Introducing Northern England

by frankbeswick

The North of England is a place with its own distinct identity that is sometimes overlooked by non-British and is often stereotyped.

There were once six northern counties of England, though the boundaries have been changed over time and the number changed. These are Cumberland and Westmoreland, now united as Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire, England's largest county, Durham and Northumberland. They form the successor of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, which began in the North East and spread westwards in 626-7. The north east was always a lively place where significant events in British history have occurred, but the north west, while at first less historically significant than the north east, gave birth to the industrial revolution. Manchester [in the North West] is now deemed England's second city, and is home to England's most successful football club, Manchester United.

Image above shows Stickle Tarn in Cumbria.

The Northern Identity

Some years ago I bought a series of four videos: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.The one that I watched only once and in irritation never again was England. What bothered me was the way in which the content was skewed to London, with masses on the monarchy, while the rest of the country was under-represented.Sad, because the videos of Scotland, Wales and Ireland were all well done! OK, London is the capital and the region around it contains a quarter of England's population, but three quarters are elsewhere and there is life outside the capital. Sadly, too many non-British ignore the parts of England outside London.

I am from the North West. We in Greater Manchester are at the southern end of the North of England, though recently people have been increasingly counting the midland county of Cheshire in the north west as well. This is probably in line with history, as Cheshire and Lancashire were once one county until early Norman times, before they were divided.   

The north has a strong sense of its own distinct identity, another one in this isle of ancient identities. It is English, but distinct from southern English, but also an identity distinct from Scots north of the border. Yet  the North of England is divided by the Pennine hills, with Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham on the east and Cumbria and Lancashire on the western side. The two sides have strong identities. Several hundred years ago the dukes of Lancaster and York fought the Wars of the Roses and the two counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire spilled much blood. The rivalry now is cricket, with Yorkshire currently doing better than Lancashire, which has more and better football teams.The north east has an area far exceeding the north west, which is a relatively narrow stretch of land between the Pennines and the Irish Sea.  As you would expect, the north west has strong ties with Ireland, for many Irish have over the centuries settled there [including my kinsfolk.] 

Cumbria is the location of the Lake District, one of England's national parks famed for its beauty, but  there are two national parks in the north east, as you would expect from the fact that the North East is by far the larger of the two areas.

The North West

The southern boundary of the North West once ran along the Mersey, but Manchester spread southwards across the Mersey and as I said, many now think of Cheshire as North West. While England has no official  second city, many people agree that unofficially Manchester is it. Recently the government has tried to stem the overheating of the economy of London, which has placed enormous pressures on housing and services in the South East by empowering Manchester as part of its strategy to develop a northern powerhouse. Other cities are expected to join in the movement. The only condition is that these cities elect their own mayor. We have mayors already, but they are merely symbolic, but now we are pushing for mayors with power. 

Manchester, in South East Lancashire, is the social hub of the North West, and is the place where many people go for entertainment. It is famous for its night clubs and restaurants. The ex-United and City footballer who claimed on his native Argentine television that Manchester had only two restaurants really meant that there were only two that he liked, and this was grossly unfair. The city  has museums. Besides the museum at the university of Manchester, at which I studied, there is the museum of  science and industry, which includes the Aerospace museum, and some smaller museums.   Manchester United and Manchester City are the two largest clubs in a football loving conurbation, but there are others with their own great traditions, such as Bolton Wanderers. There is also the Whitworth Art Gallery.

At the Western end of South Lancashire there is Merseyside, at the centre of which is Liverpool. It is famed as the home of the Beatles and some other musicians. The city went through a bad patch economically, but there is currently much effort being made to drive it forward and it is a city making progress, for it shares in the dynamism of South Lancashire.  It has two  famous football clubs, Liverpool and Everton. 

As you proceed further north you pass the resort town of Blackpool, which is one of several small towns in central Lancashire. It is a town known for its annual illuminations, which take place in Autumn. Many people take a  day trip there. North from there you reach Morecambe and Lancaster. The word morecambe in old Cumbric [a Celtic tongue once spoken here], means Big Bay. It is a large sandy bay. Enjoy the view  but abide by the warning signs. The sands are dangerous, and a few years ago some illegal Chinese immigrants employed as cockle pickers were drowned when caught by the fast incoming tide.  

Further north  you come to the Cumbria, one of England's most beautiful counties, where we find the Lake District, a region where there are beautiful lakes surrounded by mountains. It is the place where the Lakeland poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge worked, and you can still visit Wordsworth;s cottage in Grasmere, a beautiful village. 

Cast Iron Bridge at Salford Quays, a development in the greater Manchester conurbation
Cast Iron Bridge at Salford Quays, a ...

The North East:Yorkshire

The largest county in England, Yorkshire, makes up the bulk of the North East. In the reforms of 1835 it was deemed too large to be practical, so it was divided into three by resurrecting an ancient Saxon division into the three ridings: North, West and East Ridings. Yorkshire has several industrial towns with a long heritage of industry, mining, but it is also great farming  territory. The slopes of the Pennines are great sheep country, but the lowlands of the county are rich farmland.The large tracts of moorland are great walking territory.

