Travelling from country to country with long periods away from home were all part of a successful career in the hospitality and event industry for Sara-Jo Cooper 8 years ago. However part of her yearned to spend more time in her beloved Sowerby Bridge, an old ex industrial Yorkshire town in the Calder Valley.  With her background in hospitality and a love of real ale from the age of 17, there seemed an obvious choice to merge business and pleasure and set up a small pub and brewery in the town.

However these plans were blown out of the water when someone suggested she take over the substantial joinery workshop opposite the town’s swimming pool and library on Hollins Mill Lane.  Not knowing exactly how she would turn this large double storey building with four walls and a leaky roof into a profitable business, she sunk every penny she had into buying the property and started the eventual 12 month process of renovating the building to a standard suitable for opening as an ale house.

The Works was born and a lifestyle of international flights and hotels was swapped for a camp bed with a cool box as a fridge during renovation.  The previous use as a joinery workshop came up trumps as Sara-Jo did every piece of work she could herself, from helping to building the bar to sandblasting the white paint from the 35 foot high walls.  Apart from the installation of the various utilities the pub is pretty much Sara-Jo’s perspiration and inspiration as well as her ability to pool local labour when required.

The support of the breweries at the start was crucial in developing the pub once it opened for business, the financial situation having become perilous as the development phase of the project came to an end, prior to gaining her license to sell alcohol on site.

The work both on and off site paid off. 6 months after opening she had a regular group of customers bringing a regular income and only a year after opening in 2006, the building won the “best conversion to a pub” nationally in the English Heritage – CAMRA awards that year.  When asked what the design ethos was, she answered “eBay and a minimal budget”.  The exposed bricks and beams were not a design statement, but the most cost efficient way to renovate the building.

The development of the pub hasn’t stopped there, it now boasts an upstairs conference centre and comedy venue, a core part of the business.  However the venue is only half the story, the beer is all important and the Works has rarely disappointed with its ales.  5 rotating guest pumps, along with their own Works Wonder brew (developed to a recipe by Sara-Jo in conjunction with Phoenix Brewery of Heywood near Rochdale) dominate the long bar.  The house brand is Timothy Taylor, of which there 3 on offer as well as continental beers and ciders on tap.

The pub recently got a glowing review in the Telegraph newspaper, and Roger Protz gave the pub high praise in the Morning Advertiser when he visited in 2010.  Part of the reason for this is the team Sara-Jo has assembled.  The staff members at the pub are expected to work hard and muck in. In return they are given extensive training with 15 first aiders and 10 personal license holders (the qualification required for apply for a license to run a pub) working on her team.  All staff are cellar trained to various levels.  The pub even has its own training course for new recruits.

Like the pub itself, the town of Sowerby Bridge has changed beyond all recognition since 2005, the number of real ale houses have now significantly increased in number with the addition of a handful of new premises or pubs which have started to sell primarily real ale.  Four other pubs are present in the town which boast a good real ale selection among a thriving social scene which has made the town a destination for nights out, as well as having a thriving range of small independent shops.  The renovation of the canal side mills into apartments and the opening of a number of good restaurants has only helped this.

The town is also home to one of only two Rushbearing Festivals in the country, which is now celebrating its 36th year, with Sara-Jo being being involved for over a decade.  The first weekend in September every year, a 16 foot high rushcart is pulled by 60 volunteers, all dressed in traditional edwardian dress from pub to pub over 2 days for a total distance of 10 miles. Funds are raised to cover the costs of the festival and to raise money for small local charities and community projects.

Before the event, rushes are collected from above Warley before being thatched into nearly 1000 bundles and bound to the wooden frame of the cart which was built in 1984 to replace the ageing original.  The cart is then decorated for the weekend itself.

The festival originated in Medieval times when the floors of the local churches were lined with rushes. Every year there was a local festival where the rushcart took fresh rushes to each church to lay a new floor over the bare stones and remove the old ones for recycling.   There was always an element of beer drinking involved in this festival as it evolved from a practical to a celebratory event and the modern festival keeps the spirit of the celebration in as many ways as possible.

Beer is donated by various breweries and over the weekend all the proceeds from selling the donated beer at the pubs on route is returned to the Rushbearing Festival organising committee to help run the event or distribute to good causes. Money is also collected from bystanders by an army of volunteers while the cart is paraded.  Each pub on the route has entertainment for the visit of the cart, and morris dancers attend from all over the country to perform, no doubt attracted by a weekend of good ale.

A pre-event party kicks off the weekend at the Puzzle Hall Inn on Friday night. The procession on Saturday leads from Warley village to Sowerby Bridge before concentrating on the town centre for the majority of the day, while Sunday’s route takes in the pubs heading out towards Ripponden via a diversion over the hills to Cottonstones.  Over the two days, ceremonial rushes are presented at 7 churches in the area.

It is well worth a visit for one or two days, and a great chance to have a few good beers and see lots of different pubs while raising money for good causes.

There is lots of happy supping to be had, hope to see you there.