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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Andrew Robinson & Damon Wilkinson

'Offcumdens', hummus and valley bottom fever: What it's really like to live in Happy Valley

Matty Jeffreys is sat outside a cafe in Hebden Bridge pointing out the Airbnbs he used to clean. 'There's one up there,' he says pointing up a steep terraced street, 'two over the back of there,' he adds, sweeping his arm around.

The 26-year-old has lived in the town all his life. But, with property prices rising and an increasing number of homes being converted into holiday lets, he says it's getting harder and harder for locals like him to get on the housing ladder.


Matty, who lives with his partner Aoife Coatman, 23, and their three kids in a council house, says they would love to buy their own place some day, but it's unlikely they'll ever be able to afford it.

"There are so many properties that are Airbnbs it makes it really hard to find a place to live," says Matty. "I don't think even five years down the line we could get our own place. It's so expensive I don't think we'll ever be able to afford it."

Hebden Bridge is the picture postcard market town nestled in the Calder Valley, now famous as the setting for critically acclaimed hit BBC drama Happy Valley. As the final series reaches its nail-biting finale tonight (Sunday), more than five million viewers are well and truly hooked on the exploits of Sgt Catherine Cawood, played by Oldham's Sarah Lancashire and evil killer Tommy Lee Royce.

Sarah Lancashire stars as Sgt Catherine Cawood (BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)

The town of 4,500 people first came to prominence for its booming textiles industry. Then when that went bust in the 1960s, an influx of hippies took advantage of cheap rents and gave rise to its second life as a bohemian and lesbian and gay capital of the North.

Now Hebden Bridge is a haven for anarchists, free-thinkers, punks, hippies and socialists. But with its handsome stone terraces, cobbled high street, artisan bakers and spectacular countryside, it's also a tourist hotspot and middle-class commuter town for workers fleeing the big cities of Manchester, Leeds and London.

Those new-comers are known locally as 'blow-ins' or 'offcumdens'. There's even a 'Hebden Bridge offcumdens' Facebook page with almost 3,000 members, set up to 'provide a safe and friendly space where there is no abuse towards perceived 'Offcumdens'.

Retired social worker Christine Drake was born just down the road in Dewsbury and has lived in Hebden Bridge for 10 years. In that time she says she has witnessed huge changes, not all of them for the better.

"I live here and it's not a 'living' town," she said. "It is full of shops that I can't use. I have to go to Todmorden or Halifax."

Christine, a well-known face in the town through her regular pro-Palestinian protests, believes that Hebden Bridge has lost out due to 'gentrification'. "There is no launderette now," she said.

"People have to go on the bus to Mytholmroyd. Not everyone has a washer and a drier. The launderette is now a men's clothes shop.

"When I first moved here it was a living town with all sorts of people and housing for them that was at least a bit affordable. Some people who have lived here their whole life have had to move. That is shameful. The people responsible should be ashamed."

Helen Booth, a stallholder at the second-hand market on Bridge Street car park, also has strong views on the direction the town has taken. She says the town has an 'overspill of middle-class idiots' who have provided an outbreak of 'pretentiousness' which has led her to slowly fall out of love with the place.

"I have been trading here on and off for 20 years, in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. I have seen the customers change," she said.

Two of her friends are 'facing eviction' from their rented homes, she said, as their landlords want to sell their properties to make money. Asked about the class divide, Helen, from Huddersfield, said: "There is snobbery...they can look down their nose at you. I have heard people say (as they pass the stall) 'I have put better stuff in a skip'."

"I think a lot of people support my argument; they don't want it to be an expensive town. They want Hebden how it used to be. The snobs don't want that - they want their posh shops."

A two-bedroom terrace in Hebden will now set you back £150,000, with a family home like Catherine Cawood's going for more than £350,000 and a farmhouse 'on the tops' – the hills – costing £650,000. But, like the UK itself, Hebden also has a very definite gap between rich and poor.

Molly Noler, 25, works in the Calder Community Kindness charity shop, which among other things helps organise food parcels and warm banks for the town's needy. "There is a lot of poverty here, especially on the outskirts," says Molly, who's lived in the town all her life. "And now people need help more than ever.

"We're seeing a lot of people who normally wouldn't want help, but now need it. It's a small town, but there are a lot of isolated people and I think it can go unnoticed."

