Living in the Happy Valley


Alan Dearling

I’ve been living in the Upper Calderdale Valley for about five years. My home is in Todmorden which lies at the cross-ways, where two valleys join into one. The long valley runs across eastwards following the River Calder and the canal running towards Halifax and Sowerby Bridge via Hebden Bridge and Luddendenfoot. The other two Upper Calder Valleys continue like two out-stretched arms towards Rochdale via Walsden and Littleborough, and on towards Burnley via Cornholme and Portsmouth.

These are the real life ‘Happy Valleys’ which have been viewed in the BBC TV series. Valleys occupied by old Mill towns and villages, the Rochdale Canal, rivers, reservoirs and the Pennines. Now the towns are cultural and social melting pots. Tourism, gentrification, nestling alongside economic and social deprivation. The reality of the Happy Valleys is much more complex, most of the time much less violent and polarised than the tower blocks, drugs, car chases and blood and guts characterised in the three series of ‘Happy Valley’ from the BBC.  

In fact, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Heptonstall and Halifax are cultural and music hubs. The Trades Club in Hebden hosts many major music events, likewise, the Golden Lion in Tod. ‘Kindness’ is the motto of Tod. Many bars and pubs have signs boldly proclaiming: ‘Stand by your Trans!’ Environmental actions and bio-diversity are loudly championed, but so are UFO sightings, and the waft of ‘herb’ that drifts up and down the Valleys in all directions. Crystals, bottle shops, micro pubs, charcuteries, vinyl record stalls and the famed outdoor and indoor markets. These rub shoulders with graffiti, smashed windows and young guys in hoodies driving dangerously on pavements and roads on illegal souped-up electric bikes.

Alongside that is the isolated splendour of Pennine ‘Tops’ – these are the rugged moors that have been part of many histories. They have also provided the visual backdrop for many scenes in the ‘Happy Valley’ TV series and helped make it a global phenomenon.

Obviously the three TV series, with 18 episodes, have become so popular because of the quality and ‘authenticity’ of Sally Wainright’s scripts. They engage viewers in the personal lives of Sergeant Catherine Cawood, her sister, Clare, a recovering heroin-addict and alcoholic and Catherine’s grandson, Ryan. Then there’s the bleak ‘back-story’ of the suicide of Catherine’s daughter, Rebecca, Ryan’s mum. But the leering, smiling malevolence of the murderer and sex offender Tommy Lee Royce, played by James Norton is a deeply unsettling protagonist. The ‘Happy Valley’ series has provided a veritable masterclass in acting from the stars including Sarah Lancashire and James Norton.

Both series one and two won the BAFTAs for drama series and writing, while Sarah Lancashire won the leading actress prize for the second series. The third series recently aired in January and February 2023 will in all likelihood ‘eclipse’ the success of the first two series shows which were shown on the BBC in 2014 and 2016

‘Happy Valley’ is a mix of fiction. It is set in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, but was filmed in many locations across the north of England. The show’s creator Sally Wainwright was born in Huddersfield and raised in Sowerby Bridge in Calderdale – both used for locations in the three series. And even HMP Wakefield prison.

In life, as in the fictional TV series, two towers loom high above casting giant shadows over Happy Valley. Here’s what is says about them in Wikipedia.

Near Kings Cross, Halifax: Wainhouse Tower, designed by the architect Isaac Booth, was originally designed as a chimney to serve the local dye works owned by John Edward Wainhouse, to satisfy the Smoke Abatement Act of 1870. Wainhouse was a keen advocate of smoke prevention and decided that a high chimney on the top of the hill would be beneficial for the townspeople. A much simpler chimney would have satisfied the requirements of the law, but with an interest in architecture Wainhouse insisted that it should be an object of beauty. It was erected in four years and completed on 9 September 1875, at a total cost of £14,000. It is the tallest structure in Calderdale and the tallest folly in the world.”

Stoodley Pike: The monument replaced an earlier structure, started in 1814 and commemorating the defeat of Napoleon and the surrender of Paris. It was completed in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo (Napoleonic Wars), but collapsed in 1854 after an earlier lightning strike, and decades of weathering. Its replacement was therefore built slightly further from the edge of the hill. During repair work in 1889 a lightning conductor was added, and although the tower has since been struck by lightning on numerous occasions, no notable structural damage is evident. There is evidence to suggest that some sort of structure existed on the site even before the earlier structure was built. The monument is approximately 2 miles south west of Hebden Bridge and approximately 2.5 miles east of Todmorden town centre.”

‘Happy Valley’ locations include:

  • Various sites in Hebden Bridge including the railway station, Crown Street, and the Nisa convenience store, particularly Catherine’s house, filmed at Cleveland Place/Hanginroyd Lane. The NISA shop is the location for Neil’s shop and the flat where Clare and Neil live is close by Catherine’s fictional home.
  • Sowerby Bridge police station and The Moorings.
  • West View Park and Old Halifax swimming pool.
  • Fenton Street, Kings Cross.
  • Heath Hill Road, Mount Tabor and Cold Edge Road /Withens Road in Wainstalls on the (Pennine) Tops.
  • The railway viaduct in Todmorden.
  • Tower block, Tuel Lane, Sowerby Bridge.
  • Rochdale Canal.
  • Heptonstall is the site of the fictional grave of Rebecca Cawood.
  • Hebden Bridge railway station for trains to Leeds.

For the locals in the Calderdale Valleys, the almost daily spectre of film and TV crews is a double-edged sword. It brings many visitors to the area seeking out the locations of their favourite TV programmes and books. But the actual filming has been more than a minor inconvenience for many. Residents have had belongings and their milk stolen from doorsteps, even a stone Buddha from the doorstep of the house opposite Catherine’s home. They’ve been prevented from parking and unloading shopping into their own homes, in many cases paid to go and stay in hotels whilst filming took place. And there’s the constant stream of inquisitive tourists. Life can become one that is trapped in a goldfish bowl. That is set to continue and expand. In fact there are now organised (four star hotel) tours organised to travel in comfort around the ‘Happy Valley’ TV series locations. The ‘Yorkshire Post’ reported that the final episode of the show’s third series was watched by 7.5million viewers. Adding that, “Calderdale councillor Jane Scullion said: ‘We’ve gone from five productions being filmed in 2016, to a massive 27 in 2022’.”

Lucy Mangan, in ‘The Guardian’, called the final episode, “…brutal, tender, funny, compelling and heartbreaking.”

The on-line ‘Visit Calderdale’ site tells us: “Calderdale will also soon be on your TV in ‘The Gallows Pole’, a six part adaptation of Ben Myer’s book  of the same name telling the story of the infamous Cragg Vale Coiners and Marvel Cinematic Universe series ‘Secret Invasion’, starring Samuel L. Jackson.”  ‘Gallows Pole’ looks set to become another major BBC series having been directed by the renowned film director, Shane Meadows (‘This is England’). It’s likely to be as violent, poignant and engaging as ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Happy Valley’. Watch out for it.

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