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by Hilda Gledhill
from Yorkshire Life, September 1968
reprinted with kind permission of the author
Daniel Defoe crossed Blackstone Edge Moors in the early eighteenth century and dropped down into the Ryburn Valley on his way to Halifax to start writing 'Robinson Crusoe'. Perhaps he found background information for his deserted island in the lush vegetation in the valley, though the hillsides were far from deserted and supported a hard-working, thrifty populace who tilled the land and wove in their cottages. Outside every house, pieces of cloth stretched on tenters, shining and bleaching in the sun's rays.
Today, the hillsides of Soyland and Barkisland which hem in the Ryburn valley are left to the farmers; the valley with its villages of Rishworth and Ripponden is still well-wooded and beautiful and the people are as hard-working and thrifty as ever. But today, they are angry people, fighting to retain the beauty of their district against a proposed invasion of 165-foot high electricity pylons which threaten to straddle the area at 400-yard intervals - an invasion which will be the subject of a public enquiry to begin on September 24th.
Whereas Defoe could see the results of labour stretched out before his eyes, industry is well screened and you have sometimes to search up cul-de-sacs to find it. An example is the Ryburndale Paper Mill which has been in continuous production since 1890, except for a lapse of one year following a fire in 1901.
Over 375 miles of paper are made every week in this secluded spot, enough paper to make 100,000 Ruby Bibles only one and a quarter inches thick but containing 1,280 pages. The firm, in fact, specialises in fine quality printing paper, particularly paper for Bibles and Prayer Books.
Water is of prime importance; 200 tons of it are needed to make a ton of paper. It comes from the Ryburn which flows through Rishworth and Ripponden to join the Calder at Sowerby Bridge. It gurgles its way along the valley, unseen from the trans-Pennine roadway, and quietly, for most of the time.
But on May 18th, 1722, during a terrible storm, the river rose twenty-one feet above its normal height. Nine stone bridges and eleven wooden ones were broken in the torrent, mill wheels, dams and sluices were damaged and fifteen people were drowned. Even the dead were not spared: coffins were washed out of their graves at Ripponden Church and one was later found entangled in the branches of a tree.
The church itself, St Bartholomew's, was badly damaged. This year marks the centenary of the fourth church on the site; the first was granted a royal charter by King Edward IV in 1464.
The Industrial Revolution burst on the West Riding in the early nineteenth century, and woollen mills appeared in towns and villages, from Bradford to Brighouse and Halifax to Huddersfield, but the Ryburn valley, by some freak of geography, tied up with its neighbours across the Pennines in Lancashire and became a cotton valley. At one time there were thirty cotton mills between Ripponden and Sowerby Bridge.
There were cotton booms and inevitable slumps. When General Robert E Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865, flags were flown from mill tops and houses in Ripponden. The first wagons loaded with cotton which arrived after the end of the American Civil War were decorated with flags; church bells rang and the local band played as the valley folk rejoiced.
Now, a century later, cotton manufacture has left the valley except at one mill; Meadowcroft, Hampson and Co Ltd. Many have completely disappeared, some have converted to other industries. At Stones Mill, SW Breeders commercial egg production plant, the clucking of 10,000 hens has replaced the whir of spindles and Mr Peter Clark, the manager, sends 55,000 eggs a week to the Drighlington egg packing station. Ryburn Mill is also filled with poultry, this time broiler fowls.
One day in 1951, when James MacAlistair King, a textile engineer, sat watching his wife bath the baby and idly turning over in his hands a new foam plastic sponge, he noticed that it bore the words 'oil resisting'. At that time he was trying to solve a lubricating problem on some spindles, so he confiscated the sponge and cut it into small washers. Testing proved them to be the very thing he wanted to retain the lubricating oil round the spindles.
Through the wholesale dealers, he traced the sponge to a German manufacturer, with a branch in Cheshire. He contacted the managing director and after six months of trial and error, decided he had hit on an idea which was the basis for forming the first company in Britain for converting foam plastic into an amazing variety of articles.
Beginning in a room ten feet square, he next took over Ryburn Mill (where the broiler fowls now live). In 1962, after a fire, he moved to another former cotton mill which now has a turnover of half a million pounds per year. The range of foam plastic goods turned out from this Ripponden factory includes strange contracts like brassieres for Guernsey cows, mattresses for dairy cows, as well as upholstery and bunion pads. The new Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool is insulated with their foam, so is the experimental room of the Bristol Aircraft Company, where technicians' ear drums were suffering until it was found that the foam absorbed the noise. And all because James MacAlistair King found time to watch his baby being bathed.
