diamond geezer

 Saturday, January 13, 2018

Gadabout: HALIFAX

If your northern geography's not up to much, Halifax is in West Yorkshire on the southeastern edge of the Pennines, about five miles southwest of Bradford. If you'd prefer a map, here's one. The town has a population of 90000 and is dramatically set around a deep river valley surrounded by high moorland. Here are ten things to see if you're ever here.

Town Hall
Municipal centrepiece, opened 1863, designed by Sir Charles Barry, and described as "a masterpiece of the nascent high Victorian style". In a depressingly familiar move, councillors renamed the clocktower the Elizabeth Tower to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The dazzling main hall has always been named after Queen Victoria. Ask nicely and you might get inside the building for a look.

Piece Hall
This is amazing, a proper whoa. An immense enclosed courtyard, approximately square in shape, covers nearly two acres on the eastern side of town. The central space is freshly paved and almost entirely empty, apart from a stepped water feature in one corner and some cafe action tucked away in another. Three terraced colonnades run around the perimeter, behind which are 315 rooms used for trading. The whole thing has a strongly neoclassical feel, almost as if Halifax had its own Roman forum, but no, this was once a market for trading in cloth. In the late 18th century the town was the key location for the manufacture of worsted, and the Piece Hall was a hive of trading activity every Saturday (strictly 10am-noon only).

The Industrial Revolution soon killed off the need for a worsted hub, so in 1871 the Piece Hall became a food market and its condition slowly fell into decline. The most recent restoration has taken three years at a cost of £19m, lottery be praised, and was reopened last summer. It certainly looks stunning, even if a grey morning in January probably isn't the best time to appreciate it. Hardly any people were in the piazza, even fewer walking round the upper terraces, and virtually nobody looking in on the boutiques where lonely shopkeepers rearranged gifts and artistic goodies.

Downstairs includes an "interactive heritage space", basically a small museum with three rooms, including a recreation of an original Georgian trader's room. The nice ladies on the front desk welcome any visitors who step inside, and are probably sometimes busy. An extension behind the eastern flank includes a new library, which has allowed the council to close the former (larger) library in the centre of town and resite the tourist information office. The entire project feels the best that could be done given the location, if somehow lacking in occupants and atmosphere, but still astonishing if you walk in without expectations.

In 1890, in a baker's shop in Halifax, John Mackintosh created his 'Celebrated Toffee' by blending brittle English toffee with soft American caramel. It soon caught on. As his business grew it expanded to larger premises in the town, diversified into chocolate and introduced iconic confections such as Rolo, Quality Street, Munchies, Caramac, Toffee Crisp and Tooty Frooties. In 1969 Mackintosh signed a merger deal with Rowntree, then in 1988 Nestlé swooped in and bought the lot, erasing the traditional company name. But a large factory still operates in the town, just opposite the station, where a poster on the side of the building proclaims "Quality Street, Proudly made in Halifax since 1936". Your next Easter egg is quite possibly being manufactured there right now. Alas the town doesn't smell of chocolate, so don't rush. [Toffee Town, a history]

The National Children's Museum, no less, can be found here in Halifax. It's based in the former station building, which dates back to 1855, and also in a brightly coloured modern building alongside with slides and sandpits and learning galleries and scores of interactive play-focused activities. If you're a family with children under 12, you are very much target audience. I passed by.

Halifax Market
When in a northern town, always pop into the market hall. Halifax's isn't as large as Leeds', nor as amazing, but it does have a similarly charming iron and glass canopy rising to a central lantern, and a fine array of traders thriving underneath.

Calderdale Industrial Museum
A three-storey repository of machinery, apparatus and sciency things, which as a reader of this blog you're probably target audience for. Alas, it's only open on Saturdays.

The Halifax Building
The Halifax Building Society started in the town in 1853, eventually growing into the country's largest. In 1995 it merged with the Leeds Permanent and 1997 it proudly demutualised, becoming a less lovable bank in the process. The Halifax's HQ is a striking diamond-shaped slab on stilts, as brutal as might be expected for a flagship project opened in the early 1970s, and includes a document storage bunker hidden beneath the open piazza. The main pillar facing the town centre incorporates the company's logo, plus that of whoever happens to own it at the time, which until 2009 was the Bank of Scotland and is now Lloyd's Bank. No Scooby Doo characters are depicted on the exterior.

Dean Clough
Where's the world's largest carpet factory? It used to be in Halifax, tucked into the steep-sided valley of the Hebble Brook upstream of the North Bridge. Opened in the 1820s, for Crossley Carpets, the mill buildings were a total of half a mile long and covered one and a quarter million square feet. Production finally ceased in 1983, at which point the site was redeveloped for various cultural and commercial enterprises - an early example of urban regeneration. Galleries and an underground theatre can now be found up Dean Clough, as well as one of those ubiquitous 'designer outlet' thingies, some posh restaurants and a gym. An unexpectedly large portion of the current site is car park.

Edward Akroyd inherited his father's mill in 1847, becoming one of Yorkshire's largest worsted manufacturers. He built himself a grand mansion at the top of Haley Hill, and sought to improve living conditions for his employees by building a 'model' village alongside, which he named Akroydon. The architect for these terraced treasures was none other than George Gilbert Scott, who here built what he later described as "on the whole, my finest church". All Souls is now under the custodianship of the Churches Conservation Trust so is only intermittently open, but still broods down over Halifax with Gothic benevolence.

Bankfield Museum
As for Akroyd's mansion, that's now a museum, should any visitors think to walk up past the tower blocks to the top of the park. Major renovation work is currently underway, so its two most splendid rooms are closed and I seriously missed out. But I did enjoy what delights I saw, including a comprehensive exhibition on the owner and his architectural philanthropy.

» thirteen photos from Halifax
» thirty-two photos from Calderdale

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