In Northern England, a reassessment

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Alnwick Castle was used to film scenes for “Downton Abbey” and two Harry Potter movies.
Alnwick Castle was used to film scenes for “Downton Abbey” and two Harry Potter movies.

It was cold and damp on my first night in Liverpool, a biting wind blowing across the River Mersey while a blanket of light rain covered the city in a deep chill.

Twenty minutes after we'd ordered a taxi, it was still nowhere in sight. There's a football game, someone at the hotel said by way of explanation as we huddled by the door, weighing the discomfort of walking to dinner against the discomfort of arriving extremely late. We settled on an Uber. Thank God for ride-sharing apps.

The next day, when a marketing manager from VisitBritain's Northern England division told me, "It's not grim up north," I practically laughed. Are you sure?

Northern England has an image problem: From the weather to the economy, its reputation is like that first evening in Liverpool, gray and dismal.

Even Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, remembered snickering 10 years ago when he heard that Liverpool was going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008. But, he added, "The North is not what the North was."

What the North was for a long time was the industrial capital of England. Through coal and iron mining, shipbuilding and manufacturing, the North grew powerful on the backs of its industries. When those dried up or moved abroad, the North was left reeling. Today, the North East section has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the region as a whole is fighting for economic growth and prosperity.

The Shambles in York is a historical street once home to the city’s butcher shops.
The Shambles in York is a historical street once home to the city’s butcher shops. Photo Credit: Diana Jarvis/VisitEngland

But as I embarked on a five-day tour of Yorkshire and North East England as part of the ExploreGB 2016 tourism conference, the North I found wasn't grim at all.

Instead, we were greeted by innovation and renewal, history and charm. In Liverpool, the once-deserted Albert Dock now houses wine bars, shops, the Tate Liverpool art museum and the Beatles Story, an in-depth look at the town's favorite sons. In Leeds, the city center is clogged with cranes, construction sites and other signs of growth. In York, we strolled inside the city's medieval walls, through narrow alleys, called snickleways, shoved between buildings and down cobblestone streets dotted with boutiques and cafes. Past and present coexist there in a way that's both matter-of-fact and utterly remarkable, a kid on a cellphone striding past a Roman tower that dates from around 250.

The ruins of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian abbey shuttered by Henry VIII more than 450 years ago.
The ruins of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian abbey shuttered by Henry VIII more than 450 years ago. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg

An hour away, the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, a Unesco World Heritage Site run by the National Trust, have their own special magic. The abbey was founded in 1132 and grew to be a wealthy Cistercian religious house before it was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. Today, the remains are remarkably intact, a haunting landscape of stone towers, halls and arches that begs to be explored. Far from overcrowded, you can easily find yourself alone with the stones and their secrets. When I paused for a second in silence, I swore I could feel a soulfulness humming from the walls.

Blue Badge guide Kate Walton said the North suffers under the burden of outdated stereotypes. "When you do get visitors who brave it, they're blown away," she said.

Indeed I was — by Ripley Castle, where Sir Thomas Ingilby gave us a tour of the house his family has inhabited for 700 years, complete with ancient armor and tales of ugly cousins who always picked the losing side of the day's war. By Hadrian's Wall, too, the Roman-built dividing line between civilization and the barbarian hordes, where we hiked for a few hours, taking in the panoramic views of the rugged countryside. By the city of Durham, where we strolled through a castle-turned-college dormitory (where it's apparently tough to get Domino's delivered).

The interior of Alnwick Castle is done in stunning Italian Renaissance style, and the grounds include gardens dedicated to poison plants and aphrodisiacs.
The interior of Alnwick Castle is done in stunning Italian Renaissance style, and the grounds include gardens dedicated to poison plants and aphrodisiacs.

Farther north up the coast, we stopped at Alnwick Castle, where the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland spend their winters and "Downton Abbey" and "Harry Potter" have both filmed. Decorated in Italian Renaissance style, the place is truly breathtaking, all antiques and gilded ceilings and imposing family portraits of previous earls.

"Some were beheaded, some ended up in the Tower of London, one founded the Smithsonian," our perky guide told us. When we walked into the music room, we spotted a foosball table resting between two formal couches, a perfect reminder that even this opulent property is still somebody's home.

We spent the night in nearby Alnmouth, a quaint postcard of a town right on the North Sea. On our way back from dinner we pulled over for a moment to try catching a glimpse of the northern lights. Standing on the darkened roadside, dodging puddles and laughing at how ridiculous we must appear, the aurora borealis was nowhere to be found, but the blackness above us was encrusted with stars. For 10 minutes no one even noticed the cold.

Ambitious visitors can hike the 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall.
Ambitious visitors can hike the 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall. Photo Credit: Roger Clegg/VisitEngland

At ExploreGB the previous week, VisitBritain's Rodrigues had acknowledged the perception battle for Northern England tourism.

"It's not a widely explored area, even among the British," he said. The challenge, he added, is overcoming the negative images embedded in people's heads.

While the region's economic future is still the subject of debate and worry, after five days in the "grim" North, the images embedded in my head weren't of economic desperation or financial struggle. They were of mystical ruins, lavish castles, local microbrews and a crisp, blue sky reflected in the chilly waters of the North Sea, and they were simply beautiful.

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