Why has Hebden Bridge become suicide central?

Author: By Lena Corner

While he was there, Lewis became troubled. “It dawned on me that this was
about the 15th person who had killed themselves, all from Hebden and all
from my childhood, over the past 20 years,” he says. He worked out that
five actually used to live on his old street. First Peter, Lewis’s old
next-door neighbour, stepped in front of a bus. Then Nicky, who lived two
doors down from Emma, hanged himself, as did Bill, one of Lewis’s closest
friends, and finally he heard that Lloyd, who lived opposite, had committed
suicide too.

Standing on his old road, once called Industrial Street, now called Garden
Terrace, he points out each of his old friends’ houses and talks about how
he used to play out in the street with them. It is a steeply sloping road
with terraced housing on one side and views into the valley on the other.
What is striking is how small the road is ? there are just 23 houses on it ?
which makes for a pretty astonishing mortality rate. Emma’s death acted as a
catalyst for Lewis. He told the story to acclaimed documentary film-maker
Nick Broomfield, who immediately agreed to be executive producer. So Lewis
remortgaged his house and set about delving into the dark side of Hebden
Bridge. The resulting film, Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, rather than the
intended 10 minutes, turned into a full-length feature and is showing at the
Sheffield Documentary Film Festival next Saturday. “I ended up making
the film I never wanted to make,” he says. “It’s a can of worms.
If I’d known what it would involve, I would definitely have backed out.”

Hebden Bridge is best known as a picture-postcard market town nestled in the
hills close to the Pennine Way, famous for its bohemian tendencies and
lively alternative community. It lies in the Calder Valley, halfway between
Burnley and Bradford, just a few miles from Haworth, where the Brontë
sisters wrote their famous works. It is a stunning setting. The town itself
is cut from coarse millstone grit and lies deep in a valley, with hills
towering above on all sides. The town was once famous for its booming
textiles industry but that bottomed out in the 1960s, leaving it bankrupt,
desolate and largely abandoned. There was talk of bulldozing the place to
the ground, but it was spared, thanks to the resistance of a few remaining
locals and the arrival of a new population ? a group of hippies ? who got
wind of all the empty buildings and started moving in.

Lewis, now 42, remembers it well: “There were derelict houses everywhere.
A quarter of our street was abandoned, so it got demolished. We were gutted,
as that was our play area. At that time the town was totally blackened from
the soot produced by the textile mills. It was satanic. Then, in the early
1970s, just after the hippies started arriving, there was an effort to tidy
it up and turn it into a tourist town. So the authorities came and
sandblasted it from end to end.” ‘

It was the start of a process that has seen Hebden Bridge regenerated and
repackaged as a tourist hotspot and liberal, middle-class destination. The
hippie migration continued apace, perpetuated by word of mouth and media
stories about drug use, which confirmed its reputation as a counterculture
paradise. Then, in the 1980s, young professionals who worked in Leeds and
Manchester, just a 45-minute commute away, started moving in. The old
textile mills and vacant barns were converted into luxury apartments to
accommodate them and house prices spiralled. Now, it’s home to 5,000 in the
valley and another 5,000 on the surrounding hills. It soon became known as “the
Hampstead of Yorkshire” and the sign at the edge of town saying “Welcome
to Hebden Bridge” was famously defaced to read “Welcome to the
yuppie centre of the North”.

But, as Lewis discovered, not everyone got caught up in the gentrification.
Just after he started filming in 2007, there was another self-inflicted
death: 25-year old Sam Jones was found dead in the street, near the bottom
of Lewis’s old road. He had been drinking and taking drugs. His mother
Michelle Jones, 48, who has four other children, has lived in Hebden Bridge
all her life. “Sam used to drink quite a lot and take cocaine but he
had stopped for about 10 weeks,” she says. “He’d had a row with
his girlfriend and I think he thought he could drink and take the same
amounts he did before.

“I carry a lot of guilt because I was so wrapped up in my other son Liam,
who was a heroin addict at the time, that I felt I didn’t notice Sam’s
problem. I think if I’d known how it was going to turn out here, I’d have
got my children and run.”

Jones says that 30 years ago a local policeman warned her of the direction in
which Hebden Bridge was heading. “He said it was a time bomb waiting to
go off. When the hippies came, they brought dope and it was quite normal to
them to smoke it openly in front of the children. A lot of people I talk to
say it’s like that everywhere, but considering the size of Hebden, I think
we have a real problem with the amount of drugs we’ve got here. When Liam
lived in Newcastle he used to say you could get more of what you wanted in
Hebden than you could there.”

