Oliver Cross: Bold new future for Summer Wine country

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AT THE WEEKEND, I had a day out in Holmfirth, in what they insist on calling Last of the Summer Wine country, as if an area settled in medieval times can be defined by its few decades as the setting for an amiable TV comedy show.

It was a dull, cold day and the tourists attracted by a programme set in an unlikely part of West Yorkshire characterised by eternal sunshine and frequent comic accidents, were staying away in droves.

Holmfirth is very much like other former Pennine mill towns. The enormous ingenuity used to cram as many houses as possible into the spaces between hills too steep to build on has left an interesting townscape, including elevated front doors of the type patrolled by the fearsome Norah Batty and streets which you can’t simply stroll along because you have to squeeze yourself round tight corners and up and down improbable inclines.

All this was so that mill workers could live near enough to their workplaces to devote most of their time to being mill workers; although Holmfirth, along with its chapels and mills and noses-to-the-grindstone ethos, also had a rakish side. Balmforth and Co, founded in the town, pioneered early filmmaking and then turned, with great success, to producing seaside postcards featuring large-bosomed women and men with red noses.

Roy Clarke, who wrote The Last of the Summer Wine, was born in the West Riding and didn’t have to move far to find inspiration for a comedy which miraculously rose so far above its setting in the harsh, unforgiving Pennine hills that it became the most definitively daft place in the country.

The question for Holmfirth and all the other textile, mining and manufacturing settlements left stranded by the brutal deindustrialisation of Britain, is, what now?

In Holmfirth, as in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge or Haworth, the answer seems to be inventive retailing; shops selling retro sweets or interesting books, clothes and curios rather than the necessary food and hardware which, in the past, kept working towns working.

There is also a move towards exotic eating, and I was very pleased to find a cafe in Holmfirth selling home-made meat-and-potato pie, chips and mushy peas with abundant gravy.

The new-wave shops are enjoyable enough but do, I think, represent a loss of dignity for areas of the country which were once at the centre of national life; which literally made us what we are.

Since much production is now digital, I can see a new role for Holmfirth and other left-behind mill towns whose chief asset is that they look dramatic and, in certain lights, beautiful.

Although they don’t provide much of a living, they are still very good places to live; nobody with an ounce of soul would chose to move from the northern hills to the dull south-east.