In the 1970s and 80s this sandstone mill town hiding in the steep Calder Valley was settled by artists, musicians, New Age practitioners and green activists.
They were drawn to the raw beauty of the Yorkshire Pennines but also the cheap but handsome property, at old mills, warehouses, clothiers’ houses and the idiosyncratic double-decker homes lined up on the valley sides.
Hebden Bridge has a proud progressive character, with a sizeable lesbian and New Age community and a live music scene summed up by the Trades Club, one of the best small venues around.
There’s literary history too, as Ted Hughes was born in neighbouring Mytholmroyd and buried Sylvia Plath at the churchyard in the connecting village of Heptonstall.
1. Rochdale Canal
Much of Hebden Bridge’s allure comes from the waterway that cuts across the south end of the town and is responsible for a lot of the industrial heritage in the Calder Valley.
The Rochdale Canal was completed in 1804 and threads through the Pennines for 32 miles between Manchester and Sowerby Bridge, not far east of Hebden Bridge.
There’s a towpath all along the canal, and even if the walk is occasionally demanding, you’ll be paid back with lots of stirring industrial architecture, especially in the Calder Valley.
The constant changes in elevation through the Pennines is countered by more than 90 locks, which are little points of interest in their own right.
In Hebden Bridge the towpath is wreathed with greenery and edged by mills and warehouses.
A fine place to stop and unwind is the Stubbing Wharf Pub, which we’ll talk about later.
2. Hardcastle Crags
A 400-acre National Trust site minutes out of Hebden Bridge, Hardcastle Crags has a deep, rugged gorge and a bubbling river, all under a mantle of mossy pine, beech and oak woodland.
The National Trust has laid down walking trails through this magical landscape, with lots of photo opportunities, of the bracken-clad hillsides, the stepping stones over the river, the large boulders in the water and the preserved Gibson Mill, which we’ll talk about next.
You can climb up the steep valley sides for satisfying vistas or stay by the water and take a family picnic next to an old weir.
Visit in spring and there’s a violet glow in the woods when the bluebells are in flower.
3. Gibson Mill
In complete isolation a few hundred metres along the valley at Hardcastle Crags is the robust outline of the 200-year-old Gibson Mill.
This cotton mill was water-powered and is reflected in a millpond.
Like the land around it the mill is owned by the National Trust and stages temporary exhibitions about Hebden Bridge, the history of the mill and the renewable energy technology that has been installed here.
Gibson Mill is off the grid and is powered by photovoltaic cells, hydroelectric turbines and a biofuel boiler, while the interiors are decorated with local, upcycled materials and there’s a composting toilet.
Check out the exhibition and stop at the cafe for a warming cup of tea or coffee during your walk.
4. Town Centre Trail
At Hebden Bridge’s visitor centre you can buy a booklet for the Town Centre Trail, which leads you to eleven noteworthy places around the town.
There’s an accompanying mp3 file, which you can download from the App Store as a podcast.
You’ll find out about the 16th-century packhorse bridge over Hebden Beck that gives the town its name, and get to know the origins of the double-decker housing, maximising space on the steep valley-sides.
Hebden Bridge’s railway is also a joy, going back to the 1890s and listed by historian Simon Jenkins as one of the best in the country, retaining its original signage.
There’s a cafe here that transforms into a bar-club on weekend evenings.
Essentially a part of Hebden Bridge, this picture perfect village is perched high on the valley side a hundred metres or so from the town proper.
Heptonstall’s little loop of alleys is impossibly quaint and the vistas of the Hebden Valley may stop you in your tracks.
The village’s lofty location has allowed it to stay relatively unaltered for 200 years, and there’s a pub, museum and tearoom to keep you around a little longer.
Many people make the trip to Heptonstall to visit the Church of St Thomas the Apostle, or more accurately, its churchyard extension where you’ll find the grave of Sylvia Plath, which is a pilgrimage site for fans of her poetry.
Also in the churchyard is the shell of the 13th-century St Thomas a Beckett Church, which was abandoned after a storm in 1847.
6. Heptonstall Museum
There’s a great local museum in the middle of the village at a former grammar school building dating from 1771. The school was even older than that having been founded on this site in 1661, and finally closed in 1889. The museum paints a picture of village life in Heptonstall across hundreds of years, and dipping into key events, like the Civil War when there was a battle in the village in 1643.
You can also learn the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a ruthless gang of 18th-century counterfeiters who made fake gold currency to boost their meagre income from weaving.
There are also some interesting holdovers from the building’s school days, including an antique black oak desk.
7. Calder Holmes Park
An inviting wedge of greenery between the River Calder and the Rochdale Canal, Calder Holmes Park deserves a moment during your walk around the town.
Out on the open lawns there are clear lines of sight to the high valley sides, and the paved paths link with the towpath on the Rochdale Canal.
