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From tragedy to triumph: what many communities could learn from Hebden Bridge

with Heart Gallery

Hebden Bridge has been dubbed ‘The Greatest Town in Europe’. Quite a statement for somewhere snuggled away in the depths of West Yorkshire that few people have even heard of. It’s also pretty remarkable considering it was only a few years ago that it had raw sewage running through its streets, no electricity, and bloated houses steeped in sadness after the town suffered a series of devastating floods. As shopkeepers’ livelihoods disappeared overnight and years of hard work went, quite literally, down the drain, residents struggled to recover, both financially and emotionally. And that was pre-pandemic.

So how on earth did Hebden Bridge go from that to become the flourishing, tight-knit community, with thriving independent shops and the wealth of culture it has today? What makes their high street so magical? How are these people who’ve been through so much, still prepared to give it their all? After meeting Alison Bartram, it becomes pretty clear…

Alison is founder of Heart Gallery; a warm and inviting creative space whose narrative is part of the story of this remarkable little town. Her gallery shares contemporary art, alongside handcrafted jewellery and craft. Yet there’s another important thing you’ll find there, too — and that’s community spirit.

Taking a leap of faith and turning dreams into reality

After Alison split from her first husband, she had to go and get a ‘proper job’. She held a number of unfulfilling office roles but always dreamed of setting up on her own. Many years before that, Alison’s younger sister Rachel had been diagnosed as manic depressive in her teens and struggled for a long time with depression until in 2005, she took her own life.

“One day I realised there would be no more tomorrows for Rachel and I realised I had to make my tomorrows count,” said Alison. “Rachel had always told me that I should go out and grab that opportunity. She had always told me that nothing was impossible… that tomorrow never comes, and for her there are no more tomorrows. But for me there are, and her death gave me the kick up the backside I needed to turn my passion into a reality.”

Hebden Bridge doesn’t have chain stores or shopping centres. It has a rich mix of creative independent shops run by people who do what they love, so it’s a town filled with passion.

So Alison upped sticks and moved the whole family to be closer to her dad near Hebden Bridge, where she one day hoped to open a business. Where did she start? 

“The best way to get to know a town is to get to know the people, and the best way to get to know the people is to work in a café there and meet the interesting folk that frequent it. So that’s what I did. Organic House it was called.”

That’s the first sign of building a strong community. It’s the mindset of not just thinking ‘I’m going to become an entrepreneur and make money’. It’s a commitment to putting the work into finding out what the community needs and how you can help them. The people who ran the café were doing the same thing. They now have a shop on Market Street too (Ruby Shoesday), and so everything evolved from a solid foundation.

Alison continued, “My dad took the whole family away for what would’ve been my sister’s 40th. When we got back, the property that I’m now in — the Arts Centre, a former Baptist chapel — had the doors wide open and it was a bit of a magical moment. I knew I wanted it. The landlord lived above so didn’t want anyone noisy and it worked for both of us, so we took it.” 

How tragedy brought the community closer together

Heart Gallery opened in 2006, but it wasn’t easy. The nation was in an economic low. People were yet to see the benefits of shopping small and it was a struggle to encourage visitors to buy local or handmade. Then in 2012 they had a couple of floods which were tough, though minor compared to the floods of Boxing Day 2015 which were devastating.

They ruined more than 3,000 houses, 100 businesses, destroyed two historic bridges, closed schools and more. It took Heart Gallery six months to recover, and Alison was among the luckier ones. She said, “It was incredible how the community helped with that though. We were all in our own worlds; stock building again, repairing the damage… but also aware of what everyone else was going through. The town hall opened up as a hub for everybody and that saved us. None of us had toilets or electricity or whatever, there were no cafés open to get food or anything, but you could all go there. Everyone went along for a cup of tea and a cry. And the minute you walked in, your shoulders relaxed. You didn’t even have to talk to anyone. Silent tears, silent hugs…”

“Then came the offers of help from all around us. The cavalcade came up from Birmingham. The Sikh community was amazing. People came from Liverpool with an empty van to help. The council got onto it quickly to get the streets clean. The Business Forum helped us share knowledge. It used to feel like you’d open your doors and do your business and then close them and be in your own bubble. Now it feels like you’re part of the town. People work together. We communicate better.” However, it wasn’t just tragedy that brought the place closer together.

“Rachel had always told me that I should go out and grab that opportunity. She had always told me that nothing was impossible... that tomorrow never comes, and for her there are no more tomorrows. But for me there are, and her death gave me the kick up the backside I needed to turn my passion into a reality.”

Championing innovative independent business

Hebden Bridge doesn’t have chain stores or shopping centres. It has a rich mix of creative independent shops run by people who do what they love, so it’s a town filled with passion. They encourage people to buy locally and as Alison says, “Keep that pound going round the town.” She says, “People don’t realise how much it matters but it does. It’s our life. It means we can feed our families and pass on skills and others can enjoy it and learn from it, too. There’s so much on our doorstep, it’s important to protect it and use it before you lose it.” With almost half of small businesses in a recent survey saying they’re worried about closing in 2022, how right she is¹.

There are also a high number of female founders in Hebden Bridge and maybe that helps too. Alison says, “We’re do-ers. We just get on with it. We’re not afraid to stick our marigolds on and get stuck in or to ask for help. And that brings us all together somehow.”

Ensuring Hebden Bridge stays somewhere people want to live and visit

In Hebden Bridge, people know better than to be complacent. Heart gallery works with established artists but they also nurture emerging, pre-graduate talent too, to ensure this continues through the next generation and other businesses mirror this. They are all thinking about the future. Alison says, “We’re very good with social media in Hebden. We shout about our businesses and we shout about our town. That’s why people come. They don’t come to see what’s happening, they come because they know what’s happening because we’ve told them about it in advance.” Founders recommend each other’s businesses frequently and visitors respond well to this.

They’ve also been able to build a strong, eclectic community in Hebden Bridge by making sure everyone feels included. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Brighton of The North’ and is said to be the lesbian capital of the UK. It’s a welcoming place that has lots going on, from Andy’s Man Club (brilliant talking groups set up to help men express themselves) and the WI for example, to Pride, The Arts Festival and The Handmade Parade. 

By the very nature of its definition, a community relies on having certain shared characteristics, values or interests in common. But that doesn’t mean that to be part of the community, you have to be the same — just to have written a story together that becomes part of a shared narrative. That’s what seems to create the conditions in which communities thrive. ‘The Hebden spirit’ is still going strong today. They still get the flood alerts. “Mother nature is most definitely in charge,” says Alison. “We live in fear of it but we’re better prepared. And next time, we’ll face it together.” No wonder it’s called ‘The Greatest Town in Europe’.

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