Sat behind the counter with Molly is 83-year-old Alan Shaw. The former councillor says he bought his home in neighbouring Todmorden 50 years ago for £3,250 and struggles to understand how young people today can afford to get on the housing ladder.

"People living in Todmorden are moving there from Manchester, because there is so much difference in prices," says Alan. "It's busier now maybe than it's ever been.

"It used to be all mills in Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, a lot of them are now apartments, but now it's mostly hospitality and shop jobs. A lot of people commute into Manchester and Leeds."

Happy Valley bag guy Tommy Lee Royce (BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)

But, despite the rising house prices, Molly says the 'offcumdens' have only added to life in the town. "There's no tension [between locals and new-comers]," she says. "It's great for businesses and it's really interesting meeting new people from all over the country. "It's a positive thing."

Hebden is well-connected - there's three trains per hour to Manchester and regular buses to nearby towns such as Halifax. But its bleak, wet winters and regular flooding can leave many feeling lonely and low. This local version of seasonal affective disorder even has its own name - 'valley bottom fever'.

That feeling of isolation can spill over into problems with mental health and addiction. In 2009 Jez Lewis returned to his home town to film the documentary Shed Your Tears And Walk Away about the town's high suicide rates after he lost 15 of his friends.

Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright has spoken of the influence the documentary had on her and violence, poverty and addiction have remained key themes throughout all three series. It's been suggested that the liberal attitudes of the hippy generation spilled over into an overly tolerant stance on harder drugs.

But Matty Jeffreys, who is looking for work, having recently left his job at town centre pub, says Hebden only faces the same issues many other towns do. "There are drugs," he said.

"A lot people smoke a bit of weed, but I don't think it's any different to a lot of other places. We get a lot of anti-social behaviour, but it's not as if that just happens in Hebden Bridge, it's just general behaviour everywhere.

"I think what different here is because it's a valley and it's a small town, everyone knows everybody else's business. So if there is a problem everybody gets to know about it - I think that's why it's got that reputation."

Figures show Hebden Royd (which includes Hebden Bridge) had 77 crimes per 1,000 people in 2021 – well under the West Yorkshire rate of 113. So while it doesn't really compare to the crime-ridden 'Wild West Yorkshire' as portrayed in Happy Valley, the popularity of the show is having a knock-on affect for businesses and many locals have loved seeing their town in the spotlight.

Kate Henderson, 45, is one of those who has made a life in Hebden. Her business The Tonic, which sells CBD products, is a stone’s throw from 'Catherine’s house', on Hangingroyd Lane. From their base, a top floor studio in one of the town’s former mills, she has enjoyed a ringside seat for the filming.

"It’s been really good fun," she said. "We felt a part of it and I think the actors liked being here too. We got used to seeing James Norton hanging around or seeing Sarah ­Lancashire pushing her gorgeous elderly dog around in a pram.

"This series has been brilliant, ­everyone's watching it, the acting and writing are amazing. We all know how beautiful this valley is – now everyone else is getting to see it close up too."

Teacher Sue Farmer, 53, has lived on Hangingroyd Lane for 20 years, a couple of doors away from Catherine's place. She says locals have got used to having film crews – and fans – hanging around.

"It's become normal," she says. "At one point there were police cars outside. My daughter woke up and said, 'What’s happening?' We said, 'Don't worry, it's just Happy Valley'.

"We got quite used to seeing the actors around, you get a bit blasé, you’re thinking, ‘'Oh, there goes Sarah ­Lancashire again'."

She adds: "It’s a very friendly street, in the summer we sit outside and have a glass of wine like they do in the show. We get tourists coming along now trying to find the Happy Valley house.

"It's hard to spot because they ­decorate it, then once filming is finished, they redecorate it back again.

"It's lovely really. It's such a brilliant show. Clare [Catherine’s sister] definitely seems like a Hebden Bridge person, you can picture her living here."

Back outside the café, Matty Jeffreys is getting ready to take his kids to feed the ducks at the river which runs through the centre of town. He says that while Hebden has seen many changes over the last few years, at its heart it remains the same.

"There are lots of new shops, kind of touristy shops, and a lot of cafes and restaurants, and there are lots new people here, but it's still a really friendly place. It's still a community, it really is."


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