In 1974 the Local Government Act of ‘72 came into effect and Saddleworth, historically a part of Yorkshire’s West Riding, now found itself in the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham, Lancashire.
Situated somewhere on the cusp of Manchester and West Yorkshire it’s often said that Saddleworth is more a state of mind than anywhere in particular. In reality it’s just a name for a 7-mile long, 5-mile wide valley, home to a series of villages and hamlets. Penned in by moorland and the quick-changing weather of the Pennines there’s a distinct feeling of isolation in the air. You can touch the silence if you catch it on the wrong day. The sort of quiet that makes you rush back to the car after stopping for a piss.
Approach Saddleworth from Huddersfield and you’re firmly in Last of The Summer Wine country. The long-running sitcom was filmed in nearby Holmfirth. It’s steep, winding hills and rolling countryside transformed into a tourist hotspot in the process. The summer months see a pilgrimage of pensioners arriving by the bus load. Cameras at the ready, ice white trainers pouring round the town in search of their favourite scenes.
Leave Holmfirth towards Saddleworth and you find yourself on the road known locally as ‘the way to the airport’. Winding through the Pennines it reminds you just how vast and empty Yorkshire can be. Deep green bracken crawls across dramatic cliff faces, purple heather stretching as far as the eye allows.
There’s a phrase in the area to describe non-natives. Nick, who runs a community orientated website in Saddleworth explained, “If you’ve lived here less than 40 years the locals will call you a ‘comer-inner’. It’s all lighthearted but there’s a strong sense of pride with people who were born and raised here.”
Today ‘comer-inners’ seem to be more common than locals. Saddleworth is within throwing distance of the M62 and Manchester and Leeds’ commuters are now choosing to settle down in the area more frequently. Certain villages even play home to the odd ex-footballer, a fact many locals like to mention when discussing everything from house prices to the lack of attendance at summer events.
First celebrated in 1975 Yorkshire Day began as a protest movement against the Local Government reorganisation that occurred the previous year. Its date on the 1st of August alludes to the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1834, for which Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce campaigned.
It’s as if the village of Uppermill is the centre of all life in Saddleworth. The once yellow, now black, sandstone houses pile around twisting roads, pie shops and pubs. It’s a manicured image of Yorkshire life. One where you imagine there’s an abundance of flatcaps and whippets while everyone holds a general distrust of Lancashire.
It’s this image that’s on full display during the Yorkshire Day celebrations. Blue bunting and white roses adorn the village’s playing fields. Burger stands, brass bands and Shetland pony rides provide entertainment. For most of the attendees this is less about Yorkshire and more about keeping the kids happy on a Sunday, much to the annoyance of one of the events organisers Mike, “the new ones moving in, the kids and that, they don’t care, they think we’re in Lancashire.”
Oliver, a retired schoolteacher who’s lived in Saddleworth all his life, has been helping to organise the event since it’s early days. Blue Yorkshire flag in hand he sees his role as an important one. “We do this so that the younger ones can learn about their heritage and the area they live in.” While he hopes that the next generation will carry on the tradition in the years to come, many don’t see it as that important.
Darrel, an 18-year-old working on a zorbing stand laughs when we ask how he feels about his home county, “It’s just where you’re from init? You can’t help or change that.” Others like him see the day as just a bit of fun. After all Saddleworth is one of the only places to celebrate it on this scale.
The brass bands pack their equipment away for lunch, heading straight for the local pie shop. At 21, Laura is one of the youngest members to play the event every year, “I guess it [Yorkshire Day] is old fashioned but so are brass bands.” For Laura the lack of interest in the day and the reasons behind it represents a serious problem with youth disengagement when it comes to local politics and history. “It’s important to know about where you come from… How can you complain or change things if you’re not involved?”
White Rose Society
By 1988 many people both in and out of Saddleworth believed the area was part of Oldham. With the aim to educate the community on the issue the Saddleworth White Rose Society was formed. Through a mixture of events, leafleting and talks in schools, the group aims to raise awareness of the boundary changes and how it has affected Saddleworth.
Brenda’s house is rammed with bright blue Yorkshire memorabilia. Family photos mingle with white roses and church pamphlets. Shoes are left at the door and Irn-Bru coloured tea does the rounds. As a founding member of the White Rose Society she’s seen it go from a large protest group to a close-knit circle of friends. She concedes that over the years the rate of new members signing up has fallen drastically and many of those already in the group have either lost-interest, moved away from the area or in some cases died.