Many visitors head for York, a city with a very ancient history. It was founded by the Romans as Eboracum, the base of the lost ninth legion, which was replaced by the sixth legion. Later it was to  become a significant capital of the kingdom of Deira, the kingdom of the Angles. In its long history it has been ruled by the Vikings, when it was known as Jorvik, and there is a very popular Viking centre where the cultural contribution of the Norse is celebrated. There is also a very well-stocked museum. But the central attraction of York is the Minster, seat of the archbishop of York, who is second in rank to the archbishop of Canterbury. This mighty cathedral has a masses of ancient stained glass windows and has a crypt containing Roman remains, which is well worth seeing. 

The county has two national parks: the Yorkshire Dales, which are in the Pennine Hills, and the North York Moors, which are a hilly area on the east coast. The East coast is renowned for its resorts. You will find Whitby, location of the historic Synod of Whitby, where the divisions  between the Celtic and Roman churches were resolved. You will also have seen the castle at Whitby in Dracula films, as Bram Stoker set some of the action in his stories there. 


The North East: Northumberland and Durham.

The final two counties are to be found north of Yorkshire. Durham, whose county town is also called Durham, is home to a prestigious university and an impressive Cathedral. The county has fertile rural landscapes, but like Yorkshire has an industrial past. Durham is worth a visit if you like the cultural treasures of the cathedral. County Durham was the home of St Bede, whose work,  The  Ecclesiastical History of the English People was a seminal work that gave the English a unity that was essential in forging their national identity in Anglo-Saxon times. 

Northumberland is England's least populated county, a land of wide moors and great vistas stretching up to the Scottish border. Hadrian's wall runs through the county, which stretches north of the wall in places, and there are excavated Roman forts to see. But Northumbria in Anglo-Saxon times was a vibrant kingdom and  a land of religious scholarship. However, in the Middle Ages it was partly depopulated by Norman revenge on Northumbrian rebels and the subsequent Scottish raids  by Scots taking advantage of their neighbour's weakness. 

The north of the county has great beaches, and as befits an area with a warlike history there are historic castles. One spectacular castle is Bamburgh, which tops a rocky crag and is the home of a fascinating museum. Off the coast are several islands. One is Holy Island, accessible by causeway [care needed please.] It was the location from which Irish monks from Iona spread to convert Northern England to Christianity.Raided several times by the Vikings it was always rebuilt until England's greatest vandal, Henry the Eighth, destroyed the monasteries. The site is preserved as a heritage site. Off the coast are the smaller Farne Islands, from whose lighthouse the heroine Grace Darling. daughter of a lighthouse keeper on the Farnes, rowed out in a storm to rescue shipwrecked sailors. You can visit the Farnes by boat, but must take care to respect the wildlife, as they are a bird sanctuary. 

York minster at night
York minster at night
Stephen Gibson


Following the Scottish elections, which returned a nationalist government, some disillusioned Northern English started a petition to ask Scotland to go independent and take Northern England with it, so tired were they of control by the metropolitan southern elite in London. While this is somewhat tongue in cheek and is not going to happen, there are issues serious enough to be considered. The North of England feels a need to be taken seriously by the government. In the 1980s when the north was in recession but the south was not, southern Conservative members of parliament were denying that there was a recession, and the northerners said grimly that it is only a recession when it hits London. The infamous Mrs Thatcher cared only for Conservative voters and so did little or nothing for Northern England, only helping Liverpool when riots broke out.  

Whatever the future, I would like non-British readers of this article to remember that there is an England beyond London and if visiting England be  prepared to come and have a look at the North. Don't ignore London, but remember that England is bigger than its capital city. I hope that the necessarily brief snapshot of the North that I have given you will whet your appetites to find out more about my much loved, native North of England.

Updated: 05/18/2015, frankbeswick
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Veronica on 07/14/2015

The North of England is so much more worth a visit than the London area in terms of natural beauty and history. The London area of course has all the pomp and royalty which brings people to Britain but leave London and that's where the real England is.

A very good article.

Mira on 07/14/2015

I loved your presentation. I am interested to learn more about the UK and Ireland, and look forward to visiting these lands again in the near future.

frankbeswick on 07/14/2015

Thank you.

KajaMel on 07/13/2015

Thanks for sharing. I always love to learn about other lands and places.

blackspanielgallery on 07/02/2015

A nice treatment from someone hho actually knows is always worth reading. Well done.

AngelaJohnson on 05/21/2015

It's interesting to learn about another country from someone who actually lives there, rather than from a tourist bureau.

frankbeswick on 05/19/2015

One important point about the British Isles is that it is so varied, there are . You can see so much history in the landscape

sheilamarie on 05/19/2015

I'd love to explore all of the British Isles more. When I think of England, I am more inclined to think outside the London box. Love the teas you've mentioned by the way. We get the Yorkshire one here, too.

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