Shortly after Sam’s death there was another: 26-year old Scott Hallam died
after overdosing on methadone. “It made me angry,” says Lewis, “because
no one else seemed to be joining the dots and seeing there is a real problem
here. It bothered me that the people of Hebden will have a candlelight vigil
for Tibet or Palestine, but when a 25-year-old father of two dies in the
street it hardly makes the local paper.”

When Lewis did some research into suicide rates, he discovered some disturbing
results: “I found that among the people I grew up with, the rate was
dozens of times the national average. I was dismayed and confused. After
all, Hebden Bridge isn’t a long-deprived slum; it’s a beautiful, quirky
little town known for its creative and tolerant community.”

The issue had been raised before, in an article in the Yorkshire Post in 2001.
Dr Bob Heys, a former hospital consultant and member of the Calderdale
Community Health Council, told the newspaper that he had been trying to find
out for the past seven years why Calder Valley’s suicide rate was so
abnormally high. “The grim statistics in Calderdale and Kirklees Health
Authority’s annual report for 2000 show that 10.8 per 100,000 committed
suicide in Calderdale compared with 5.2 in North Kirklees and 6.8 in England
and Wales,” reads the piece. Dr Heys asked for an investigation and at
the time, Dr Graham Wardman, Calderdale and Kirklees Health Authority’s
director of public health, promised to reduce the suicide rate by at least
one-fifth by 2010.

Nearly 10 years after he requested the investigation, I ask Dr Heys what has
happened. “We were promised steps were being taken to deal with it but
didn’t hear anything,” he says. He pulls out the annual report from
2003-04 and discovers that the suicide figures are no longer even
registered. Instead it just says, “the suicide rate is still
significantly higher than the England rate”. “They tend to be
reluctant to publish things that don’t reflect favourably on them,” say
Dr Heys. “I have a suspicion it’s because things haven’t improved.”

Dr Wardman did provide me with figures which state that the Calderdale
five-year mortality rate (2003-2007) is 10.55 per 100,000. “It’s very
disappointing,” says Dr Heys, “that there has been so little
improvement.”

The other thing that shocked Lewis during the making of the film was how
desensitised people had become. Lewis found out about the death of Bill, one
of his old best friends, when it was casually dropped into conversation over
a game of pool. “There is a real sense of fatalism,” says Lewis. “Everyone
thinks it’s normal to have one person after another dying. One lad said to
me, ‘It just seems round here you either kill yourself or you die anyway.'”

Much of Lewis’s film is set around the park where his old friends hang out.
Cass, who has known Lewis since infant school, is often fondly likened to
Shameless’s Frank Gallagher. “I’m wanting to get away as soon as I can
because people are saying to me you’re going to be the next one,” says
Cass in the film. “I’m like, ‘No I’m not. I’m going to get away.'”

Lewis realised many of the locals were turning to drink because they were
grieving. “I could see the response from Sam’s peers was to drink
themselves through the grief. What 20 years ago was a handful of
ne’er-do-well youths drinking cider and smoking dope has become a nightmare
of hard drink, harder drugs and random deaths afflicting all generations.”

Lewis takes me through the park and points out Hope Street, which locals
laughingly note was once home not only to the police station but also the
job centre and the DSS too. There’s no job centre in Hebden Bridge any more,
it closed down years ago. (The unemployment rate is 5.2 per cent; the
national rate is 4.2 per cent.) He shows me a few places where you can score
drugs and we go on into the main square, St George’s, which is bustling with
tourists. A man in red leggings hands me a leaflet calling for musicians and
dancers to take part in his upcoming show. In the Shoulder of Mutton pub on
the corner we find Michael “Silly” Silcock, who features in
Lewis’s film. Silly was in the Foreign Legion, and has just completed a
21-day detox in Bradford (“I was doing 12 cans of Special Brew a day,
followed by brandies in the pub”). His brother committed suicide, “even
though he was living the perfect life in Sweden. You’d be hard-pushed to
meet anyone round here who doesn’t know someone who has died. There’s been
at least half a dozen in the past five years.” He thinks it’s because
of poverty and unemployment. “There’s no industry left here ? it’s all
just shops and we are being priced out of our homes. I try not to think
about it.”

