As she cycles through Bronte Country on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, Clare Balding uncovers a unique photographic collection and a club for henpecked husbands.
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60 years ago, an extraordinary man called Harold Briercliffe
wrote a series of books about his great passion: cycling.
Now largely forgotten, these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong epic journey.
His destination? The whole of Britain, on two wheels.
Over half a century later, armed with one of his reliable cycle touring guides,
I'm riding Harold's very own bicycle, a Dawes Super Galaxy.
Hand-built in Britain, this was the ultimate touring machine of its day.
I'll be taking it on a journey of rediscovery,
to find the magnificent countryside Harold explored all those years ago.
I'm going in search of Britain by Bike.
Today, I'm in the north of England.
Welcome to Yorkshire, and Bronte Country.
Straddling the Yorkshire and Lancashire borders, and cut from the Pennine Hills,
these vast stretches of craggy moorland promise tough cycling, beautiful views,
and stories of extraordinary people.
We'll be focusing on a number of heroines as resilient
and varied as the landscape itself, some are more famous than others.
They call this Bronte country.
But for cycling author Harold Briercliffe, the attraction had little to do with literature.
He calls this some of the best cycling in Britain,
and he was drawn to Yorkshire not because of the celebrated sisters of Haworth parsonage,
but because of this, the wild and windswept moorland,
the tiny hamlets and villages cut from the rough local stone.
And the deep and winding valleys.
It's majestic countryside.
My route follows Harold's 30-mile tour through the Upper Calder Valley.
It starts and finishes in Hebden Bridge.
First stop, Haworth, before heading west towards Wycoller.
Then it's uphill and down dale to Blake Dean and the
scenic Hardcastle Crags, before turning back towards Hebden Bridge.
BRIERCLIFFE: The characteristic fell and dale country of West Yorkshire is unmistakeable.
There is little level land, and both valley bottom and climbing hillsides
are cut up into innumerable holdings by the stone walls,
sometimes straight, and often wriggling, which so surprise the newcomer.
Harold Briercliffe was quite prepared to cycle hundreds of miles,
and did so, in his exploration of the Yorkshire Dales.
But when he came here to Hebden Bridge,
he thought it was a very good starting and finishing point for a smaller tour of about 30 miles.
Harold was born in Rochdale, just 13 miles down the road from here,
so he'd have known the area well.
Which makes it all the more surprising how little he has to say about Hebden Bridge.
Hebden Bridge should be left by the Keighley Road.
Was there really nothing worth saying?
When Harold visited, this was a struggling mill town
where industry was in decline and money scarce.
Yet it enjoyed a vibrant inner life quite hidden from the casual observer like Harold.
60 years on, we can see just what he missed,
thanks to a remarkable woman.
Her name was Alice Longstaff. And in 1921, at the age of 13,
she took an apprenticeship at this shop here when it was a photographer's studio.
She would end up running the whole business,
and taking photographs of the people of this area for over 70 years.
Because of Alice Longstaff's dedication,
this is one of the best-chronicled communities in Britain.
All the events of small town life are preserved
in a collection of pictures taken by Alice and her colleagues.
As a result, we can see Hebden Bridge during the 1940s and early '50s,
just as Harold was writing his Cycling Touring Guides.
Alice Longstaff's life and work is the subject of a play written by author Angela Cairns.
Alice Longstaff was...
born out of the rocks of this area.
She felt she was hewn out of the very stone.
She was a farm girl, her parents had originally been weavers.
And she very early developed an interest in photography.
It was at the age 13, she saw the advertisement
in the Westerman studio, which seemed to be made for her.
So, unlike many parents who wouldn't encourage a girl in particular,
doing such a radical thing, they paid £6 to the local grammar school
to take her away so that she could begin her apprenticeship.
Yet, the woman who chronicled the lives of others left a mystery about her own.
There was speculation about her 57-year marriage,
especially after her death in 1992.
She had done a very strange thing in her will as far as her husband was concerned.
She did. She surprised and staggered a lot of people.
In brief, the will disinherited him.
Why did she do that?
It was an imbalanced marriage, where she wore the trousers, and she would say so.
John was very much in the background.
It was almost as if she didn't need him. And in another era,
one might have asked questions about her sexuality, but of course, not then.
Alice's real legacy was the Longstaff Collection,
some 10,000 photographs dating back to the early days of the Westerman studio,
and capturing Hebden Bridge throughout the 20th century.
There were prints and duplicates, there were boxes and boxes and boxes of them.
Unclaimed and unnamed thousands.