Another man with an interest in spindles in the Ripponden district is Teddy Darby, retired waterworks superintendent of Ringstone, Barkisland, but his spindle is made of flint and dates back nearly 5,000 years. He found it on his native moors, where, during a lifetime's search, he and his brother have accumulated the finest private collection in the country. It includes a flint axe of the Mesolithic period (10,000 years old), one of the only two ever found in Yorkshire; numerous arrow heads and scrapers and a Kimmeridge shale bracelet. Flint is not a local stone, which proves that prehistoric men who lived in these parts must have brought them on their travels, probably from Norfolk, and the flint spindle whorl tells us that they must have had knowledge of spinning.
Mr Darby, who gave a collection some years ago to the South Kensington Museum, London, wonders what treasures of archaeological value must have been scooped up and buried for ever during the making of the M62, across the moors which once knew the tread of Roman feet. A Roman roadway in excellent preservation was uncovered for historical research in 1932-3 by unemployed men from Littleborough. Roman soldiers kept a lookout from their fort overlooking two valleys in what is now the Ripponden Urban District, the Ryburn Valley and Barkisland's Blackburn valley.
Never since the German bombers flew over in World War II have these two valleys been in greater danger of being spoiled. The enemies this time are metal giants, 400 kV power lines with the tallest pylons of any in England, making an unwelcome detour on their journey from Bradford to Darwen in Lancashire.
At a time when the country is undergoing an acute economic crisis, the folk of the valley confess themselves bewildered as to why it should have been planned for this power line to wander fourteen miles or more off the track, striding over populated districts, crossing beautiful areas established as Green Belt and fertile farmland at a cost touching �1 million extra, when the obvious route would appear to be over wild moorland, where the only onlookers would be the peewit, the skylark and an occasional hiker.
About two years ago it was planned that the power line should cross the Pennines over the Wuthering Heights beyond Haworth. The Bronte Society appealed against the route, and before anyone in the Ripponden district knew what had hit them they found themselves landed with the alternative route.
'Pandering to the dead' is the cry one now hears from hundreds of householders who have signed petitions, indignant at the apparent injustice of a government department which can be so influenced by an organisation whose members for the most part are scattered over the whole country and abroad.
Of the thousands of visitors to 'Bronte-land' each year, only a small percentage ever go beyond the village street and the Parsonage, and it is surely fantastic, say the valley folk, that Jane Eyre and Heathcliffe should apparently command more respect from the Ministry of Power than thousands of tax-payers in Ripponden and the neighbouring Elland, which is threatened by the same scheme.
Ripponden may not have the Bronte lure for American sightseers' dollars, but it has a present-day population who are appalled, not only at the thought of what these pylons will do towards spoiling their district but also at what seems a colossal waste of English sterling.
'It's power gone mad,' said County Councillor Frank Smith. 'Why don't they make power stations in Lancashire where the redundant coal pits are?' Folk in Ripponden district are being asked to choose which of two evils they prefer. The centre of Ripponden itself has got a reprieve at the expense of Barkisland, but Rishworth is given no option. Whatever happens, the lines will converge on this bit of sylvan beauty which has already one string festooning its fields and woods.
Arthur Taylor farms at Mill House Farm in the valley, his fields sloping away on both sides. 'They're going to plant one in the only flat field I've got,' he says, indignantly, 'and I've already got three on my land. If this had been a direct route we'd just have had to put up with them, but to bring 'em fourteen miles extra with all it entails in initial expense and consequent maintenance, because of the Brontes, who are dead anyway, well...'. He spoke of the difficulties a farmer has in negotiating machinery around the splayed legs of pylons, plus the damage to land and crops during installation.
Mr Albert Hamer, too, at Cockroft Farm is heart and soul in sympathy with every farmer on the route and determined not to sign willingly for way-leave over his land.
On the escarpment overlooking Rishworth, the Halifax Gliding Club own ground which is menaced. Mr Michael Rose, chief flying instructor, pointed out the hazards of high tension wires. 'It will kill the club,' he said, 'and the nearest gliding clubs will then be at York and Doncaster.' At present, they have forty-five members, but lying as they do within easy access of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and other industrial towns, the potential membership is enormous.
For Jack and Donald Marshall, the pylons herald more than the cancellation of a hobby - they mean the loss of capital.
Barkisland is in the Green Belt, and however much one wished to build a 'desirable residence' in the verdant acres of this village, it would not be allowed by the County planning authorities: it would 'spoil' the natural beauty of the area. Two plots only are designated as building land and one of these has been bought by Marshalls of Elland, with outline planning for sixty houses.
It seems ironical that this plot should be the very spot where the Central Electricity Generating Board should decide to plant a pylon. People would hesitate to buy a house with a pylon in its front garden, so the land loses value to Marshalls as builders and to the local Council as a rating revenue potential.
Not only new houses but old ones of historic interest lie in the shadow of these monsters. In an age when men can test the surface of the moon and lay cables across the earth's great oceans, is it too much to ask that the cables be put underground? That is one question which will demand an answer at the Public Enquiry on September 24th.
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