Beacon Hill Halifax is a prominent landmark in the town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, that has witnessed numerous historical events and offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape of Calderdale and beyond. Overlooking the town from the east, Beacon Hill Halifax provides both locals and visitors with a fascinating glimpse into the past while providing a beautiful setting for a leisurely stroll or a challenging hike with panoramic views. In this article, we’ll explore the history, significance, and attractions of this remarkable location.
The History of Beacon Hill Halifax
The ancient 310 million-year-old rocks that form Beacon Hill were laid down in deltas on the edge of an ancient large continent, with mountains to the north and to the south.
Beacon Hill Halifax forms an escarpment topped by rock known as Elland Flags, which you can see exposed on the footpath near the Beacon and viewing platform. Mudstone has been extracted for brick-making at the north end of Beacon Hill.
Sands and various muds were deposited by rivers in shallow water and because the continent was close to the equator then – the climate was warm and wet so tropical rain forests flourished, leading to coal deposits, but only to the eastern side of what is now Beacon Hill.
The eastern slope of Beacon Hill is on the very margin of the Yorkshire coalfield so the coal deposit seams are all less than one metre thick. Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) was one entrepreneur who exploited these deposits, including Walker Pit, whose tower can still be seen near Shibden Hall.
Beacon Hill Halifax, positioned at an impressive 864 feet above sea level, has a long and storied history. Various local legends and historical accounts mention the hill, with some dating back to the 16th century. A significant feature of the hill is the Beacon Pan, which served as the site of the beacon at Southowram. Beacon Hill Halifax is located within the overlooking hilltop village of Southowram.
Throughout the years, the actual beacon structure has been replaced several times, with notable instances occurring in 1615, 1745, and 1856. Today, a modern replica stands on the hill, reminding visitors of its historical purpose. An early memorandum records that Samuel Stead financed the construction costs of £7.
In 1653, renowned scientist Doctor Henry Power conducted an experiment using a tube of mercury to measure the height of Beacon Hill, estimating it to be 871 feet high. Later, Doctor Thomas Nettleton performed a similar experiment.
The Wakefield Gate Pathway
One of the most historically significant features of Beacon Hill Halifax is the ancient Wakefield Gate pathway that traverses the hill. This pathway was used by packhorses, medieval lords, and even troops loyal to Oliver Cromwell during the mid-17th century and Anne Lister (1791-1840) also known as Gentleman Jack of Shibden Hall. The route connects the town of Halifax to the city of Wakefield, passing through other notable local locations such as Old Bank, Clark Bridge and the Shibden Valley Estate, running close to Anne Lister’s Shibden Hall home and Shibden Park.
Halifax Trust’s Wakefield Gate Information Sign at Bank Bottom Located at the Bottom of Southowram Bank
The Wakefield Gate pathway is also closely associated with the intriguing story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of counterfeiters who operated in the area during the 18th century. After their capture and execution, the bodies of some of these criminals were suspended in chains on Beacon Hill to rot as a grisly warning to others.
It is reputed that a skull that was used in Hamlet and other productions at the Theatre Royal was that of one such murderer whose corpse had been displayed in chains on Beacon Hill Halifax.
Magna Via and Dark Lane
Another ancient route connected to Beacon Hill Halifax is the Magna Via also known as Dark Lane or Wakefield Gate. This medieval “holloway” served as a vital transportation route for the region, with packhorses carrying wool and finished cloth along its stone-sett path. The Magna Via also played a role in the English Civil War, with Sir Thomas Fairfax and his men using the route after a defeat.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe author of Robinson Crusoe wrote this about Halifax “We quitted Halifax not without some astonishment at its situation, being so surrounded with hills, and those so high as makes the coming in and going out of it exceedingly troublesome, and indeed for carriages hardly practicable, particularly the hill which they go up to come out of the town to the east towards Leeds, which is so steep, so rugged, and sometimes so slippery, that, to a town of so much business as this, it is exceedingly troublesome and dangerous.”
In more recent times, the Magna Via has become a popular spot for leisurely walks and hikes, offering visitors a chance to explore the picturesque Shibden Valley and the half-timbered Shibden Hall. Shibden Hall, which dates back to the 15th century has an attached Folk Museum and is a popular tourist attraction along with its park with a boating lake, cafe, children’s play areas and miniature railway.
Beacon Hill Halifax and the Industrial Age
Pollution and the Decline of Trees on Beacon Hill Halifax
The onset of the Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on the landscape of Beacon Hill Halifax. As mills and factories sprouted up in the area, the surrounding trees and vegetation began to suffer from the pollution generated by the burgeoning industrial enterprises.
Our photograph shows a painting of a late Victorian “Big Sing” Sunday School gathering at the Piece Hall in Halifax. The landscape backdrop behind shows Beacon Hill completely devoid of trees in those years.
