To fresh eyes, Hebden Bridge might seem like any other well-preserved former mill town in rural Yorkshire. Factories-turned-flats are scattered throughout the village, as are sky-high chimneys and old cobbled roads. The once-beige stone flags, of which the majority of buildings here are made, blackened long ago — a marked effect of the Industrial Revolution and Hebden’s place within it.
The town is sweetly nestled within the countryside, too. It feels almost like one is in a stadium, where the village is the field and the hills are the spectators. Pretty flowers and cosy nooks are to be found everywhere, so much so that one friend recently mused that the town felt like the setting of Hot Fuzz: a little too twee. (Unlike my presumptions about Hot Fuzz’s villagers, though, most residents here are Labour voters.)
Once you spend more time exploring, however (or moving here from the US, as I did in 2016), you start to notice things. If you take the train into Hebden, walk into the park and cross the bridge into the town centre, for example, you’ll see that the trans flag has been painted on that bridge (twice). Actually, the trans flag has been painted all over the place.
Like me, you might eventually clock that your dog groomer is gay, as are the women who run your favourite pub, and the ones who own the vintage shop around the corner from your home, and the person who sold you doughnuts that morning, and the cute tattooed barista at your fave coffee spot.
Most of the shops, whether queer-owned or not, rep stickers of the rainbow flag and the trans flag proudly on their front doors. Many residents are familiar with the origin story of the local Happy Valley Pride, too. When a piece of homophobic graffiti was found in the town centre in 2015, it wasn’t just painted over and forgotten. Instead, people came together to build an entire annual festival celebrating all things queer. (This is all in a town with a population of just over 4,000, by the way.)
Hebden Bridge has long been known as the lesbian capital of the UK and these days as a safe space for all queer people. The reputation is owed to the lesbians who moved here in the 1970s. Just a decade earlier, after mass mill shutdowns, the town had been in danger of becoming yet another northern casualty. Thankfully, students from nearby Manchester realised just how many cheap or abandoned properties were to be found here.
Professor Darren Smith, who has extensively researched the regeneration of Hebden Bridge, explained to The Yorkshire Post that "once a group of students had moved in, pamphlets were produced about the abandoned property available for counter cultural groups. In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, counter cultural people moved into the town." I can’t imagine that the naturally growing magic mushrooms found in the nearby countryside every autumn deterred them either.
One divorce, some hard life lessons, six years and a queer exodus later, we are here ... and I can say confidently it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Professor Smith believes that the lesbian community’s involvement in the anti-nuclear movement of the late ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s also drew many to Hebden Bridge — a place that was slowly becoming a haven for "protestors, artists, and alternative communities".
As a queer mother of two, Hebden’s reputation for inclusivity, open-mindedness and creative expression was high on the list of reasons I wanted to raise my kids here. My partner grew up in the area and introduced me to the town when we started dating in 2011. I remember describing it to a friend back home as a "fairytale" sort of place, not just because of the idyllic scenery but the fact that no one reacted with judgement when my partner and I called ourselves "queer" despite being in a heterosexual relationship with one another. I’ve found that many parents are drawn to raise their kids here for similar reasons.
"The town’s openness and acceptance of queer people encouraged my move," says Lettitia Grant, who moved to Hebden Bridge with her son in 2019. "I first visited the town while pregnant; the combination of stunning views, kind faces and free-flowing creativity stole my heart. I knew then that I wanted to raise my child here. One divorce, some hard life lessons, six years and a queer exodus later, we are here. We moved into our lovely little home last year and I can say confidently it was one of the best decisions I have ever made."
Teaching her child about queerness and the importance not only of being oneself but of accepting others is at the core of Grant’s parenting ethos, and Hebden Bridge offers a way to support those goals. "Having a queer mother has prompted many a conversation with my son on partnership, sexuality and what it all means," she explains. "Living in Hebden and being able to provide relatable examples of the wide spectrum of different types of families and people helps massively."
Toben, her son, is already soaking up those lessons. "He feels confident enough to express himself in any way he sees fit," she notes, "whether that be singing 'My Girl' at the top of his lungs, rolling down the street on his scooter or rocking his favourite butterfly dress, strutting up the hills in the summer sun, without anyone batting an eyelid. There are few places I can imagine feeling quite so free."
Vanessa Matthews has lived in the Hebden area for 10 years. Her partner has been here her whole life. "We like that nobody thinks twice about my partner and I being together, even the children in school where my kids go," she explains. "They see a lesbian relationship as normal and it causes no problems for our children."
"It’s very important for my children to feel happy in their own skin and with whatever path their lives lead them," she adds. "My son is transgender and has more friends now than he ever did as a girl."
When asked whether she feels this area of the world can offer her family anything that’s hard to come by elsewhere, she tells me it’s acceptance. "You can be whoever you want to be without being judged for it."
This might sound too good to be true and I suppose in some ways it is. Homophobia and transphobia still exist here, of course, as they do everywhere in the world. Not long ago, a local shop owner told me that someone had vandalised the trans flag sticker on her front door.
Still, such incidents feel rarer than they might be elsewhere. Lois McMillan, queer designer and mother of two, believes that despite any homophobic and transphobic minority groups, Hebden is a pretty wonderful place to raise a family.
McMillan grew up in a neighbouring town and has long felt that Hebden Bridge’s reputation for being queer-friendly and aspirational holds true. "It's also perfect for bringing up children because it's in the countryside but it's close enough to some cities that you can get about. It's beautiful and friendly; and because it's small, it has such a community vibe to it. It's also very creative, artistic and the type of place where you can get a lot of crafting done."
For McMillan, teaching her children about queerness is essential and, like Grant, she feels that Hebden has built-in support networks for doing just that. "I see queerness as part of my personal identity, part of my history and part of so many of my friends," she says. "Because I am with a cis man, I have to make additional efforts to bring it in, whether that's with books with same-sex characters or books about transgender children. Storybooks for the kids that are about queerness are my favourite ones to go to because as far as it looks, unless we talk about queerness, my family does look very heteronormative. The bookshops here in Hebden definitely have more LGBTQ+ book options, and in the library."
"Hebden cinema is always playing queer content as well," she adds. "If you're living in a big city, or even in a big town that only has one cinema, they're probably not going to be playing queer content unless it's a blockbuster film."
Despite the unfortunate reality that hate is unavoidable wherever one may go, McMillan really does believe there’s something about living here, and choosing to raise wee ones here. "When I lived in York, I would hold hands with my partner who was the same sex as me and I would feel people watching us — not necessarily in a Hey, look, there's another couple way but an Oh, look, something interesting. Let's just stare at them because this is weird way. We got harassed, so we stopped holding hands in public. Here, in Hebden Bridge, that wouldn't be a problem."
Personally, I love that I’m raising my daughters somewhere where they will see people of all genders and sexualities at the park, the shops or on muddy moorland walks. I love that my 4-year-old already understands that someone can have two mothers, two fathers or any other type of family dynamic, despite growing up in a house with a mum and a dad who, at first glance, appear heterosexual. I love that the library and bookstores make it a priority to stock LGBTQ+ literature. I love that there’s a cherished Pride celebration here. I love the music and arts scenes. I love that, should one or both of my daughters end up being queer, I wouldn’t worry quite as much for their wellbeing or safety as I would elsewhere. I love that, overall, people are seen simply as people.
"Even though Hebden has such a large queer community, there seems to be much less of a focus on a person’s sexuality," adds Grant. "You are viewed as the human you are regardless of the partner you choose to be with. There is open dialogue and space for you to be heard, and I feel like that means you are not simply seen as something to be put in one box or another. You are a story to be told and there are ears to listen."