Happy Valley – but gloomy next door: How UK's cheeriest district borders second most miserable

There is a joke told by the comic Tony Vino about the upmarket Lancashire town of Clitheroe, where he runs a regular stand-up night. “I tell comedians coming here it’s the kind of place where the audience would never do anything so impolite as to heckle,” he says. “But, if you’re bad, they might throw quinoa at you.” In some ways, he adds, this little knot of 15,000 people is a typical northern town. “Everyone’s friendly, everyone talks to each other and gossips,” he says. “But instead of doing it over the garden fence, they do it over macchiatos and avocado on toast.”

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The joke, however, may be on Vino. The Ribble Valley – of which Clitheroe is the beating heart – has been officially anointed as the happiest place in the UK by the Office for National Statistics. But in a bizarre turn of events, the area next door – South Ribble, where Vino himself is from – finished second bottom of the list of more than 400 local authority districts, making it the unhappiest place in the country, bar one.

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson shake hands during a news conference after agreeing on a Brexit deal, in Brussels

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50/50 28 September 2019

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1/50 16 November 2019

Ulster’s Rob Lyttle dives over to score a try during the Pool Three match of the Heineken Champions Cup at the Recreation Ground, Bath PA

2/50 15 November 2019

Brazilian indigenous leader, Kreta Kaingang from the Kaingang People, holds a petition letter with over 200,000 signatures asking the UK government to suspend trade talks with Brazil until the Amazon and its people are protected, as he poses outside 10 Downing Street

AFP via Getty

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PA

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Steffan Williams/PA

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement to announce the general election at Downing Street in London, Britain

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Police and recovery workers remove a damaged bus from the scene of a crash in Sevenoaks Road, south-east London. A man has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving after a person died and 15 others were injured

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Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn gestures as launches the party’s election campaign in south London. Britain will go to the polls on December 12 AFP via Getty

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PA

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PA

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England fans celebrate after their side beat New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semi-final match in Japan. Eddie Jones’s side won 19-7 PA

23/50 25 October 2019

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Police said they believed the lorry had come from Bulgaria and entered the UK at Holyhead, in Wales, on Saturday. Essex Police said it had launched a murder investigation after its officers were called to Waterglade Industrial Park, in Grays, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. A 25-year-old-man from Northern Ireland has been arrested on suspicion of murder

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PA

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32/50 16 October 2019

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35/50 13 October 2019

Great Britain’s Joe Fraser competes on Parallel Bars during the World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

He claimed GB’s second gold with his victory. The 20-year-old from Birmingham nailed his routine to score 15.0 then watched as a series of rivals failed to live up to his total Getty

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St Helens players celebrate with the trophy after they won the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in Manchester.

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Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe jailed in Tehran since 2016, holds his daughter Gabriella during a news conference in London. Their five-year-old daughter has arrived back in Britain, after making the “bittersweet” decision to bring her home

AFP/Getty

38/50 10 October 2019

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Thornton Manor. Their meeting focused on further Brexit proposals EPA/Noel Mullen

39/50 9 October 2019

Wales survived an almighty scare against Fiji to secure quarter-final spot at the rugby world cup.

Warren Gatland’s side recovered from a 10-0 deficit thanks to a hat-trick from Josh Adams AFP/Getty

40/50 8 October 2019

Protesters dubbed the Red Rebels at Millbank at the junction with Great College Street, during an Extinction Rebellion protest in Westminster PA

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Final preparations are made in front of a reproduction of Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’, ahead of the opening of for the ‘Michelangelo: A Different View’ exhibition at Hull Minister

PA

42/50 6 October 2019

A car drives through a flooded street in Whitley Bay in Northumberland PA

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PA

45/50 3 October 2019

Police stands in front of the Treasury building during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London Reuters

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PA

Somehow, it seems, at an invisible border on the A59 – the nondescript road which connects the two – Lancastrians shift from being on top of the world to having, as they say in these parts, a right cob on. “Really?” laughs Vino at this. “It doesn’t surprise me, actually. I love Leyland [the biggest town in South Ribble] but it’s pretty miserable.

I ran a comedy night there for a while too. Had to close it in the end. No one ever laughed.”

Whatever the cause of these two opposing outlooks on life, it is not, I can confirm, the weather. I’m travelling between the two places, firstly, to ask Ribble Valley residents what’s the secret to happiness? And, secondly, to enquire of South Ribble-ites: why so glum, lads?

Perhaps, between the two, there will be wider conclusions to extrapolate about how we can all improve our own mental wellbeing. Or, possibly, we’ll just discover that, in fact, any government that sets itself the task of quantifying something as subjective, hard to define and momentarily changeable as individual happiness will find doing so as challenging as securing it. Either way, as winter approaches, it’s brass monkeys in both districts.

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“When I first moved to Clitheroe, I got told it’s the best place in the world, apart from one thing: the rain, the wind and the cold,” says Andy Froud, vicar of the town’s grade II-listed St Mary Magdalene Church. “I said, ‘But that’s three things’.

They said, ‘That’s as may be, but it’s even worse in winter’.” Tom Pridmore winces as he listens to this. “You don’t need to write that down,” he tells me. He’s a Ribble Valley Borough Council tourism officer, who’s offered to act as an unofficial guide and show me just why people here are so chuffed with their lot.

To that end he takes me to two family-run town centre shops which may very possibly hold the key. One specialises in wine; the other in sausages. “What more do you need?” asks Pridmore. Well, quite.

D Byrne & Co, in King Street, has been here 140 years, run by five generations of the same family. In its labyrinth confines, there are – glory be! – 8,000 bottles of wine to chose from. Cowmans Famous Sausage Shop, in Castle Street, is, by comparison, a relative newcomer: it’s only been trading 40 years.