Halifax was a smoke-enshrouded town and had the nickname ‘Devil’s Cauldron’ prior to the Clean Air Act of 1956.
Beacon Hill is pictured here, devoid of trees due to pollution. Beacon House still stands on top of Beacon Hill and is now a private residence.
The Southowram Home Guard was based at Beacon House. Every night in WWII there was a Home Guard platoon of 6 or 7 men ready for action. However, they were never called into action but there was plenty of activity in the skies above Beacon House and Beacon Hill – there were artillery units with anti-aircraft guns and searchlights scanning the skies for German bombers, usually on their way to and from bombing Manchester and Liverpool.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of pollution on Beacon Hill, Robert Parker planted a number of trees on the barren hillside. Unfortunately, the pollution proved to be too much for the trees, and they eventually perished. Today, however, the hillside is once again home to a spectacular and increasing variety of flora and fauna thanks to reafforestation efforts that began in the mid-20th century. Beacon Hill now provides a magnificent backdrop view for Halifax’s architectural heritage.
Beacon Hill Halifax – Proposed Rack-and-Pinion Railway, Cable Car and Beacon Hill Road
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were several proposals to improve transportation to and from Beacon Hill Halifax. In 1898, the Southowram Urban District Council proposed the construction of a rack-and-pinion railway that would run up the hill from Halifax. However, this plan never came to fruition.
More recently, in 2005, there was a proposal to build a Halifax to Beacon Hill cable car, which would offer a unique and scenic way for visitors to access the hill. Although the cable car has not yet been constructed, the idea remains an intriguing possibility for the future.
Beacon Hill Road a new winding route leading from Halifax to Southowram was opened in 1874, the gradient of which being much less severe than the long-existing Southowram Bank. The new Beacon Hill Road road cut across the existing Wakefield Gate Magna Via which is now accessed through the gateway in the wall.
The ancient Wakefield Gate steep route east near Beacon Hill Road Halifax. Until 1741, this was the main approach to Halifax from the east, for both packhorse and foot traffic. Also known as Wakefield Gate (‘gate’ from the old Norse ‘gata’, a way).
A tram route opened in 1901 and lasted for 30 years. The tram route that ran up Beacon Hill Road gave rise to the illusion of a tramcar in the sky, rather like Santa’s sleigh, because as they travelled up to Southowram during the night, the brightly-lit trams climbed up the hillside against a background of almost unbroken blackness and so appeared to be floating in mid-air!
Beacon Hill Halifax as viewed from Halifax railway station in the 2020s – one hundred years after the “Santa’s sleigh” brightly-lit trams climbed up the same hillside. In those days the hillside was devoid of trees, but the route can still be seen at night in the 21st century, picked out by the street lighting.
Beacon Hill Railway Tunnel
Beacon Hill Halifax railway tunnel was built and then opened in 1849 for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, connecting Halifax with Bradford.
The work involved constructing a tunnel under Beacon Hill 1,105 yards long (1,010 metres) and included an iron tube for a ‘Galloway Gate’ to give access to a coal mine belonging to J S Rawson, a contemporary of Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack).
This Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Tunnel Marker Stone can be seen on Beacon Hill Halifax. The railway tunnel lies directly beneath.
Beacon Hill Halifax Railway Tunnel Ventilation Shaft and Walker Pit Tower
Beacon Hill Halifax in Modern Times
Celebrations and Commemorations
Beacon Hill Halifax continues to play a role in local celebrations and commemorations. The beacon atop the hill is lit for special occasions, such as royal jubilees, coronations, and significant historical anniversaries. For instance, a 21-gun salute was fired from Beacon Hill when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Halifax on 20th October 1937 and celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee in June 2022 when the beacon was lit.
Hiking and Outdoor Recreation
Today, Beacon Hill Halifax is a popular destination for hikers, walkers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Beacon Hill Halifax offers a variety of trails, ranging from leisurely strolls to more challenging hikes that take in the stunning views and historical landmarks of the area.
One popular route begins at the historic Piece Hall in Halifax and takes in the Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax Minster, and the Nestle Rowntree Mackintosh factory before ascending Beacon Hill via the Magna Via. From the summit, hikers can enjoy panoramic views of Halifax and its surrounding countryside, as well as the impressive Wainhouse Tower to the west.
The Rotary Club of Halifax Viewing Platform at Beacon Hill
The Best View of Halifax
The Rotary Club of Halifax is a charitable organisation and has provided the five-section three-metre-long Beacon Hill Observation Platform and seating facility which was completed in 2023 and highlights all the prominent buildings of Halifax and identifies outlying landmarks. The opening ceremony on Thursday 8 June was attended by Halifax’s Holly Lynch MP and the Mayor of Calderdale, Ashley Evans. The Rotary Club of Halifax Viewing Platform cost £26,000 and local stone was donated by Marshalls, the local construction materials company based in Southowram. The future maintenance responsibility has been passed to Calderdale Council.
