When Latin was taught in schools, back in the Dark Ages, every schoolchild knew that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy. According to a vaguely related legend, one Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, subsequently wandered into the North Atlantic and became the first king of Britain.
The legend is colourful nonsense. But there are still parts of this country where the sense of strangeness (from the French ‘étrange’, meaning ‘foreign’) is so strong and inexplicable that legend retains some appeal.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Halifax is an unexpectedly exotic and cosmopolitan town.
On a sunny afternoon you could easily imagine its Piece Hall in the Mediterranean or in some Roman province. It’s a large quadrangle bounded by two- and three-storey colonnades, backed by arched rooms in which worsted and woollen goods were traded. It opened in 1779 and was beautifully restored in 2017. Today it houses specialist shops, some historic displays, the information centre and places to eat and drink.
In other respects Halifax is thoroughly Yorkshire: a dark, culverted river; dramatic public buildings; old mills converted to contemporary purposes; a fine local industrial museum measuring the breadth of Halifax’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution; a lovely Minster with a feeling of great age, unusual even for a church; and Eureka!, the National Children’s Museum to which you aren’t admitted if you don’t have a child in tow.
The people were lovely too, by and large, though not in all cases with an unusual feeling of great age. It was a strange atmosphere: just two days later the Government tightened its advice on the coronavirus. Meanwhile people strolled around the Piece Hall, they went to pubs and restaurants and at 5.20pm they attended what would be the last professional football match for some time. The National League fixture at the Shay, between Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United, kicked off at 5.20pm for the cameras. On public transport, in the street, indoors or at the Shay they gave each other space but were friendly and helpful.
At the Calderdale Industrial Museum, some of the volunteers must have been in the ‘vulnerable’ category but that wasn’t going to discourage them. Stationed around exhibits in the four-floor building, each was a mine of information (especially the gentleman in the mining section). Much of the equipment on display, though static, is impressive enough; but many machines still work and are eagerly demonstrated. At the automated sweet-wrapping device you’ll even be offered a sample of the product.
The museum celebrates the industrial history of the town in all its diversity: pottery, mining, engineering, machine tools, textiles, carpets, confectionery. It also records the contribution of individuals and, when I was there, specifically Laurie Annie Willson MBE. A suffragette, she was instrumental in getting women into the WWI war effort, pioneered works canteens and, after setting up her own electrical engineering company, she built quality homes for working people. Four of her estates are still part of Halifax’s housing stock.
Another notable Halifax woman is remembered at the Minster. Anne Lister was the Gentleman Jack of the recent BBC series. She owned Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax, was an active local parishioner and her tombstone is in the Minster.
Dean Clough sounds like a junior offshoot of a footballing dynasty, until you consider the northern geographical meaning of ‘clough’ – a valley or ravine. Here, a collection of 19th century buildings and mills has been converted into offices, a shopping village, galleries and leisure spaces.
The galleries are a rabbit warren but the printed guide helps and it’s worth persevering. In a random corridor you’ll find a Hockney; above a staircase, Tom Wood’s portrait of the Prince of Wales; and in a room to itself, a sensational Lego model of the complex.
I was in Halifax on a Saturday. By the following Tuesday a number of the places I visited were closed – the Industrial Museum, the Minster, the Shay – until further notice. This was football tourism to the finest of tolerances. On the day football closed down in England, then, 52 Ebbsfleet supporters made their way to Halifax and were rewarded with an away win. Some of the Halifax team played as if they were feeling under the weather.
FC Halifax Town 0 Ebbsfleet United 1
The Shay Stadium, 14 Mar 2020