Sowerby Bridge is a small, friendly and relaxed town in the Calder Valley, at the confluence of the River Calder and River Ryburn, surrounded by the dramatic scenery of the South Pennine Hills. Running through the town parallel to the River Calder, the eastern end of the trans-Pennine Rochdale Canal meets the Calder and Hebble Navigation at Sowerby Bridge Wharf, the heart of the town. The recently opened No 3 lock next to the Tuel tunnel is 30 feet deep - the deepest inland lock in Britain.
Sowerby Bridge is 3 miles west of Halifax and can be reached by road from the M62. Take exit 24 and follow the A629 to Halifax then the A6026 into Sowerby Bridge.
Services on the regular Manchester-Bradford-Leeds-York route stop at Sowerby Bridge, about every half hour from Monday through Saturday day time and hourly in the evenings and on Sundays.
There is a frequent bus service direct from Halifax, and there are also services from Rochdale and Oldham.
Sowerby Bridge started off as a medieval river crossing on the way to Sowerby, a settlement thought to date back to the 10th Century, situated on a hill on the south bank of the River Calder. This village, which derived its name from the Old Norse Saurr-by - 'a farmstead on sour ground', eked out a meagre living from the late 15th Century by supplementing subsistence farming with the production of textiles, climatic and geological conditions being unfavourable for survival by agriculture alone.
Up until the 14th Century, Sowerby Bridge itself remained sparsely populated, the land in the valley bottom being considered as worthless, but its location was ideal for the use of water power for mills and factories, and the area eventually began to attract settlers when a water powered mill was constructed to the east of the bridge. As communications and transport to Sowerby Bridge improved, more industry came to the area. The Calder and Hebble Navigation reached Sowerby Bridge in 1770, extending waterway links with other industrial centres in West Yorkshire and in 1804 the Rochdale Canal was completed, linking Sowerby Bridge with Liverpool. 1840 saw the opening of the Lancashire-Yorkshire railway and the construction of Sowerby Bridge station.
By 1851 the population of the town was over 2000 people. In 1856, an 118-year-period of local government began, leading to the opening of a public library and baths, civic offices, a sewage disposal plant and slaughter house in the second half of the 19th Century. A new library, parks and council housing construction programme followed between 1905 and 1936. Also during this period, numerous shops, public houses and other businesses had sprung up.
Manufacturing in Sowerby Bridge had reached its peak in the early 20th Century, having clothed the British army in the campaigns against Louis XIV, Napoleon and in the Crimean War, and having provided shells, maritime engines and munitions, caterpillar tread covers and blankets in World Wars I and II. In the years between the wars, Sowerby Bridge was a thriving community.
Gradually, though, from the beginning of the 20th Century, increased motorised transport made other centres of work, shopping and entertainment more accessible and the waterway system was unable to compete. Both the Calder and Hebble Navigation and the Rochdale Canal had stopped carrying commercial traffic to the town and in 1969 the Rochdale Canal was blocked by the filling in of the Tuel Tunnel in Sowerby Bridge.
By the early 1970s, the old family firms were struggling to compete with foreign manufacturers and many mills and factories were relocated or forced to close down. Between 1971 and 1988 Sowerby Bridge lost a large proportion of its shops and businesses. In 1982, restoration of the Rochdale Canal began but progress with schemes to improve canalside environments were slow-moving in the sluggish economic climate.
In 1991, Calderdale Council began a series of environmental improvements to contribute to the economic regeneration of the town. Eventually, in 1996, the Tuel Tunnel was re-opened, linking the Calder and Hebble Navigation back to the Rochdale Canal, allowing leisure cruising through the town, thus encouraging more tourists to visit the area.
Many of the disused mills and other old buildings have been or are currently (at the time of writing) being converted into flats, art galleries and craft workshops, and new housing is also being developed on the sites of the old gas works and demolition yard between the River Calder and the canal. Work continues on the regeneration of Sowerby Bridge as a residential and tourist centre with enthusiastic participation from the townspeople and local businesses.
Things to Do
- Canoe slalom on the River Calder
- Canal side walks towards Salterhebble or Hebden Bridge
- Narrowboat hire from Shire Cruisers at the Wharf
- Horse riding
- Walking on the Calderdale Way on Norland Moor, Rishworth and Ripponden hills, or in the wooded Ryburn valley
Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing Festival
This ancient tradition dates back several hundred years to the time when churches used rushes for floor covering. Every year, the old rushes were disposed of and fresh ones were brought to the church in large carts. Over the years, this tradition became a festive event, when carts were decorated colourfully, and accompanied on their way by Morris Dancers and musicians.
Rushbearing was revived in Sowerby Bridge in 1977 as a one-off half day celebration to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and has now become an annual two day event, always on the first weekend of September, which now incorporates live music events, craft and charity markets, children's entertainment and even a fun fair at venues along the route. The thatched cart is sixteen feet high, with two wheels and is lavishly decorated and pulled by sixty local men dressed in Panama hats, white shirts, black trousers and clogs.
A team of young ladies take turns to ride on top of the rushcart and Morris dancers and bands travel alongside the cart, in the traditional way. The total distance covered in the two day procession is nine miles, stopping at churches in hill top villages on the way to present token offerings of rushes.
Things to Look for in the Town
Terry O. Brien's Riverside Garden
Terry O. Brien, a member of the Institute of Patenters and Inventors, has constructed a very unusual garden by the River Calder which can be seen from the bridge. It includes a shopping trolley full of garden plants, a windmill and wooden furniture made of discarded pieces of wood and a miniature water mill using plastic window boxes and even a real toilet and washbasin, complete with toilet roll holder. In amongst this novel collection of garden sculpture, lush foliage and flowers abound. The result is a striking and surprisingly pleasing spectacle.
This structure is actually situated in King Cross, Halifax, but provides a striking landmark which can be seen from all over Sowerby Bridge and most of Norland moor. At night the top of the tower is lit up with a green light, adding to its dramatic silhouette. The tower was built as a chimney in the 19th Century by J.E. Wainhouse, who owned dye works in nearby Washer Lane. Wainhouse lavished a great deal of money installing a spiral staircase and ornate balcony at the top of the 77-metre-high structure, the reason for which is unknown.
The building was never even used for its original purpose as a chimney. It is opened up for visitors on public holidays and some Sundays in the summer months.
Where to Eat
Sowerby Bridge offers a wide variety of eating establishments, several of which attract diners from miles around.
- The Bluebird Café - low-priced traditional food.
- Dee's Diner - low-priced traditional food.
- Café No 5 - The only café in town where smoothies and espresso are on the menu, but chips aren't!
- Café No 5 - becomes a very popular restaurant on weekend evenings; book in advance.
- Casa Mia - authentic Italian food.
- Tapas Tree - evenings only; part of a restaurant chain.
- Java and Village - Indonesian upstairs, Indian downstairs.
- Temujin - Mongolian barbecue.
- Gimbals - also very popular: people come a long way to eat here, so book in advance.
- Cassoulet - a restaurant boat, ideal for parties. Dine in style while cruising the Calder and Hebble navigation.
Chinese food, Indian food, fish and chips, pizzas and kebabs are all available in the town centre.
The Puzzle Hall Inn - small, friendly pub. Live music here is a big attraction: jazz on Tuesdays, all styles on Saturdays and bands/acoustic/poetry night on Thursdays.
The Hobbit - affords good views over Sowerby Bridge from the outside tables. Food and accommodation available. Theme nights/weekends held regularly such as Medieval Banquets, Murder Mystery weekends, and so on.
The Moorings - part of an old warehouse on the Wharf. Serves food and guest ales.
The Navigation - canal side pub, formerly 16th Century Moot Hall, with an attractive beer garden with views of Norland. Home-cooked meals served.
The Ram's Head - traditional local pub and brewers of Ryburn ale, good beer which is served here at very low prices. Home-cooked meals served.
The Hobbit - see above.
The Stirk Bridge Inn - low priced Bed and Breakfast accommodation.
Park Villa Guest House - Bed and Breakfast.
There are branches of Kwik Save and Lidl supermarkets in the town centre. Other shops include a craft shop, several antique shops, a specialist record shop, a Belgian chocolate shop and a delicatessen. The open air market on Station Road is open on Tuesdays and Fridays for new goods and food, and on Saturdays for second-hand goods.