Sweet Dreams Are Made at the Hebden Bridge Hostel
By writer and journalist Laura Robertson at The Double Negative
Laura Robertson, Writer, Journalist and Editor of Double Negative reviews the IOU Hostel.
Sweet Dreams Are Made at the Hebden Bridge Hostel. It’s been eighteen months since Yorkshire’s creative arts organisation IOU took over a backpackers’ hostel in the Upper Calder Valley. What happened next, for holidaymakers and artists alike? Laura Robertson stayed overnight to find out…
Raffy the dog is the unexpected star of IOU Hebden Bridge Hostel. Their unofficial mascot, a handsome mongrel, belongs to Jill Penny, Hostel Manager, and both welcome me to this lovely West Yorkshire accommodation for my overnight stay. I arrive at the venue’s spaceship-like front desk and grab a coffee. I’m here to see how the owners are doing, after taking on such an unusual enterprise: this hostel is actually run by performers and producers from the historic arts organisation and arts development charity IOU. Recent overnight guests include painters, zine-makers, street poets, Buddhists, undergraduate writers, backpackers and cyclists: a “great bunch of folk,” says Jill, who are drawn to the building’s artistic temperament set amongst spectacular scenery, peace and quiet.
Located high-up on the lip of the Upper Calder Valley, set amongst characteristically stone and slate cottages, streams, beech and ash trees, you’d never know until you ventured inside that this former schoolhouse is run by arts organisation IOU, based in nearby Halifax, who, for 47 years, have specialised in original and avant-garde outdoor performance. Their Creation Centre is a few miles down the road, a studio complex where testing art, engineering and technology is the norm. It couldn’t be farther from the reality of running a hostel – so why branch out?
For IOU staff, this blend of culture, production and time to rest has been an essential addition. To their multi-skilled crews and freelancers, it is a welcome creative retreat designed to imagine new productions (as filmmaker Akira Kurosawa put it, “Man is a genius when he is dreaming”) – making the IOU Hostel a much-needed expansion of IOU’s popular ‘Space Time Tools Advice’ artistic development programme.
“We want to attract as many artists and makers and musicians and performers as possible to come and stay with us”
Meanwhile, for holidaymakers in search of an inspirational cultural trip, IOU Hostel is “irresistible,” says Jill. Hebden Bridge landmarks include miles of paths and national trails that criss cross the South Pennine moors and hills and the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags (with wildflowers, waterfalls and 19th Century Gibson Mill). As well as trendy bars and restaurants, residents include literary hit factory Bluemoose Books, and weekend event Hebden Bridge Open Studios where artists of the town open up their homes, studios and shared spaces to the public. Next-door neighbour and former chapel, the Birchcliffe Centre, houses animation and ceramics studios. “IOU Hostel,” says Jill, “is becoming increasingly significant in the vivid psychogeography of the Valley.”
After a short train ride from Manchester, and saying hello to Raffy and Jill, I explore IOU’s rooms. Guests can help themselves to a cafetiere from the modern kitchen, before settling down in the log-fire nook, with views onto the back garden. Feeling fully relaxed, I find my wooden-beamed, ensuite room, which is huge, clean, and the bed (with new cotton sheets) made for a very peaceful and comfortable sleep. So far, so lovely. But this is IOU, an arts charity, and subtle links are everywhere: a silent disco in the living room, graphic novels to read at breakfast, and original artwork and cultural listings on the walls.
Guests can book experimental oil painting workshops and yoga. A home-from-home well-connected to public transport and the leisure industry, the IOU team, explains Jill, “want to attract as many artists and makers and musicians and performers as possible to come and stay with us, alongside families, walkers. cyclists and a whole range of visitors… Inclusion is at the heart of what we do and our entire team, including Raffy the Hostel dog, go above and beyond to welcome diverse visitors in every way possible.”
Artists-in-residence dream, live and work at IOU Hostel for a six-month period
Current resident, Beth Cockcroft, works with local schoolchildren and creates zines from photographs, sketches and objects found on walks. As part of the IOU’s regular open days, Beth recently ran workshops alongside ‘Connection to Nature’, the first of three exhibitions of artists from Calderdale, Lancashire and Greater Manchester – in partnership with inclusive Manchester-based collective In The Flesh – running in parallel to Birchcliffe’s retrospective ‘Life through the Lens’ on local portrait photographer Alice Longstaff.
Alicja Mrozowska was IOU Artist-in-Residence between October 2022 to May 2023. A painter, Alicja was working as a graphic designer when she saw the opportunity advertised. Within two months she had moved in, rent and bill-free, in exchange for becoming part of the IOU team. Her mornings were spent changing sheets and checking-in guests. Afternoons were spent making art in IOU’s Halifax Studios. “It was amazing,” she says, describing a mentor-mentee experience over six months that saw her work drastically progress from oils on paper to large installations with sculpture and sound.
She set herself up “like a racoon,” surrounded by materials and art supplies, shredding paper for briquette sculptures that could be exhibited or used as fuel in the Hostel’s log fire. IOU’s production team lent advice, equipment and shared skills. “It was a free trial of living in Hebden Bridge, while getting all the things you need as an artist.”
As a consequence, Alicja has created a permanent woven-painting for IOU Hostel’s reception, will exhibit at Calderdale Year of Culture 2024, and continues to work with the adjacent Birchcliffe Centre’s film and photography archive, on a project around identity and location. “The journey has been really beautiful,” she says. “It was a nice way to separate the two places, yet they’re connected.”
Venturing into hospitality was an ambitious – some may say risky – step by IOU’s Executive Director, Joanne Wain, and outgoing Artistic Director, David Wheeler, to enrich their existing venue and programme. Over the past twelve months, they’ve tripled the Hostel’s turnover and had a 70% increase in occupancy. It’s proved itself to be a key provision. “There is nowhere else in the North,” says Joanne, “offering facilities for interdisciplinary art, engineering and technology in the form of a studio, gallery, workshop and overnight accommodation.”
Jill, who came to manage IOU Hostel via running weekly residential writing courses for the Arvon Foundation, says the switch from arts to hospitality has been more straightforward than originally expected. “We knew how to make people feel comfortable and safe,” she says. “I wanted our Hostel to be the best experience it could possibly be.”
Joanne is delighted with its success, and is dreaming of nurturing yet more people, leading to more creative ideas. “It allows us to engage with audiences in an unexpected way, to diversify our income as a charity, it offers affordable accommodation for visitors to Calderdale, in an attempt to counterbalance the housing crisis that is sometimes fuelled by the Air BnB and second-home phenomenon.
Laura Robertson is a writer and journalist at The Double Negative