The Calder is one of Yorkshire's great rivers, rising in the Pennines above Todmorden and flowing 45 miles east to join the Aire near Castleford. In its upper reaches it carves a deep valley, providing shelter for a string of picturesque towns, and a key route across the moors for road, rail and canal. The local authority is known as Calderdale, governed from Halifax, and is easily explored with a West Yorkshire Train Day Rover (£7.50, off-peak only), as I shall now demonstrate. [Visit Calderdale]
Todmorden(population 15000) Todmorden is sited where three steep valleys meet, amid Pennine moors and upland sandstone grit. The setting looks gorgeous when the sun's out, but more oppressive in low-cloud gloom. A railway viaduct swoops across the heart of the town, and trains curve off in three directions - to Halifax, Burnley or Rochdale. Easily the most impressive building is the town hall, built in 1875 in full-on classical style. The boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire once passed through the centre of the town, following the line of the river, and the Town Hall was deliberately built on top so that half the building was in each county. In 1888 the boundary was shifted west, gifting the town in its entirety to Yorkshire. Everyone who got upset is now dead. A modern memorial beneath the viaduct marks the original line, each side marked by a rose of the appropriate colour.
Daytime activity in Todmorden focuses on the marketplace by the bus station. Outside the market hall a tranche of stalls displays all kinds of bric a brac, rifled through by pensioners in zip-up coats and flat caps. Inside are proudly traditional traders dealing mostly in comestibles, and a superbly retro counter cafe dispensing fifty different varieties of coffee. I stopped by at Ham Corner for a beef pie, wrapped in quality moist pastry, one of numerous takeaway goods at prices to make any London resident curl up and cry. The town is renowned for its sustainability, specifically the Incredible Edible Todmorden project, a series of mini gardens and eco-planters established by community volunteers in 2012. A free map reveals all the key locations across town, including soft fruit at the job centre, beehives by the canal, vegetable beds at the police station and planters on the station platform (where you can pick herbs for your tea). I liked Todmorden. [5 photos]
Hebden Bridge(population 4500)
Four miles downstream lies HebdenBridge, the best known of the towns hereabouts, no doubt due to its density of lesbians. That's not why the place was once called Trouser Town, this was a nickname earned through clothes manufacturing. But after the mills closed the artists moved in, and many with alternative lifestyles found a safe home here. They chose well. The town is gorgeous, squished into the Calder valley where a tributary joins, with residential streets perched precipitously on the surrounding slopes. Space for housing is at a premium so curious 4-storey terraces have been built, their tenancy split between the lower two floors (front door facing out) and the upper two floors (front door facing in).
The town centre is a web of streets, its shops rarely chains, with an emphasis on conscience and culture rather than blind acquisition. Four days a week a small outdoor market trades, each day differently themed, adding an air of self-sufficiency. I spotted good friends sipping coffees by the old stone bridge, a retired lady pleading for peace in Palestine outside the hiking equipment shop, and numerous couples walking their dogs in the riverside park. Then stepping back a few streets I saw wives watering vegetable tubs in what passes for their front garden, a string of houseboats belching smoke on the canal, and teenagers freewheeling downhill with skateboards tucked into their rucksacks. I liked Hebden Bridge even more than Todmorden. [8 photos]
I thought I'd walk from Hebden Bridge to the village of Heptonstall - it looked barely half a mile on the map. But what my non-OS map failed to mention is how relentlessly uphill it would be, which is very much par for the course around here. A cobbled track led off innocuously from the edge of the town, rising through woodland to a tiny Methodist cemetery with panoramic views, then zigzagging onwards up irregular flights. I was damned glad of the handrail.
The village, long-established, has steepcobbledstreets narrow enough to give drivers problems, lined by irregular cottages built from dark local stone. It reminded me a little of Edale, only without the walking poles and gaiters. In the heart of the village are two St Thomas's churches, one an atmospheric ruin, the other its Victorian replacement. The poet Sylvia Plath is buried here, not amid the sea of flat gravestones but in a newer churchyard extension across Back Lane. A small museum is based in the adjacent grammar school building, should you be here at the weekend in spring or in summer. A ginger cat sleeps on a bench outside the tearoom. Bailiffs took possession of one of the village's two pubs last month. I was captivated by Heptonstall, but I don't think I could live in it. [5 photos]
I also thought I'd walk from Hebden Bridge to Mytholmroyd, but that proved a lot easier. It's only a mile, nigh flat, and the Rochdale Canal links one to the other. Admittedly the towpath was in a bit of a state, still not recovered from the devastating BoxingDay floods a couple of years ago, but then neither has Mytholmroyd. The village is mostly linear rather than spreading up the slopes, hence considerably more at risk from inundation. Crumbled river walls can still be seen, as well as diggers filling in broken gaps, and deep concrete-lined channels hoping to prevent a repeat. The Environment Agency have even gone so far as demolishing the post office, and relocating services across the road, to widen the Calder alongside County Bridge.
Mytholmroyd's most famous son was TedHughes, one-time Poet Laureate, and erstwhile lover of the aforementioned Sylvia Plath. He spent his childhood in the end terrace at 1 Aspinall Street, now a holiday let, and marked with a blue plaque beside the door. Just up the road is the UK's largest clog manufacturer, that's Walkley Clogs, whose workshops are open for a nose around if you're a fan of handmade cost-effective footwear. Another rather different sort of attraction is Cragg Vale, otherwise known as the B6138, which a road sign at the foot describes as the "longest continuous gradient in England" rising 970 feet over 5½ miles. Bring a car, or better try a bike. And yes, it's a fabulous name is Mytholmroyd. [3 photos]
Sowerby Bridge(population 11000)
I didn't get this far, because there is a limit to how many Calderdale towns and villages you can visit with an off-peak rail rover. This riverside town is where playwright Sally Wainwright grew up, so has been inspiration for several of her dramas, most notably the BAFTA-winning Happy Valley. That said, I rewatched the start of the first episode yesterday and screamed "that's Todmorden, by the chippy!" at the TV, so successful had my Calderdale safari been.