Anyone familiar with the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire and its history will recognize the inspiration for some of the places in The Companion. In particular Potter’s Pleasure Palace and Ackerdean Mill, whose fictional location and history was inspired by the real-life Gibson Mill in Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge.
My love for the Crags woodland and the huge stone building at the heart of it began when I first moved to the area over twenty years ago. I lived by the entrance to the woods and spent many hours exploring the valley and riverside paths and admiring the mill, which at the time was empty, a relic of its former glory.
Gibson Mill, like Ackerdean in The Companion, is a nineteenth-century cotton mill that at the turn of the twentieth century was transformed into an entertainment emporium. It offered first and second class dining, a dance floor, a roller-skating rink and boating on the mill pond. Further refreshment rooms and kiosks could be found in the surrounding woods. At its peak in the 1920s, the number of visitors to the Crags exceeded half a million.
Unlike the fictional Ackerdean, which was left in the hands of a small local charity, Gibson Mill was part of a bequest in the 1950s from its owner Abraham Gibson to the National Trust. In 2005 the Trust gave it a new lease of life when it was completely renovated, including the restoration of the 1920s turbine. It is now an ‘off the grid’ visitor centre and café.
Despite the changes, on a visit to Hardcastle Crags today it is possible, in a quiet moment inside the mill or standing on the old bridge, to feel that time has slipped. To experience moments as Anna does in The Companion, when you can believe that you might just catch sight of dancers foxtrotting behind a window or hear the splash of oars on the water, the roar of roller skates or the squeal of a child flying high in one of the old swing boats.
After reading about Gibson Mill’s past and seeing some of the fantastic photos in collections such as the Jack Uttley Photo Library and Pennine Horizon’s Digital Archive, I knew I wanted to write a story in a similar setting: a place where people had lived and worked and played for over two centuries and which had adapted and survived. Ackerdean isn’t Gibson Mill and the Potter family who own and run the mill in my novel are not based on the Gibsons. But I hope in my story of Billy Shaw and Potter’s Palace I have managed to capture some of the life and energy that over the centuries has filled the place that inspired it.
For more information about Hardcastle Crags and the history of Gibson Mill visit the National Trust website
Historical photographs of the mill and its surroundings can be found at