1 Apr 2018

Halifax, Hebden Bridge and the Republic of Todmorden

A strong identity: entrance to Square Chapel Arts Centre

Halifax is spectacular both in its setting and in the ambition of its architecture. Set in the narrow valley of the Hebble Brook and surrounded by the Pennine hills and moors, its topography is extreme and its townscape stunning. With a population of more than 80,000 it is one of the larger West Riding towns, all of which are characterised by a fierce sense of independence and local pride, but Halifax is now part of the much larger Calderdale district.

Industrial materials ...

...  and typefaces

Dean Clough: The rise and resurrection of the North


Pevsner, writing in 1959, pronounced that ‘nature has done much for Halifax; architecture little …. The mills have ruined natural beauties. They have replaced them by what may be visually exciting and inspire awe. But with architectural beauty they have nothing to do. And as for buildings in the town centre there is also nothing of a high order.’ This is extraordinarily dismissive even for an early Buildings of England, where Pevsner often sees little of interest in industrial towns between C15th sedilia in the parish church and modernist schools or pit-head baths. However Ruth Harman in the recently updated and greatly expanded version of the West Riding (Sheffield and the South) volume makes generous amends. ‘Halifax has perhaps the best Victorian town centre in England’.

Spectacular: The Piece Hall, Square Chapel & Beacon Hill

But Pevsner was right about nature. ‘The situation of the town is spectacular’. Ruth Harman expands: ‘The Pennine moors rise to the N and W while to the E the cliff like slope of Beacon Hill confronts the town across the narrow valley of the Hebble Brook. To the S the River Calder runs at the foot of a steep wooded bank …. The steepest hills still make car driving an adventure and their development-defying gradients have left bare moors overlooking the town’. Ian Nairn in his marvellous ‘Football Towns’ evokes the landscape setting with a passion, calling it the most dramatic town siting anywhere in England. The Halifax landscape can be conventionally picturesque in a National Trust way, as when you arrive at the Station with ravine-like wooded slopes rising up behind you and the blackened tower of medieval Halifax Minster in the foreground. But it is also brutally dramatic. Owen Hatherley in ‘Ruins’ quotes Wyndham Lewis's visit with fellow Vorticist Edward Wadsworth, who came from Huddersfield. ‘We gazed down (from the hill above Halifax) into its industrial labyrinth. I could see he was proud of it. “It’s like Hell, isn’t it?” he said enthusiastically’. The harshness of industry has receded but the West Riding towns cannot escape their history or particularly their geology. The topography and building materials make for continuity between the town and moors. As Asa Briggs said, they are not ‘at one’ with the landscape but one with it.

Victorian gates to the courtyard

A reason to visit Halifax now is to see the magnificently restored Piece Hall, next to which are a superb new library and an excellent extension to the Square Chapel Arts Centre. The Piece Hall was designed by the local architect Thomas Bradley and completed in 1779. It is one of the greatest Georgian commercial buildings in England. Externally low and unassuming, once inside the gates it is astounding; Nairn called it a stage set on a scale unequalled in England. The vast sloping courtyard is enclosed by colonnaded galleries emulating a Roman forum, two and sometimes three stories in relation to the sloping site. This provided 315 rooms for the trading of ‘pieces’ of woollen cloth. But independent cloth production went into decline with the building of large mills in the early C19th and the Piece Hall is the only one of the many West Riding halls to fully survive. Its architectural and historic importance was recognized as long ago as 1928 when it was made a Scheduled Ancient Monument and it was comprehensively restored in a low key way in 1978.


The hard landscaping could have been better

The brief for the recently completed makeover was more ambitious; to create a new Town Square, a contemporary and flexible space which will provide a cultural and community focus for the borough. The overall scheme includes the new library and the reopening of the industrial museum. The renovation of the Piece Hall buildings themselves by LDN Architects is stunningly good. The rooms lend themselves to retail and café/restaurant uses and this has been done very subtly so there is none of the problem of, say, Albert Dock where jazzy tourist uses jar with the severity of the structure. A fourth (east) entrance facing towards the new library, industrial museum, Minster and railway station has been introduced and the south entrance links to the newly extended Square Chapel Arts Centre. The other entrances link to the main shopping streets, so that functionally the new Town Square works well. The reservation however is about the hard landscaping and paving which was designed by Gillespies.


The great thing about the Piece Hall courtyard was its sheer size (0.7 hectare) and the simplicity of the groundscape laid out in setts, so the courtyard did not compete with the buildings. The courtyard has a pronounced slope and thus a subtle relationship to the forum buildings. The City Square design however involves creating a flat space for events etc, and this requires stepping up and down to the levels of the colonnaded buildings. In a sense this is inevitable and desirable if the square is to be well used, and not just be a backdrop for the architecture but it should have been done more subtly. The paving of the flat ‘square’ in Pennant sandstone is handsome enough. However the stepped area and water feature to the NW is really clumsy and intrusive, competing with and diminishing the low colonnaded buildings. The seating pods around the square are visually dominant and the pedestrian steps with their ugly balustrades and railings –unnecessary anyway as there are accessible ramps – destroy the horizontal quality of the space. Worst of all is the use of granite, in every sense alien to Halifax and to the Piece Hall. The funereal Portugese blocks used for the stepped areas and seats are grim but the fussy Carlow blue mosaics are worse. However the lighting is good and at night the courtyard does looks quite magical.

Every town should have one as good as this

Better than the new Birmingham library

No such reservations about LDN’s lovely new library. This incorporates the spire and ruined rose window of the C19th Square Chapel, the rest of which was demolished in the 70s after a fire. The view W from the Piece Hall courtyard is magnificent, with the horizontal rectangle of the forum stunningly juxtaposed with the thrusting verticality of the spire and the wooded slopes of Beacon Hill beyond. The chapel was built in 1855 and modelled on Pugin’s St Giles Cheadle. Nairn in his characteristically poetic way said the steeple is ‘malevolent, like Heathcliffe’ and it certainly has passion and raw power; incorporating it into the new library was a masterstroke. The new building is entirely satisfying. For a start it really looks and feels like a library – there are lots of books and it is not all about coffee and chat. The library is opposite the Industrial Museum which is in a converted mill building and flanks a grand flight of steps up to the new east entrance to the Piece Hall.  You enter the building at the upper level. Quiet, unassuming, four storeys with very nicely executed brickwork, the new build does nothing to distract from the Piece Hall or the dramatic steeple. On entering there are super views of the spire from the atrium and glazed stairwell. But this is not the only wow factor. You are also treated to gorgeous views out from the library to the town and wooded Hebble Brook valley. Everything is so nicely detailed, like the toddlers' entrance to the children’s library below a screen of books. A beautiful piece of architecture.

An awkward corner creates an interesting brief 

Looking up


The earlier Square Chapel was built in 1771 and again designed by Bradley. Pevsner called it one of Yorkshire’s greatest Georgian chapels but it was also threatened with demolition and lay derelict for many years. It was restored as exhibition and performance space in 1988 by Allen Tod architects. An ambitious new extension to the arts centre has just opened, designed by Evans Vettori. This provides a new foyer, café-bar, cinema, studio theatre and backstage facilities for the main auditorium. The striking but simple burnished copper box structure nicely restores the old street line of Blackledge and you enter into a light, airy, expansive space for the foyer and café-bar. This has an interesting steel roof carried on three structural ‘trees’ with triangular infill of brown, green and yellow. The tree metaphor is continued with the etched glass of the great windows which flood the foyer with light. The detail is all very satisfying like the marquetry of the box office, the shuttered concrete for the bar and balustrades, the quirky light fittings. But the most dramatic feature is the difference in levels between the original chapel and the new extension. A great concrete staircase provides a triple height space between the café-bar and the east elevation of the C18th building with superb views of the library' steeple. The old chapel elevation is exposed and preserved just as it was – a wonderfully theatrical experience. As with Caruso St John's Nottingham Contemporary, Evans Vettori have used an awkward triangular site and difficult levels to triumphant effect. It is justifiably a huge popular success.

Ring O' Bells & Sense of Place

There is much more to see in Halifax. The present station doesn’t really do justice to the town; the handsome old station next to it is now the Eureka!, the National Children’s Museum. Don’t miss Halifax Minster, down the hill from the station. This is the largest parish church in these parts, mostly built in the C15th but extensively restored by the Scott dynasty. Nairn captured its character perfectly as ‘blackened, strong, and lonely’. On a gloomy day it is tremendously atmospheric. I like the C17th items - the communion rail, box pews and especially the plain glass windows with exaggerated lead work, initially taking these to be Expressionist.

Victorian success in 10 Parts: #1 Corners

#2 Doorways

#3 Lintels 

#4 Streets 

Pevsner greatly regretted the loss of Halifax’s older buildings in the thorough-going Victorian redevelopment of the town centre. Only one timber frame building survives and that is so tarted up as to look ridiculous. In post war developments Halifax consistently used sandstone to to be 'in keeping' with its proud C19th commercial inheritance, even for Modernist inspired buildings and commercial slabs such as Pennine House, which leers into the view from the Piece Hall courtyard. The Woolshops shopping precinct, built in the 80s and clearly a response to the general excoriation of 70s ‘concrete monstrosities’ like Bradford’s Kirkgate shopping centre, incorporates a number of listed buildings and other façades of interest, like the 30s entrance to Prince’s Arcade. But the new shop buildings are half heartedly going through the motions; faced in stone they are about the right scale but their articulation is bland and mechanical. The pseudo Victorian canopies don’t help and hiding the bulk of M&S becomes impossible. But at least you get fresh air and views. The adjacent Council offices, Northgate House, and the now superseded 80s library building are a more convincing exercise in dressing up new buildings in stone.

#5 Theatre Royal 

#6 Victoria Theatre

#7 Offices

Ruth Harman is right to say that (arguably) Halifax has the best Victorian town centre in England. It is small and compact, essentially just three broadly parallel main streets up the hill from the Piece Hall. But, together with the cross streets, these contain an amazing concentration of grand commercial and public buildings. If not entirely intact, Halifax does manage to retain that feeling of concentrated urbanity, although inevitably it is fraying around the edges.

#8 Town Hall – what are people moaning about?

The Town Hall is at the north end of the ensemble. It was the last building of Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament and after his death completed in 1860 by his son. The grand tower and spire ‘defeats period categorizing’, according to Pevsner. Ruth Harman says ‘it is regrettable that the site is too congested to take the building in as a monument of self confident High Victorianism or to contribute much to the townscape other than its tower and spire which terminate the view from Princess St etc’. Which rather underplays its contribution – the townscape of the tight streets around with fine, ornate classical commercial buildings in stone is exceptional by any standards. The area was developed by John Crossley, the industrialist whose rivalry with Edward Ackroyd shaped mid C19th Halifax. Crossley sponsored the Town Hall as part of his ambitious commercial development around Crossley St and Princess St.

#9 Market – the West Riding does this sort of thing very well

At the very centre of the town is the Borough Market designed by Leeming and Leeming and opened in 1896. It is the forerunner to the even grander Kirkgate Market in Leeds. But this one is pretty damn grand too; Nairn thought it to be one of the best in England. The street frontages are grand parades of ornate shops and the complex is contiguous with The Arcade and Old Arcade, equally fine fin-de-siècle. You enter through low-key entrances into a stupendous glass and cast iron market hall, a riot of decoration and embellishment. The four arcades meet under an elaborate dome with a magnificent cast iron clock beneath, which as Nairn said ties the whole thing together.  Nowadays the market is looking a bit run down but fortunately Calderdale Borough is consulting on its long term future and refurbishment. The majority of the post-it comments seem to get it right - keep the present character and the present tenants, which means low rents. Concentrate on good maintenance not fancy improvements. It would be nice though if the central clock were not so obscured by market stall fascias. And lets hope refurbishment includes reinstating the delicate colour scheme of oranges and lemons which Nairn liked so much.

