It doesn’t take long to spot Queer Out Here, an LGBTQ+ walking group, as I stride up to Hebden Bridge station. There’s a Pride flag hung on a picnic bench, where a cluster of people have gathered. The location is appropriate: this West Yorkshire town is sometimes referred to as “the lesbian capital of the UK”. The 2021 census, meanwhile, cemented Hebden Bridge’s status as a rural hub for the LGBTQ+ community more generally: it revealed that 9% of its residents are lesbian, gay or bisexual – around three times the national average.
From the off, the atmosphere is friendly. I’m greeted by Ben Beckwith, who is leading today’s seven-and-a-half-mile route up Stoodley Pike, a 400-metre hill in the south Pennines. After introductions, we set off in overcast weather, with Beckwith setting a gentle pace along the canal path. There are almost 30 of us; some have come with friends while others are here to meet new people in the LGBTQ+ community.
There is a general consensus across the group that these walks give a sense of belonging in a world where they don’t always feel understood or accepted. “In the queer community, at some point, a lot of people have felt they don’t belong in some way,” says Ailish Breen, who set up Queer Out Here at the start of 2020. “So, going into a group, where everyone is from the community, and is much more likely to understand your perspective, is validating.” Having grown up walking in North Yorkshire, Breen “wanted to give back to the community that has given me so much joy throughout my life”.
After leaving the canal path, we stop for a break before heading to the Pennine Way, England’s oldest national trail. Then a gentle ascent begins, up a gravel path through woodland and into an opening between the fields, where sheep graze among dry stone walls. “I feel it has facilitated a sense of community for people,” says Beckwith when we chat at the next stop. “You have a group of people that effectively met as strangers this morning, and everyone’s chattering away.”
Beckwith sees Queer Out Here as one way of “collectively developing healthy habits around our community”. While the LGBTQ+ scene is traditionally geared towards nightlife, research shows that LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of substance misuse and mental health problems. But a growing body of research shows that getting out in nature is beneficial for mental health. “Connection with each other is important, particularly because queer people are more likely to be lonely or struggle with their mental health,” says Breen. “The connection with nature is important because it can be transformative.”
There are some who ask why LGBTQ+ people want spaces specifically for them and, in my mind, the answer is simple: because of the discrimination we still face in non-LGBTQ+ specific ones. Over the years, in response to my sexuality, I’ve been jeered at, told that I’m wrong and, repeatedly, asked, while kissing another woman, if I want to have a threesome. For me, it’s a case of safety in numbers – and the sheer joy that comes from being surrounded by people who understand your experiences.
We continue up a path through the moors’ thick grassland and on to a wide plain leading to the summit, which is marked by a towering obelisk: Stoodley Pike monument, built in 1856. Here, we break again, sheltering from the wind at the monument’s base to eat sandwiches and pass round flasks of tea. Our stark surroundings featured in the hit crime drama Happy Valley, but the lesbian history is never far away: writer Sally Wainwright is also the creator of Gentleman Jack, filmed in this area and inspired by the life of Anne Lister, Britain’s “first modern lesbian”. (Visitors can tour nearby Shibden Hall, where she once lived.)
For Queer Out Here regular Michael Spence, today is an opportunity to get outside with other LGBTQ+ people. “As a gay man, a lot of our social activity often revolves around drinking. And I like going out, I like gay bars, I like getting drunk, but it’s nice to have a social activity with other queer people when drinking isn’t the main thing,” he says. “It’s good for my health and it’s just good for my social wellbeing.”
With rain heading our way we get going, this time taking a different route through the woodland, via a farm and on to a quiet road for the last section back into Hebden Bridge, passing an old cotton mill, part of the town’s industrial history.
In the pub afterwards, Zara Hindmarsh, who is on her second walk with Queer Out Here, tells me that today gave her “a sense of just being really valid, and being reminded that there are so many other people that are also queer”. Groups like these are important because they help get LGBTQ+ people into the outdoors, she says. “I think it makes it instantly more accessible for the LGBTQ+ community. Knowing you’ve got something in common with other people coming makes it that little bit less daunting.”
Queer Out Here’s next walk is on 18 March in Snowdonia. All walks are free to attend.
More LGBTQ+ outdoors groups
Other walking groups include Lakes Queer Adventures, whose upcoming trips include a “weekend of adventure” (24-26 March) in the Lake District, and Sheffield-based Peak Queer Adventures, which organises regular meet-ups in the Peak District for climbers, hikers, cyclists and swimmers.
There is also Queer Surf Club, which has a surfing weekend in Cornwall this April (sold out, but there is a waiting list), while other weekend trips include those by The Queer Campfire for LGBTQ+ women, trans and non-binary people, whose next camping trip is in July. Now in its second year, Oban Lesbian Weekend also has a weekend trip in July, described as a “cross between a package holiday and a mini festival”, while LGBTQ+ runners can find their community in running groups around the UK, from Queer Runnings in the Lake District to Queer Running Club in London.