Poets and coiners

Old Church of St Thomas à Becket, viewed from the porch of the new Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire

Old Church of St Thomas à Becket, viewed from the porch of the new Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire

Drive up the steep tortuous hill from the A6033 from Hebden Bridge, or better still catch the bus so you can enjoy the view as you climb, to Heptonstall at the top of the hill, where you find yourself in West Yorkshire at the end of the eighteenth century.

There has been a settlement at since before Domesday, straddling the packhorse route, the “causey”, from Lancashire at the point where it drops steeply down to cross the brook at “Hepton Brig”.

This was a place so bleak that farming was at best an uncertain living, and the inhabitants boosted their income with hand-loom weaving.

The rugged gritstone houses with their mullioned windows, clustered round the medieval church, have changed relatively little since canal transport and water-power, followed by steam-power and railways, altered the scale of local industry and moved the centre of population into the Calder valley below.

The last handloom weaver in Heptonstall worked till the end of the nineteenth century and died in 1902.

Heptonstall churchyard contains two churches.  The Old Church, dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, dates from the mid-thirteenth century.  Repeatedly extended, it has two naves as well as two aisles.  John Wesley described it as “the Ugliest Church I know”.  It was damaged by a gale in 1847 and patched up only until its replacement opened in 1854.  Afterwards it was allowed to fall into ruin.

The New Church, dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, contains the thirteenth-century font, the 1809 clock, and the Royal Arms of King George III from the Old Church.  The New Church was modernised and extended in 1963-4 by a legacy of Mr Abraham Gibson (d 1956).

Buried in the churchyard is David Hartley, ‘King’ of the Cragg Coiners, hanged for “unlawfully stamping and clipping a public coin” on May 1st 1770.

The poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1937-1963) is buried in the new churchyard.  Her admirers don’t take kindly to the fact that her stone bears the name of her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes.

Another, less well-known poet, Asa Benveniste (1925-1990), who latterly ran a bookshop in Hebden Bridge, is also buried here.  Roy Fuller wryly describes how the locals automatically assume any stranger in the graveyard must be looking for Plath:  http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1520.

The other significant place of worship in Heptonstall is the Octagon Chapel.

Heptonstall is an oddly mordant place, full of Yorkshire ambiguities, best visited on a sunny day.  To find the real warmth, you need to step inside either of the pubs, the White Lion [http://www.whitelionheptonstall.com] or the Cross Inn [http://heptonstall.org/mambo/index.php?option=com_content&task=category&sectionid=26&id=54&Itemid=83] or the Towngate Tea Room & Deli [http://heptonstall.org/mambo/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=128&Itemid=102].

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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