At the park there’s a small garden, a skate park, a children’s playground, tennis court, basketball court, a football pitch and the Park Life Cafe for coffee and a slice of cake.
8. Boat Trips
Hebden Bridge Cruises maintains a traditional narrowboat called Gracie, scheduling a choice of trips on the Rochdale Canal to soak up the Calder Valley scenery and the Yorkshire Pennine Hills at a leisurely pace.
The Cream Tea Canal Cruise departs at 13:00 on Saturdays, and during this 50-minute trip you’ll be served tea and scones and can learn lots of new things about the Calder Valley and its wildlife.
A longer dining cruise on Sundays is catered by the Stubbing Wharf Pub in Hebden Bridge and on the voyage you’ll get to see firsthand how a lock works.
9. Walk to Haworth
If you have some hiking experience you could put a packed lunch in your bag and strike out on the eight-mile trail to Haworth.
The route takes in Hardcastle Crags, the moody Wadsworth Moor and the three Walshaw Dean Reservoirs, which drain into the Calder River.
Haworth will forever be associated with the Brontë sisters, and you can check out the parsonage where they spent most of their lives and wrote their most famous novels.
This has been safeguarded as a museum, while on the trail from Hebden Bridge you’ll come across sights connected to the sisters.
Top Withins is a ruined farmhouse once thought to be an inspiration for Emily’s Wuthering Heights, while the Brontë Waterfall and bridge is a beauty spot often visited by Emily, Charlotte and Anne.
10. Stoodley Pike
If you give yourself enough time you could hike to this peak via the Hebden Bridge Loop on the Pennine Way Path.
Stoodley Pike is roughly four miles south of the town and soars over the upper Calder Valley.
At the summit is an obelisk raised in 1856, at the end of the Crimean War.
This took the place of an earlier monument raised to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 but which collapsed in 1854 after a lightning strike.
There’s a balcony at the foot of the obelisk, standing 12 metres above the peak and reached via 39 steps.
Needless to say, the scenery is jaw-dropping at this height, encompassing the Calder Valley, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge.
11. The Trades Club
A socialist members cooperative and one of the best places to watch a gig in the UK, the Trades Club is a bar, club and live music venue.
The building dates to 1923 when it was set up by six different trade unions from the area, and was revived in 1982. If you have an ear for British music the list of past performers is astonishing for such a small venue.
Peter Hook, Edwyn Collins, Marc Almond, Julian Cope, Teenage Fanclub, Wire, Andrew Weatherall and Robyn Hitchcock have all performed here.
And among the illustrious international names are Patti Smith, Lee Scratch Perry, Damo Suzuki, Thurston Moore, Martha Wainwright, Shonen Knife, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
12. Jumble Hole Clough
Another of the many first-class walks around Hebden Bridge is along a wooded valley beside a fast-flowing stream that tumbles into the Calder.
In the early 1800s Jumble Hole was an industrial area with four hulking mills.
These had fallen into ruin even before the Second World War and you can see their decaying remains on the trail.
Staups Mill is little more than two walls next to a waterfall, which is spectacular in the winter months.
In spring the valley is bedded with bluebells, while there’s lots of cooling tree cover in summer and occasional views over to Stoodley Pike.
You can combine this walk with another memorable natural sight, Great Rock, only a mile away.
Hebden Bridge won a Great British High Street award in 2016, and you’ll understand why when you see that nearly everything here is a small business.
This ties in with the town’s sense of community, which allows local shops like greengrocers, butchers and bakers to thrive.
These are side-by-side with independent record shops, bookshops, galleries, arts and craft stores, design shops, jewellers, yoga studios, fair-trade cafes, vegetarian restaurants and an antiques centre with more than 45 dealers in a converted Victorian house.
The palatial Picture House Cinema is community owned, dating back to 1921 and with Art Deco interiors.
14. Hebden Bridge Open Market
Trading in Lees Yard is the 2016 winner of Britain’s Best Small Open Market.
Hebden Bridge Open Market has a little under 40 stalls and sets up Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
In keeping with the town’s personality there’s an emphasis on sustainability and fair-trade, at stalls selling organic cotton, natural beauty products, hemp, fair-trade coffee and the like.
The choice changes by the day, so there’s fresh produce on Thursdays, secondhand items on Fridays, arts and crafts on Saturdays and locally sourced food on Sunday.
15. Stubbing Wharf Pub
In an fabulous location by a humpback bridge on the Rochdale Canal, the Stubbing Wharf Pub is a little way along the valley from the town centre.
The pub started out as the Stubbing Wharf Hotel, founded in 1810 to cater to people travelling along the canal or via the road that has since become the A646. The pub’s beer garden is right on the towpath, and on a summer afternoon you could watch the canal’s traffic floating past over a drink or home-cooked meal.
It is thought that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath stopped at this pub in the late-50s, and it became the setting for Hughes’ poem “Stubbing Wharfe”, part of the Birthday Letters, a collection about his relationship with Plath.