Study day 2017 Part I: ‘The Scene Stands Stubborn’ – Churches and chapels in the Upper Calder Valley

Written by Eric Carter, Dan Edmunds & Sean Rawling, edited and introduced by Duncan Marks (all current York University MA in Conservation Studies students)

Reflecting recent developments in conservation, one of the running themes in the MA in Conservation Studies programme at York is the impact of climate change, and how this requires us to consider sustainability, retro-fitting, and post-disaster management of the built historic environment. Recently, too, the YCAA co-facilitated Resilient York, a successful day conference that explored ways in which York’s communities and historic buildings can be better prepared for the city’s frequent flooding.

It was therefore both timely and very much welcomed when YCAA member, Richard Storah of Storah Architecture, invited members, especially current MA students, to visit three sites in West Yorkshire’s beautiful Upper Calder Valley where he is leading restoration projects addressing different effects of climate change. The sites were two Anglican churches – Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Heptonstall, and St. Michael’s Church, Mytholmroyd – and Heptonstall Methodist Chapel.

Heptonstall Methodist Chapel, with former Sunday school building to the rear on the right.  Photo by Historic England

With a healthy turnout of postgraduates and a small number of YCAA members, for what was admittedly a midweek and out-of-term visit, we were welcomed at Hebden Bridge train station by Richard as he pulled up in a requisitioned Scout van, no less. It aptly set the tone of the day: exploration and adventure!

With a population of 1,470, Heptonstall is a small village. To the wider world it is best known as the last resting place of Sylvia Plath, the American poet most famous for her work, The Bell Jar (1963). Her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes brought them to briefly live in Heptonstall, an experience that she wrote of in her poem November Graveyard. The opening line of which begins, “The scene stands stubborn”. It is a motif that resonates with the experience of our study tour to the Upper Calder Valley.

Each of the sites we visited is built from hard-standing gritstone sourced from a local quarry known as ‘Hell Hole’. Darkened by decades of industrial smoke, these religious buildings were built to stubbornly endure the harsh Pennine wind and rain that lashes hard here. Such historic stonework is far more resolute in withstanding the effects of flood damage than modern construction materials, as shown at St. Michael’s in Mytholmroyd.

More parlous however, is the sustainability of these sites as functioning churches. Down in the valley, St. Michael’s maintains a good size congregation. It was unfortunate that as a church, which so often acts as a symbol in the English mindscape of a community’s refuge and steadfastness during times of endurance, it succumbed with the majority of the town to the floodwater (forcing the local cricket club to stand-in as the temporary communal hub). We of course hope that St. Michael’s is spared future flooding, as a series of continued flooding events – and we should recall that nearby Hebden Bridge’s town centre was severely flooded three times between 2012 and 2015 – could pressure the insurance provider to drastically raise the church’s insurance premium to offset such risk.

Up on the hillside, however, the sustainability of Heptonstall’s churches is more challenging. St. Thomas the Apostle is a large church serving a small community. As with the national trend for Protestant Denominations in England, St. Thomas’s congregation is primarily elderly, although a new influx of members of the community, many from professional backgrounds, gives hope of improved sustainability. At the Methodist Chapel the congregation remains very small, and the pressure to sell off parts of the Sunday school as holiday lets reflects diminishing returns. Poor access will likely be an issue for this accommodation, but hopefully the village’s association with Plath and Hughes will be sufficient to overcome this by enticing letting interest and help to ease the economic sustainability of the chapel. Without such financial ventures, and with declining congregations, such churches are increasingly reliant on HLF funding, which is arguably unsustainable in the long-term.

St Thomas’ Churchwarden, Graham Kidd, explaining some of the issues, which have included graffiti, that have arisen from having the American poet, Sylvia Plath (Hughes), buried in the church’s graveyard. Photo by Duncan Marks

That these churches have decided to repair their fabric and fittings is to be welcomed. The decision to insert under-floor heating at St. Michael’s may prove particularly prudent. While still vulnerable if flooding reoccurs, it will help facilitate the drying out process of any future flooding as well as make church attendance more pleasurable in winter; so a holistic solution. Indeed, perhaps this points towards the over-riding message that arose from the day for the management of historic buildings in the UK when faced with the effects of climate change (and echoing here that good old Scout motto), “be prepared!”


The YCAA would very much like to thank the stewards, churchwardens, contractors, the Reverend Cathy Reardon of St. Michael’s Church and, above all, Richard Storah for organising such a wonderful day and being so welcoming of us. Thank you.



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