Sarah Cotterill explores the future of Calderdale's candidate for one of the UK's 'best places to live'

8 minute read

Pulling into Todmorden station, past mill towers jutting into the grey sky, you are greeted by giant planters of herbs on the platform edge. Murals of local cafes, and the scenic locks and barges of the Rochdale Canal, line the underpass leading you onto the steep approach down into the town. 

It was this amalgam of transport links, rolling hills, community spirit, and a ‘buzzing food scene’ that listed Todmorden on the Sunday Times best places to live guide in 2021. Just half an hour by train to Manchester, and an hour to Leeds, many have migrated from the big cities for a life of rural quiet; where house prices are affordable, and you can walk for pint of milk as easily as a pint of real ale.

But, less than two years later, a wave of local businesses has been forced to close, with others modifying their model, or curtailing opening hours. How has this commuter’s paradise fallen so far from grace? Is Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis the main culprit, or are there underlying factors at stake?

We hope things will change to enable existing businesses and future ventures better conditions than we have faced

In 2020 Storm Ciara and the pandemic hit the town hard. But Tod, as the locals call it, has long faced issues with flooding and deprivation, unemployment and crime as in much of the Calder valley is hardly unknown. During my visit, police tape cordons off a section of road by the supermarket, where an incident of affray was reported on a Friday night. 

Around the corner, the magnificent temple-like town hall from 1875 dominates the town but is firmly closed to the public. 

Meanwhile a group of Ramblers are collecting maps on route to the Pennine Moors at the Tourist information Centre.

“We have a lot of visitors…a lot of press about being a very happy valley. We're very lucky with everything that we have here. Why it's not translating into people spending to keep businesses open, I don’t know?” says manager, Jaqui Matthews.

Jaqui has been living in Todmorden since she was born. Her great nana sold plants at the markets at the time when women had blue hair from the denim fluff flying from Crabtree’s textile mill off Wellington Road. In those days, Todmorden boasted three cinemas and a dance Hall on the top floor of the Co-op.

Todmorden Market
Tod's lively indoor market Image: Confidentials

Today, not the apparently buzzing Saturdays, zig-zags of corrugated metal cover rows of open-air stalls, many of which lie unoccupied. Traders peddle palm-sized egg custards, artisan breads, bin bags, dog beds, Jamaican patties and jeweled squares of Turkish delight; prices scribbled on scraps of paper. As I pay for a jar of pesto, two shoppers begin discussing where the Council’s seventeen-million-pound investment is going.

The busy indoor Market Hall, is like stepping back in time in a good way. There’s a proper Ironmonger, a Barbers, Butchers, Cappuccino bar and Carpet shop. Locals perched on high stools enjoying egg baps and toasted teacakes. The Tavern in the middle, is packed with punters at 10.30am, England scarves pinned to the wooden skirting above their heads.

It's here that I meet Andy Carter and Alex Harwood from CargoDale, an initiative born out of lockdown delivering produce to households by pedal power. Business has, perhaps predicatably, trailed off since the pandemic, with able residents, now preferring a day out at the markets. “For a whole generation, this is a part of their social life that they don’t want to lose,” Andy says.

Todmorden Piece 3
Sun breaks out over the Town Hall Image: Confidentials

After the withdrawal of the cotton industries in the sixties, the population of Todmorden took a nosedive. But more recently, the merry mix of culture, industry and rurality has led folk to once again settle. “None of my neighbours are from Tod,” Jaqui adds. “They’ve all moved in from the Manchester direction. Quite a lot work here locally, but they’re not from here originally…the type of people I would expect to see in the Northern Quarter.”

At the heart of this Bohemian community, is the Golden Lion, an Old Coaching Inn standing proud as one of the oldest buildings in the Town Centre. In 2015 the failing pub was transformed by former mayoral consort and all-round local legend, Gig, who used to run The Three Wise Monkeys bar and takeaway. Needing more space for her Thai street food, she took over the kitchen at the Lion, where twinkly fairy lights and wafts of lemongrass greet you at the door.

