Almost the whole of the Pennines, that great range hills which extends over 200 miles from the Peak District of Derbyshire to the Scottish Border, is, in some form or other, protected landscape: Northumberland National Park, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and to the south, the Peak District National Park.
Only one part of the Pennines doesn’t receive national landscape protection, and that is what we now call the South Pennines, between Airedale in the north and the Colne and Holme Valleys to the south.
Yet there are parts of the South Pennines which are as scenically fine as anything in our National Parks. For example, the stunningly beautiful wooded valleys of Crimsworth Dean, Colden and Hardcastle Crags in Upper Calderdale, celebrated by two of our finest poets, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage. Or the moors above the Haworth immortalised by Emily Brontë. Or on a more popular level, one of television’s longest running sitcoms, Last of the Summer Wine, drew its inspiration from the landscape of the Colne and Holme valleys.
The South Pennines: impacted by human occupation and industry
The South Pennines as a whole has never achieved National Park or AONB status because of the massive impact of human occupation and industry. In order to survive in an area with poor, thin soils – only good for sheep grazing – and heavy rainfall, local communities developed skill in transforming sheep fleeces into high quality, heavy duty woollen cloth.
This was carried by packhorse from outlying farms and hamlets to be sold in standard lengths or ‘pieces’ in South Pennine towns such as Halifax with its Piece Hall. To this day cottages in Pennine villages have weaving lofts with narrow north-facing windows to catch the softer light.
By the mid-18th century hand looms were being rapidly replaced by mechanised weaving frames, powered by the one energy source the South Pennines had in abundance – water. Every narrow gill and side valley with a stream had its mill powered by a waterwheel, often with an elaborate system of goits or water channels to capture the water or store it in small reservoirs or ponds for release when the wheels were working, or at time of drought.
Trans-Pennine trade routes: heroic feats of engineering
The Pennines were a physical barrier to travel and trade across the North of England, in particular to and from the east and west coasts ports of Hull and Liverpool. But by the later 18th century, first road and later canal and finally railway engineers began crossing the Pennines with often heroic feats of construction, such as at Marsden, where the Standedge Tunnels were constructed first for the Huddersfield Narrow Canal to Manchester opened in 1811 then for the Leeds-Manchester Railway opened in 1848.
Canals and railways through the Colne, Calder and Aire valleys also brought cheap coal from the huge Lancashire and Yorkshire coalfields to fire steam engines that made water-powered mills redundant. Cheap energy and transportation of bulk raw materials and finished goods created the massive economic and social changes we now call the Industrial Revolution. This began in Britain before spreading to the rest of the world.
Prosperity and civic power
Huge textile mills grew alongside canals and railways, spinning and weaving, not just wool, but also cotton and linen. Towns like Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield expanded at an unprecedented rate, extending along river valleys to new suburbs and satellite towns served by railway, tram and eventually road traffic, including in 1971 the opening of the M62 Trans-Pennine motorway.
The massive commercial success of these industries brought unprecedented prosperity and civic power throughout the North England, which lasted for two centuries before power and wealth shifted back south in the late 20th century.
A price to pay
But that prosperity had been achieved at a heavy price in terms of the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of the South Pennine valleys, resulting in air and water pollution and wildlife destruction, for example from chemical dyes in local streams and rivers. Much of the peat and heather gritstone moorland above the valleys was damaged by smoke pollution from cities such as Manchester, though it has since recovered.
The Pennine moors, dotted by reservoir dams, remain vital for water catchment. They are also vital green lungs for inhabitants of nearby towns and cities, open for public access on foot, and crossed by popular hiking trails such as the Pennine Way, Calderdale Way, Brontë Way and Colne Valley Walk.
By the later 20th century, foreign competition had caused the decline of traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles and manufacturing, which resulted in serious economic and social decline for many Northern communities. Loss of job opportunities, civic pride and poor housing threatened to bring a bleak future.
But that didn’t happen in the South Pennines.
South Pennine revival and regeneration
Change began in the 1970s with a small group of people in Hebden Bridge who came together to campaign to save Nutclough Mill, one of the last working mills in the town and former home of the world’s first producer cooperative. This led to the setting up of a charity, Pennine Heritage. Its mission was to revive not just Hebden Bridge – with various conservation projects – but the whole of the South Pennines, through awakening interest in the natural, social and industrial history of the sub-region. Based at Birchcliffe Mill, just above the town centre, Pennine Heritage is now a focal point not only for archive information and multi-media interpretation of South Pennine heritage, but for economic regeneration.
This task has now been taken up by the various local authorities in the South Pennines (which stretches across four county boundaries) who have set up South Pennines Park. This is a jointly owned development company established to secure economic and environmental regeneration of the sub-region through a variety of grant-funded projects and promotional campaigns, in what is now termed the South Pennines Park.
Exciting new developments
The South Pennines has the good fortune to lie almost equidistant from two of the North’s most vibrant cities – Manchester and Leeds. Two busy cross-Pennine railway lines bring towns like Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Marsden or Slaithwaite within easy commuter distance of both cities. This has encouraged young, more enterprising people to buy property or start small, eco-friendly businesses appealing to people seeking alternative lifestyles.
Whilst the initial dream of establishing a national park in a post-industrial landscape was never going to be realised, what has happened is more exciting. Faced with appalling climate-change-fuelled flooding episodes, groups and individuals in Calderdale are working with local authorities and national agencies on a variety of schemes to protect homes.
In addition, trees are being planted and ‘leaky dams’ created on local sykes and becks to reduce water flow speed and flood risk, not only in Calderdale but as far away as Wakefield and Selby. Above the valleys peat moorland is being restored in partnership with water companies and landowners. Organic farming, to also encourage biodiversity, is flourishing.
A green revolution that is innovative and community led
Recognising that meeting the region’s needs is increasingly beyond the capacity of central government, much of this innovative thinking and action is community led. If the South Pennines led the way in the Industrial Revolution, it is now in the forefront of what might be called the Green Revolution, where problems are dealt with through community involvement and engagement and solutions are found based on local understanding and experience.