The town centre has a lively feel and, as well as the usual chain store suspects, there are lots of independent shops and cafes. The Hebble Brook ravine makes a dramatic break to the east but to the west there is continuity with pleasant areas of inner Halifax, not a cordon sanitaire of retail parks and low grade uses. However, despite the ring road, the traffic is fairly dominant in the main streets and there are lots of largely empty competing buses swirling around. Given the ring road and the large, well placed bus station, perhaps the next step in Halifax's renaissance could be more extensive pedestrian priority and better considered paving and street furniture design.

#10 Banking – Lloyds 

Nat West on Waterhouse St

Halifax has a wealth of opulent bank buildings, reflecting its commercial prosperity well into the C20th. Perhaps the grandest are the former Halifax Commercial at the corner of Crown St and Silver St (1880), Lloyds Bank on Commercial St with its proud pedimented Corinthian portico and sumptuous interior (1897) and the Nat West on Waterhouse St, 1927 and a late example of the swaggering Edwardian Baroque revival. But the West Riding is more notable for its building societies, the largest of which was of course the Halifax.

Zaha Hadid would have loved this – the Halifax HQ

The Halifax HQ building, built 1968-74, is a real statement of both municipal and corporate pride in the Society, at least as it was before demutualisation in 1997; it is now part of Lloyds. Owen Hatherley says is ‘genuinely one of the most unbelievable post war buildings in the country, all the more so for being an early work of BDP when it was still an idealistic socialist experiment …. It combines every possible device in the 70s architectural arsenal …. Flying walkways, black glass, Seagram curtain walls …. It is all reached by a series of platforms and walkways which replicate the sharp changes in scale of the local landscape’.

Metropolitan quality

The offices are raised up on a great concrete deck above the grand entrance plaza and entrance foyers, supported by a huge square concrete pier at the corner. The parallelogram plan dramatically thrusts the angle of the building forward to the street. Ruth Harman says ‘as architecture it deserves the many accolades received, but as townscape it is a brutal intervention’. Nairn took a different view. He said it dominates by strength, not brutality. He loved its relationship with the town, the way the podium floats above the little houses beyond and how it edges into the view along Commercial St – not violently, but saying ‘hello Halifax, I’m here’. He particularly liked the dark glass which gives the angled reflections of Victorian Halifax . He was not convinced however by the ventilators in the plaza, expressed as neo-Constructivist sculpture. The extension of 1987 by Abbey Hanson Rowe is taller and much more conventional, apart from incorporating the façade of the old Freemason’s Hall as a stage set in the glazed foyer.

Northgate House  – contextually dull

A terrible 'Vue'

Pevsner, writing more than a decade before the Halifax HQ was built, says that as for C20th contributions to Halifax ‘there is nothing alas to report’. Nairn saw the building as a necessary monument, something equivalent to the Piece Hall in the C18th or the Town Hall in the C19th. It certainly raises the architectural profile of Halifax. This cannot be said of the tawdry and vacuous Vue cinema and Premier Inn complex which debase the setting of the Town Hall.

Gothic details on North Bridge

The Jetsons

Northgate, which leads to North Bridge, is one of those streets ‘fraying at the edges’ although still containing many fine buildings. Halifax’s extreme topography provides for exciting road engineering, as Pevsner noted. North Bridge, built in 1871, dramatically spans the ravine of the Hebble Brook at a more convenient higher level than its medieval predecessor down below. However the concrete viaducts of the inner ring road, built a century later, now soar above both with breathtaking style, drama and, for some, arrogance. Rarely has an inner ring road produced such exciting kinetics, which you can appreciate on the way to Dean Clough Mills.

Dean Clough Mills

Everything ticking along nicely

Industrial classicism

Dean Clough is another architectural wonder of Halifax, a huge complex of carpet manufacturing mills built by the Crossley family. Ruth Harman says’ ‘it is one of the most impressive C19th industrial sites anywhere. In scale and grandeur at least it stands comparison with, say, the warehouses of Liverpool’s docks’. The mills, half a mile long, just about squeeze into the narrow Hebble Brook valley. The earliest surviving building, ‘A’ Mill, was built in 1841. ‘G’ Mill with its imposing nine storey elevation to Dean Clough Road (reducing to five at the top of the bank) was constructed in 1857. The factories closed in 1982 and were bought by Sir Ernest Hall who has over time renovated them for new uses. The mills now house about 200 companies, together with art galleries, restaurants and the Viaduct Theatre. Dean Clough is one of the most significant regeneration projects undertaken in Britain, bigger even than Saltaire.

