What do a Regency lesbian diarist, a 20th century Poet Laureate and a great Victorian Gothic Romance writer have in common?
The answer is Calderdale, West Yorkshire: Anne Lister, Ted Hughes and Emily Brontë all lived in, and were inspired by, the magnificent landscape of the Calder Valley.
Download a copy of this fantastic map which tracks Calderdale’s rich literary heritage, along with some of the award-winning contemporary writers who continue this proud tradition into the present day.
Let’s start with Calderdale’s links to the first modern novel: ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Its author Laurence Sterne went to school in Halifax from 1723 to 1731. His Yorkshire education stood him in good stead: he headed to Cambridge University, and then on to celebrity in later life for his digressive and progressive book.
Calderdale was also home to the ‘first modern lesbian’: diarist Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791-1840). Anne was an extraordinary woman: landowner, entrepreneur, traveller and mountaineer. She kept detailed journals – over 5 million words (compared to Samuel Pepys’s paltry 1.25 million) and wrote a sixth of it in a secret ‘crypthand’. The encoded sections document her passionate affairs with other women. She died on her travels in what is now Georgia. Her incredible story will soon be portrayed on TV in the HBO/BBC co-production ‘Gentleman Jack’, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, filmed at Shibden Hall, and starring Suranne Jones.
One of the most famous literary families of all time also had extensive links with Calderdale. Emily Brontë worked as a teacher at Law Hill, not too far from Anne Lister’s Shibden Estate, in around 1838. Her father Patrick Brontë lived for a while in Warley, Halifax. Emily’s wayward brother Branwell loved Halifax’s culture (and taverns), and worked as signalman in the canal-side town of Sowerby Bridge.
Charles Dickens gave a reading in his wife Catherine’s home town of Halifax in 1858. Though he hated the industrial smoke and grime, he welcomed the large and receptive audience saying ‘Halifax was too small for us. I never saw such an audience though. They were really worth reading to for nothing, though I didn’t exactly do that.’
Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate, was born at 1 Aspinall Street in Mytholmroyd in 1930. The rugged crags and sweeping moors that he roamed as a child influenced his work throughout his life. You can stay at his family home, which still features some of the original furnishings from the 1930s. Sylvia Plath also found inspiration in the valley’s emerald hills: listen to her read her poem about the beautiful wooded valley that is Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge here.
The Calder Valley is a literary wellspring to this day. Mytholmroyd-based author Benjamin Myers won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2018 for his novel ‘The Gallows Pole’, which tells the story of the 18th century counterfeiting gang, the Cragg Vale Coiners. His recent non-fiction book ‘Under The Rock’ centres on Scout Rock – a steep crag that looms above Mytholmroyd, and which Ted Hughes called ‘the curtain and backdrop to my existence’. On your Calderdale travels, you might also stumble upon locals including Faber New Poet Zaffar Kunial, illustrator and author Chris Mould, writer Anna Chilvers, or poet Gaia Holmes. Alternatively you can stand on a hill above Todmorden and imagine yourself in ‘Bradfield’ – the fictional setting of Scottish crime writer Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill ‘Wire In The Blood’ novels that was inspired by Calderdale’s landscape.
The area is also home to groundbreaking publishers like Bluemoose Books, Pennine Pens and Arc Publications as well as a rich seam of independent and second-hand bookshops including Halifax’s Book Corner in the magnificent Georgian setting that is The Piece Hall, hidden gem Brames Books, and Whiteley’s Book Exchange (the oldest stall in the Victorian Grade II* listed Halifax Borough Market); or head along the valley to The Book Case in arty Hebden Bridge, then rifle through Todmorden’s second-hand treasure troves Lyall’s and Border Bookshop.
It’s heaven for bookworms – with year-round literary events in venues ranging from markets and pubs to hippodromes and halls, you’ll be sure to find established favourites and discover new talent. If you love literature, you’ll love Calderdale. We’re handy to get to – nestled centrally between Leeds and Manchester – and the whole valley is easily accessible by road and rail.
Be inspired by our literary map, stirred by our spectacular landscapes and welcomed by our creative locals.