When she talks about the Saddleworth of her youth it’s hard to get Brenda to stop. A smile creeps across her face as she recalls the days when pubs and churches were full, “when you used to go out, get the bus, everyone knew each other. It isn’t like that these days.” In the years since the society’s formation she feels community in Saddleworth has slowly declined whilst interest in local traditions and history has pretty much flatlined.
With the majority of White Rose Society members being elderly, it’s not always a surprise to hear them complain about a lack of community. It was once an essential support in an area that could be cut off for weeks when the first snow of winter landed. Michael, a fellow member, stresses how big the world feels now compared to 1974, “with computers and everything it can be easy to lose sight of those around you.” With lives lived less locally there’s a sense that people like Michael feel almost irrelevant at times.
Through the White Rose Society and events like Yorkshire Day it’s as if Saddleworth’s elderly population can maintain a sense of what was in the face of immense change. The days when they belonged to Yorkshire are reminiscent of a time that has now passed. Knowing everyone in your area seems such a remote prospect now.
The boundary act is a scapegoat. At the heart of it lies a larger problem, one that we’re all going to have to deal with as our population gets older. Feelings of isolation and loneliness within this elderly section of society is something that needs combatting. As Brenda put it herself, “I’m proud of Yorkshire and I’m proud of Saddleworth but I need to feel I belong.”
Like most towns and villages in the Pennines, Saddleworth was built around a flourishing textiles industry. After the decline of this in the 30’s only a handful of the mills remain functioning. The rest converted into flats or offices, the names the only hint of an age in which this area was the heart of the textile world.
Up the road from Brenda’s lies Delph, home to two of these working mills; R. Gledhill LTD and Mallalieus. The roar from the former rumbles through the village, A loan employee sits at the back reading the local newspaper. Farmland lines one side of the valley, a housing estate the other. Small cobbled streets pushing their way between leaning houses. Bookshelves and honesty boxes blocking pavements.
Joan has lived on the Carrcote estate ever since she moved to Delph as a child. Since retiring 5 years ago she explains that most of her friends and family have moved away. “Communities are dying everywhere. It’s ever since they sold the social housing off.” She cites this shortage in affordable housing as one reason her friends and family no longer live nearby.
She sounds a bit tired of it all and tells us that many young people don’t have a reason to stay in the area as they get older. “My son lives in London and has everything within ten minutes of him. There’s only a pub here.” This lack of prospects and entertainment for the younger generation are easily visible on the streets of Saddleworth. Youth seems like a rarity here, something that hides indoors and leaves at the first opportunity. It’s easy to understand when the promise of a career lies elsewhere and all Saddleworth offers is isolation.
This isolation is something that many of Delph’s pensioners have known all their lives. Mike has lived all over Saddleworth in his 67 years here. He even had a stint living over the border in Lancashire, something he puts down to ‘brief madness’. He claims the opportunity to leave Saddleworth used to be for the select few who attended university, “I guess I was too scared to move away. It just wasn’t the done thing then.” Regret hangs in the air for a moment, only to escape as Mike moves the subject on, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else though, it’s home.”
The world might seem big and scary to Joan and Mike now but it’s only set to get larger. ‘Devolution’ is slowly becoming a reality. One in which Manchester acts as the primary case study. As the local MP Debbie Abrahams put it on Yorkshire Day, “the more devolution continues the more Yorkshire and Lancashire will have to work together.”
For Saddleworth’s young this offers the long-needed promise of local careers but also requires a serious improvement in transport links. The Transpennine line is a key component of George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ plans. A route he admitted they need to be ‘much more ambitious’ with. At present the trains to Manchester and Leeds only stop in Saddleworth once an hour. There’s also a real need for affordable housing, something that seems as rare as the trains. With an average house in Saddleworth costing above £200k there’s not much hope for the first time buyer.
There has been vague promises to ‘rebalance the country’s economy and establish the North as a global powerhouse’ as well as talk of unifying and harnessing ‘the people power of our city regions’. This rhetoric only maintains the idea of the North as a separate entity. A region somehow not part of the wider national economy or vision.
For the older population it appears to be a young persons game. The plans remain focused on private sector investment and utilising the skills of the regions youth. There’s not much mention of how this affects those outside cities, let alone those past working age.
Meanwhile in Saddleworth, like much of Yorkshire, concepts of community, identity and belonging seem like relics of a pre-Thatcherite era. There’s no quick fix to problems of loneliness or isolation. De-centralised government and local investment may never be able to solve them. At the same time communities alone can’t create a sense of belonging or pride out of thin-air. The true solution probably lies somewhere between the two camps.