It was extraordinary to find prints
leafed away in the pages of Yellow Pages and other telephone books.
Almost like a reckless, random and careless collection.
How unusual was it to be a female photographer? There had been Julia Margaret Cameron
some time earlier. Was this an oddity in this part of the country?
She had her heroines, such as Julia Margaret Cameron.
But yes, it was extremely rare.
She was encouraged by Ada Westerman who was the Westerman daughter,
who had taken the studio over from her father.
So, between them, the two women felt that, although they were doing something quite rare,
they were doing something terribly significant for the community,
and building a reputation for women in this town.
The Westerman studio, later Alice's own shop,
was part of the fabric of town life.
Alice's speciality was hand-tinted portraits of children and families.
Although renowned for her forceful personality,
she seemed able to put her subjects at ease, to raise a smile,
and to capture the intimacy of the moment.
I think she knew she had an almost unprecedented gift,
something to offer this community.
Everybody had their photographs done in their early days,
before people had their own cameras.
And a favourite local expression was, "'Ave yer seen yer photographs in t'winder?"
These photographs not only show the people of Hebden Bridge,
like the groups of women mill workers sitting by their machines,
they also document the rise and fall of an industrial town,
from the arrival of the railway to the mills' grimy decline.
In the '60s, Alice's camera even captured the spirit of hope
and regeneration that marked the town's change in fortunes.
How important do you think the collection is
as a historical record of Hebden Bridge through the decades?
By photographing all the various groups, teams, brigades,
everyone in the town virtually,
it really is a documentation of an area and its life,
its working life, and that's what Alice accidentally has done for us.
Alice Longstaff's photos give us a privileged glimpse into the past of Hebden Bridge,
and it's not surprising that this working town went unremarked
by a passing cyclist like Harold Briercliffe.
Because it's only in retrospect that an archive like Alice's can
take on the significance that makes it more than just a local curiosity.
Harold might not have had a lot to say about Hebden Bridge,
nor indeed would he have known anything about Alice Longstaff.
But she was certainly a kind of local heroine around here.
And Hebden Bridge itself is just fabulous.
Very liberal, very ethically aware, very bicycle friendly.
A good place to base yourself.
And, from here, you can get out and explore some of the wilder parts of the countryside.
The Keighley Road immediately commences to climb out of the Calder Valley,
and from the ledge commands a splendid prospect.
From here, Harold's route continues through the village of Pecket Well,
and then leaves the busy A road,
striking out over the high moorland towards Haworth.
Harold delighted in listing every rise and fall of the road
until the determined cyclist eventually reaches the final climb.
Up to the setts or cobbles of the main street at Haworth,
to where the swinging sign of the Black Bull beckons.
There's plenty about Haworth that wouldn't have changed at all since Harold came through.
It's still got a real ancient charm to it,
and was clearly always cycling-friendly.
But the first stop for any visitor, however they choose to get here,
is the Old Parsonage.
Haworth is internationally renowned because this was the birthplace and the home of the three Bronte sisters
who, in 1847, all had big novels published.
Emily had Wuthering Heights, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, and Anne had Agnes Grey.
And even Harold recognised how far their fame had spread.
They weren't just local heroines, they were global.
BRIERCLIFFE: The writing of three sisters,
daughters of an incumbent of Irish extraction with a French name,
together with the human weaknesses of their brother, have brought to this
hilly Yorkshire townlet a fame that has spread, with the usual results,
to the far corners of Hollywood.
The Bronte legend failed to impress Harold.
They may have been three Yorkshire girls creating works of literary genius,
but all this business about their harsh upbringing,
holed up in some forbidding parsonage,
surrounded by the miserable wastes of the Yorkshire moors,
Harold wasn't buying that at all.
The setting of the inn, graveyard,
church and parsonage is not as gloomy as portrayed by some earlier writers.
If Harold was disappointed by Haworth's lack of gloomy atmosphere,
I'm sure it was more than made up for
in the huge numbers of refreshments provided for weary cyclists.
And, believe me, you'll have worked hard for them.
I'm following this route, the Cycling Tour Guide
written by a chap called Howard Briercliffe from the late '40s.
And he says the Yorkshire Dales have some of the best cycling you can find anywhere in Britain.
-Do you think that's true?
-Yes, I agree with him. It's beautiful.
-It's hard work though.
-Yes. I feel that too.
-I'm with you.
-You've got to be prepared to get off and push and not feel bad about it.
Yes, exactly. It's not an area for big egos to come into, is it?
Not at all. If you do the hard you work, you get the benefits, like today.
The views have been stunning.
-Where are you going on to now?
