Stuart Forster visits the Piece Hall in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
The Piece Hall, in Halifax, is the only 18th-century cloth hall still in existence in the United Kingdom. The Georgian building has recently undergone major restoration and renovation, and reopened to the public on 1 August 2017.
Fittingly, that date is also Yorkshire Day. First celebrated by the Yorkshire Ridings Society in 1974, Yorkshire Day owes its origins to a protest against the administrative changes and further subdivision of England’s biggest county by the Local Government Act of 1972, the act of parliament which also introduced metropolitan counties around the country.
Back in the mid ‘70s there were fears that Yorkshire’s identity would be eroded by the changes in governance. More than four decades on, the identity of ‘God’s Own County’ seems as strong as ever.
The opening of the Piece Hall
The Piece Hall originally opened on 1 January 1779, when fewer than 6,000 people lived in Halifax. A vast crowd gathered and watched as a pigeon carried the flame that ignited a grand fireworks display. Undoubtedly, a storm of outrage, led by animal rights protesters, would follow if that was attempted today. Health and Safety, though, means things are done differently in the modern age.
Actors playing characters from the Piece Hall’s history were on site during the reopening. Children were invited to dress up and participate in activities. Musicians and artists performed. Pop-up stalls sold food.
Developers predict that the revamped Piece Hall will attract 1.6 million visitors a year. The Piece Hall Transformation Project cost £19 million, funded largely by the local council and a £7 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The Garfield Weston Foundation and The Wolfson Foundation also played roles in funding the restoration.
The sloping, cobbled courtyard that once stood at the centre of the colonnaded Piece Hall has been levelled. A water feature, said to symbolise the flow of water on hills in the Yorkshire Dales, has been introduced. So too have stone benches where visitors can sit and have a rest. When the sun shines, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Piece Hall now has an appearance akin to a Mediterranean piazza.
The spartan units in which clothiers long-ago sold 30-yard lengths of handwoven woollen cloth, known as pieces, now host an array of independent shops and boutiques. They include Jitterbug Jean, which sells colourful, rockabilly-inspired clothing for women, and Loafers, a hybrid between a vinyl record store and a café. The Escaporium, an escape room, is on the second floor of the hall.
Chef Justin Thomas is the proprietor of Elder, a restaurant serving foraged ingredients as part of its seasonal offerings. Foodies may also enjoy tasting the wares offered at Chocolate Box and the Sprogs and Spice sweet store. Gin Lane doubles as a cocktail bar and a shop selling bottles of craft spirits.
The Piece Hall’s interpretation centre
Remarkably, trade was conducted for just two hours each week when the Piece Hall first opened. That business was undertaken from ten o’clock until noon each Saturday. A bell, housed below the Piece Hall’s weathervane, was rung to announce the beginning and end of the strictly regulated trading.
Clothiers paid a subscription of £28 each for a unit within the hall, which cost £9,692 to construct. Nobody knows for sure who designed the Classical building. Some people think it may have been Thomas Bradley, the architect of the neighbouring Square Chapel, a building that now forms part of an arts centre.
Local landowner John Caygill, provided the land upon which the Piece Hall stands at a low rent — just five shillings. It’s thought he wanted to attract merchants to Halifax.
That history is told in The Piece Hall Story, on the ground floor of the three-level building, just one part of a state-of-the-art learning and interpretation centre.
Audio-visuals, in one of the former trading units on the middle level of the Piece Hall, convey a sense of how business was conducted during Georgian times.
Meanwhile, up on the top floor, a map room with interactive displays conveys where the Piece Hall sat in terms of international trade routes.
Hardwearing cloth produced by local weavers was ideal for British Army uniforms. A wooden handloom stands among exhibits in The Piece Hall Story.
Within three decades of the Piece Hall opening industrialisation meant cloth was being produced on powered looms. By 1850 mechanisation meant production was centred in 24 mills in and around Halifax, by then a town of 25,000 inhabitants.
The building was designated an Ancient Monument by the Ministry of Works back in 1927, the first commercial or industrial structure to be awarded that accolade. In 1954 the Piece Hall was designated a Grade-I Listed Building.
Restored and revamped by LDN Architects
On the strength of successful involvement in previous heritage conservation projects, LDN Architects were awarded the contract to restore and partially re-design the Piece Hall. Calderdale Council instructed them to “do as much as necessary but as little as possible”.
That meant repairing and preserving stonework ravaged by decades of air pollution and acid rain. Lifts make all three of the levels of the Piece Hall fully accessible. New toilets and baby changing facilities have been introduced.
“I think it’s very beautiful. It’s a very well-loved building by local people. It’s hard to imagine Halifax without the Piece Hall,” said Wendy Carter, the Head of Development at the Piece Hall.
Thanks to the restoration and establishment of The Piece Hall Trust, a registered charity which has been allocated a 125-year lease on the Georgian landmark, nobody will have to do that in the foreseeable future.
The Piece Hall (Blackledge, Halifax, HX1 1RE; tel. 01422 525200) is open seven days a week. See the Piece Hall website for details of opening times and a listing of businesses. The website also has details about the programme of events that will take place. The Piece Hall now has an artist-in-residence, Jake Attree.
Find out more about tourist attractions in and around Halifax by visiting the Visit Calderdale website. The Piece Hall is placed close to the Square Chapel Arts Centre and the national children’s museum, Eureka!
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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Getting to Halifax
Halifax is under three hours’ rail journey from London. A direct Grand Central service runs between London’s King’s Cross railway station and Halifax. Regional trains offer connections from Leeds, 39 minutes away. Halifax is a 12-minute rail journey from Bradford Interchange and 45 minutes from Manchester Victoria.
Prefer driving? Halifax can be accessed via the M62 and A58.
Where to stay in Halifax
Holdsworth House (Holdsworth Road, Halifax, HX2 9TG; tel. 01422 240042) is a four-star hotel on the edge of Halifax. The country house dates from 1633. It has been used as a set for the television drama Last Tango in Halifax and played host to The Beatles in 1964.