Where there's brown rice, there's brass
Thirty years ago, long after Mrs Thatcher's press secretary had forsaken his Pennine roots for Whitehall and a south London suburban house, Hebden Bridge was dying. Its factories, set up a century before on the precipitous banks of the Calder to harness the power of the rushing water, were closed. As its inhabitants sought work elsewhere, property prices imploded. Whole terraces of empty, back-to-back, stone-built houses were demolished.
The children of the 1960s were looking for somewhere to continue their radical lifestyles. Word went round that there were genuine artisans' homes galore to squat in.
There was also a wild and beautiful landscape and a rich literary history. The Brontë sisters wrote their novels over the fell in Haworth, the poet laureate Ted Hughes was born two miles away in Mytholmroyd and his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, is buried on a hill overlooking Hebden.
"There were tales of houses changing hands for £50 or even a fiver," said John Morrison, a photographer and one of the many outsiders who found that Hebden had got under their skin. He chronicles life in the not-so-fictional Milltown with his column "The View from the Bridge" on Hebden's community website. "The mill workers buggered off in the sixties; they had no option, there was no work," he says. "Then one or two hippies came, found it was a `hassle-free' town and told their friends. If you find acceptance, you pass it on."
With the squatters came community awareness and a mix of talents, attitudes and aspirations rarely found in small-town Britain. Today, the accent you hear on its streets might just as easily be Home Counties as West Riding. Over time the "hippies", as the locals called them, matured and were assimilated, but the vibrancy and variety of their lifestyle became an established part of Hebden Bridge. But what makes it so singular could be changed by its gentrification.
Now, smart wholefood delicatessens and boutiques offering stylish clothes in natural fabrics are hugger-mugger with old-fashioned shops selling rustic footwear and the sort of costumes favoured by elderly maiden aunts.
"Now, ironically, the hippies are living in houses valued at £150,000, which they first occupied as squatters," says Mr Morrison. "A lot of them are now very successful capitalists. One started making juggling equipment and now runs a factory in one of the old mills."
Although Hebden Bridge seems remote in its vertiginous hillside setting, it is close to big cities - Manchester and Leeds in particular. Aspiring yuppies covet its eclectic atmosphere and cheap housing. Prices have gone ballistic. In 2002 the sort of three-bedroom terrace house you couldn't give away three decades before sold for about £109,000.
Last year the figure jumped 43 per cent to £156,000. One former mill is now penthouse apartments, while another is undergoing conversion, with six-figure price tags attached. "The brown-ricers are giving way to the polenta brigade," says Mr Morrison.
By Paul Wilkinson, Daily Telegraph, 29th July 2004