Christmas lights twinkle from every shop and cobbled street in the centre of Holmfirth, the small West Yorkshire mill town best known as the location for Last of the Summer Wine. You may not know the area, but you’ll be familiar with the show: it was the longest-running sitcom in the world, running from 1973 to 2010.
But, 50 years after the programme first aired, Holmfirth is making a name for itself all over again – as a leader in the extremely serious endeavour of heritage conservation. The town’s 5,000 residents have been described as “inspirational” after they came together to rescue Holmfirth’s historic buildings from decay and decline – and, in the process, revitalised the town’s economy.
“The town was down on its uppers,” says Craig Broadwith of Historic England, which announced last month it was removing Holmfirth from its Heritage at Risk Register after 14 years. The register is an annual health-check of England’s historic buildings and places. This year, 159 places were added and 203 removed, including Holmfirth.
“There was a growing number of [commercial] vacancies, issues to do with the quality of the pavements and highways, neglect of buildings, and graffiti,” says Broadwith. “[Holmfirth] was in decline. What’s been achieved is incredible. The town centre has turned around and house prices have risen.”
Among the buildings at risk were many familiar from Last of the Summer Wine, although the way they have been revamped would leave Compo, Foggy and Clegg rather bemused. While Nora’s steps and Sid’s Cafe are still there, the town has garnered a host of new Airbnbs, fancy cocktail bars and a co-working space. Old civic buildings have been requisitioned as art spaces and educational hubs. Just outside of town, there are award-winning wines produced at Holmfirth Vineyard and the area now plays host to a plethora of festivals, from folk and film to food and drink, art and music.
Latest figures show that more than 700,000 people visited the town this year, up 2.5 per cent year-on-year.
Steve Davie, 71, a retired vicar and chair of Holmfirth Conservation Group, says it was the ignominy of being placed on Historic England’s “at risk” register in 2009 that galvanised the locals; soon after, Holmfirth Conservation Group was born.
“I was inspired by the David Cameron era of third-sector volunteering and local people getting together to do something,” he says. “There was a lot of concern in the town and rather than wait for Kirklees council to do something about it, we rolled our sleeves up and did it ourselves. We created a Conservation Area Appraisal as complete amateurs.”
The group surveyed every historic building and square metre of road and pavement, drew up a list of buildings “at risk”, and set about saving and restoring them.
The Tech, opened in 1894, was formerly a secondary school and adult education centre, and had stood empty since 2014 when Kirklees council decided to sell it. “There was a worry that it could be knocked down,” says Chris Little, director of The Tech.
“We worked very hard at getting the building back,” explains Margaret Dale, 72, chairman of the board at The Tech. “It was bought originally by subscription. The Victorians did a fantastic job of paying for its construction [donations were also given by local gentry and mill owners] and we did exactly the same to buy it back.”
Dale was involved in setting up Holmfirth Tech Ltd, a community benefit society, in 2018, and through grants, fundraising and selling shares, the building was acquired from the council. “There is a very strong co-operative ethos in Holmfirth,” she says. “Now The Tech is a resource for local people.” The building hosts classes including dress-making, banjo lessons, dancing, pilates and yoga. It also boasts an orchestra and a community choir.
When Barclays closed its last branch in the town, the bank was persuaded to hire rooms at The Tech to continue to provide banking services. “They didn’t abandon us,” says Dale.
Opposite The Tech is another beautiful Victorian building, The Civic, formerly the Town Hall and Drill Hall. Also once owned by Kirklees council, it is now run by Holmfirth Civic Hall Community Trust. Liz Annett, 40, centre manager, says: “Our aim is to put on different events for the community and raise funds to keep the building open.” Alongside a volunteer-run café, there is badminton, pilates and comedy nights.
“People think we’re a bit behind the times because they presume we’re all flat caps and whippets but we’re shocked by how far people travel for the events [we put on],” Annett adds. “At least 20 per cent of event tickets are for people travelling from places like Peterborough and Nottingham.”
Culture, it would seem, is now the lifeblood of a town that grew first around corn mills, and then the cloth trade, the factories taking their power from the river Holme that runs through the valley. When Last of the Summer Wine was still being made, it was thought the tourism generated by the show would be enough to sustain the town once the mills closed. But after the show finished and visitor numbers diminished, another income stream was needed.
Luckily, there were fantastic buildings to repurpose and local people seemingly had the will to stop Holmfirth from becoming a post-industrial cliché. Take, for instance, the Picturedrome, which stands in the centre of the town. Opened in 1913 as the Holme Valley Theatre, it is now owned by Peter Carr. He first set eyes on the historic blue-plaque venue as a child in the 1960s when it was a cinema. When Wetherspoons showed interest 15 years ago, the town rallied round. “I always fancied trying to do something with it,” Carr says. “We started putting on concerts and live music.” The 690-capacity venue was nominated for an NME Best Small Venue in 2014.
Another iconic building given a facelift is the old Lloyds Bank, repurposed three months ago as Society, a co-working and studio space on Victoria Street. “It’s such a big iconic building and everybody wanted to make sure it went to a good use,” says founder Zoe Piscitelli. “They didn’t want a chain or a big restaurant. Holmfirth isn’t about that. We like to keep things local.” Alongside the co-working space there is a studio for yoga and classes including life drawing, wine tasting, and ceramic decoration.
Holmfirth is a small town but it punches well above its weight. “We’re like Monaco – we’ve got so much in a small area,” says Piscitelli. “There are lots of places opening in Holmfirth. We’re bucking the trend because elsewhere things are shutting.”
One of the things that makes the town stand out is the large number of independent shops. “Ninety-four per cent of our businesses are independent,” says Dale. “Our vacancy rate has been consistently low for the last five years.”
What does the future hold for a town best known for a sitcom that finished 13 years ago and whose fans aren’t going to be around forever? “We recognise that we need to move beyond Last of the Summer Wine,” states Dale. “It’s an important part of our history but we want to move on.”
Laura Booth, 53, has owned Sid’s Cafe, a key location in Last of the Summer Wine, for 17 years. “Our customers are 75 per cent tourists,” says Booth. “We had a lady in today from Devon. She’s a massive fan and wanted to celebrate her 80th birthday here. People come from all over the world, from Australia and Canada. They say, ‘It’s been my life’s ambition to come here.’”
Sid’s menu has changed slightly since Compo’s time, however, with vegan options alongside the famous scones, jam and clotted cream. But Booth worries about the future. “Last of the Summer Wine isn’t in that prime-time slot any more but it’s part of TV history. Colin, the coach driver, said, years ago, ‘Look how busy Haworth is and how long ago the Brontë sisters died.’ Hopefully we can stick around as long as they have.”
Historic England’s Craig Broadwith says the town’s turnaround is down to the people of Holmfirth. “It’s by-your-bootstraps community organisation done without big pots of money and grants,” he says. “It’s very inspiring.”
What advice does Holmfirth have for other towns keen to replicate their success story? “We’ve worked very hard at building relationships between each other,” says Dale. “We want to celebrate our heritage while looking to our future.”