Arthur Mee described Holmfirth as ‘a small grey town busy with wool’ in 1941. Not so now. Busy with tourists, more like. Such is the influence of television on life today that Holmfirth is invariably associated with the BBC bittersweet comedy Last of the Summer Wine. The tourist industry has, of course, taken full advantage of this, just as the Brontes have engulfed Haworth and Heartbeat threatens the North Yorkshire Moors.
The town lies south of Huddersfield in the Pennine hills. It is characterised by stone cottages and houses, many perched on steep hillsides, as at Hebden Bridge. There are small-scale Victorian civic buildings and a restored cinema. Holy Trinity church was completed in 1787 and has a tower and triple-galleried interior. Because it is a small town the environment has not been ravaged by the twentieth century in the way in which nearby Huddersfield and Halifax have. Flagged pavements and cobbled streets survive, as do three-storeyed weavers’ cottages.
Holmfirth is on the River Holme. ‘Firth’ is Old English for wood or woodland. Originally the town grew up around a corn mill and bridge in the thirteenth century. It expanded greatly with the growth of the textile industry powered by the river. There was also quarrying of stone and slate. Steam trains came here in 1850 though the line was closed in the 1960s. In the mid-nineteenth century it was pretty much like the Wild West with regular fights and rowdy behaviour.
The Holme valley has known major destructive floods. 81 people drowned in the catastrophe of 1852 when the Bilberry reservoir burst one moonlit night and 90 million gallons of water thundered down the valley. Houses, bridges and even mills were swept away. The height of the flood is recorded on a pillar in the town, the pillar itself commemorating the Treaty of Amiens in 1801. Well, it was important at the time.
Following a cloudburst on Whit Monday 1944 another flood killed three people and seriously damaged two hundred houses. It is recorded on a plaque in the Elephant and Castle inn on Hollowgate. As if they didn’t have enough problems in 1944.
Holmfirth was also a major producer of picture postcards. Bamforths was the well-known maker of those saucy cards featuring extremely large ladies, hen-pecked husbands, courting couples and less than subtle double entendres. You know the type. Those furtive looks when you were on holiday with your parents. There is now a postcard museum here.
Of course there are tours available to Sid’s Café and the other sites of the TV series. If you pull your socks up you can see Nora Batty’s house.