The essential guide to the pubs and bars that line the railways in the towns and villages of the beautiful Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, an area which has a lot to offer and captivate the visitor. Here's the latest, updated version....
The original Rail Ale Trail heads through the Pennines from Dewsbury through Huddersfield to Stalybridge, or vice versa, depending on your starting point. Made famous by Oz Clarke and James May on a TV drinking trip around Britain several years ago, it reached saturation point on weekends to such an extent that lager and shorts were banned by some pubs and plastic glasses introduced to the hordes of stag dos, hen parties, and fancy-dressed revellers that invaded the trans-Pennine towns and villages. There are some great pubs en route and whilst things have calmed down from a few years ago, they can still get very busy on a summer Saturday in particular.
However, only a few miles away to the north, there is another trail possible which takes in some great pubs and travels through some lovely countryside via the Calderdale section of the Calder Valley. This is an area that is close to my heart as I grew up in Sowerby Bridge, spent 10 years in Elland, where sadly despite a long-running campaign to open a station there the train doesn't stop, and have lived in Brighouse now for over 20 years. So whilst you could accuse me of being biased, all I would say is come to the area and visit some of the wonderful pubs referred to here, and check out some of the other attractions the area has to offer, and find out for yourself why this somewhat previously overlooked area is becoming more and more popular with visitors.
The area is compact; it is only 16 miles from Brighouse to Todmorden, with the journey by train 25 minutes - if you don't get off, that is. Not only can it be done by train, but because the canal runs close by for the full journey, it is possible to visit a load more places by doing some of the journey on foot, or you can get to all these places by bus. But for the purposes of this tour, we are travelling by train. The tour doesn't take into account Halifax, the biggest town in the area as it is a mile or two from the River Calder, but you could easily combine with a visit to some of the town's many fine pubs and bars or the magnificent Piece Hall or Shibden Hall, former home of Anne Lister aka Gentlemen Jack.
Starting at Brighouse, the first pub is literally next door to the station. The Commercial/Railway - the name was due to be changed but in the midst of the signs being swapped the previous owners left, leaving it in the unusual position of having 2 signs - is a proud, square, solid-looking building with a mini beer garden out front. Inside you are assured a warm welcome from Trevor, Sue and team, plus a loyal band of regulars. As my late old mate Harry always used to say "you enter a stranger but leave as a friend." It's that kind of place. On the real ale front there are 4 hand pumps featuring the likes of Copper Dragon Golden Pippin and Tetleys Bitter, with others often including White Rat and Elland Blonde. Beer quality is always reliable, and as you sip your pint you can join in the friendly chat, listen to the music, play pool or darts or watch the sport on TV. If you have enough time, a few minutes away is the town's friendly micro pub, the Market Tavern. Run by Snap and Debbie, it has just had an impressive makeover, and features 6 hand pumps offering excellent beers from the likes of Salopian, Abbeydale, Neepsend, and Durham, and is another friendly pub with a solid core of regulars who will make you very welcome. A little further away is The Crafty Fox on Commercial Street. This friendly place has become a very popular social hub and always features a good range of beers on both cask and tap, often from the likes of Vocation, Polly's, Two by Two, Salopian, and Neepsend often feature. A great family-run bar which also features regular live music, it has its own character and atmosphere, courtesy of Baz, Michelle, Georgia, and Luke....
Take the Manchester train, and 10 minutes away is Sowerby Bridge. The town, which holds its annual Rushbearing Festival every September, was traditionally a mill town, but has become a popular evening-out destination with plenty of pubs, bars and restaurants. Getting off the train, it used to be yards to the nearest pub, but sadly the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms hasn't re-opened since lockdown. It was once part of the huge building that was Sowerby Bridge's station, from where a branch line headed off up the Ryburn Valley to Rishworth until it closed in 1958. Don't worry though, it is less than 10 minutes walk away to the legendary Puzzle Hall Inn which re-opened its doors just before Christmas 2019 after being closed for several years. It is run by a community group, and it offers a great range of beers and regularly hosts gigs and spoken word events. In the summer, the popular outside area overlooking the river is something of a sun trap. Close by is The Hollins Mill, a large bar which has some great beer and a good atmosphere and is well worth a visit. Elsewhere in the town but also within a few minutes' walk of the station you could visit the Turks Head, a small friendly pub with a beer garden overlooking the river which has 6 cask beers and features occasional live music, and the Hogshead, a large pub based in a former maltings just off the A58 main road, which features a number of beers including some from its own on-site brewery.
|The Puzzle Hall, Sowerby Bridge
Resuming our journey, the train passes through Luddenden Foot, where the site of the former station is passed. Here Branwell Bronte, brother of the famous literary sisters was once station master. Next up is Mytholmroyd, famous as being the birth-place of poet Ted Hughes. And guess what, the nearest pub is only yards away. This is the Shoulder of Mutton, which has a decent selection of ales and food. Close by is the start of Cragg Vale, the longest continuous climb in England, as seen when the Tour de France came to the area a few years back, where the cyclists faced a climb of 968ft over a distance of 5.5 miles. Phew! Only a few minutes away back in to the village is the Dusty Miller, a solid building with some good beer. Across the road is an excellent bar overlooking the river, Barbary's, its name a reference to the infamous Cragg Vale Coiners counterfeiting gang, brought to life in 2023 in Shane Meadows' TV adaption of Benjamin Myers' book The Gallows Pole. The bar features a great range of beer on hand pump and tap, and has a pleasant outside area by the river, which after floods in the town in recent years is now hopefully kept at bay by improved defences.