Discuss: Victorian factory owners were sometimes quite good ...

... I mean, can you imagine Richard Branson doing this?

Ackroyd also built factories across the Hebble Brook from Dean Clough. On the hill above is his model settlement of Ackroyden. Old Lane, laid out with magnificent setts, leads up the steep valley side, looking like a Hovis advertisement apart from the rubbish everywhere. The model village, built in the 1860s, is beyond Bankside, Ackroyd’s mansion and now a museum in a large park. The terraces of Ackroyden are in neo-Tudor style, arranged around a green square and it is all very attractive. Back down Haley Hill the view is dominated by the overwhelming spire of All Souls church, commissioned by Ackroyd. G.G. Scott wrote that ‘it is, on the whole, my best church’. SAVE led an epic battle to preserve it in the 80s and it survives, maintained by the Churches’ Conservation Trust. We did not manage to see its magnificent interior. South west of the town centre Crossley also built a model settlement, West Hill Park and employed Paxton to lay out the splendid People’s Park, from which there are fine views of the hills.

The Todmorden Republic

Lancashire industry & Yorkshire agriculture

Rochdale Canal: connecting the north at Todmorden

Would not be out of place in London or Birmingham

Calderdale Borough covers great tracts of wild, rugged moors and dales, often with the savage landscape beauty seen in Francis Lee’s marvellous film ‘God’s Own Country’. However the landscape is also studded with small, characterful industrial towns like Todmorden. This was a cotton manufacturing town, developed by the industrialist and philanthropist John Fielding who commissioned the stunning Town Hall. Designed by John Gibson in 1875, Ruth Harman says it is ‘one of Yorkshire’s grandest - the pedimented temple rising above the little town is one of Calderdale’s most memorable views – and not dissimilar to Birmingham Town Hall’. It is an absolutely extraordinary sight and well worth a visit to Todmorden just to see this building, but this distinctive, unpretentious town in its dramatic Pennine setting is a great overall experience.

A market on the moors

Built upon moorland streams

Much of the townscape character of the place derives from the impressive engineering of the Rochdale Canal (1804) and the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (1841). The most striking church is that of the Unitarians up the hill, designed by Gibson in 1865 with a very dramatic steeple, definitely a church, not a chapel. The handsome buildings on the main streets, mostly of the later C19th and many of them quite exuberant, indicate the town’s prosperity at the time. Now its population of 12,000 is only half that of its zenith but it is still a busy place. Between the Town Hall and the railway viaduct is a covered market with outdoor stalls as well. The shops are mostly independent and down to earth and there are plenty of other facilities too: a rather grand ‘Northern Renaissance’ style library and a distinctive 1950s Community College. Todmorden is on the Lancashire border - indeed the boundary used to literally run through its famous Town Hall. It is very much closer to Manchester than to Leeds, so the ‘City Region’ thing is a bit irrelevant here. Perhaps it is not surprising that the locals support nearby Burnley F.C. and the two towns have recently been re-connected by train with the new ‘Todmorden curve’, a modest but useful piece of transport investment for the North.

Hebden Bridge: a wooded valley

Canalside living

Hebden Bridge aka Happy Valley is a few miles further down the Calder valley at its junction with Hebden Water. Tom Dyckhoff says it is 'officially the quirkiest/ kookiest/ koolest/ most LGBTQ-friendly/ least chain store-y small town in the universe .... all co-ops, carrot cake and bunting.' Hebden Bridge is certainly highly picturesque. Here the valleys are steep and heavily wooded, quite unlike moorland Todmorden. The Calder threads through the green valley, crossed by the Rochdale Canal on an impressive aqueduct. Attractive artisan stone cottages and terraces follow the canal and pile up along the valley sides, some actually built one on top of one another, accessed from different streets.