-Cycling to Keighley and catching the train back.
But we're having coffee and cake.
-Coffee and cake here.
Enjoy that and I hope you have good weather for the rest of the day.
-Thanks so much indeed.
-And I hope you have a lovely trip.
One of the important things you learn about the cycling community
is, not only are they friendly, they also tell you important things.
For example, there is no shame in getting off and pushing,
especially on cobbled streets which are almost impossible to ride on.
And, do you know something else about Haworth?
The traffic can be nose to tail.
The next part of the route leaves Haworth
and heads west for a mile or so to Stanbury.
Then on to the tops, higher and higher,
past the Ponden reservoir until we reach the border with Lancashire.
I don't like the look of those clouds.
Just across the border is Wycoller.
Now cherished for its untouched character,
this tiny hamlet was derelict for most of the 20th century.
And Wycoller has its own Bronte connection.
Wycoller Hall is reputed to be the original of Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre,
the rambling building to which Rochester retired when maimed and blinded,
there to be comforted, in the long last, by Jane.
It's said that the Bronte sisters were regular visitors here to Wycoller.
They'd have walked over from Haworth.
As you can see, most of the house is now in ruins, but one key feature still remains,
and it's something that is mentioned specifically in Charlotte Bronte's greatest novel.
-QUOTE FROM JANE AYRE:
-This parlour looks gloomy.
A neglected handful of fire burnt low in the grate,
and leaning over it, with his head supported against the high, old-fashioned mantelpiece,
appeared the blind tenant of the room.
This is Rochester's old-fashioned mantelpiece and it's still standing,
although the rest of the building is in ruins.
When Harold visited in the '40s, the house and its once magnificent fireplace were in a sorry state.
Throughout the 19th century, the village was gradually abandoned
as people sought work in the mill towns of Hebden Bridge and nearby Colne.
As the towns grew, so did the demand for water,
and plans were made to create a vast reservoir in the Wycoller Valley.
There's certainly no lack of water today.
Despite the rain, local historian John Bentley is here to tell me how
Wycoller village was saved by two formidable women.
Why was there a need for so much more water?
Just the fact that Colne was a growing town.
Factories were being built, and new buildings, new premises.
And all of them, obviously, what had come along in Victorian towns?
The water closet. And everybody needed water every hour of the day.
And looking round in the area, where was the natural source?
And here was the answer.
You have a valley with two streams running in from the moors,
a good collecting ground.
All you needed to do was dam across the valley
and they had enough water to provide Colne for the next 50 years.
But there was a problem.
The lady who owned this valley, Susannah Benson, born Hartley,
was very keen on the valley and she looked after the building.
She lived here in Wycoller House just across the stream,
and she wasn't keen.
They planned to buy land that the reservoir was going to cover.
They didn't want to buy the extra bit of fields that were going to be under water,
which was very unfair for the landowner,
who would be left with half-fields and a barn here, which would have no use.
So she did argue and file the petition against the reservoir itself.
Susannah stood up to the Colne Waterboard, forcing them to buy her entire estate,
including the land that wasn't needed.
And her stubbornness had unexpected consequences.
They found water elsewhere, and lots of it, under the ground.
They drilled, they found all the water they needed,
and all the Colne Corporation needed was a quarter acre of land to build a pump house,
and they'd landed themselves with 370 acres which
they then had to manage because they'd compulsory-purchased it.
The Waterboard abandoned the reservoir plans, but they wanted to keep Wycoller just in case.
The Hall and the village remained untouched, unprotected, but also undeveloped.
The ruins and abandoned cottages were a favourite spot for tourists and locals.
People often came here to enjoy this sense of a deserted village.
And many said it should remain a deserted village.
It was an attraction because of it.
But how long could it have remained?
One generation or two at most would have enjoyed it.
Then it would have been rubble.
The Waterboard wanted to demolish the Wycoller buildings,
but they faced fierce opposition from another feisty Yorkshirewoman.
Local librarian Evelyn Jowett was determined to save the ruins,
and she set up the Friends of Wycoller
to preserve this precious site.
There was an active group of builders and men who were able to come down,
put time and work in.
Stones were used to build up the bank, which would have collapsed and looked bad.
The walls would stop being undermined and this fireplace was preserved.
Evelyn Jowett, the librarian at Colne, was a driving force behind this.
And I don't think she came down here with pick and shovel,
but she was instrumental in getting others to do
and influencing local bodies in Colne to get behind the scheme.
And one of the things she used as the librarian,
which was so good, was publicity.
And she got articles in magazines throughout Lancashire,
and even throughout the country, so that people were...