He’s right: the divisions in the town are obvious. The hippie community
brought with it pioneering ideas ? its strong stance on environmental
issues, for example, and, like the Devon town of Modbury, Hebden Bridge has
banned plastic bags. It was home to Yorkshire’s first organic food shop and
its tolerant attitude meant that by 2004 it was reported to have the highest
number of lesbians per capita than anywhere in the UK. Hebden also became
the first place in the country to launch a community website, in 1995. Which
is all well and good, but probably not much use if you’re unemployed and
living on the breadline.

Lewis has other theories about what is happening in Hebden. He tells me about
a syndrome called “valley bottom fever”, which is well known among
locals. “It’s the sudden, urgent need to get out of the valley and get
on to the top as you start to feel claustrophobic,” he says. “I do
think if you start to feel oppressed in this valley it’s total. It’s very
steep and when the clouds come down on top of the valley it’s like a lid ?
you feel as if you are living in a coffin.”

He also believes the surrounding wall of hills affects people’s sense of their
horizons. “In both an emotional and a literal sense. As a kid you feel
you’re living on an island; you don’t realise there are other towns just a
few miles away, because your whole world has these huge walls around it.”

Is that really enough to cause all this death? “It’s complicated,”
says Lewis. “The analogy I use is when you have an awful accident ? a
train or plane crash or something ? that is caused by two or three different
elements that go wrong at the same time. In Hebden those elements start with
drugs ? we were introduced to drugs really early on. The hippies were doing
really good things but some just wanted a life without rules and a lethal
hedonism took hold of a sizable section of the community. Then there’s the
unemployment, the gentrification and the psychological impact of living deep
in a valley. Each element on its own wouldn’t necessarily be damaging but
their confluence has made Hebden what it is today.”

Academic research backs Lewis’s theory. Dr Darren Smith, a reader of geography
at the University of Brighton, has

been researching Hebden Bridge for 15 years. “One key finding is the
distinction in Hebden Bridge between the sunny side and the dark side,”
he says. “The topography of the valley means there is a south-facing
slope and a north-facing slope. The sunny side is where gentrifiers reside
and the dark side, which doesn’t get much sunlight, is where the indigenous
working class have been displaced and marginalised.

“I’ve been critical of the idea of regenerating towns and cities through
gentrification. We need to be careful of it in terms of thinking about who
is left behind. There is a downside, and you can see that on the dark side
of Hebden Bridge. It’s taken for granted that lower-income populations get
displaced and move out, but perhaps that’s not always the case. Perhaps
there are pockets where the indigenous population cling on to the place.
Very little is known about the experiences of these people and Lewis’s film
sheds light on them. I think it warrants more academic research.”

Lewis’s story has echoes of what happened in Bridgend in south Wales, which
hit the headlines two years ago when almost 20 suicides took place there in
the space of 12 months. By coincidence, Lewis’s mother now resides in the
town, and he has spent a lot of time there trying to work out why Bridgend
is newsworthy and Hebden Bridge is not. “I’ve done the maths,” he
says. “If you scale up the population of Hebden to Bridgend, which has
a population of over 30,000, the suicide rate is comparable. The difference
is they are not the same demographic. In Bridgend they’re all aged 16 to 27
and it happened over a very short period. In Hebden it happened over a
longer period of time, so it’s not so definable.”

Lewis takes me to the graveyard at Heptonstall, perched on top of Hell Hole
Rocks, overlooking the valley. There’s Sam Jones’ fresh grave at the front,
lovingly spilling over with flowers. He points out the simple wooden cross
that marks Nicky’s grave and tells me that as soon as her mother can bear to
part with them, Emma’s ashes are due to be scattered up here too. They’re in
good company ? Sylvia Plath is buried up here. “It’s just not
normal that people are dying like this,” says Lewis. “I think
there is a duty to recognise there is a problem here. The reason I made this
film is not because I’m down on the place but because I love it. It’s like
Jekyll and Hyde. When the sun is out it’s extraordinarily beautiful ? but
it’s also very, very troubled.”

‘Shed Your Tears and Walk Away’ is showing at 10.20pm on 7 November at
Showroom Four, Paternoster Row, Sheffield (www.sheffdocfest.com). To contact
the Samaritans, call 08457 90 90 90 or visit www.samaritans.org

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