Monday, 11 March 2013

Saying goodbye

Hello again. I am not dead nor sleeping, and I apologise for not updating this blog for so long. But it has done its work in the sense that it is a pretty comprehensive bibliography. I just need to find some time to trawl back looking for unanswered comments.  Sorry again, to those who have made them and waited patiently.

I will now have that time, because I am retiring from the Guardian on Easter Sunday after 37 very happy years, the last 25 in the north and the last 16 as Northern Editor. This sounds like quite a long time but is dwarfed by my namesake but not relation, George Wainwright, who started as a boy messenger on the Manchester Guardian in Cross Street and carried out all manner of jobs, notably as librarian and then secretary to our legendary editor CP Scott.

In the latter role he was known for gazing disparagingly at the great man as he wobbled off on his bicycle to ride home to Didsbury, and commenting that a tram would get him in the end if he didn't take more care. One of my treasured possessions is a copy of the Cross Street Journal, the old MG house magazine, which has a photo of George being given a teapot by Laurence Scott to mark 59 years' service. And he wasn't retiring!

I am. And for family reasons I am also moving south, to Oxford, happy and secure that in Helen Pidd, I have the best of successors as Northern Editor, one who will make sure that the north has its proper place in the paper to which it gave birth.  I will shut up about the north in public, while no doubt gabbing on in private, especially if anyone ever makes the mistake in my presence of using the word 'grim'.  I have never approved of northerners who leave the north but continue to write about it as if they were still there. I won't.

I'm just getting this done promptly because the Guardian has kindly indulged me with a farewell piece which is here, and which has been linked to this blog.  I didn't want anyone arriving here as a result to find some rather dated stuff from the Bradford West by-election (post below).  If you trawl backwards, or forwards from the beginning, I hope you'll find it interesting.  All warm wishes for now. I hope to be back soon to add a copy of that photo of Teapot George.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Bradford Mayor Referendum - Party speeches

Hiya!  This is a temporary post to allow Guardian Northerner readers to read the full text of speeches on the elected mayor vote in Bradford by local representatives of the main parties.  Here we go:

Councillor Simon Cooke – Conservative Party

Bradford should have a directly elected mayor and actually if you want a person who could be that mayor you could ask for no one better than the man who saved this building, John Pennington. But I’m going to start with the most important part of this debate which is the need for a mayor, the need to change the system of government in this city because that’s much more important than the issue of personality, or the issue of who that mayor should be. Right now, we have an opaque, barely accountable approach where who leads the city isn’t decided by we the people, it’s decided by them the councillors. And it’s decided in closed party meetings, behind closed doors and not through open debate.
You get to vote for a councillor on the basis of candidates dropping a leaflet through your door for you to read, a fortunate few will get a knock on the door saying ‘Vote for me I’m lovely.’ But for a lot people they’ll get one leaflet from one political party and that’s it. That’s not debate. And having voted for a councillor, that councillor gets a vote in secret, in private, behind closed doors to choose their leader. And depending on which votes are up and who’s in and who’s out, that person may or may not get to be leader of the Council.
I don’t consider that to be accountable, transparent or particularly democratic. Which will be all right maybe if people thought the council was doing a mighty fine job, but it isn’t. And it isn’t for the following reasons:
Firstly there is no manifesto for the city that is publicly debated – no list of actions on which the city’s masters can be judged
Just as leadership is decided behind closed doors in private – so is policy. The chief executive of the Council - a colleague in the Council once described as the unelected mayor – he was desperate to maintain a consensus on some important areas of policy – the city centre, education and he didn’t want to have a debate – oh no! How does that serve the city? How do we get better government when policy decisions are made by secret meetings behind closed doors between political leaders?
A mayoral system would change that. Where we had those meetings, these private deals we would have open debate. Where we were officer led we will be led by the public through a contested agenda – we would have a discussion about what’s right for the city and what’s not.
And we’d get more for good or ill, based on the choice of Bradford people – the city would have a face. A man or woman with the ability to bang the table for this city who could put aside the party whip in the interest of the district who is not so beholden to the ward selection committee or a group whip in the way it worksnow. – someone who might be able to be independent of that party pressure in the interests of the Bradford people.
Bradford people would decide who that person was and Bradford people would hold them to account and Bradford people could throw that person out if they didn’t think he would doing a good job
That is why we need a mayor: we need a mayor to get transparency and openness. But above all we need a mayor so we have a more effective government in this city. We have to end the system where us councillors parade from meeting to meeting preening ourselves whilst officers run the show. So my friends, on May 3rd, I will be voting yes for an elected mayor. I will be voting yes, not because I know all the policy answers - all the right things to do. We need to change the way we run our city, we need more openness, more transparency, and above all, we need a sense that the city has chosen someone to take it forward into whatever future faces us all and I hope, above all hope, that its better than the future that is on offer under the present system.
So vote for a mayor on may 3rd and let’s see if we can make this city the great city it used to be.
Thank you very much.

