Adventures in Yorkshire – Visiting HebTroCo in Hebden Bridge

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If you’ve followed the previous two Yorkshire-based posts, you’ll know that HebTroCo is the Hebden Bridge trouser guys and I found myself there by their invitation on a drizzly Monday in March. This is the third in a series of articles about the background and makers of the HebTroCo products.

I was recently given the opportunity to spend a week in Yorkshire. Yorkshire, described by many as “God’s own country”, home of the best pork pies in the world, the deepest dales and highest peaks, the most rugged and silent of man, where the industrial revolution kicked off, the ancestral home of many an influential 80’s bands and also the setting of a remarkable number of gritty crime series on TV. It’s probably not unfair to summarise it as a county of contrasts, right? I’ve been there too many times to count before, but actually only to Sheffield though, and always taking the same route there, over Snake Pass, the twisty route over the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield. And hence, to Sheffield, I went first.

Setting out the next morning, I entered “Hebden Bridge” into the phone, requested the fastest route and set off. Not long after I left the congested roads of Sheffield and stepped back in time. Or so it felt. I’m not sure exactly where I drove, but I did not see another human or moving vehicle for about 45 minutes. I did see lots of lovely nature, stone buildings, drystone walls, mist and woodlands though. And the narrow road went up and down, winding it’s way towards Hebden Bridge, just as it said on the box. It was a really wonderful experience, and a rarity in a modern Britain that to be honest is pretty much choked by cars, be they inching their way forward in congested traffic, or parked up on either side of narrow roads.

The typical Yorkshire street where the main character in "Happy Valley" lives.

The typical Yorkshire street where the main character in “Happy Valley” lives.

Now Hebden Bridge is a place of notoriety. On the one hand, it’s where the popular crime drama “Happy Valley” is set, and the title is a misnomer, it’s anything but a happy valley, in fact, it portrays as one of the bleak modern-day British towns rife with drugs, crime and poverty. On the other hand, it’s also known as maybe the UK town most tolerant and inclusive of the LGBT community and is a small haven of gender fluidity. Either way, you’d probably be wondering what my purpose of heading there was, given that until now I have shown little interest in either twocking or exploring by gender boundaries.

The interesting buildings on the industrial estate outside Hebden Bridge.

The interesting buildings on the industrial estate outside Hebden Bridge.

I arrived at the specified time at a small industrial estate outside Hebden Bridge and was immediately struck by how unusual it was. Industrial estates are usually where hideous buildings of high volume to cost ratio are hidden away near the main road, but here the buildings were notably different. Long, low and numerous, and according to the informational board, home to a very diverse selection of businesses, from accounting to craft beer to catering to trousers. Indeed, I had arrived at my destination, HebTroCo, proud makers of British trousers. And more.

The story of HebTroCo is unusual. Winding back time to the start though, it all began in the pub. And after spending some time with the lads, I realise that if their life was set as a sitcom, the main set would be the pub. It’s where the grand ideas are thrashed out. Like the original one, which was the result of a conversation that started out with a question of “We both need jobs, what can we do?”. Given that Brant was a bicycle designer and Ed a mountain bike guide, you’d no doubt think that something along the lines of two-wheeled transport would be a natural progression. Oh no, that was not to be.

The name arguably derives from the Hebden Bridge trouser company, inspired by the fact that once upon a time Hebden Bridge was the “trouser town” of the UK, at its height producing a million pairs of trousers a year. And while Brant and Ed had no background at all in making trousers, in fact, local lore has it that least one of them rumoured to be barely out of wearing shorts, they have gone from strength to strength in the two years they’ve been going. Starting out with a tour de force of crowdfunding, where through Kickstarter they managed to sell out the initial offering of 176 pairs of trousers in a remarkable 5 or so hours. Now, this is a quite remarkable feat, as most Kickstarters fail. And those that succeed do so over a period much longer than 5 hours. So there was obviously a vacuum in the market that could only be filled with British made moleskin trousers. If you think about it, that was never going to be obvious.

Found Ed discussing the finer points of locally made heavy duty belts with Steve Bate, MBE, Paralympian and a good bloke.

Found Ed discussing the finer points of locally made heavy duty belts with Steve Bate, MBE, Paralympian and a good bloke.

I’m received by founder Ed (beard and tattoos, according to his business card) and shown around the compact premises. Packed floor to rafters with mainly moleskin trousers, it’s clear that the small business is keeping busy. A little later founder Brant (tall and bald, again according to the informative card) arrives. They’re still just the two founders, Brant and Ed, as full-time staff, though they’ve recently taken on Sean part-time to help with shipping. And this is how many modern businesses work today. Whereas previously they would have set up a workshop, populated it with machinery, painstakingly learnt to sew trousers and when the craft was perfected,  taken them to the market. Now though, there is a surplus of capable production capacity around, and if you have ideas there are people who can help you realise them.

