Calderdale : Halifax to Pontefract


The streams and rivers that feed the River Calder rise in the moors to the west of Halifax near the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. Close by is the town of Todmorden which was traditionally split in two by the two counties with the border running straight through the middle of the Town Hall. Today the place is firmly in Yorkshire as the result of a boundary change back in 1888. Boundaries seem to have been a feature of this area for a long time as Todmorden's Anglo-Saxon name is thought to derive from Totta's Maer Dene (Totta's boundary valley) though who Totta was is not known.

A canal near Todmorden links the River Calder with Rochdale over in the historic county of Lancashire near the outskirts of Manchester. East of Todmorden, the canal is joined by the Hebden Water at Hebden Bridge, which is a former mill town best known for its clog factory though in truth this is situated at neighbouring Mytholmroyd.

Close at hand is Heptonstall, a former weaving village located on a ridge between the Hebden Water and a ravine called Colden Clough. Both valleys join the River Calder at Hebden Bridge. The area north of Heptonstall is home to the Hardcastle Crags, a property of the National Trust. They are home to a beautiful wooded valley, a nineteenth century mill, and some picturesque waterfalls.

The River Calder continues east from Hebden Bridge to Halifax, through Brighouse, north of Huddersfield and from there to Mirfield near the outskirts of Dewsbury. It continues east to Horbury and Wakefield. Eventually the Calder joins the River Aire at Castleford near Pontefract. The River Aire itself is destined to join the Humber by a circuitous route but close to Pontefract at Knottingley the Aire is joined by a canal called the Calder and Aire Navigation. This canal links the whole Calder and Aire river sytem with the River Don at Hatfield close to Doncaster. From there it is linked to the estuary of the River Humber near the port of Goole. This canal system linked the Humber in the east to the Mersey in the west and was of paramount importance to the industrial development of the West Yorkshire area.


Halifax is situated to the south west of Bradford where the Hebble valley flows south to join the River Calder. It was a town that grew as aresult of the cloth trade but it has a long history. The name derives from Haly Flex Field meaning the place where holy banners were made from flax and indeed in 1175 Halifax was known as Haliflex.

The Old Market,Halifax

Above: The old market, Halifax from an old postcard

Halifax has a spectacular location in amongst the hills and one of the best views can be obtained from neighbouring Beacon Hill. Nearby is Shibden Hall in Shibden Dale which was the fifteenth century home of the Otes family. For the next 300 years it was owned by the Listers who lived there until 1933. The house, with its impressive oak pannelled interiors dates back to 1420 and is set in 37 acres of Pennine parkland.

Halifax is a busy town well known for its shopping arcades and markets. Notable buildings in Halifax include the impressive Piece Hall a huge quadrangled hall with 315 rooms dating from 1779. Here cloth merchants displayed pieces of cloth for sale on market days. In 1871 the open space within Piece Hall became the site of a fruit and vegetable market.

The Halifax Town Hall of 1863 was built by Charles Barry who built the Houses of Parliament in London. Other buildings of note include Wainhouse Tower of 1871, an elaborate factory chimney built for a dye house that was never used. Two churches of note in Halifax are All Souls, built by Sir Gilbert Scott and the fourteenth century Church of St John the Baptist where a lifesize wooden figure of a seventeenth century Halifax beggar called Old Tristram can be seen. There are some Georgian houses in Halifax including Somerset House in George Street, while older buildings include the Union Cross Inn, that was first mentioned as far back as 1535.

A local curiosity is the Halifax Gibbet - a guillotine for beheading people that can be seen (in truth a replica of the original) in Gibbet Street. Relinquished in the seventeenth century, the gibbet was originally used to protect cloth makers from theft. Anyone found guilty of stealing cloth had their heads cut off. Fifty people were executed here between 1550 and 1650 - that'll teach them!

Local museums in Halifax include the Bankfield Museum (which exhibits the blade from the gibbet) with its collection of textiles, the Calderdale Industrial Museum and the Eureka Museum of Childhood.


Huddersfield, lies four to five miles across the other side of the River Calder from Halifax in the Colne valley. It was called Odersfelt in the Domesday Book. It is another historic cloth making town, best known for producing fancy woollen cloths.

Most of Huddersfield was laid out in the early nineteenth century along the Colne valley, where mills were built along the banks of the river. Its church dedicated to St Peter, is a Norman foundation rebuilt in 1834-26 and the Town Hall dates from 1875.

Huddersfield's industrial growth absorbed surrounding villages in the nineteenth century. These include the village of Almondbury, which has an iron age camp located on Castle Hill nearby.

Almondbury camp is situated on a 900 ft bluff with three steep sides and dates from around 300 BC. It was abandoned sometime after the arrival of the Romans. A castle was built on the site some time after the Norman Conquest, but was dismantled by Henry III.

A tower called the Jubilee tower was built on the site of the hill fort in 1899. Almondbury was the site of a market as early as the thirteenth century and local cloth was traded here until the establishment of Huddersfield market in 1672.


Dewsbury is situated to the south of Leeds and Bradford half way between Huddersfield and Wakefield. It is an industrial town with an Anglo-Saxon name referring to a watery 'burgh' or fortified manor. It may have been an important place in Anglo-Saxon times as the Christian missionary called Paulinus preached here in the days of Edwin, King of Northumbria. Dewsbury has a church with elements dating from the 13th to the 19th century.

Batley lies to the west of Dewsbury and is in an area associated with Yorkshire's Savile family. Neighbouring Birstall was the birthplace in 1733 of Joseph Priestley who was one of the first men to discover the gasses oxygen and nitrogen. Priestley is not to be confused with the twentieth century Yorkshire author J.B Priestely.

