown on site and many can be seen in the adjoining garden in specially-made troughs and striking rock and scree beds. Whether you’re an alpine lover or a novice gardener, Slack Top is an inspiring place to visit and offers one of the best selections of alpines in the UK.
Slack Top Nursery and Garden, Alpine House, 22A Slack Top, near Heptonstall, Hebden Bridges, West Yorkshire HX7 7HA
Tel. 01422 845348
Open from March to September, Fridays-Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, 10am – 5pm
© Text and photos copyright Lesley Jackson