The 'Happy Valley' of Yorkshire, Halifax

Framed by honey-stone colonnades that are filled with independent bars, eateries, galleries, boutiques and even an escape room, the Piece Hall looks like a grand square in Belgium or an elegant Venetian piazza. But this huge, princely public space graces Halifax, a town in the Pennine hills of west Yorkshire and a rewarding stop on the scenic Calder Valley railway line between Manchester and Leeds.

Founded in 1779, the Piece Hall is a relic of Halifax's once-booming textile industry - handloom weavers would sell their woollen cloth pieces here - and it's a contender for Britain's most photogenic square. On a fine sunny morning - and they're not always this fine in Halifax (or so I'm told) - I nurse a flat white on the al fresco terrace of the Piece Hall Deli and cast my camera-phone over the courtyard towards the spired old chapel that soars above the colonnades and the wooded hilly backdrop east of town.

I send a picture to friends and everyone replies more or less the same: "I can't believe that's in Britain!". The feeling that I'm in another country is enhanced when a man says "buon giorno" and chats to the waitress in Italian.

A stage for outdoor events (local rockers Embrace and Manchester band Elbow played concerts in the courtyard in June), the Piece Hall is among the restored architectural beauties in "the Shoreditch of the North", as Halifax has been dubbed, only half tongue in cheek. Like its trendy east London counterpart, this Yorkshire town is sprinkled with hipster favourites, like vinyl stores and craft beer havens, while creative industries have repurposed some of its vast Victorian factories and warehouses.

A 10-minute walk from the Piece Hall, past the grandiose 19th century town hall designed by Charles Barry, the architect behind London's Houses of Parliament, you'll find Dean Clough. Soccer fans could be forgiven for thinking this is a footballer - perhaps a relative of Brian Clough, the legendary ex-Leeds United manager. It's actually a group of imposing brick mills that were once collectively the world's largest carpet factory, with an estimated 116,000 square metres of floorspace.

Looming above the trickling Hebble Brook, Dean Clough's converted mills now house over 150 companies and start-ups and employ about 4000 people. As well as offices, salons and studios, it has free contemporary galleries with temporary exhibitions by artists and photographers from Yorkshire and beyond, and the underground 300-seat Viaduct Theatre, which shows everything from international jazz and opera to quirky original productions and classic plays with a "northern twist".

If you've ever fancied seeing Shakespeare performed in warm, broad Yorkshire accents, this is the place.

Also at Dean Clough is the flagship bar of Halifax craft ale brewery Stod Fold, the Engine Room Cafe and Kitchen, and Loom Lounge Roastery and Coffee Emporium. You can have Spanish tapas and Italian cicchetti at Riccis and "Indian buffet" food at Babar Khan. Halifax has several south Asian offerings, many run by British Pakistanis, whose families emigrated here to work in the textile industries.

You could return to the Piece Hall for lunch. Seek out The Trading Rooms, a stylish restaurant serving the likes of moules with smoked pancetta and Yorkshire heritage cider, and beer braised feather blade of Yorkshire beef, with fondant potato, honey roast piccolo parsnips, sauteed sprouts and gravy.

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Flatbreads, sourdough sandwiches and French patisserie can be ordered from the adjoining bakery, helmed by award-winning craft baker Sandor Bagameri.

Next door, Piece Hall's welcome centre offers guided tours of the colonnades - where you can browse and buy everything from artisan chocolate and soaps to jewellery and rugs. The centre displays antiques and touch-screens charting the history of Halifax's wool and textile trade, which began around the 12th century, peaked in Victorian times and faded in the 1900s. You'll also learn about the rise and fall and rebirth of the Piece Hall, which reopened on Yorkshire Day (August 1) 2017 after a three-year restoration project.

It's part of a new cultural quarter with a glossy public library, Square Chapel Arts Centre (a slick contemporary venue attached to an 18th century chapel) and Calderdale Industrial Museum, which covers the industrial heritage of Halifax and surrounding Calderdale region.

Nearby, linked to Halifax railway station, is Eureka! - the National Children's Museum. It has 400-plus interactive, hands-on exhibits designed to educate and entertain, especially about science. Nothing here, they say, is behind a glass cabinet.