Alyas Karmani – Respect Party 

At Respect we want you to vote yes for a directly elected mayor. So it’s not the first time we’re going to be going against the political establishment, and perhaps not the first time we’re going to beat them as well. What we want to see with a directly elected mayor - we could have a transformation within our city within days and within weeks with a directly elected mayor. And this is a change that we haven’t seen in our city for 20 years.
What we currently have are political hierarchies that are operating at the moment that are paralysing our city. In the next 10 years we’ve got enormous social and economic challenges in our city. We are already in terminal decline I believe and we’re facing a double recession as well. So what have we had in our city at the moment?
At the moment without a directly elected mayor, we’ve had a council that’s been procrastinating, breaking promises. We’ve had failed leadership, an absence of vision as well, and divisive politics. By voting yes for an elected mayor we can transform our city and within days we can have a progressive model of leadership.
It’s interesting that the kind of leadership we’re proposing is a leadership model that exists in many many cities around the world and clearly we see the success
taking place in those cities.
By voting yes for a directly elected mayor, we’re voting yes for a powerful passionate local champion who will be a voice for all of the city and also a champion for all of the city as well.
If you ask most of the people out there on the streets, who is the leader of Bradford City council? Most people are really hard pressed to find out who is actually responsible for the decisions that take place in the city. Who is responsible, for example, for our schools being in the 5% worst in the country? Who is responsible for the massive hole that we have in our town? Who is responsible for the higher than national average youth unemployment?
When you ask these questions – all we’re getting is passing the buck. Not only are you having passing the buck - if passing the buck was an Olympic sport I think Bradford could make the Olympic team and win a gold medal – because its nobody’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault why we are in the situation that we are in.
We are in a crisis and we need a radical solution for that. We need a single individual who can make those powerful decisions for us – will be accountable, will be transparent.
Again, in the Little Horton ward where I’m standing at the moment – 50 million pounds of regeneration money was spent in the Little Horton ward. People are asking how was it spent, where was it spent, how were the boundary lines drawn? How were the decisions made? And again, we can’t find anyone to take responsibility for that.
You know I suppose it’s a good thing that we don’t know our council is currently being run by Laurel and Hardy – Reeves and Greenwood. And the reality is that Ian Greenwood, and most people would be hard pressed to find out, that Ian Greenwood is the leader of our council. But why isn’t he here today at such an important discussion? At such an important debate?
Currently our system is not democratic– because the leader of the council is chosen by the elected members not by the people that they serve, not be the whole community here as well. As a result of that – where is the accountability?
Voting yes for a directly elected mayor will unify our city. If we look at the example of Leicester, a city with a very similar social demographic profile to ourselves. Peter Soulsby who was elected two terms there, united the city with a common vision and a common purpose. What we’ve had at the moment are polarizing and partisan politics where we have politics by mafias, by gatekeepers and godfathers. Working in their own silos and building their own empires. We need to dismantle that hierarchy. You know what we’ve also had – and all three of the political parties are guilty for that – is pandering to ethnic block politics –
and as a result of that they actually have been the ones who are most guilty of creating all the community cohesion issues in our city.
So we need a single individual who can actually unite and bring all those individuals together. We want to get away from disproportionality. Why is it that some wards we have resources abundant and others wards that are just neighbouring them, or even in that very ward we have child poverty levels above the national average.
Voting yes for a directly elected mayor will mean that we have the powers to regenerate our city. And we’re so desperate for that. Every day I meet talented people, we have so many assets in Bradford – that’s the entrepreneurs and most importantly our young people are our most valuable asset in this city. Currently those assets are not being harnessed to achieve the regeneration and the development of our city by having those economic powers. And one of them is being able to achieve rate relief. Immediately we could regenerate our town centre by bringing entrepreneurs into our town centre. But most importantly, vote yes for an elected mayor to guarantee our future – our young people.