Back on the train, our 3 minute journey takes us to Hebden Bridge. Ironically, for probably the best known place on the trip, there is no pub close by the station. The town was one of the main settings for Happy Valley, the TV drama created by Sally Wainwright starring Sarah Lancashire and James Norton, and is home to the Trades Club, a community hub and well-known music venue which has over the years consistently drawn a wealth of top artists, So you need to head into town, around 10 minutes walk away, where there are a number of pubs to choose from. Calan's, which was the area's first micropub when it was was opened in 2015 by Alan and Alyson, was then taken over by Nadine and Damian who then left to run a bar in the Yorkshire Dales, had a brief spell under the ownership of the people who have the Pub in Todmorden, and is now known as the The Hebden, having been acquired by new owners in 2022, and as there always has been, there is some good beer on both cask and tap in this friendly place. Next to the Picture House is Nightjar, a small, intimate bar which serves as the tap for the eponymous brewery in Mytholmroyd, and there is also Vocation and Co, a modern bar with 4 cask ales, around 14 on keg, and 2 ciders, which has recently expanded in to the building next door. Here you will find a great selection of cutting edge beers from an exciting mix of craft brewers, including of course Vocation which is brewed on the hills above Cragg Vale, and it serves some wonderful food if you are feeling hungry. Then there is the Old Gate, with a good choice of ales and food in classy surroundings. Across the road from there is Drink?, which originally opened primarily as a bottle shop with a couple of hand pumps, but when the floods of 2015 forced a makeover, it expanded to increase its beer offer, and is another must-visit when in town, having expanded further its upstairs seating under the current owners. A further 10 minutes walk away from the town centre is the legendary Fox and Goose, community-owned, a regular award-winner, and home to great beer and a hillside beer garden up the stairs.
From Hebden Bridge, the train to Todmorden takes about 8 minutes. Todmorden is where Yorkshire meets Lancashire; it feels on the edge, not surprisingly really, with local governance from Halifax, an Oldham postcode and a Rochdale dialling code, as well as a large cohort of Manchester-bound commuters. And at the moment, it feels like a place on the up. Here you are spoilt for choice with plenty of pubs within a few hundred yards of the station. Not far away is The Golden Lion, a vibrant community pub with a reputation that travels far beyond this particular corner of the world. It features several hand pumps with beers from breweries like Eagles Crag, Saltaire, and Cloudwater and hosts regular live bands, DJ sets, and other events, as well as serving some excellent Thai food. Across the road is Nan Moor's, a quirky bar with a couple of craft beers and, unusually for the area, a cask ale served straight from the barrel. The town's original micro pub is called simply enough The Pub, which has moved from its original location on Brook Street to a former cafe on Water Street which has given it considerably more space but it continues to offer both a friendly welcome and an excellent selection of cask and craft ales and ciders. Also on Water Street is Three Wise Monkeys, a stylish friendly bar with a couple of beers on hand pump and a Thai restaurant upstairs. Along the Burnley Road is the Ale House, situated in a former restaurant and shop, which again is a really friendly place. There is always Pale Eagle from the well-established local Eagles' Crag brewery on hand pump plus a number of guest ales. Back in to town and the Polished Knob is a lively town pub with several beers on hand pump only a couple of minutes away from the station.
In all these towns there are more pubs and plenty of places of history and general interest, surrounded by some fantastic countryside that demands exploring. Away from the valley floor there is some wonderful hill walking affording spectacular views, with the long-distance Pennine Way passing through the area. The 16 miles pack a lot of contrasts and variety, so why not give the area a try....
|Canal between Luddenden Foot and Mytholmroyd
|Rushbearing Festival, Sowerby Bridge
|Canal basin, Sowerby Bridge
|All smiles at the Hebden, Hebden Bridge
|Hebden Bridge Station
|Studley Pike, above Todmorden
The Calder Valley is accessible. Trains connect from Leeds, Bradford, York, Hull, Rochdale, Manchester, Huddersfield, Wigan, Chester, Blackpool, Blackburn, Accrington, and Preston, and with the Grand Central service between Bradford and London Kings Cross calling at Brighouse and Halifax, it is possible to arrive from even further afield. For local train and bus information, visit wymetro.com.
For tourist information: visitcalderdale.com
Follow me on Twitter/X: @realalemusic
Last updated: 9th December 2023