Yorkshire is the real star of Happy Valley

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley - Press Association
Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley - Press Association

If you’ve not seen Happy Valley, your first thought upon reading a synopsis of it might not be “I must plan a weekend break there.” The organised crime and cold-blooded murder it depicts don’t exactly scream holiday. But join the millions of viewers curling up to watch it on Sunday nights (more people watched episode two of the latest series than Prince Harry's ITV interview) and you’ll find you can’t help but be taken with the windswept moors or honey-stoned houses of West Yorkshire.

Sarah Lancashire’s blistering central performance as the police sergeant who has endured too much may rightly steal the spotlight, but the backdrop of Calderdale (also known as the Calder Valley) feels essential to the story. Its bleak and barren beauty not only mirrors the characters struggles, but also their perseverance. At points, it seems windswept country walks are the characters’ only respite from the grizzly plotlines.

And there’s love for the location behind the lens. Creator and writer Sally Wainwright grew up in Sowerby Bridge, the market town three miles outside of Halifax where plenty of the series’ scenes have been filmed. Other key locations include arty Hebden Bridge and the villages of Heptonstall and Mytholmroyd, also known for their Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath connections.

Fans began flocking to the area after the first series hit screens back in 2014, and with the third, and final, season now in full swing, interest in all things Happy Valley is reaching fever pitch. But long before the Calder Valley became the setting for must-see television, it inspired some of Britain’s most eminent writers, namely Emily Brontë. And it's hard to wander far before coming across a landmark referenced in a Hughes or Plath poem.

From long walks on the heath to vegan brunches, here’s how best to experience Happy Valley country.

Canals, craft beer and independent cinema in Hebden Bridge

Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) might not concern herself with artisan coffees and locally made crafts, but she does live in Hebden Bridge, the market town turned hippy hub that’s more Totnes than than old textiles town. After the closure of cotton mills back in the 1960s and 70s, cheap rents meant creative types made their home here and a resolutely indie attitude was cemented (it’s also known as the lesbian capital of the UK).

Packhorse Bridge, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire - Alamy
Packhorse Bridge, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire - Alamy

Much of the series is shot in and around the town, with fans known to head to Hangingroyd Lane for a glimpse of Catherine’s house. Beyond Happy Valley, the Hebden Bridge Open Air Market (9am to 4pm, Thursday to Sunday) is a good place to start for a taste of the town’s creative spirit. On Saturdays there’s an emphasis on local artisan products, such as homemade incense and jewellery, while Sundays are for foodies, with all manner of pies and pastries. Unsurprisingly, given its hippy credentials, Hebden does a great line in vegetarian and vegan brunch options. Try Leila’s Kitchen for a full persian breakfast (featuring herby feta, walnuts, fried eggs and tomatoes) or a simple Yorkshire teacake.

A post-lunch walk along the town’s stretch of the Rochdale Canal, where villain Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) holes up on a barge near the end of the first series, feels essential.

In the evening, head to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, a fabulous 500-seater 1920s independent cinema, which screens the latest releases alongside collaborations with local LGBTQ+ collective Happy Valley Pride (supported by Sally Wainwright). A couple of doors down is Vocation & Co, a brewery and bar serving the likes of affogato-flavoured stouts, alongside Swaledale beef burgers from Slap&Pickle. The Trades Club, a long-standing independent music venue and bar, is the place to finish the night – previous performers here have included Richard Hawley and IDLES.

A little further afield, Yakumama in Todmorden (a six-minute train journey from Hebden Bridge) is a self-styled cantina with a Latin American-influenced menu of oyster mushroom quesadillas and dark chocolate empanadas.

Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire's Calder Valley - Alamy
Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire's Calder Valley - Alamy

Walk the winding paths of the South Pennines

A visit to the Calder Valley inevitably means long, moody walks. From Hebden, take the well-trodden path up to Heptonstall a mile away, where Catherine is often shot visiting her daughter’s grave. In real life, the graveyard is also the resting place of American literary icon Sylvia Plath and in the very first episode Ryan Cawood (Rhys Connah) notes the number of pens left at her grave. As well as leaving gifts, those making the pilgrimage there have previously vandalised the Hughes inscription on the headstone owing to accounts that estranged husband Ted Hughes was abusive towards her.

For a longer hike, head on to Hardcastle Crags, a National Trust-protected woodland valley, with more than 15 miles of footpaths. Points of interest include plenty of waterfalls, streams and an old mill at its centre, which these days houses a café.

Of course you are firmly in Brontë country here, with plenty flocking up to Top Withens to have their Wuthering Heights moment – Emily Brontë was thought to be inspired by the ruined farmhouse. The literary sisters’ home village of Haworth is also accessible in half an hour from Hebden, via the aptly named Brontë Bus.

Enjoy a slice of European grandeur in Halifax

While its delights are not really explored, Halifax comes up almost as much as those three chilling words: “Tommy Lee Royce”. In terms of filming locations, its old swimming pool was transformed into the police station used in the third series and trendy Neapolitan pizza joint Knead was the scene of a meeting between Catherine and ex-husband Richard (Derek Ridell).

Not featured, but a must-visit is Piece Hall, the outstanding Georgian landmark originally built as a grand arena for merchants to trade pieces of cloth. The central square, which wouldn’t look out of place in Venice, doubles up as a music venue and will host the likes of The War on Drugs and James this year. Meanwhile, the surrounding building is filled with independent shops and restaurants plus a permanent exhibition on its history.

Cornmarket in Halifax - Alamy
Cornmarket in Halifax - Alamy

Fans of another Sally Wainwright hit, Gentleman Jack, will also want to visit Shibden Hall (currently closed for the winter and reopening in March), a 20-minute walk from the centre of Halifax. The timber-clad listed building was the real-life home of protagonist Anne Lister and was featured prominently in the television series.

Further afield…

The Calder Valley train line makes navigating this area surprisingly easy. The likes of Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Mythomroyd, Sowerby Bridge and Halifax can all be reached directly from Leeds and Bradford (both of which connect to London on the East Coast mainline).

If arriving in Bradford be sure to stop by the Industrial Museum, which explores West Riding’s role in the Industrial Revolution. Leeds meanwhile, has plenty of events to celebrate its 2023 City of Culture title. In terms of places to stay, the Dakota Leeds is the plushest option, or there are plenty of cosy Airbnb options in Hebden Bridge.

In between the two cities (and also accessible via the Calder Valley Line) is Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, an old textile mill transformed into a community, art and culture hub that highlights why West Yorkshire, and indeed the characters of Happy Valley, remains so engaging. Despite their struggles, the resilience to rebuild might be unmatched.

Episode four of Happy Valley series three airs tonight at 9pm on BBC One.

Have you visited any Happy Valley filming locations in Yorkshire? Please share your experiences in the comments below