There are times, exploring Halifax, when the Shoreditch comparisons seem a bit daft. It's much hillier here, for starters, though the town centre is compact and simple to navigate on foot. Halifax isn't as vibrant, affluent and cosmopolitan, but it's utterly intriguing, feeling, in parts, tidy and prosperous, gritty and down-to-earth, youthful and multicultural and dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire. Unlike most Shoreditch types, Haligonians - Halifax folk - love their rugby league.

For many, the town's beating heart is its sprawling Borough Market, which dates back to 1896 and has over 100 stalls, run by a mix of long-time vendors and fresh-faced newcomers. Beneath an ornate glass and wrought-iron roof, and Union Jack and Yorkshire white rose bunting, you'll find fishmongers and butchers, fruit and veg merchants, card and sock sellers, florists and sweet shops stocked with Quality Street, which has been produced at the same Halifax factory since 1936.

Market refreshments range from English breakfasts and pies and peas to Russian blinis and goulash and "100% plant-based food" from Ve.GANG. I join the queue at Thai Corner, enjoy pad Thai with king prawns - a delicious steal for £5 ($9.25) - then hit Top Door Espresso for a caffeine hit and listen as an elderly woman, followed by two teenage boys, play uplifting tunes on the market's piano.

While Shoreditch has the City of London on its doorstep, Halifax is edged by rolling, sheep-dotted, hiker-friendly countryside. A kilometre or so from the town centre is the Shibden Estate, with its lovely, landscaped 32-hectare public park. Boasting picnic-friendly lawns, orchards, woodlands and a lake with ducks, swans and rowing boats, it's nicknamed "Halifax's Happy Valley" and was commissioned by Anne Lister, a 19th century landowner who lived at Shibden Hall, a half-timbered Tudor mansion that still lords over the park.

The property has recently extended its opening hours to cope with an influx of tourists due to the popularity of Gentleman Jack, a HBO-BBC-Foxtel drama based on the secret love affairs of Lister, a prolific traveller and diarist labelled "the first modern lesbian". The writer of Gentleman Jack was Sally Wainwright, who was born in Huddersfield - Halifax's west Yorkshire neighbour - and wrote two other acclaimed shows that were set and filmed in this region. If you like gripping, witty, touching, heart-wrenching TV, and haven't seen Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax yet, you really should.

TRIP NOTES

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STAY

There's a raft of budget and mid-range hotels in central Halifax, but Last Tango in Halifax fans might wish to stay at the four-star Holdsworth House Hotel & Restaurant. A filming location in the show, it occupies a beautiful Jacobean mansion 6km north of town. Rooms are priced from about £84 ($149). See holdsworthhouse.co.uk

FLY

Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and Singapore Airlines fly to Manchester from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Singapore respectively.Twice-hourly trains run from Manchester Victoria to Halifax. Journey time is 45-60 minutes. Leeds is about 30 minutes from Halifax. See northernrailway.co.uk

FIVE MORE PLACES TO SEE NEAR HALIFAX

WAINHOUSE TOWER

Built as a chimney for a Halifax dye works, this 77-metre-high Victorian tower was never used and is touted as the world's tallest folly. It's sporadically open to the public, with 403 steps leading to a panoramic viewing gallery.

BRONTE COUNTRY

A 25-minute drive from Halifax is the picturesque village of Haworth, where the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, grew up and wrote their novels in a parsonage that is now a museum.

HEBDEN BRIDGE

Perched by a canal, a few train stops west of Halifax, this pretty former mill town has reinvented itself as a quirky beacon of alternative living, popular with artists, writers and hippies.

HEPTONSTALL

Literary pilgrims flock to this old weaving village above Hebden Bridge. In Heptonstall's churchyard is the grave of Sylvia Plath, ex-wife of fellow poet Ted Hughes, who was born in nearby Mytholmroyd.

BRADFORD

Rich in stunning Victorian architecture, Bradford was a thriving wool centre but is now more renowned for its fiery dishes, having been crowned Curry Capital of Britain six years in a row (2011-2016).

Steve McKenna travelled at his own expense.

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