Behind its counter, there are – glory glory be! – 70 different types of sausages. “People come over from Manchester to buy them,” owner Paul Howard reckons. What?

Just to buy sausages, I ask? He shrugs. “They’re nice sausages.”  Fear not, southerners: you can order them online and have them delivered (next day) to your door.

What a world. What a town!

River Ribble (Ribble Valley Borough Council)

Howard, himself, grew up here. “You tend to find not many people leave,” the 40-year-old says. “It’s a lovely community. Friendly, always something going on, lots of places to eat, nice walking in the hills.

Good links to Manchester.” The affluence of the place almost certainly helps, of course. Historically, the Ribble Valley – home to about 60,000 people – is where those made rich on South Lancashire’s textile industry moved for breathable air and green space: the mill towns of Burnley and Nelson are both just over Pendle Hill, while Blackburn and Preston are similarly close.

Earnings here, today, are above the national average; schools are excellent; and crime rates are lower than across the rest of Lancashire. There is much natural beauty – the Forest of Bowland covers a vast swath of the borough – and plenty of historic sites, including Clitheroe Castle. There is also a booming gastro scene and burgeoning nightlife.

“When I first started going out in Clitheroe, Friday nights were like the wild west,” says James Warburton, a local-lad-done-good who owns seven restaurants across the valley along with Holmes Mill, a hotel, beer hall and cinema complex converted from a series of Victorian textile buildings. “It was fun back then, but it was… boisterous.” Since he founded his first bar in 1997 – the Emporium, still going strong, in Moor Lane – he says the change has been noticeable. “Because there’s a greater choice for people – it’s no longer all just John Smith pubs – we’re seeing a nighttime economy that is matching the daytime one, and that is a huge thing for people’s quality of life.” For balance, it’s not all good news, he acknowledges.

Affordable housing is limited and school places are tight. “You’re spoilt for choice for a good cup of coffee,” the 54-year-old says. “But not so much when it comes to getting a secondary school place.” Some people, he adds, call the valley – which also includes the villages of Whalley and Longridge – the Cotswolds of the North. “It bloody isn’t though – we have gorgeous countryside but that level of gentrification hasn’t happened. People here are still real.”

The same, unquestionably, could be said of the people of South Ribble – although they are very different districts. On the border between the two sits a vast BAE Systems facility – a sprawling site that employs 3,000 people and acts as a symbol of the shift from the Ribble Valley’s country villages and winding lanes to the sprawling industrial hinterland next door. Leyland, South Ribble’s biggest town, is most famous for its bus and truck manufacturing; while three motorways – the M6, M61 and M65 – run through the borough.

St Ambrose Church in Leyland (iStock)

Nonetheless, people here are outraged to find that the ONS reckons it is the second unhappiest place in the UK – just ahead of Surrey Heath, for what it’s worth.

“How do they even measure something like that anyway?” asks a sceptical Karen Carlin, 48, owner of Peppermint Cottage, a cute little upcycling shop in the central Hough Lane. It’s a good question. As part of an annual survey introduced by David Cameron in 2011 – an apparent bid to show the Tories care about your mental wellbeing – the ONS asks 150,000 randomly selected people across the country about their satisfaction levels, anxieties and feelings of happiness.

For the latter, they question respondents on how happy they felt the previous day on a scale of one to 10. Those answering in the Ribble Valley gave an average of 8.3. Those in South Ribble were at just 7.02.

Since the survey started, the ONS has concluded that crime levels, pollution and housing stock appear to have an impact on general life satisfaction. So too do personal factors such as being in a relationship and having a job. But – who would have thunk it? – specific happiness levels appear to bounce around a bit.

No geographic patterns have really emerged. Despite being a government-funded initiative, the findings do not appear to feed – or have ever fed – into any policy changes. “It doesn’t sound very scientific,” says Carlin’s husband Martin suspiciously. “It doesn’t match what I experience every day here.”

He is well placed to know. As current chair of the Leyland Town Team – an umbrella alliance of independent businesses in the town – he regularly comes across issues, positive and negative, affecting the area. Anything exercising or exciting people at the moment? “We have the Christmas light switch,” the 52-year-old says. “We’ve got Molly-Mae from Love Island.

How many places can say that?” Tim Underwood, a council spokesperson, is meanwhile keen to point out that, far from being unhappy, the borough – which also includes Bamber Bridge and Longton – won Channel 4’s UK’s Best Places To Livejust two years ago. It scored highly on employment opportunities, affordability, green spaces and accessibility.

Its 18th-century market and award-winning parks came in for special praise. “South Ribble may not be the best-known place in Britain but perhaps it deserves to be,” said host Sarah Beeny at the time. “I’ve been really stuck by how optimistic it is for the future and how happy people are.” Happy!

What – if anything – went wrong in the intervening two years is hard to pin down.

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Crime remains lower than average for this part of Lancashire, unemployment stands at just 3.1 per cent compared to the UK average of 3.9, and deprivation is comparatively mild. South Ribble is ranked as the country’s 210th most deprived area out of 317. The high street of Leyland itself, meanwhile, may not have the cafe culture, craft ale bars and specialist sausage shop of Clitheroe but it does have a Wetherspoon pub and a transport museum – and an afternoon in either of them is surely an afternoon well enough spent.

“I can’t think how we’ve come out as unhappy,” says Isobel Pickering, who runs Paces and Laces children’s shoe shop in Towngate. “It’s a lovely place to be. Maybe they just asked people who happened to be having a bad day? Maybe next year we’ll be second happiest.”

It is something Tony Vino picks up on when I call him again after my visit. “I’m the first to say that Leyland is basically a suburb attached to a big Tesco,” he says. “But, really, I love the place. It’s where my family and friends are.

Isn’t that all you need to make you happy anyway?”

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