Sunday, 14 September 2014

Footloose and footsore

The stunning ruined church at Heptonstall
Endless steep steps – tough for us but not for Brian
Bohemian Hebden Bridge held us willing captives for a couple of days. After exploring the town we pulled on our walking boots and headed for the surrounding hills.
Our target for the first day was the hillside village of Heptonstall, only a mile or so outside Hebden – but a mile at a 45 degree angle (or worse) to the horizontal. Three hundred years ago Heptonstall was the bigger of the two communities. This was in the pre-industrial revolution, pre-canal era when the village was at the crossroads of several major packhorse trails. It was also a centre for hand loom weaving – the original 'cottage industry'.
The secretive charms of hillside Heptonstall
Come the Industrial Revolution and the focus of weaving and transport shifted down the hill to Hebden Bridge, leaving Heptonstall marooned on its hillside. And marooned it still is: only the smallest of back roads runs through it. But the cobbled remains of those packhorse trails still remain, to make fine walking while the walking route out of Hebden up 'The Buttress' is a never ending, gut busting, lung bursting climb up cobbled pathways and steep, steep steps.
It is certainly worth the effort though. The road into the village turns from tarmac to cobble and the quiet stone houses, smoke-stained from the years or industry in the valley, look timeless. Built into the steep hillside, the little village squeezes houses into impossible spaces down little paths and alleys. It is very reminiscent of the sort of secretive hillside village you'd find in southern France. But behind the sleepy facade is a lively village with two pubs, a post office and plenty else going on.
Sylvia Plath, wife of Ted Hughes, lies in the churchyard
The centrepiece of the village is its amazing churchyard with its two churches. The original St Thomas A-Beckett church was badly damaged by storms in the 19th century and it was decided to replace it with a new one on the other side of the churchyard.
After the congregation had moved into the new one, the old church was left to fall into decay and it is now a spectacular ruin, made even more macabre by being surrounded by many dozens of old tombstones laid flat on the ground like a rough and ready patio across which you must walk to reach the church itself. Surrounded by its dark stone village houses, the skeletal church looks like a set from a Gothic horror.
We headed back into Hebden down a hill-edge trail that led us a steep, winding route to yet more steep steps (no easier going down than up) and finally back into the town.
Sheer rock face with climbers practising 
The next day one of our daughters came over to visit so we took her up to see Heptonstall by the same hill trail – except we lost the way and found ourselves at a steep rock face where climbers were practising their skills. Remarkably, here half way up the steep hillside were more cobbles leading up to steep stone steps around the edge of the rockface. What a monumental effort to have built them 300 years ago.
Even on a dull day, the views are stunning
After visiting the village we followed the path towards Hardcastle Crags, a National Trust owned stretch of hill and river valley. After plenty of uphill, it was good to be heading down via more winding paths through the woods, finally reaching the Hebden Beck below.  We then tracked this back towards the town, passing an extraordinary section where substantial stone walls had been built, presumably to keep the river in check when it is in flood.
Finally after three hours we were back at the boat and ready for some beer and pub grub at the excellent canalside Stubbing Wharf pub. We slept well that night – well at least we did for a couple of hours....ah but that's for the next post!

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