A wintery Friday afternoon and Ashley Jackson is holding court.
In the upstairs office above his West Yorkshire gallery, the 68-year-old, Barnsley-born landscape artist is nursing a crystal tumbler of well-aged single malt.
In the background an array of photographs show him receiving his courtiers: Sarah Ferguson, Rudolf Giuliani and professional Yorkshireman Fred Trueman.
“The quarry and mill men started the creative tradition of Holmfirth,” he chuckles to himself.
“The town had poets, musicians and intellectuals long before Last of the Summer Wine arrived. I had a gallery in Holmfirth for many years BC – before Compo.”
According to Ashley, Homfirth’s appeal is simply its visceral beauty – and the people inspired by it.
“Holmfirth is masculine country. If you appreciate the moors and nature, you’re welcome in Holmfirth with open arms,” he winks. “But the moors breed a certain type of person. They don’t breed bankers, that’s for sure.”
Ashley has granted me an audience to help me discover why this small West Yorkshire community is booming with house buyers chasing the life-work-balance dream.
To the outsider, the proposition seems unfathomable with dark, satanic mills looming over rough, forbidding moorland.
To the coach parties that clog up the triumvirate of main streets each weekend, the unique draw is the long-running television series Last of the Summer Wine, which first started filming in the area in 1972.
But to the converts, Holmfirth is a burgeoning arts hub with the Picturedrome Cinema, a glorious arthouse institution dating from 1912, the trail-blazing CragRats Theatre and a slew of well-regarded art galleries.
Ashley is right too – there was life before Compo. Bamforth & Co a publishing, film and illustration company based in Holmfirth, not only pioneered the saucy seaside postcard, but also preceded Hollywood as a film-making centre, making its first monochrome films in 1898.
Located ten miles south of Huddersfield, Holmfirth is the main settlement in the Holme Valley.
A mill town since the Industrial Revolution, it’s overflowing with bucolic charm – think local stone-built cottages perched precariously on steep, twisting roads.
It’s also very centrally located for commuting to Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, all university towns, and all within one hour’s drive. Within 20 minutes you can be cruising down the M1 or M62.
Despite the rural location, house prices are well above the district average and there is a high demand area for housing, while 11.3 per cent of economically active locals are self-employed compared to a national average of 8.3 per cent, according to figures from Kirklees Council.
“Holmfirth is small enough to feel friendly but big enough to be worth coming to.”
“It’s come of age as a destination with the advent of broadband,” says Max Earnshaw, Managing Director, EarnshawKay estate agents.
The broad range of housing stock ranges from a farmhouse with 30 acres for £1m to a two-bed cottage for £125,000, while a typical, four-bedroom detached house with a garden sells for around £250,000.
Particularly popular for conversions are the three-storey weavers’ cottages, as are the outlying villages of the Holme Valley, such as Upperthong, Netherthong and Wooldale.
“We get quite a young clientele – typically people in their early thirties who have done their time in London. People who want to retire head for North Yorkshire,” says Earnshaw.
“We have mill conversions with aspects of new build, but they cost £200,000 plus, so there’s not much for first-time buyers. But there are lots of empty old mills, which are ideal for setting up a business,” he adds.
Time for tea
Sue and Chris Gardener moved to Holmfirth seven years ago from Harpenden and did just that.
They bought the Wrinkled Stocking Tea Room, part of the building used as the film location for Nora Batty’s cottage in Last of the Summer Wine, as a going concern.
Downstairs an exhibition of memorabilia marks the 25th anniversary of the programme. But, as outsiders to Yorkshire, they are known as ‘comer-inners’ in the local parlance.
“We weren’t fans of the show. I always took the theme music as my cue to leave the room on a Sunday evening,” says Sue, as we sit amid floral tablecloths and china cups with an array of mouth-watering homemade cakes on the heaving sideboard.
“It’s okay as a comer-inner. People are genuinely warm and friendly. They may take a while to get to know but, when you do, you have a friend for life,” explains Chris. “And the countryside is stunning.”