Their interests were aroused, more visitors came and more donation came into the Friends of Wycoller.
Evelyn and the Friends of Wycoller successfully arrested the village's decay
and thanks to their intervention,
and the stubbornness of Susannah Benson 50 years earlier,
Wycoller was eventually made a conservation area.
Unlike some visitors, Harold Briercliffe took a practical approach to the village's charms,
showing off his expert eye by listing Wycoller's famous bridges
and comparing them to a catalogue of others he'd seen on his cycling travels.
BRIERCLIFFE: A clear stream flows down the dell to enter the village
close to a 13th-century pack-horse bridge of double arches.
There is another bridge, too, consisting of three large slabs
on boulders, akin to the clapper bridge at Tarr Steps, in Somerset.
While not far away, a single-slab bridge recalls the bridges of Dartmoor.
And that single slab is known as The Clam Bridge.
Possibly more than 1,000 years old, it narrowly escaped being swept away twice in recent years.
No wonder, look at this.
Gee whizz! Have a look at that.
I cannot believe how much the river's risen just in the time I'm sitting in there with John.
I mean, it's been raining quite hard but most of that is made up from
all of the rain water coming down from off the top of the moors.
I mean, this is a flash flood, and I tell you what.
I'm getting out of here, otherwise I might be stuck here for longer than I want.
Evelyn Jowett and Susannah Benson's achievements were impressive,
especially for a time when women struggled for recognition.
When Harold wrote his books, even the world of cycling suffered from sex discrimination.
Harold's wife Maimie, pictured here, won success as a racer,
winning numerous time trial events.
But women who were simply enthusiastic club cyclists fared less well.
Amongst them, Rene Stacey, now 92 years old, and the oldest surviving
founder member of the Hitchin Nomads, Harold's cycling club.
When there was races, it was very, very rarely a woman's race.
Women were in the very minority.
But when men were racing, they needed a lot of marshals, didn't they?
And feeders. The thing is, before the war, we weren't allowed what they call "road racing", mass start.
It all had to be time-trial at minute intervals.
So if there was 60 riders you were an hour getting the starters off.
You start at 6am and finish at 6pm. No stops.
So you had to run along beside them with food and all that sort of thing.
Women came in handy so we were encouraged.
It wasn't always because we wanted to go running after boys.
The boys needed us for working!
Leaving Wycoller, the route once again climbs out of the valley and up to the moors.
Park your ego at home, and push.
Once on the tops, the road dips up and down before crossing from Lancashire and back into Yorkshire
for the return leg of the journey.
On the descent, before a sharp hairpin, there is a small chapel on the left,
famous as the haunt of the "Henpecked Husbands", a Yorkshire society,
members of which come here once a year to escape the attentions of their wives.
'The society Harold describes is so secret no-one really knows of its origins,
'but I've come to Blake Dean to meet Nick Wilding,
'who I hope can tell me more about these wife-fearing Yorkshiremen.'
-Hey, Nick, hello.
-Nice to meet you, Clare.
-And you. Are you all right?
Yes. Now, you've come to talk about Blake Dean Baptist Chapel.
Yes. I hear there was some sort of secret society that was based here.
Ah, you mean the Henpecked Husband Society, don't you?
Now, that was very secret indeed, because, of course, everybody wondered who these people were.
Who were the henpecked husbands?
Because they were... It wasn't like being a mason, where at least your wife knows you're a mason.
They might not know what you did. But with the henpecked society man,
you didn't even know he was in there.
What were these husbands having to do that meant that they qualified as being henpecked?
I understand that there were mock trials,
and they had to admit to what they'd had to do for their wives,
and if it was a bit too serious, they would then be wheeled around either in a handcart,
or if in, for more serious things, it was a wheelbarrow.
There was a funny little book written in 1927 by a man who wanted to stay anonymous,
for best reasons known to himself,
who actually, tells us a little bit about the inner secrets of the hen-pecked club.
And it says, "Many old and grey men meet every Easter Monday for a humerous picnic to some quiet spot
"for a meeting without their other halves, to whose matrimonial strings they may be tied".
"For one day they privileged to imagine they are untied and at liberty.
"The antics they perform and their hullabaloos are really remarkable,
"and new members are subjected to searching questions and medical inspection", Clare.
I mean, fancy that!
What were they inspecting for?
I don't know but I don't think I really would have wanted to be a member of the Henpecked Society
if I was going to have a medical inspection by some strange person.
When did the last meeting take place, or is this something that's still going on?