This afternoon, the pub, which has hosted DJ sets by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Kevin Rowland and even snooker legend Steve Davis, now hosts a group of men playing an intense game of Talisman in one corner, kids and their families dipping prawn crackers in the other. With gas bills doubling for Gig in the last three years, it’s no surprise the space feels chilly. The Golden Lion used to open daily from 12pm. Now it’s 3pm on a weekday and 1pm on the weekend.

Pxl 20230225 143059355
The Golden Lion pub Image: Confidentials

“We can’t change the cost-of-living crisis and it won’t save the business or change the decision we were forced to make.” This statement comes from Robyn and David Gledhill from The White Rabbit, a beautiful little blue fronted bistro serving seasonal seven course tasting menus, personal health issues were also part of the picture, forcing them to sadly close their doors in this month.

For Hannah Lovett and the team at Yakumama, the much-loved cantina-style vegetarian, crowdfunded by locals in 2019, financial and emotional pressures were also taking their toll. In January, a brave Facebook post recognizes a need to ‘prioritize [their] health’. When I asked for comment, she was incredibly apologetic, and understandably too ‘overwhelmed with everything going on…to answer any specifics.’

“Yakumama was everyone’s favourite restaurant, I don’t think it was unpopular. I think every business has its own reasons really. There's lots of people in Tod that support local. Most people stay here at the weekend and go to the restaurants and places here, rather than going anywhere else,” says Kate from Clouds in my Coffee, a brightly coloured café selling bedazzled rainbow cakes and vintage tea-dresses. “I’ve only been open nearly three months, and I've got loads of lovely regulars.”

Tod resident and freelancer Neil Sowerby adds: "Other positive signs include arrivals on the Patmos strip of businesses on Burnley Road such as Egg cafe, Hardies bistro and the Calder Cheese house run by Jay Hickson formerly of Hickson & Black in Chorlton."

Todmorden Piece 6
Cloud in my Coffee cafe Image: Confidentials

High on an embankment above the towpath, a Hollywood-esque sign spelling ‘Kindness’ looks down over Todmorden. And the sentiment rings true everywhere I go, from the community swap shop at the pub, to the Incredible Edible initiative popping up on pavements and parks. I get invited to a Ceilidh whilst browsing the whole food store, Tod Almighty. But there is clearly a tension between the love and support locals can offer their own businesses, and the footfall they need from tourists to sustain it.

One geographical set back, is the layout of the town, which winds for more than five miles along the canal. Amenities are therefore spread out, locals either require a car, or are reliant on shaky bus timetables. Calderdale Council signed Todmorden up for ‘the fifteen-minute town’ scheme. “They want to encourage all forms of transport, but they're not providing the infrastructure,” Jaqui explains. And now, with a Lidl and Aldi setting up shop here, there’s danger of Todmorden becoming a drive through.

One particular gripe she hears from residents is around the car parking: “There’s already not enough, and [the Council] would like the space which is next to the market to become more of a piazza as opposed to a car park….Currently as things stand, we've probably reached what's known as a carrying capacity.”

Jacqui articulates. “We physically don't have enough space to deal with the visitors we already have. If they can't park, if they can't use a toilet when they're here, if they don't have somewhere to put their litter….it's going to impact on the quality of life for the residents and we obviously don't want that.”

Pxl 20230225 133710244
The 'Kindness' sign above the canal towpath Image: Confidentials

With the town’s major festivals, Handmade Parade, and the Country Fair both no longer held in the town centre due to the aforesaid lack of infrastructure, surely the council is taking note. Perhaps the Town Investment Plan, part of the Governments Levelling Up agenda, will as it says, “develop the local economy and realise the potential of Todmorden as a unique and attractive 21st century market town.”  

Until then, the remains of the hospitality sector may need to pray for another relief cap, or simply ride out the storm until inflation dips nationally. Robyn from the White Rabbit remains optimistic for an improved business landscape going forwards: “We hope things will change to enable all existing businesses and future ventures better conditions than we have faced.”

If one of Britain’s ‘best places to live’ is feeling the impact of the well-known economic problems of 2023 then it’s clear less obviously attractive towns will be hit harder. Tod should come through in the end but the road might be rocky.

Get the latest news to your inbox

Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!