Thomas W. Hodgkinson

The real Happy Valley

Daily Mail
England, February 2023

In our house, when Happy Valley ended, we looked at each other and said, “What now?” We had been gripped by the brilliant, if shockingly violent, Yorkshire-set cop drama, in which police officers are run down in cold blood, the best-looking people are psychotic murderers, and just about everyone is a recovering alcoholic. Now it was over, we had withdrawal symptoms. 

To get a fix, I make for the beautiful market town of Hebden Bridge, where much of the show was filmed. My visit is nothing like an episode of Happy Valley, I’m glad to say.

No one offers me drugs from an ice-cream van. I am not stabbed in the neck by a prison escapee. When I glance from the bridge at the barges sleeping upon the Rochdale Canal, which runs through the town, I do not spot anyone dousing themselves in petrol and threatening to set themselves on fire. 

When I raise this with local man David Pearce, he laughs and says, “It’s a cop show, isn’t it, so it has to pack in the drama. For the record, I’ve been here two years and I have not bumped into any Eastern European people traffickers, so I don’t think there can be many who live round here. It’s a small town! I’d have met them.” 

I do, however, spot a couple of Happy Valley pilgrims like myself. Outside the terraced home of Catherine Cawood, the toweringly brave police officer played by Sarah Lancashire in the show, I spot a sheepish-looking woman. She isn’t a fan of the show, she explains. “It’s just that I live locally and I want to know where the house is in case anyone asks.”

There have been reports of hordes descending on Hebden Bridge. When I speak to local councillor Sarah Courtney, she says, “We welcome all visitors but please come by public transport.” The lay-out of the town, wedged into the V-shaped valley of the river Calder, keeps it small. Locals don’t want to lose their parking spaces. 

The story seems exaggerated, though. When I pass Catherine’s house again later, there are a couple of people taking photographs, but it’s hardly a horde.

Wealthy visitors are said to have raised prices so that beer now costs £7 a pint. It doesn’t. My pint of Hindmarsh in the Old Gate pub costs £3.90.

When I ask local Scott Judson if he has seen any hordes, he looks me up and down. “I’ve seen a few journalists,” he replies drily.

David, who runs a beautiful B&B with his partner Manya, drives me up to the gorgeous little village of Heptonstall, which overlooks Hebden Bridge. In the cemetery of St Thomas the Apostle Church is the spot where, in the show, Catherine visits the grave of her daughter Becky.

We don’t see any other Happy Valley-ites but we do meet a fan of the poet Sylvia Plath, who is buried here. Her fans are outraged that her husband Ted Hughes, who treated her brutally, arranged for her gravestone to bear his surname too. It says “Sylvia Plath Hughes”. The word “Hughes” is darker than the others, because Plath-ites keep scratching it out, so it has to be reapplied. They also, touchingly, leave tributes of pens, as well as flowers. 

Heptonstall is a great place from which to view the majestic sight that is the town of Hebden Bridge, The wooded valley centres on the handsome terraced houses and former cotton factories, all built in grey-brown millstone grit. The chimneys rise up beside the river like exclamation marks.

As David explains, after the cotton industry collapsed in the 1970s, hippies moved into the derelict factories and saved them from demolition. Those same hippies and their children later opened small independent shops with names like The Book Case, Mooch Cafe Bar, and Broug’s Homeware and Gifts. There is no Tesco or Costa.

In the summer, the Handmade Parade fills the streets with gorgeous animal-shaped lanterns and floats made from bamboo and tissue paper. Happy Valley Pride week is also a big deal. In fact, Hebden Bridge is such a popular destination for lesbians that an expression has sprung up. “Taking the bus to Hebden Bridge” means coming out as a lesbian. Yet as comedian Mark Steel has pointed out, what if you just want to take the bus to Hebden Bridge? In my case, I arrive by train, so the problem doesn’t arise. 

Twenty minutes away, you can visit Howarth, where the Bronte sisters lived. It’s easy to see how the wild surrounding scenery inspired Wuthering Heights. As one local tells me, what drew him back to the area after a few years in London was the changing grandeur of the landscape. “One moment it’s overwhelming, the next it’s so light and uplifting.”

It reminds me of the moment in Happy Valley when the murderous Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) escapes from custody and takes to the hills. After cycling for miles, he stops at a vantage point, and gazes out over the countryside. Despite everything, you feel the sheer joy of his freedom.