England: The Undiscovered North

Traveling by train through Northern England, scenes vary from York’s picturesque Tudor landscape, to Liverpool’s shocking, yet embracing, maze of modern buildings of every color and form England: The Undiscovered North

On The Town | Will Campbell | July / August 2011

Haunted Pubs and Tudor landscapes, the village of York in the North of England feels like walking in a period drama, but still holds onto its authentic charm (Photo: Tanja Gumpenberger)

In England, I had decided some time back, it’s best to travel by train. So riding northward from London to York by rail, I congratulated myself on the living panorama of some of the most beautiful landscapes the country has to offer. The endless plains and lush farmland of Cambridgeshire gives way to forests that have long characterized the Midlands, pushing you finally through the rolling hills of the north, with the Pennines – the "backbone of England" – just a stones through away.

I marveled at all this as I leaned back in my comfortable seat in a 2nd class coach and gazed happily out the window; I had it all: serenity, leisure, free hands and a free mind. Taking the train had been an inspired choice. The motorways may be cheaper, but if journey is to be made, it needs to be made properly.

In fact, once I had stepped onto the wide platforms of York central station, a motorway seemed unthinkable. Designed for parading travelers of the Victorian age, the arching iron roofing and gold and white pillars curve wistfully into themselves and the bright Yorkshire sunlight above. The station is warm from a mix of growling locomotives and brilliant sunshine basking each platform. Although I have been here countless times, it never fails to set the tone of this historic and romantic city.

York is the quintessential northern summer town and the perfect place to begin my holiday  adventure. Stepping out of the station, I was immediately welcomed by the old town wall, one of the star attractions of the city. After a brief glance at an information board and a short scramble up to my new vantage point, walking the walls, I decided, would be the most bracing way to gain my bearings. Over almost two miles of ancient Viking, medieval and Roman stonework the sense of history was alive around me, the immediacy of the past. The views from here are spectacular, of York Minster and Cliffords tower, the only remaining structure of York castle and the scene of one of the most gruesome massacres in medieval history when in 1190, Jews had sought refuge in the tower after being terrorized by the townspeople. After a long siege, many committed suicide to avoid a forced baptism; those who did not were murdered.

From there, I headed off aimlessly through the winding lanes and alleyways, where York unveils its past in its architecture and its people. "Roman, Viking and Angle, you’ll find a bit of everyone here," I was informed by my new friend at yet another information board. A resident of York is called an "Ebor," derived from the ancient Roman name for the city Eboracum.

The more I walked the twisting medieval streets lined with sweet shops and taverns, it was hard not to feel I wandered onto the set of a BBC period drama rather than into a modern North England town. Yet it doesn’t feel fake; this is a real place, not a theme park. Soon enough, though, hunger set in. Fortunately, the town centre is filled with cafes and snack bars, many with seating areas in one of the many picturesque squares. If you’re feeling affluent, there is the prestigious Betties tea room for the more bespoke cuppa, though in my opinion it’s a bit of a tourist trap on a doily. For a less busy and less expensive whistle wetter you can pick up a brew from the stalls of Newgate Market and stroll down for a rest by the glistening river Ouse.

For me, York is an old friend, the site of many family holidays and visits, I know as well as any local the excellent museums for which the city is known as well as the constant run of festivals there throughout the summer. However, York is not the place for the lovers of a night on the tiles, as most of what there is for nightlife consists of quiet real-ale pubs possibly followed by a dramatic ghost walk through the city’s murky past. Which suits me just fine: So with an hour to commit to the history books before my train, I slip inside The Golden Fleece Inn on the historic Tudor Street the Shambles.

"This is the most haunted pub in York," said a rosy old Ebor on the table to my left. I barely noticed him sitting there, all in tweed and blending into his surroundings like a rotund chameleon. "They say the rooms of this building have more spirits than that bar!" he claimed and dissolved into easy laughter that was hard to resist.

After a while it became apparent my new drinking partner was a well of tales of the supernatural. "My brother was working in the cellar of the old treasure house when a legion of long dead Roman soldiers came crawling through on their knees," he claimed. Of course visiting York years ago as a child, I was well versed in this ghost story and suspected my new friend was pulling my leg. Perhaps it was the surroundings, perhaps the sherry or the Ebor’s rosy smile, but I couldn’t help humoring him, happy to egg him on for more.

But all too soon, I saw it was time to drink up and set off for my next destination, Liverpool.

After York’s picturesque Tudor landscape, Liverpool is a shock – a maze of modern buildings of every color and description; Radio City tower and the space station-esque Catholic Cathedral, to name a couple of the worst offenders, loom over time weary red brick docks and re-generated factories to make up the Mersey skyline. The Liverpool cityscape seems to be the brainchild of pencil happy architects somehow granted free rein to foist any misbegotten idea their minds happened to form. The split personality of Liverpool is apparent not only in the buildings but in its DNA. The city effortlessly blends the serious with the whimsical, refined churches stand side by side with trendy coffee houses and vintage shops. Commuter busses give way to brightly-painted, Magical Mystery Tour-themed coaches. Here the Fab Four are immortal.

My first destination was the newly regenerated East Bank of the Mersey River, transformed with a fantastic range of museums and galleries that includes the Mersey Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum, the Tate Liverpool Museum of International and Contemporary Modern Art and of course a tribute to perhaps Liverpool’s biggest export, The Beatles Story at the Albert docks.

Soon the evening set in and with The Golden Fleece sherry still in my system, I decided to begin the evening’s entertainment at the legendary Cavern Club. A Mecca for music lovers, the Cavern Club turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth bar, comfortable and unpretentious. No over-price drinks and tacky merchandise à la Planet Hollywood. On a Friday night, there wasn’t a pencil or lunchbox in sight; the drinks were reasonable, the people friendly and the music still very much live. After descending countless reams of stairs, I found myself in a place very different from the street above. A punk outfit from Nottingham was leaping around the stage while students, locals and tourists squeezed into every crevice of the vast cellar music club. Applause reverberated around the curved brick walls and pillars, spurring the band to play harder and faster.

A couple of ales later, I made my way, somewhat wobbly, back onto Matthew Street and the string of bars and clubs that provide a great community atmosphere on the cobbles of the Cavern Quarter. The hum of the bars and the shade of the old brick buildings provide the perfect spot on a summer evening to enjoy a cold cider.

Liverpool is famous across the UK for being a city of friendly and quick-witted people, easily just as packed with history, culture and attractions as any city in the South or indeed the North. However, as I spent the morning frequenting the numerous market streets and shopping areas such as Hope Street, Liverpool indoor market and Liverpool 1 it became evident that Liverpool’s capital of culture status of 2008 may be fading into memory. Most visitors seemed content to cram into the retail arcades rather than the museums. In fact the sheer number of shopping precincts suggests that unless visitors take a turn back to its wealth of culture, Liverpool will morph into one giant retail park.

Something that will never change though is Liverpool’s location. Wedged in between the Irish Sea and the Pennine mountains, it is this positioning that made the train ride to my third and final destination a particularly beautiful one.

But for that tale will have to wait for another time.

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