Well, 1974 was the time when a picture was taken of them
and they were in the middle of Heptonstall High Street,
and that was the last known meeting of the Henpecked Society.
So do we think now that henpecked husbands just don't exist?
Oh, I'm sure they don't exist today, Clare!
And when Harold Briercliffe was coming down here with his hands on his brakes,
what would he have seen?
He'd have seen a wonderful architectural gem, actually.
Something most unusual.
When you were upstairs in the chapel, apparently you could virtually touch the preacher,
but I suppose if he was breathing fire and brimstone,
you wouldn't have wanted to touch him, would you?
So when did it sort of fall into a ruinous state?
Oh, that was in the 1960s and it was all very, very sad.
It got seriously vandalised inside,
and in the end, it was sold to a demolition man.
BRIERCLIFFE: As the valley of the Hebden Water deepens on the left
and becomes Hardcastle Crags, the road hangs above it in an aerial fashion,
giving revealing glimpses of the dark woods that hang below.
This weather goes from one extreme to the other.
I got so cold and wet, Nick said, "just get some cover".
But he did say, "When it stops raining, you've got to make sure you go and Hardcastle Crags."
And it's something that Harold mentions in the book as well.
So, I'm going to leave the bike and have a walk down.
Now owned by the National Trust, Hardcastle Crags has long been popular with visitors.
But this deep, wooded valley has a forgotten industrial past,
one that's led me to the story of another unusual woman.
You can see why this is a favourite spot for picnics.
It's so peaceful down here and so it's odd to think
that between 1903 and 1907,
this place would have been buzzing with activity.
To look at the Walshaw Dean reservoirs today, you'd never know
it took hundreds of Irish navvies four years to build them.
In contrast, it only took a few weeks to construct a place for them and their families to live.
Known as Dawson City, after the gold rush settlement in Canada,
it was home to almost 600 men, women and children.
With all those mouths to feed, the camp needed a formidable cook,
and local woman Thursa Adams was fit for the task.
She was quite a feisty female.
She smoked a clay pipe, wore a cloth cap, she insisted on using the gents' loos.
She played cards with the men as well,
and was very much one of the boys.
By 1908, the reservoirs were officially opened and the navvies had moved on to find work elsewhere
so Dawson City became something of a ghost town and this place was left to the picnickers.
There are 400 acres of rich and unspoilt woodland to choose from here,
but Harold says you should walk at least as far as the stepping stones that cross Hebden Water.
Oh, I've picked the wrong path!
The river scenery is of a very high order, the brown pebbly brook and the abundant trees
making a delightful picture at any time of the year.
Having explored the valley on foot, Harold's route continues along
the top of Hardcastle Crags, through Slack
and skirting the village of Heptonstall.
'I'm almost at the end of my journey.
'From here, the road forks to the left and Harold describes the route
'as it swings away and clings spectacularly above Hebden Water,
'before heading back down into Hebden Bridge.
'I've been told to "feather" my brakes so as not to wear them out too much for the final descent.'
Well, I've survived it, and survived the weather.
Coming back now into Hebden Bridge, I can just see it in the distance, downhill from now on.
'I've met some real challenges on my journey through the Yorkshire moors
'and drawn strength not only from this sturdy landscape,
'but also from the stories of ground-breaking women I've encountered along the way.'
As so as the sun begins to set, I've come full circle.
It's only about 30 miles to do the whole route, but even Harold admits that it feels like longer.
Those big climbs rewarded with incredible views right across the moorland. I've really enjoyed it.
And behind me, the lights of Hebden Bridge,
you can just make out the dark chimneys of the old mills.
We've chosen to focus on some of the local heroines of this area.
Some of them unsung heroines, like Alice Longstaff, the photographer.
Others much more famous, like the Bronte sisters.
And despite the rain, I had time to give a thought to those rare Yorkshiremen,
the Henpecked Husbands.
There seems to be no shortage of strong women around here.
Who knows, maybe there was something in the water?
It's been quite a journey.
Clare Balding sets out on a two-wheel odyssey to re-discover Britain from the saddle of a touring cycle.
In a six-part series, Clare follows the wheeltracks of compulsive cyclist and author Harold Briercliffe whose evocative guide books of the late 1940s lovingly describe by-passed Britain - a world of unspoiled villages, cycle touring clubs and sunny B roads. Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own Dawes Super Galaxy bicycle, she goes in search of the world he described with such affection.
As she cycles through Bronte Country on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, Clare uncovers a unique photographic collection depicting the hidden daily life of a Yorkshire mill town, a string of truly remarkable women and a secret club for henpecked husbands.