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The Best Kept Secrets of Heptonstall

Free Photos, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Article By: Dave Roberts

First Published: 5 August 2012

Having not long since been to Milan, Italy - my only disappointments were that the visit came to an end all too soon and I didn't get to see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. But they were indeed the only negative points of the visit, from Milan to Verona to Venice and much more, each day was spent exploring Italian art, architecture and culture. But what (I hear you ask) has this to do with Yorkshire.

A little over a week ago I found myself locked into the worst traffic jam I've ever experienced as the M62 near Morley in Leeds, suddenly ground to a halt. There had been a fatal collision ahead of me resulting in the motorway being locked down for several hours. After about six hours, it seemed like my visit to Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall would most likely be postponed.

But eventually the road did clear and following a short break on Hartshead Moor Services, I resolved to continue on, even though I was now tired and not so full of the enthusiasm with which I had started the day.

Knowing I would have to deselect one of the planned visitations, I decided I would go to Heptonstall as it was many years since I was last there, my memory a bit fuzzy, all I could remember were the cobbled streets like a scene from an Hovis advert.

Arriving in Heptonstall, I quickly found a small car park in the centre of the village to the rear of a small deli called 'Towngate Deli and Tea Room' - no doubt taking its name from its location in Towngate. The time now early evening and perfect in many ways for photography. I discovered that the access into the car park is very narrow, even in a small car I was very concerned about scratching or bumping it. But safely through the tight passage, I found a parking bay, grabbed my cameras from the boot and set off walking towards the narrow exit/entrance. As I approached the exit, a small area to my right presented Heptonstall's first surprise. A full size set of stocks sealed behind a iron bar fence, the fence bars painted black and standing about eight feet high giving all the theatrical appearance of a caged prison environment. Although I couldn't help notice that even though the stocks looked well weathered and old, they looked far too new to be authentic. Possibly created then dragged out, being put to use for some village antics - all at a guess, but I'll also wager they have some local historical significance too.

Passing the stocks, just a few steps to enter 'Town Gate' where the deli is located in a long, cobbled, steeply inclined street, lined with stone built weavers cottages. Apparently characterised by their large first floor windows, the windows created to allow more light in for weaving. And yes, all those impressions of those early Hovis adverts I remember from way back, came flooding into my mind. In my second photo image of Town Gate, the post office building shows one such larger weavers window which has more recently been blocked out using local Yorkshire Stone.

As I ascended the cobbled street of Town Gate the White Lion public house came into view ahead and to the right, then just before it, I noticed a sign reading 'Museum', pointing off to my left along a narrow stone flagged lane. To the left of the lane's entrance an impressive three storey stone building with Georgian style sash windows looking a bit tired and in need of a renovation, offering the appearance of a workshop from what could be seen through the ground floor windows, to the right more renovated weavers cottages. I figured the museum could be worth a look, although I asked my self, what museum is likely to open at this time of day? That thought considered, in my experience the outside of museums are often as interesting as the inside, at least if you enjoy architecture that is. Not so in Heptonstall though, I walked along the narrow lane, not quite a passageway or alley, but not wide enough for vehicles. I came across the museum and as you would expect it was closed, even if I'd been there much earlier, from what I could deduce - it opens only at weekends, bank holidays or by special arrangement. But the exterior of the building as interesting and ancient as it might have been (it wasn't), was completely over-shadowed by one of the most impressive ruins I have yet come across.

To the right, a ruined gable with a gothic arch stood tall overlooking a stone wall, almost leaning over the wall, calling on visitors to explore what is beyond the iron gates ahead, through which I could see the impressive church of St Thomas a Becket, which according to leaflets adorning the tables inside cost £7,000 to build and was consecrated on the 26 October 1854 by Bishop Longley of Ripon. All very interesting stuff no doubt, but as I passed though the gates into the church yard, the first thing to grab my attention were the grave stones filling the disproportionately large graveyard. Most of the gravestones were laid down rather than standing, creating a large un-even flagged pavement, interrupted occasionally by standing erect headstones, and then the overwhelming and ghostly backdrop of the ruined church shell of the earlier St Thomas a Becket, inviting exploration to the inquisitive mind. It all seemed like the perfect setting for a murder mystery, or even something more mystical, but what genuinely did surprise me, there was no-one there asking for an entrance fee.

Drawn inside I passed under an arch which visually framed three stone pillars, the pillars clearly once supporting an internal wall, now only the pillars and some stonework to the internal gables held evidence of there being a wall along that aspect of the structure. Other internal walls had fared much better, their pillars still supporting the arched stone walls above. The church tower stretching skyward all creating a perfect ruin - if ever there could be such a thing, and strangely someone had created a small flowerbed of red Geraniums in the centre of the ruin, very odd and completely out of context with the all else.

My natural inquisitive nature couldn't help but wonder what phenomenon of historical drama had resulted in the ruination of the church. I started to imagine bombs dropping from German WWII aircraft, but then wondered what strategic importance a small village like Heptonstall could have held in such a large war. For a moment I considered the Reformation, but figured such a small church would surely have been of little importance to Henry VIII. Then perhaps an act of God - a lightning strike followed by fire? In reality it was a mixture of both negligence and weather. Heptonstall became a strong Wesleyan community, John Wesley is recorded as having visited the village on many occasions. It is reported that in 1786 he described the church of St Thomas a Becket as the ugliest church he knew. It should of course be noted that Wesley had laid the foundation of his own Methodist Chapel in the village, which was completed on 1764.

In 1847 the left face of the tower fell during a violent storm, although plans were adopted to repair the damaged building, these were eventually abandoned in favour of a completely new erection, that of the current church building which shares both the same church yard and name of St Thomas a Becket. Church buildings always intrigue me, even protestant churches with their austerity in comparison to the Roman Catholic churches. Even the protestants have amazing artworks often found in the work of masons and leaded light windows (stained glass). But Heptonstall has within it's new St Thomas a Becket a connection with Milan, fine art and a little bit of Da Vinci going on, if not directly by the hand of Da Vinci.

I walked into the new St Thomas a Becket expecting to see the usual adornments of a protestant church, not much if I'm brutally honest, at least when compared to an Italian Basilica. Yet immediately on entering the church, high on the wall to the right, is a painting which is an obvious reduced size copy of Da Vinci's: Last Supper.

In 1905 the Italian Government commissioned artist Gringaschi to create a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci's: Last Supper. The original is a large 15th century mural painting in Milan. Created for his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza and his Duchess Beatrice d'Este. It represents the last supper of Jesus as told in the Gospel of John, when Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him. The original in Milan measures 15ft x 29ft covering the end wall of the dining hall in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
By 1905 the Italian government had become concerned that the original fresco was deteriorating, flaking and losing some of its colour. They wanted visitors to the fresco to be able to see the beautiful colours of the original, so decided a copy should be created then hung on a sidewall, close to the original. However, in 1906 Hebden Bridge's own John Sutcliffe made the Italian owners a large offer, which they accepted. It was later bequeathed to the church in Heptonstall where it remains to this day.

Who could have ever thought that such a pretty little village, hidden away in the hills of Calderdale could hold so many surprises, but it does and I'm delighted to have seen it.

 

 

 

 

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