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Sorting Out The Puzzle....

Last Sunday, I walked the canal towpath from Sowerby Bridge to Hebden Bridge with some friends. Not far in to the walk, we passed the forlorn sight of the iconic Puzzle Hall Inn, which sadly closed at the end of 2015, since when it has lain empty, alone, save for the odd passing vandal. But for so many people, it holds so many special memories.

The Puzzle was well-known throughout the land and beyond, playing host to many a musician, poet, and other artists, who would play inside, or in later years, on the bespoke stage which had been built outside on the site of the former toilets. It eventually became one of the top small jazz venues in the country. But, growing up in Sowerby Bridge, the Puzzle was a place to meet, a place to retreat, or simply a place to go for a good pint and good conversation.

I first visited the Puzzle in my late teens. The pub, which had once had its own brewery, as indicated by its distinctive tower, was owned by Wards of Sheffield in those days, which marked it out as somewhere exotic in an area dominated by Websters and Tetleys. It was run by a benign couple called Jack and Edith, who always made us feel welcome. It was a small pub, with a tiny lounge sharing space with the bar, and a separate room to the left as you walked in, behind, as the Good Beer Guide used to say, 'a glazed partition'. The toilets were outside, at the bottom of a sloping yard, which doubled up as the car park, although it wasn't big enough to hold more than a couple at any one time!

Over the years, the Puzzle attracted an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life, but always had more than its fair share of characters who were drawn by its somewhat Bohemian atmosphere. One of these was a larger-than-life native of Gloucestershire called Gerry Melonie, who regularly had the pub in stitches with one of his many stories and observations told in a loud and distinctive West Country accent. Eventually, Gerry became a popular landlord of the Puzzle, and even when he had finally come out of the pub, he was still a regular visitor as it was very much the love of his life. When he sadly died at a relatively young age, his coffin was taken by barge along the canal from Sowerby Bridge to the crematorium at Elland where hundreds attended his funeral.

The Puzzle was eventually upgraded, opened out a bit, and the toilets were moved inside. A large covered stage was built outside, and the pub continued to attract a wide mix of musicians, often up and coming ones from the UK and US. When the pub closed, it had built up a fantastic reputation for the quality of its beers, and for its many regulars, and admirers from further afield, it was a sad day, and hard to believe that such a popular place had gone from their lives. One of the last times I visited was when I called in with several of the family during the 2015 Rushbearing Festival, which takes place in Sowerby Bridge and surrounding villages every September. Whilst the Puzzle wasn't on the main route, it nevertheless attracted a large number of visitors who had come to the town for the Festival.

The pub was advertised, but the pubco who owned it wanted too much money, so it attracted no offers that were accepted, and has remained boarded up ever since. However, there was a group who decided to fight back against the closure and re-establish the Puzzle as a community pub. The Puzzle Hall Community Pub group set up a crowdfunding website with the aim of raising £350,000 to buy the pub, supported by events and gigs in the town. And they had a welcome early Christmas present a few days ago, when they were finally told that their bid had been accepted. They still need the investments to keep coming in, though, in order to reach the full amount.

It will be good to see the Puzzle finally back open and at the heart of the community once again....

Hoping for better days: The Puzzle Hall Inn, Sowerby Bridge

More information about the Puzzle Hall Community Pub at www.puzzlehall.org.uk

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