Hebden Bridge Station – a film set

Another dramatic episode – Wesleyan Methodism

Civic pride & utility: Hebden Bridge Town Hall & St George's Bridge

You immediately get the Hebden Bridge vibe on arrival at the station, which seems like a stage set. It is one of England’s best preserved late Victorian stations - thanks to a local trust, not Network Rail. Leaving the station you see the allotments below in the valley. Down New Road is Hope Chapel (1857), the most elegant of the many chapels around, and opposite is the classical-deco Picture Palace (1919). The Little Theatre is next to the canal lock and around here it is full-on alternative lifestyle. Market St across the bridge is quite grand shops, many with original shop fronts and kooky uses. The old centre is further up the Hebden Water valley around a C16th packhorse bridge and some older buildings. But what impresses is the confidence and  quality of the almost miniature late C19th buildings public buildings like the Town Hall, Co-op, Liberal Club, Gas Company offices, banks. It seems a bit like it is playing at being a town. The more workaday town struggles up the steep hillsides of Hedben Brook all piled up together. At root Hebden Bridge is an industrial town, famous for Fustian - it was called 'Trouser Town' -  but today the big business is tourism and whimsy.

Mills and fairy lights

Alternative tat

Good conservation everywhere

Hebden Bridge has successfully reinvented itself as an alternative universe, but how did this happen? Its setting is certainly more picturesque than most small towns in the West Riding. The stone houses are delightful and were once cheap, but no longer. The old mills provided cheap space for galleries, studios, restaurants and lifestyle shops. Maybe it helps that Hebden Bridge is somewhat isolated and self contained, although benefitting from (slow) trains to Leeds and Manchester. But this does not fully explain the phenomena. Does Hebden Bridge provide a blueprint for post-industrial Pennine towns and and an opportunity for Millennials priced out of clone-regenerated cities?

Looking for Bill Brandt 

Halifax too is changing - apparently it is now the 'Shoreditch of the North' according to Radio 6 and the Guardian. That's great and there is certainly a palpable sense of increasing confidence here. But outside Halifax’s lively town centre poverty and deprivation are very evident, as is a racial divide. Calderdale is struggling with the impacts of de-industrialisation and the hammer blows of government austerity, neglect and disempowerment.  The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ concept recognises there is a problem but proposed solutions largely focus on the big cities and particularly big ticket infrastructure schemes. The recent Transport for the North report is all about mega road and HS2/3. The paradigm is that people will then be able to commute longer distances and increase the economic 'agglomeration' of Leeds and Manchester.

Square Chapel Arts – a step-up for Calderdale

But really what the towns of Calderdale need more urgently in order to unlock their full potential is investment in social infrastructure. They are not exurbs of Leeds or Manchester but communities in their own right. The history of the West Riding towns is one of municipal enterprise and municipal pride. This still applies today. Halifax – the borough, its people and entrepreneurs - has been very ambitious and enterprising to achieve the transformation of things like Dean Clough Mills, the development of the Square Chapel Arts Centre and now the Piece Hall for example, but this is not enough. Calderdale, like the rest of Yorkshire, needs more powers, more funding and critically much more financial autonomy to enable it to really tackle the existing problems. Elected mayors may be part of the answer but this is something that should be decided locally, not imposed by Whitehall diktat. Yorkshire is a natural, historic and economic region. Surely regional government should be an option. Comparison with Scotland is not so far fetched.

Ruth Harman’s new Buildings of England volume:‘Yorkshire West Riding; Sheffield and the South’ is absolutely invaluable.

Ian Nairn’s ‘Football Towns – Huddersfield v Halifax’ is brilliantly insightful.

Owen Hatherley’s chapter on the West Riding in ‘A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’ provides uncompromisingly incisive analysis and is very amusing.

Thanks to Chris Hammond for the guided tour


Alex said...


For some reason I always imagined that the chapel spire was planned as part of the Piece Hall; the asymmetry with regard to the Hall is beautiful.

Andrea Kirkby said...

Good Lord, this is marvellous townscape. I know Hebden Bridge - but Halifax was completely unknown to me. If it was in France it would have UNESCO world heritage status by now.

Anonymous said...

Good article but lose a mark for John Fielding [sic].