“We walk the dogs every day and love the space. In Harpenden, we used to queue just to get into the car park at Waitrose.”
The Last of the Summer Wine set still draws the crowds but, in recent years, it’s the town’s cultural scene that has really captured the imagination – leading to a new influx of comer-inners. The HD9 postcode is now the second-highest theatre going audience in the region.
CragRats, a theatre, communication and education business, founded in 1991 and housed in a converted woolen mill at the edge of town, is the best exponent of the thriving arts community.
The company employs 80 staff and has over 300 actors on its books, running training programmes for companies as diverse as Diageo and West Yorkshire Police. The sprawling labyrinthine building is home to a theatre, a multi-media department and a corporate training facility.
“People think Holmfirth is the back of beyond but there’s a lot of raw talent in this area,” says David Bradley, Chairman of CragRats and co-founder of the business.
“The arts scene started with the film industry and I think the sense of creativity has been built into the fabric of the area ever since.”
“We chose Holmfirth for the building, the location and as a geographical centre as it’s close to Manchester and Leeds,” he adds.
“Most of all, I wanted to live somewhere that has a strong sense of identity and community.”
Back at the Ashley Jackson gallery, we’re draining our whiskies and bracing ourselves for the icy bite of winter.
“People round here tell it straight and I enjoy their directness. It comes from the moors. But go into any pub in Holmfirth and you’ll soon find out if you’ve been accepted,” chuckles Ashley.
The secret? “It’s the greatest gift you can give a Yorkshireman,” he winks.
“You know they’ve accepted you when they ask you to get a round in.”
What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.
This article was first published in the Weekend FT in 2008.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.
It felt like a prodigal return.
Stepping off the train at Leeds station, the memories flooded back of filing my first copy in the early nineties for Leeds Student – a gig review of Mudhoney at the University Refectory, since you ask.
I soon developed a taste for bylines and, within a few years, had moved to a postgraduate journalism school in London, later turning freelance and travelling the world on newspaper travel assignments.
I always felt a certain fondness for Leeds but hadn’t been back in 17 years. That is, until now.
In those intervening years, while I was exploring Japanese hot springs and trundling through the Andes in clapped-out buses, something changed: Leeds became the story.
I missed the opening of the first Harvey Nichols outside of London in 1996 and the subsequent retail boom. I felt a frisson of civic pride as Leeds became largest financial and legal centre outside of London around the millennium.
When the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) voted Leeds Met’s Broadcasting Place, the best tall building in the world, I raised a celebratory pint of Tetley’s.
After all, Leeds had beaten Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
So it was time to revisit some old haunts, witness the post-millennium wave of urban renaissance, the idea spearheaded by the architect Richard Rogers and the Urban Task Force, and explore the new face of the city.
But, first, it was time for a cup of tea and a crash course in post-industrial architecture.
I meet Dr Kevin Grady, Director of the Leeds Civic Trust, the body responsible for the numerous blue plaques around the city, under the lavish, stained-glass roof of the Country Arcade in the Victoria Quarter.
Around us cappuccinos are being frothed, designer labels by the likes of Ted Baker and Vivienne Westwood displayed, and flyers for new cultural events distributed. It feels very new Leeds.
Dr Grady, sipping Earl Grey, says: “I love the way the heritage architecture of Leeds has been adapted to the modern, vibrant city. The way the city was cleaned up in the Nineties to reveal its stunning heritage has really restored its civic pride.”
Leeds may have blossomed post millennium but, as Kevin explains, it wasn’t Leeds’ first flush of success as a business hub.
The Bank of England opened a satellite office in Leeds in 1827, a certain Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer fame first set up his Penny Bazaar in 1884 at Leeds Kirkgate Market and, in 1921, Montague Burton founded a huge clothing factory, which evolved into the high-street tailoring stalwart Burtons.
By the time Leeds gained city status in 1893, it was already a booming urban metropolis.
“If you stand at the top of Briggate today and look down the road, you get the same sense as standing at the top of Las Ramblas in Barcelona.”
Barcelona? The Leeds I remember was more like Belgrade.