While we’re enjoying a mug of tea and a digestive biscuit, one of the primary fuels the business runs on, a guy comes cycling by on a Fatbike to look at a pair of trousers. In a typical Yorkshire way, the conversation quickly gets going, topics weaving in and out, good laughs and such. Turns out he’d just won a cycle race in Rovaniemi, which to me is almost where I spent my teen years, so it has me intrigued. As it turns out, he’s the Paralympian cyclist and gold medal winner, Steve Bate MBE, and as it turns out a really humble and funny guy.

The “Trouser Town” of old was almost all gone through, just a single factory left that could make trousers. So this was where things would happen. The factory could make 176 pairs in a week, hence the toe in the water Kickstarter campaign was for a weeks production. Once the water was found to be suitable, more models and fabrics have come into the pipeline. Heavy duty corduroys, canvas, an interesting blend of linen and cotton, in tapered and straight fits, and even shorts (for sale all year round). The number and diversity of trouser variations have meant that a second factory had to be involved, as the aforementioned capacity was rapidly exceeded.

The boys still enjoyed sitting in the pub though, and the business expansion and product development meetings go something like this:

  • Ed: “You know Thomas? He makes belts with amazing brass buckles”
  • Brant: “We should do a belt!”
  • Ed: “Thomas, can you make us a belt?”
  • Thomas: “Yeah”
  • Brant and Ed: “Sorted!”
Various stages of evolution of the HebTroCo locally made leather and copper buckled belt. The double-prong is the latest.

Various stages of evolution of the HebTroCo locally made leather and copper buckled belt. The double-prong is the latest.

And so the range also expanded to include some jackets, including a new merino wool version of a 60’s British army field jacket. Because it was begging to be done. Then boots were included, as the last British heavy work boot factory was nearby. And more recently to include a Sheffield made pocket knife with a Damascus steel blade. If you can see a pattern in this, you’re doing well, as there are really only three factors: Can it be made locally, from local components, and is it cool? Which is a pretty sound business strategy is you have a decent grasp of what is “cool”. And therein lies some of the advantage of being a small, flexible company: Unless you’re trying to take over the world, you really only need to find enough customers for what you produce. There is a lot to be said for that.

There is a lot to be said for being a company that in reality is more about marketing than producing as well. Observing how many other companies and people are involved in the HebTroCo enterprise, it’s clear that their success is shared far beyond the lads and their immediate family. Obviously, the landlord at the pub has been doing well, but there are also a couple of mills that have been busy making fabric, a couple of garment factories that have had a fair amount of work come their way, not to mention William Lennon spending roughly half their capacity making Hebden boots and so it goes. Even the local post office har perked up, as now there are daily loads of packages to be sent off, delivered by the lads on their electric cargo bikes.

And Hebden? It was great. I had very quick tour of the “Happy Valley” landmarks and I didn’t get mugged. The people all looked happy, the range of shops was great, it was tidy and clean. We had chips in a wonderful cafe fitted in a superb retro style (the legacy of putting off redecorating), which happened to be across the road from where Nico of Velvet Underground had a flat at some point. We even had a pint in the pub, and would you believe it? New ideas were born. And it didn’t flood while I was there either, although this happens every few years, as the town is built on a floodplain, which surely must haunt whoever decided to found the town right there. In all, it reminds me more than a little of Portlandia.

A sneaky selfie down a Hebden Street with the lads striding off, full of fresh ideas. What a grand day out!

A sneaky selfie down a Hebden Street with the lads striding off, full of fresh ideas. What a grand day out!

Heading back to Sheffield after an eventful day, I even got to see the Wainhouse folly in Halifax. What a sight! Usually I miss all the good stuff, as I tend to be driving, but in this case, traffic congestion allowed me to revel in this piece of structural one-up-manship. Brilliant, would love to go back on a sunny day and climb to the top.

To read more about bearded Ed, bald Brant and their selection of trousers, boots, belts and pocket knives, visit their website at HebTro.Co. In my two previous posts about the Yorkshire trip, I wrote about:

In the next and final instalment, I visit a fabric mill in Leeds and a garment factory in Blackburn. Oh, and meet Iain Trickett for lunch and eat a pie that isn’t a pie.

And in case you were wondering:

The long low buildings? They’re actually what’s left from the business empire of a local man based on the clever idea of selling chickens and henhouses to families all over Britain. Boxes of chickens and assemble-your-own henhouses were shipped all over the country, so families could have their own supply of fresh eggs. A hugely successful business, until the advent of supermarkets and their reliable supply of eggs. Read more about this here.

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3 Comments

  • brant (tall, bald) 21/04/2018 at 11:05

    Thanks for visiting Nick!

    Reply
    • nick 21/04/2018 at 11:23

      The pleasure was totally shared, will certainly be back!

      Reply
  • Roland Novak 21/04/2018 at 13:36

    And again: great review with lots of inspiration! Love the heavy Corduroy breeches and thing about it, i definitely would need a pair!

    Reply

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