Why has Hebden Bridge become suicide central?

Once an industrious oasis, Hebden Bridge became a hippie paradise in the 1960s and latterly a middle-class hotspot. So how did it turn into the suicide capital of Yorkshire? The film-maker Jez Lewis returned to his home town – where 15 of his childhood friends have killed themselves in the past 20 years – to find out what went wrong in this troubled bohemian idyll

When Jez Lewis decided to make a film about his home town of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, he planned a simple 10-minute short in which he would interview a few locals and visually capture the changing moods of the valley. But then one of his oldest friends, Emma, who had grown up on his street, died of a heroin overdose at the age of 37, leaving behind two children. Lewis was distraught and travelled from Suffolk, where he now lives, back to Hebden Bridge to attend her funeral.

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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