The perpetual monotone-grey sky, the sucker punch of stale beer in the Union Bar and serious boys in long, dark-tweed overcoats walking cinematically through an urban wasteland to a soundtrack of Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy.
I should know. I was one of them.
The heritage infrastructure of Leeds was physically shaped by the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
The Hull-born architect Cuthbert Broderick was a key figure in the city, designing the imposing Town Hall in 1858 and the Corn Exchange in 1863. Broderick is today represented with a huge modernist pub on the rear flank of Millennium Square, an area of the city that is completely new to me.
While much if the square feels soulless to me, it is home to the new cultural powerhouse, the £19m Leeds City Museum, which transformed the Grade II-listed Civic Institute building off Millennium Square into a state-of-the-art museum.
The Leeds Story, the permanent upstairs gallery, traces the origins of Leeds from Iron Age roundhouses to a recent concert by local favourites, the Kaiser Chiefs.
For me, the biggest surprise of my visit, however, is the development beyond the train station and south of the River Aire.
During my undergraduate days, it was pretty much a non-go zone. But Holbeck Urban Village, the crucible of the city’s Industrial Revolution, is today reborn as a regeneration-zone business hub with a focus on digital media start-ups.
The landscape is a work-in-progress mix of gritty industrial heritage and modernist new build, interspersed with a clutch of cosy gastropubs, refurbished workshops and fringed by apartment-style residential developments.
Back across the River Aire, the lower city centre has evolved dramatically with a clutch of new boutique hotels around a reformatted City Square, a huge retail and eating centre, The Light, on The Headrow and the new all-glass façade of the revived City Varieties theatre to be unveiled this autumn.
The Northern Ballet has a new purpose-built site on Quarry Hill, while the big new project for 2012 is Leeds Arena, a new music, entertainment and sports centre with a striking honeycomb design. Despite some faltering projects along the way given prevailing economic conditions, Leeds looks in rude health.
“Alumni returning to Leeds will find a hugely improved cultural offer, much-improved infrastructure, better pedestrianisation and street furniture, and a more interesting cityscape, mixing modern architecture with the cleaned-up Victorian buildings,” says Dr Rachael Unsworth, Lecturer in the School of Geography, who teaches on urban sustainability and resources.
But the city centre faces new challenges. A series of recent public meetings, organised by academics from Leeds University, highlighted the key issues.
Traders at Kirkgate Market continue to face an uncertain future, the independent shops of the Corn Exchange have been replaced by upmarket chain eateries and the slew of yuppie-hutch flats still search for owners while their equity turns negative.
While the city remains compact and architecturally rich, local voices are calling increasingly for more green space, tempting car users back onto public transport and increased support for independent local businesses to counter the clone-town Britain effect.
So, if I don’t return to Leeds for another 17 years, what could I expect to find? Dr Unsworth says:
“A greener city with a park on the south bank of the River Aire, no through traffic, hence a city more oriented towards pedestrians and cyclists, and a new phase of development, which is more environmentally sound.”
“That’s not just wishful thinking,” she adds. “It’s grounded in economic rationale to make Leeds a more liveable city.”
For me, having explored changing Leeds, I was starting to crave something of frozen-in-time Leeds, a paean to a long-past but highly prized era of my life. I found it in a history-rich little alleyway just off Briggate.
Whitelocks [pictured above] is the oldest pub in Leeds – its first license was granted in 1715 – and the poet John Betjeman described it as, “The very heart of Leeds.”
With its stained-glass windows, Art Deco ‘Luncheon Bar’ sign and Yorkshire’s Black Sheep ale on tap, it remains an oasis of real ale, home-cooked food and good company, the kind of place I happily spent many a Friday afternoon reading Leeds Student and delaying those big decisions about life after Leeds.
I settled down with a pint and satisfied warm glow. The city may evolve with the vagaries of time, fashion and economic conditions, but Whitelocks remains a corner of the world that will be forever Leeds.
I felt, finally, at home.
* This story was first published in Leeds magazine in 2010.