We’ve been spending a lot of time lately in a part of the country we’ve never worked before: West Yorkshire. In a small town near Halifax, called Elland, where we’re making LANDED with local people, hearing their stories and discovering their place. It began with an invitation to lunch: liver and bacon, with cabbage, mash and a cup of tea.
Elland is built up the wall of a valley, rising up above the water. Like most towns, it’s a mix of old stone buildings and more recent towers and warehouses. Every journey — by bus or train or car — introduces us to more beautiful landscapes. It’s seductive, the kind of area people visit and think they might move to one day.
For those who already live there, there’s a different perspective. Things are different now, they tell us.
Some of the people are talking about the changes of a few years, some of them across a century of living in the place. There are a few who draw on history to explain the shaping of the town, its rise and fall and rise again. Some speak hopefully of the future.
We have spoken with over 150 people, having fuller conversations with around fifty of them. We have drunk a lot of tea and had more than our fair share of biscuits. We have been welcomed with open arms.
We’ve had conversations about the boundary of the town, and feeling where you belong.
We’ve talked about motor cars and steam engines.
We’ve heard about the jobs that used to be plentiful, the swimming baths now gone, the shops which used to thrive.
There have been tales of pigs, sweets and berries. Some people surprised us with their numerous past husbands, or the children they’ve lost touch with. Some told us how surprised they were to find love again.
The market traders travel for hours to be in Elland on a Friday, bringing fish, bread and vegetables, clothes and cards. There’s a local cinema, with a working organ — and an organist to play it! People sit laughing outside the pubs on sunny afternoons. The cakes at coffee mornings are home-made, and nobody drinks coffee because it’s a tea sort of place.
The thing we’ve been impressed by is how deeply people care for this place. Not just the community groups and shopkeepers, looking after their bit of the town. But how many people end their stories with “I wouldn’t live anywhere else!” And then, “I couldn’t.”
There’s something special about this sense of place. Listening, it seems to be made up of landscape and people, the tapestry of the changing activities which have happened across decades in one place. There’s something else too: about being a small town, big enough to sustain businesses and supermarkets, but small enough to constantly see people you know. It’s about resisting the pull of the big towns and cities, recognising the value of what they have.
There are around 12,000 people in the town, so we’ve only spoken to a tiny fraction. We haven’t been to the schools, or drawn people away from office desks. But what people tell us is borne out by our own experience: it’s somewhere that people smile and say hello. They’re welcoming. Yes, they’re unhappy about the closure of their swimming pool and the lack of investment in the library. They’re worried that the banks are closing. But they’re interested in shaping the future of the place, and working together to make that future place somewhere they’ll still want to live.