Joseph Priestley - he of the gases - moved to the United States in 1794 and lived there until his death in 1804. Priestley's statue in Birstall market place shows him performing an experiment with a candle in one hand and a jar in the other.

A house known as the Rydings at Birstall near Batley is said to have been the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre though the Bronte story of course belongs to Haworth. Norton Conyers Hall near Ripon also claims to be Thornfield Hall.

Robin Hood is occasionally associated with this area and he arguably has stronger connections with this area than he had with Nottinghamshire. He is said to be buried somewhere in the neighbourhood of Mirfield, west of Dewsbury.


Wakefield's history goes back to pre-Roman times but in the Anglo-Saxon era it passed to someone called Waca - and Waca's Field became Wakefield. Wakefield was important for weaving and dyeing and by the thirteenth century was the most important centre for weaving and dyeing in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In later centuries its industrial role was eclipsed by Leeds and Bradford but it was for many years the administrative centre of the Riding.

Remnants of Wakefield's Medieval Age include street names like Westgate, Northgate and Kirkgate and a six hundred year old 'Old Bridge' with nine arches. The bridge has a medieval chapel built upon it, being one of only a few bridge chapels surviving in the country. The chapel, dedicated to St Mary was built in the 1300s but was restored by George Gilbert Scott in a later century. Traffic now crosses the 'New Bridge' of 1933.

Wakefield's Cathedral Church of All Saints was first built in Norman times but was rebuilt in 1329 and a Clerestory was built in 1470. The church was raised to the status of cathedral when Wakefield gained a bishopric and became a city in 1888. It is thought to have the tallest tower of any church in Yorkshire.

An unusual reminder of Wakefield's Medieval times are the surviving scripts of the Wakefield Mystery Cycle, a series of plays performed by the craft guilds of Wakefield in times gone by. The plays have been performed occasionally in more recent times.

Sandal Magna, now swallowed up by the southern outskirts of Wakefield was once the home of Sandal castle, built in the 12th century, but of which nothing now remains. It was the ancestral home of the Warren family and was a one time home of King Richard III.

Tthe Yorkshire architect John Carr (born 1723) came from Horbury near Wakefield. Carr later went on to become a Freeman of York in 1757 and the Lord Mayor of that city in 1770.

The boundaries of Wakfield's Metropolitan Borough extend beyond the town itself to include the neighbouring mining town of Normanton and further west the towns of Castleford and Pontefract.


Pontefract is located a few miles from Castleford, where the River Calder joins the River Aire. The town was originally called Taddensclyff - a shelf of land belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Taedden, but it was later renamed Kirkby by the Vikings, meaning the village with a church.

The name of Pontefract means broken bridge and is part French, part Latin. It was recorded under this name in 1090 but it is not known how or when the bridge came to be broken. In 1190 the name of Pontefract occurs under the spelling Pumfrate. Pumfrate or Pomfret reflected the Norman French pronunciation of the place name and this pronunciation is still sometimes used today.

"Bloody Pomfret" castle is referred to in Shakespeare's Richard II and has been a stage for much history. Pontefract Castle was built in the 12th century by Ilbert de Lacy, whose grandson, confusingly, also called Ilbert de Lacy founded Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds. The castle later passed into the hands of the Earls of Lancaster, whose numbers included Thomas, who was brought here after a battle at Boroughbridge and beheaded in 1322.

King Richard II was another to suffer at Pontefract castle. He was kept prisoner and eventually murdered here. James I of Scotland was imprisoned here, as was Charles, the Duke of Agincourt (captured at Agincourt ) . Many unfortunate folk were executed here during the Wars of the Roses. The castle does seem to have a rather macabre past.

Owners of the castle have included John of Gaunt (1340-1399) who once entertained Chaucer here. Visitors have included King Henry and King Edward - the fourth in each case. The Castle was a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War but was pulled down by the Parliamentarian folk of Pontefract after its surrender in 1648.

Pontefract is centred on a long street-like market place where a number of eighteenth century buildings can be seen including the Town Hall of 1785. There is also a Butter Cross of 1734 and a Red Lion Hotel reworked by Robert Adam in 1776. Two chambers located below a hospital in Southgate were the site of a 14th century hermitage built in 1368 by a monk called Adam de Laythorpe.

Pontefract's St Giles Church became a parish church in 1789. It is mostly an 18th century church but parts of the building date back to medieval times.

Pontefract is perhaps best known for the famous Pontefract Cakes, a liquorice sweet manufactured and sold here since the seventeenth century. The sweets were developed by a chemist called George Dunhill in 1760 who mixed the liquorice with sugar. The liquorice was originally grown in fields around the town, but is now imported from abroad.

High Ackworth to the south of Pontefract is the site of a church where the body of St Cuthbert was temporarily brought to rest during its journey north to Durham City in the North East of England. The village has another connection with Durham City, as the church is the burial place for a former Champion Boxer and Durham coal owner called John Gully. John Gully was once the Member of Parliament for Pontefract but lived for many years in a street in Durham overlooked by Durham Cathedral.

Nostell Priory, an Augustinian foundation established in 1110 lay to the west of Ackworth but nothing remains of the priory today. A Georgian mansion also called Nostell Priory stands on the site. It was built by James Paine in the Palladian style and was historically the home of the Winn family. Since 1953 it has been a property of the National Trust.


Castleford to the north of Pontefract is located close to where the River Calder joins the River Aire. It was originally Caestere Ford - being the site of an Anglo-Saxon ford near a Roman fort or settlement. It was known to the Romans as Legiolium. Castleford is historically famous for making glass, especially glass bottles. It is also a little famous for the following poem composed in pre-industrial times. It desribes the town's location between the River Aire and River Calder.

Castleford lasses must needs be fair
for they bathe in Calder and wash in Aire

Search the site



Marriott Deals








Great BBC Dramas at BBC Shop