‘I’m from Happy Valley’s Hebden Bridge — this is what it’s really like’
“You’d just open your capsule door, stick your antennae out briefly and turn around and go home, wouldn’t you,” says Joyce to Sergeant Catherine Cawood, talking about aliens landing in Todmorden, the next town along from Hebden Bridge. There have been dozens of moments in the third series of BBC’s Happy Valley that have resonated with Hebden Bridgers, but perhaps none more than this.
But what could be wrong with the place? The West Yorkshire town has become famous for being a social and cultural oasis in the old weaving heartland: it’s known as the lesbian capital of the UK (at one point it reportedly had more lesbians per square foot than anywhere else in the UK, and this reputation has stuck), has a booming arts community, a Picturehouse cinema, and is home to an iconic music venue that’s hosted the likes of The Fall and Patti Smith. And all with a population of around just 4,500 people.
Hippies took advantage of the semi-abandoned market town’s cheap rent in the Seventies and spent the following decades making it their own: Hebden Bridge banned plastic bags years ago and has been championing vegan and organic fare long before Gwyneth Paltrow made it hip in Hollywood. Verdant valleys make it a magnet for cyclists, walkers and runners, too, and packs of fell runners loop the area, many barefoot. As you can imagine, it’s The Guardian territory through and through – and the adoration goes both ways, with the paper calling the town “a rain-soaked paradise”.
It’s a haven for independent shops and you can find outlets selling books, rugs, comics, records, antiques, sweets, holistic products and magic supplies, though it’s cafes that really rule the roost in Hebden Bridge – there are close to a dozen and they’re always rammed. And although there is a Co-op, it wasn’t established without a fight from locals; there is a (now seemingly dormant) “Hebden Bridge Co-op Disloyalty Scheme” Facebook group, which described itself as “an underground political group whose stated aim is to overthrow the regime at Hebden Bridge Co-op”.
At night the town is just as busy as the day, with pubs, a tiny underground vegan wine bar, Nelson’s, where DJs sometimes play as diners eat plant-based food, the brewery and burger joint Vocation & Co, and the Little Theatre. Hebden is also a spot for spirituality, yoga and 5Rhythms dance classes, with a Holistic Therapy Centre, several Buddhist centres and a Peace Sanctuary where you can work on your “soul recall” and “energy field alignment”. The Hebden Bridge Spiritual Community on Facebook has 1.8K members.
But beyond the few central streets, the wider Hebden Bridge area is a much more complicated picture. For one, there’s an ongoing bitterness towards ‘offcumden’ – a term genuinely used for out-of-towners. Hebden has seen an influx of new residents over the last decade as news of the idyll has spread, and its perfect location – halfway between Manchester and Leeds – has helped to bump up housing prices. Many locals have had to move down the road to Todmorden, where the valley walls are even higher and daylight is harder to perceive.
There are dozens of satellite villages dotted around the hills between Hebden Bridge and the moors at the top; the same moors which on one side inspired the Brontës, and on the other hid away some of Ian Brady’s murders. Hebden Bridge’s radicalism has not yet reached these quieter spots, which explains the strange politics: it’s nearly always the case that the town’s council is Labour, but the Calder Valley is Conservative. True to a Dickens novel, rich farmers still wield power in these village’s pubs, where craft beer is scoffed at, gay is still a term of derision, and whole pigs are sometimes carted in for carving.
Its curiosities don’t stop there: the famous counterfeiters, the Cragg Coiners, ran their business from one of these villages, Ted Hughes came from one village; Sylvia Plath is buried in another. Hebden Bridge’s closest towns King Cross and Halifax – both of which feature in Happy Valley – are noticeably more deprived and less green. But these towns are also where the area’s two grammar schools are located: the posher kids get schooled alongside some of the area’s most disadvantaged.
Growing up here is pretty weird. With approximately 50 days more rain than London, for most of the year it is literally dark, which is another thing creator Sally Wainwright gets so right in the show. A lot of people get stuck in Hebden, pulled in by old school friends and old haunts, but also drugs and alcohol. Filmmaker Jez Lewis made a documentary in 2009 about the town’s high suicide rates after he lost 15 of his friends – around the same time that Hebden was in the news for having a suicide rate 50 per cent higher than the national average.
Many locals, like me, leave the town to go to university, though as many as half return later to be near their families, friends and culture, missing the stone terraces and dry humour. I always felt slightly out of step in Hebden, overwhelmed by the gloom. The countryside is beautiful – astonishing even – but like Sergeant Cawood as she faces the end of her service, I couldn’t wait to leave.