Beacon Hill Observation Platform’s location is near the Magna Via route eastwards out of Halifax and Shibden Hall, the home of the famous Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack), and as such many local residents, tourists, academic researchers and walkers will pass by.
Beacon Hill has panoramic views of historic Halifax, the surrounding Calderdale countryside and beyond to the Yorkshire and Derbyshire border and the Peak District National Park border at Holme Moss.
Beacon Hill Halifax Rotary Club Viewing Platform Panel 1
Beacon Hill Halifax Rotary Club Viewing Platform Panel 2
Beacon Hill Halifax Rotary Club Viewing Platform Panel 3
Beacon Hill Halifax Rotary Club Viewing Platform Panel 4
Beacon Hill Halifax Rotary Club Viewing Platform Panel 5
Beacon Hill View
According to the wonderful Rotary Club Beacon Hill observation platform engraving, there are 17 major buildings or structures that can be seen from the top of Beacon Hill and they are as described as follows:
- 1 Calderdale Royal Hospital – Opened April 2001 by H.R.H. The Princess Royal.
- 2 Shaw Lodge Mills – Grade II* mills built 1830 & 1850 by John Holdsworth & Co. who became the world’s largest manufacturer of Moquette for the bus and train trade.
- 3 Halifax Shay Stadium – Home to FC Halifax Town and Halifax Rugby League Club who moved to The Shay in 1998. The original ground was built in 1921 and re-developed in 2008. The Skircoat Stand remains the only part of the original ground.
- 4 Eureka! – The National Children’s Museum. Opened in 1992 by H.R.H. Prince Charles.
- 5 The Halifax – Built as the Headquarters of the former Halifax Building Society in 1973.
- 6 Wainhouse Tower – Grade II* Built between 1871 and 1875. At 84m (275 ft) it is the world’s tallest folly and the tallest structure in structure in Calderdale.
- 7 Studley Pike Monument – Grade II – The Monument was completed in 1856 at the end of the Crimean War. It replaces an earlier one, started in 1814 to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon and completed in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo. The earlier monu,emt collapsed in 1854 after a lightning strike.
- 8 Halifax Borough Market – Grade II* – Designed by local architect practice Leeming and Leeming, who went on to also design Leeds City market. The Borough Market was built between 1891 – 1896 and opened by the future King George V and Queen Mary.
- 9 Square Church Spire – Grade II* – The remaining spire of the former Square Congregational Church. Demolished in 1976 following two fires. The spire is now integrated into the new Halifax Central Library
- 10 The Piece Hall– Grade l-Completed in 1779 The Piece Hall was built as a Cloth Hall for handloom weavers to sell cloth pieces in one of the 315 separate rooms.
- 11 Square Chapel – Grade II* – Started in 1772 it is one of the few remaining brick buildings of this period to survive in Halifax. The site was visited by John Wesley during its construction. The former chapel is now a theatre and arts centre linked to The Piece Hall with a new extension completed in 2017.
- 12 The Gibbet – Estimated to have been installed during the 16th century, the Gibbet was an alternative to beheading by axe or sword and was the forerunner of the French guillotine. It was finally forbidden by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.
- 13 Halifax Town Hall – Grade II*- Built between 1861-1863 it was one of Sir Charles Barry’s last commissions. Famed for his design of the Houses of Parliament, the Town Hall was completed by his son Edward after his death.
- 14 Halifax Minster – Grade 1 – The Minster, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was awarded Minster status in 2009. The Minster was built during the 15th century on the remains of an earlier Norman church dating back to the 1120’s.
- 15 Dean Clough – Dean Clough developed between the 1840s and the 1860s for Crossley Carpets. The collection of mills stretched half a mile along the valley bottom and contained 1.25 million sq ft, making it one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers.
- 16 All Souls Church – Grade 1 – Built between 1856-1859 the church was commissioned by Colonel Ackroyd as part of his model village, Ackroyden. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who also designed the Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial.
- 17 Black Dyke Mills – A large collection of mills, most now demolished, built from 1835 onwards for John Foster and Sons, worsted and mohair manufacturers. In 1855 John Fosters formed a company brass band which is now one of the oldest, most successful and best-known brass bands in the world! – The Black Dyke Band.
