Like many southerners, I am rather prejudiced in my perception of the north of England, which I have always tended to assume resembled a scene from one of L.S. Lowry’s darker works. But after a week long visit to the north-east, which took M and me to such traditional industrial centres as Washington, Stockton-on-Tees and Newcastle, I’m happy to say that I was woefully out-of-date.
Yes I know Lowry was from Manchester, on the other side of the country, but can only assume that the same process of gentrification that has transformed the Tyne-Tees region has been going on over there, too.
Newcastle, which I had never set foot in before, impressed me no end. My biased view had prepared me for a grimy, soulless relic of the industrial age, hemmed in by Parry’s satanic mills and effluence-filled waterways. Instead, I found myself admiring regency-style buildings in a traffic-free city centre, and river views of Norman Foster’s brilliantly transfiguring arched bridge and domed art centre. The city struck me as bustling with pride and purpose.
Washington, a few miles south of the city, is where my paternal grandfather hailed from, before moving down to South London. Anyone who could find Catford an idyllic place to live, as he apparently did, must have come from somewhere pretty grim, or so I had reckoned. But we found the old part of Washington, once a coal-mining town, a place of great charm.
It is true that the suburbs of our northern cities, dominated as they are by high-rises, shopping centres, petrol stations, remain devoid of any civic improvements that may be described as charming, but that is true of cities all over this land, and indeed of cities the world over.
Travelling north from Toon-town to Northumberland, we were again astonished, not by the beauty of the towns but by the vast spread of wilderness that divided them. I have come away firmly of the view that the county is a bucolic gem that rivals the Lake District, and with far fewer people.
All this will no doubt strike north-country folk as naïve or patronising. My excuse, as world-travelled as I am, is that I had never before taken the time to visit the extremities of my own land.
I shall do so again, and soon, bah gum.
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