Overshadowed by the nearby Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, we explain why the Holme Valley in West Yorkshire is the perfect place for a weekend away walking.
There are times of the year when the towns and hamlets of the Holme Valley are bustling centres of art, film, food and folk events. If it can have a festival, then Holmfirth will host it. But this is forgivable for a town trying to rediscover itself after the ending of its most famous inducement to visit: the British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine which was filmed there. Long gone are the Japanese and American tourists that flocked to see Nora Batty’s house and Sid’s Café (both of which still exist, like archaeological sites to a fading past), and a new type of visitor is emerging; the weekend walker.
That is not to say that this area has not seen walkers in the past; quite the contrary. But the nearby delights of the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales lures walkers away from this lesser known haven.
A stop in Holmfirth opens up an opportunity to discover a hidden gem of Yorkshire walking.
The Holme Valley lies on the far reaches of the West Yorkshire border, where the county meets Derbyshire, and turns into the rugged terrain of the notorious Saddleworth Moor. At its head is Holme, the gateway to the Peak District National Park. At its end is Huddersfield. It cuts a sharp V into the landscape, with the River Holme on its floor, and the larger settlements of Holmfirth and Honley climbing up the hillside, narrow roads spreading out like veins on a leaf, houses left to chisel themselves into the inclines. Once a royal hunting ground, the area around them is rural, scattered with farms, whilst they themselves bear testament to the Victorian age which saw a plethora of mill building. That legacy still marks the valley and dominates the architecture, marred by the occasional twentieth-century mistake now earmarked for demolition.
Over the years the valley has been known as a hub for the early British film industry, the centre for saucy postcard production and the home of Fenella the tiger. Now it boasts a vineyard, a cider press, the Welly Wanging World Championship and one of the best cycle climbs in the country, featured in the Tour de France.
Walks flow out of Holmfirth in all directions, offering a variety of terrain and endurance levels, but always with a spectacular view as your reward. Flat walks are scarce without a drive, but they do exist if you know where to look: there is a small carpark at the head of Ramsden Reservoir, giving access to a flat walk to Riding Wood Reservoir and on to Yateholme, suitable for prams and sturdy wheelchairs.
Most walks from the town will involve some kind of ascent, but the severity of it depends on which route you take. The effort is worthwhile. Close to the town, the climb up through Wooldale to Holmfirth Cliff offers stunning views across the rooftops and a chance to boulder if you are so inclined. Other walks follow the River Holme downstream, meandering to Brockholes, Biggin, Thurstonland and Fulstone, following with lanes that have been used for generations to transport salt from Cheshire, stone from the local quarries and cloth from the many mills.
To the north of Holmfirth, are the two Thongs: the villages of Upperthong and Netherthong – and yes, on more than one occasion the names have appeared on national radio travel reports to great hilarity! In fact, they derive from the Old English: uferra þwang (upper strip of land) and neoðera þwang (lower strip of land). Come in June and you will be treated to the Welly Wanging World Championship, but for most of the year they each remain a tranquil hamlet where you are unlikely to receive the same welcome as John Wesley who recounted in 1757: ‘The men, women and children filled the streets and seemed just ready to devour us’. Weave through the old part of Netherthong village to find the cider press, complete with café and shop, and follow the winding paths, bridleways, woodland tracks and roads lined with dry-stone walls to Wolfstone Heights. For some the journey will take an hour, for others it may take the whole day, following the various routes out as far as Honley and back.
This land is the green fields of sheep farming, but look up the valley towards the Peak District and the place can seem barren and bleak. The area is rich in reservoirs (Digley, Bilberry, Ramsden, Riding Wood, Brownhill and Yateholme), built to serve the sixty or so textile mills that sprang up along the length of the valley below. Some have carparks, circular routes and picnic tables, attracting day trippers and families, becoming go-to places when the days are warm. Go further afield and the world is transformed. Carved into the landscape, the reservoirs present a diverse array of paths that twist down into the woods and up onto the bleak tops giving stunning views across the dappled landscape and down the valley.
The waters here have not always been so benevolent. In the early hours of 5 February 1852 the embankment holding up Bilberry Reservoir collapsed. The 81 people (sources are confused as to the exact number) who died that night were the victims of neglect; a spring which had been discovered when building the foundations was ignored and simply plugged and buried rather than being diverted, and in the years that followed, as the wall began to slump, none of the wealthy millowners who benefitted from the reservoir would pay for its repair. The torrent of water that swept through the valley wiped out entire generations, from 2 month old George Hartley to 72 year old Joshua Earnshaw; in one house, ten members of the same family were all drowned. An almost forgotten plaque in the wall of the butcher’s shop on Victoria Street marks the flood height as it swept into Holmfirth – you have to look up to see it.
Turn away from the valley and you are greeted with the moor. This area offers challenges: walks that require confidence, fitness and stamina. They are not for the casual traveller. Holme Moss has become famous as one of the elite routes for cycle climbing, rising up out of the village of Holmebridge to a height of 524 metres. Following a map across the moor – there are very few tracks – leads to Black Hill, which, being 58 meters higher, pips its neighbour as the highest point in West Yorkshire. But only just; you are now in the Peak District, sat on the border with Derbyshire, although until 1974 the hill had been part of Cheshire. Once black as the name suggests, it has been rewilded, bringing back mountain hares, grouse and short-eared owls to the once barren and boggy plateau. From other directions you can reach the summit via the Pennine Way, but whichever route you take, the panorama remains spectacular, with a view of Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales on a clear day.
The south-east side of Holme Moss bears witness to its darker side. Remains of a US B-24H Liberator aircraft that crashed here in 1944 killing nine of her 10-man crew can still be seen. She had been on a test flight and, in poor weather conditions, the pilot flew low through the valley, crashing into the hillside which rose up before him and bursting into flames. Black Hill had already claimed a victim in January 1940 when a Fairey Swordfish crashed, killing its pilot. Only four months later, the moor claimed another aircraft, this time a four man Handley Page Hampden returning from a bombing raid in Germany, its unused bombs exploding on impact. The final tragedy occurred to the east of Black Hill in 1954 when a Sabre jet was undergoing a test flight before being transferred from the RAF to a NATO ally. Its pilot was also killed.
Come back down into the valley and normal tourist adventures are possible. A stroll around the town will take you past the old railway station, closed as part of the Dr Beecham reforms, the alms houses erected as a result of the devastation left by the floods and a 16th century gaol. There is also the building which once housed the Holmfirth Film Studios, a successful silent-era movie company that made films such as The Kiss in the Tunnel, Ladies’ Skirts Nailed to a Fence, Paula and Winky Causes a Smallpox Panic. This is somehow appropriate for Holmfirth – in Old English the word Holme means Holly and the word Firth means wood! The annual film festival is a reminder of what could have been. There are cafes, restaurants and independent pubs for refreshment, and a concert venue that still has the power to pull in some big names (the Nashville band Hayseed Dixie describe it as one of their favourite places to perform). Time your visit well and you can enjoy the festival of folk in May, the arts festival in June, art week in July, and the food festival in September. And, of course, there is still Sid’s Café and Nora Batty’s house.