The Rotary Club Beacon Hill observation platform also identifies other un-numbered visible landmarks including Bank Top, Halifax Transmitter, Holme Moss Transmitter, Balck Hill 582m (1909ft) Highest Hill in West Yorkshire, Moorside Edge Transmitter, Slathwaite Moor, M62, Scammonden Dam, Blacker Edge, March Hill 448m, Rishworth Moor, Soyland Moor, Turley Holes and High House Moor, Norton Tower, Warley Moor, Shibden Vale, Ovenden Moor Wind Farm 1993, Swales Moor 325m (1066ft) and Queensbury.
The Rotary Club Beacon Hill observation platform also describes the Beacon, Magna Via and Beacon Hill as follows:
The Beacon was one of the links in the national chain warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It probably took the form of a fire on the ground but by the mid-17th century there was a fixed beacon mounted on a pole. It was lit on at least two other- recorded occasions as a signal.
It was lit in 1688 at the time of the landing of William of Orange and in 1745 to give warning of the approaching invading Scottish army under Bonnie Prince Charlie. In the event they reached no closer than Manchester. Since then the Beacon has been lit to celebrate many joyful occasions – the end of the Crimean War (1856), the Boer War (1902) and both World Wars (1919 and 1945). In addition many Royal Jubilees including those of Queen Victoria, King George and Queen Elizabeth II.
Wakefield Gate (Magna Via) – From early times the Magna Via was the ancient road between Halifax and Wakefield, providing the main route into Halifax over Beacon Hill. The Magna Via was superseded in 1741 by the Halifax and Wakefield Turnpike. This became the main route until 1824 when Godley Cutting was excavated which provided an easier route in to the town. This route is now the A58 to Leeds. The Magna Via can still be walked from the bottom of Beacon Hill as far as Hipperholme.
Formerly known as Gletcliffe Hill, at 260m (853ft) stands approx. 120m (400ft) above Halifax town centre. During the 18th Century, the bodies of executed men, including the Cragg Vale Coiners, were suspended in chains at the top of the hill as a warning and a moral lesson for the local population.
Rotary Club Beacon Hill Halifax Observation Platform Donor List
- Andrew Marshall
- A4E Systems Ltd
- Caravan Guard
- Charlesworth Family Group
- Community Foundation for Calderdale
- D.D.Porter Ltd
- Eastwood Insurance Brokers
- Matt Firth – Gekko Civil Engineering Ltd
- Hebble Properties
- In Memory of Pauline Robertshaw
- Lawrence Funeral Service
- RSA Insurance Group
- Scribble Architectural Masonry
- The Barron Family
- Wilkinson Woodward Solicitors
Rotary Club Beacon Hill Viewing Area Material Suppliers and Constructors List
- Calderdale Woodland Ltd
- Briggs Priestley Engravers
- Marshalls plc
- Scribble Architectural Masonry
- M.C Fabrications
- Doyles Drystone Walling
- Matt Firth – Gekko Civil Engineering Ltd
- Grant Stott – Viewing Area Design and Artwork
The Nearest Pub to the Top of Beacon Hill Halifax
The nearest pub is The Cock & Bottle, 1 Common Lane, Bank Top, Southowram Halifax HX3 9PA. The heated and covered beer garden overlooks the Shibden Valley and also Law Hill House, now a private residence, where In September 1838, Emily Brontë was a teacher at Law Hill School in Southowram.
The Cock & Bottle’s beer garden also overlooks the site of Walterclough Hall, where it is believed Emily Brontë drew her inspiration for her masterpiece Wuthering Heights. The more gentle cuesta eastern slope of Beacon Hill can be seen from the Cock & Bottle.
Beacon Hill Halifax Location Map
How to Walk to the Top of Beacon Hill Avoiding the Steep Climb
Option A: From the Upper Car Park at Shibden Park, go through the gate on the other side of Shibden Hall Road then walk up the footpath (no cycling allowed) by the side of the woods and Walker Tower. Walker Tower, built to service a mine, was named by Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) in honour of her lover and wife Ann Walker.
Option B: Where Southowram Bank meets Beacon Hill Road at Bank Top, there is a footpath opposite Trooper Lane marked Green Lane. There is a bus stop for Route 571 nearby. Green Lane leads to the summit of Beacon Hill.
Warning Sign: No Vehicles are Allowed on Beacon Hill Halifax – they will be Seized by the Police.
Beacon Hill Halifax Summary
Beacon Hill Halifax is a remarkable site in Calderdale that offers a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and outdoor recreation. Whether you’re interested in the ancient routes that traverse the hill, the fascinating stories of the people who have lived and worked in the area including Anne Lister, industrial archaeology, geology, railways or simply taking in the breathtaking views, Beacon Hill Halifax is a destination that should not be missed or at least admired whilst visiting Halifax town centre.
Other nearby Calderdale and Halifax Locations to Explore
Finally, you should also plan to explore the surrounding area. There are a number of attractions in the Halifax and Beacon Hill area so you should take the time to explore them. Our current suggestions are: