Written by Rosemary Crampton
Photography: Michael Podger
Sitting in the shadow of the Pennine moors, the historic West Yorkshire village of Marsden is the peak of the Colne Valley, where bleakly beautiful landscapes entwine with a rich woollen making heritage to makes for a great place to discover this winter.
Just west of Huddersfield in the Kirklees district, Marsden is encased by wet, hilly moorland on three sides of the village. The perfect terrain for cotton grass to grow, former weavers’ cottages still scatter the hillside.
Once an important centre of industry, Marsden opened its first woollen mill in 1710; by the 19th century, there were seven operating in the area.
The largest of these mills, Bank Bottom, covered 14 acres, with 680 looms operated by 1,900 workers. Situated near a natural spring which supplied the water-powered mill, Bank Bottom became one of the largest in Yorkshire before closing in 2003.
Although now disused, New and Bank Bottom Mill still preside over Marsden with the iconic buildings a monument to the important role they played in the industrial revolution.
There are other reminders of Marsden’s industrial past at every turn.
A wonder of the waterway
Walk down the water’s edge along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal which runs through the village and under the rolling Pennine hills via Standedge Tunnel. One of the seven wonders of the waterways, Standedge Tunnel is the longest, highest and deepest of its kind in the UK, stretching three-and-half miles long, buried 200 metres under the Pennines.
Take a boat trip through the famous structure which opened in 1811, with guided tours explaining how the underground warren took 16 years to complete by navvies who came to construct it.
These tours are conducted in a specially adapted canal boat, but hundreds of years ago, the lack of a tow path meant that vessels had to be ‘legged’ through the cold, narrow tunnel. Boatmen would lie on their cargo and push against the brick ceiling with their feet; the journey itself often took over three hours.
Moor to discover
Remains of the former packhorse route to Rochdale are also evident with two distinctive packhorse bridges which are still in use today. Eastergate, or Close Gate Bridge, is a registered ancient monument dating back to the 17th century and is the entry point to the imposing windswept moors.
With reservoirs and historic landmarks, these ancient hills are run by the National Trust and are popular with walkers and wildlife fans alike. Mesolithic and Neolithic tools have been discovered under their peat, including remains from Bronze Age burials and cremations which were unearthed by local man George Marsden and can be seen in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield.
The moors also serve as a dramatic backdrop to Marsden’s traditional spring festivities.
Spring into a new season
As residents bid farewell to winter with the coming of spring, Imbolc is a Celtic fire festival held on the first Saturday in February of alternate years. The event features a torch-lit procession, fireworks and fire juggling, culminating in a battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man.
Up to 2,000 participants don costumes and parade through the streets carrying handmade lanterns and torches, which represent the return of warm weather and the sun.
This year, Standedge Visitor Centre will host free lantern-making workshops at weekends throughout January, with the finished creations set to be used in the Imbolc procession on Saturday 3rd February.
Children can also take part in a special story walk on the Sunday before the event. Leaving Marsden Railway Station at midday, the tour will pass through Standedge woods, before concluding at the Visitor Centre. Little walkers will be entertained by Morris dancers and the Green Lady herself is expected to put in an appearance.
April sees Marsden’s residents celebrate the changing of the seasons with a second event, the Cuckoo Day Festival on Saturday 21st April.
The cuckoo’s arrival is said to herald the beginning of spring. Legend has it that, centuries ago, villagers built a wall around one visiting bird to prolong its stay. Before they could add the final bricks, however, it flew away – taking spring with it.
Today, locals commemorate the catching of the cuckoo with workshops, an all-day craft fair, processions, music, dancing and a duck race.
Along with the festivals and plenty of peaks and valleys to tread, Marsden is also home to independent shops and eateries to help you usher in spring the old-fashioned way.