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England’s ‘Non-Conformists’: Early work by Martin Parr

Asked why he chose to move to rural Hebden Bridge from urban Manchester, England, as a young man in the 1970s, photographer Martin Parr says it was because he “fancied the look of the place.”

Located in the Pennines, a range of hills, valleys and high moorland running from the edges of Greater Manchester to the border of Scotland, the air was cleaner than in Manchester

It was also cheap back then, and “in-comers” – young artistic types looking for alternatives – began settling in.

Despite the decline of the local mills and industry and resentment over the bohemian newcomers, Hebden Bridge still yielded the novel charms of traditional town life.

Martin’s wife, Susie, is a writer with vivid and affectionate memories of their time there. “Waites, the bakers, sold wobbly custard tarts flecked with nutmeg gratings, and warm, malty breads. You could buy coal, clogs and corduroy.”

The traditions ran deep – the farming families had been there for generations. These were “people who knew each other, every tree and stone in their fields, every bend in the lane.”

They were the Non-Conformists, the Methodists and Baptists who believed all could be saved.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant preachers traveled throughout England, speaking to the poor. The Non-Conformists distanced themselves from the liturgy and architecture of the Church of England and the Roman Catholics. Before chapels could be built, services were held in fields and in barns.

“On a walk across the moors to Haworth in the summer of 1976, we came across the tiny Methodist chapel in Crimsworth Dean, a narrow valley running down from the tops above Hebden Bridge,” Susie Parr writes.

“The chapel was attended by a handful of people, mostly elderly sheep farmers whose families had lived in Crimsworth Dean for generations.”

They got to know the chapel-goers over time, including Charlie Greenwood, who made them laugh by telling them about teaching himself to drive and expecting that he could make the car stop by pulling on the steering wheel the way you pull the reins on a horse.

The Parrs were charmed by this generation of people from a different era, and they continued documenting life in the town from 1975 to 1980.

They helped out when they could. Susie stepped in as Sunday school teacher at Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel for a time, and they trekked up the hill to deliver food there when the area was snowed in for weeks at a time.

Looking back, Martin says he became too involved. Some of the Crimsworth Dean chapel-goers hoped that the Parr’s interest meant they would take over the running of the chapel.

The chapel was once at the thriving center of most of the social activity for the community, hosting outings and performances in addition to religious services. But it was in a sharp downswing, its congregation having dwindled to nine regulars.

Martin Parr long ago left behind the photographic style and medium that characterized this early work, moving on to a career as an influential color photographer known for an acerbic and unflinching gaze.

Nonetheless, he has returned to Hebden Bridge often, even though most of the people in the photographs are long since gone and most of the rural chapels have become residencies for some of the newer occupants of the town: middle-class commuters.

The photographs and accompanying text by Susie Parr chronicling the traditions and long history of the town of the have been published for the first time in a book from Aperture, “The Non-Conformists.“

The photographs were shown at a recent festival in Hebden Bridge. Martin’s lecture drew 500 people, perhaps underscoring lasting interest in the stories of the town’s earlier inhabitants who sat in meetings of the “henpecked husbands,” auctioned cabbages, exhibited prize mice and pigeons, mined coal by hand and hunted game on Lord Savile’s estate.

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN