The old adage that life in Northern England is greatly inferior to that in the South is one that has had a lot of coverage recently – mainly because of the falling of the so-called ‘red- wall’. This phrase was coined as the previously hard-core Labour Party seats of the north east began to fall to the Conservative Party.
Some argued that this was because the Labour Party had failed to give people a purpose or a sense of hope. In return for gaining these seats the Conservatives have promised a ‘levelling-up’ of the British economy - a catch-all term for anything seen to bring economic or social benefit to anywhere outside London. The idea is that people and communities who feel they have been left behind get a chance to catch up.
The Brothers, ‘Waitin t’ gan down’ Seaham, County Durham
Now you will have gathered from this opening sentence that I am fascinated by this topic, particularly in relation to the geography of the north-east of England. So a recent visit to the area gave me the opportunity to explore the topic first hand. This is definitely not a political blog, rather some reflections on my travels across the border to a different part of the United Kingdom.
Our accommodation was on the sea-front promenade at Roker, an area of Sunderland. A brand-new hotel, next to the Stack, a venue ringed with shipping containers offering street food, bars and live music venue certainly was not grim – in fact it provided a lovely British seaside holiday feel. Preparations were well under way for their annual festival of light, the pre-cursor to the illuminations that will light up the seafront till Christmas.
"The rage for railroads is so great that many will be laid in parts where they will not pay."
The railways crisscrossed the north of England, the very engine room of the Industrial Revolution. The rurality of the north was rapidly replaced with industry that would drive a change to the way the world lived. And this fuelled the growth of the British Empire which, of course, needed an army. Many soldiers came from these industrial areas - a pattern that continues to this day, even from ‘former’ industrial areas.
Further down the coast lies the town of Seaham, another town famous for its mines and the range of industries that grew up in the area. But they have not forgotten their soldiers. At the seafront is one of the most touching statues I have ever seen. My grandfather suffered terribly in the first world war so I often think about it – but this statue summed up so much.
A British Tommy soldier, created from tiny pieces of welded iron, sits on an ammunition box, weary from the war's turmoil around him, his rifle against his legs and his tin helmet shading his downcast eyes; and the backdrop is the North Sea.
South of Seaham lies Hartlepool, another town that would shred any idea I had of the grim north. Again this town owes its growth to the industrial revolution, but it then suffered a dramatic decline as traditional industries collapsed. However, it is on the way back and its naval museum is a historic place to visit. The central attraction is HMS Trincomalee, originally built just after the Napoleonic Wars and now fully restored.
So even though I looked hard I did not find that it is ‘grim up north’. On the contrary it is hard not to be impressed with an area that was central to the greatest revolution it had ever seen. Of course that was not an unalloyed blessing – for that area, or for the world. But perhaps the north-east shows that it is possible to change and adapt, to recognise our history and to move on from it.
"In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end."
Alexis de Tocqueville