13 May 2023

In Hebden Bridge,
the ‘Happy Valley’ of
television drama, poets
and spin doctors

The bridge in Hebden Bridge was built ca 1510, replacing a mediaeval timber-built bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During our few days in York this week, we took the train through Leeds to the ‘Happy Valley’ locations and spent some time in Hebden Bridge, a market town in the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, about 65 km west of York.

Hebden Bridge takes its name from a bridge near the confluence of the River Calder and the Hebden Water. Hebden Old Bridge was built ca 1510, replacing a mediaeval timber-built bridge. The bridge was repaired in 1602 and again in 1657, and the parapet was repaired in 1845, and raised in 1890. The eastern arch of the bridge spans the tail-goit of bridge mill, originally the manorial corn-mill of Wadsworth.

The town of Hebden Bridge itself has a small population of about 4,500, although the wider urban are has a population of more than 12,000.

The original settlement was the hilltop village of Heptonstall, where we visited the grave of Sylvia Plath and the twin churches of Saint Thomas the Apostle and Saint Thomas Becket.

Down the hill, Hebden Bridge began as a settlement where the old trading route between Halifax and Burnley dropped into the valley and crossed the River Hebden where the old bridge stands.

The steep valleys and lack of flat land has led to the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ houses known as ‘over and under dwellings’ in Hebden Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Hebden Bridge is close to the Pennine Way and Hardcastle Crags and it is a popular base for walking, climbing and cycling. The Rochdale Canal is a route across the Pennines, and the town is on the Calderdale Way, which connects with the Pennine Way.

The town grew and expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries when steep hills with fast-flowing streams and access to major wool markets made Hebden Bridge an ideal place for water-powered weaving mills. Because of the mills and the clothing factories, Hebden was known at one time as ‘Trouser Town.’

Because of its proximity to cities such as Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, Hebden Bridge became a dormitory town. The town also saw an influx of artists, writers, photographers, musicians, teachers, and ‘typical Guardian readers in the 1970s.

Hebden Bridge Arts Centre and Antique Market on Market Street is in the former Ebenezer Particular Baptist Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Hebden Bridge also has a reputation for its small independent shops, outdoor markets. cafés and tea rooms, pubs, micro pubs and restaurants. Hebden Bridge Arts Centre and Antique Market on Market Street is in a former Baptist chapel.

Ebenezer Particular Baptist Chapel or Meeting House was opened by John Fawcett in 1777. It became the Sunday School for Hope Baptist Chapel in 1858 and when a larger Sunday School was opened there in 1873 it was first leased and later became the offices of the Hebden Bridge Times. The Latin inscription on the sundial reads Quod Petis Umbra Est (‘What thou seekest is a shadow’).

The British Airways flight magazine High Life once named Hebden Bridge as the fourth quirkiest place in the world and it has been described as ‘modern and stylish in an unconventional and stylish way’. One report has even described it as ‘the lesbian capital of the UK.’

The singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran spent his early childhood in Hebden Bridge. This is also the home town of Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, who attended Hebden Bridge Grammar School and who began his career as a journalist with the Hebden Bridge Times. He died earlier this year (23 February 2023).

Hebden Bridge has become a popular place to live, but the steep valleys and a lack of flat land means space is limited. In the past, this led to ‘upstairs-downstairs’ houses known as ‘over and under dwellings.’ These houses were built in terraces with 4-5 storeys. The upper storeys face uphill while the lower ones face downhill with their back wall against the hillside. The lower two storeys would be one house while the upper 2-3 storeys would be another.

The rivers and canals made Hebden Bridge an ideal place for water-powered weaving mills (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The poet laureate Ted Hughes, who was married to Sylvia Plath, was born in neighbouring Mytholmroyd, and his former home at Lumb Bank on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge is run as a creative writing centre by the Arvon Trust. Hughes set his poem ‘Stubbing Wharfe’ in the Stubbing Wharf, an 18th-century inn by the Rochdale Canal.

Hebden Bridge was documented in the film Shed Your Tears And Walk Away (2009), which made controversial claims about the levels of drug and alcohol abuse in the town and the death rate among young people.

The BBC One crime drama series Happy Valley, written by Sally Wainwright and starring Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, was filmed and set in and around the town. The first series was broadcast in 2014, and the last series this year concluded three months ago (5 February 2023).

The title refers to drug use and drug dealers in the area, and local landmarks, such as the graveyard, the canal and the landscapes, provided many of the settings.

The main character in Happy Valley, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), has her home in Hebden Bridge, where she also has her local pub. She frequently visits the grave of her daughter Becky in Saint Thomas churchyard in Heptonstall, in the next row to the grave of Sylvia Plath.

Hebden Bridge provided many of the locations for ‘Happy Valley’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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