Councillor Kevin Warnes – Green Party

Thank you for coming out tonight and I’d like to thank the organisers for organising this event.
I’ll be honest with you I think that in some ways the idea of electing a mayor is superficially attractive. Give one person four years and a clear mandate and lots of public support to sort things out and vote them in again if they do a good job then hold them to account if they do a bad job. Get rid of them – let the vote of the people ring out over city hall, fair enough.
The problem is that there are lots of difficulties with the process that we’re embarking on over the next few days.
First most people so far aren’t that interested. I’ve knocked on about 700 front doors in Shipley during the campaign so far and I can tell you that a grand total of 6 people have raised the issue of the elected mayor with me on the doorsteps. In most of the referendums held since 2001, only a third of the electorate actually bothered to vote. 3 months ago in Salford there was a referendum and 18% turned out to vote on the idea of the Mayor. So the idea that referendums are a good way to gauge public opinion on this issue is just wrong. There is just not a huge upsurge of opinion whether we should elect a mayor or not.
The few people who are interested generally don’t want an elected mayor. People vote no in 2/3rds of the referendum that we have had so far in the last decade. There was a Guardian ICM Poll last week that showed 61% opposition to elected mayors, and that cuts across age, class and party affiliation, even most Tory voters don’t want elected mayors and the reason is because they trust their elected councillors more than the politicians in Westminster who have come up with these barmy ideas. Even worse than that is that we’re not even being allowed to make an informed decision despite the best efforts of the organisers tonight. This leaflet I am holding in my hand does not spell out the powers of the elected mayors.
We’ve got a referendum that most people will ignore, on a subject that most people probably will oppose and in these circumstances we can’t even make an informed decision - that does not strike me as intelligent politics.
The Greens do not want elected mayors in Bradford or any other part of the North of England as they concentrate too much power in the hands of one person at the expense of the other councillors and let’s face it we have a lot of good councillors on Bradford Council.
An elected mayor would be responsible for a wide range of areas of policy, including setting the budget and would have significant power, far more so than the current leader of the council and the leaflet does not tell you that it would take a 2/3rds council majority to overrule the mayor’s budget, no matter how bad the budget was.
Compare that with the way in which decisions have been made in recent years where council leaders have had to work with members of their own group and reach out across party lines to get good decisions. I don’t accept that one person has all the answers. I think Councils work best when people and councillors work together to get things done...Just have a look at the nightmare that has unfolded down the road in Doncaster where Mayor Peter Davies was elected 3 years ago as an elected mayor for Doncaster. He got 8% of support for 1st vote – 92% of people in Doncaster either didn’t vote or voted for someone else as their first preference and Davies scraped home and he has been a disaster for the town. When the audit commission was sent in a year later they said “ the mayor lacked the political skills to build and maintain consensus lacked leadership skills and they had to send a new chief executive and 3 commissioners to sort the town out. It is bad enough for a place like Doncaster - what about a place like Bradford with our different urban centres and rural villages and our huge range of income groups and above all our diverse ethnic communities Surely we need a council that represents all of us, with men and women of different backgrounds, not a maverick voted in by a small number of votes who then stands alone for four years.
The truth is anyway whether it’s the mayor or the council, many of the decisions
that affect Bradford are done elsewhere. The budget and much of the money we get comes as strings attached from central government.
It’s not clear that elected mayors lead to huge economic revivals or increase in huge interest in local democracy which is why other cities are trying to get rid of their elected mayors and I would ask u to think very seriously to saying no to one in Bradford and yes to much better decisions from the local councillors you’ve got.

Councillor David Green – Labour Party

The first thing I would like to say that whilst I am a Labour councillor I am not speaking on behalf of the Labour party – there are people who support and oppose mayors within the party.
My personal view and the view of the majority of those in my party is that I oppose the concept of elected mayors.
If there was a groundswell of opinion within this district for an elected mayor, we could have had it anytime in the last 10 years. If a big enough percentage of the people of Bradford wanted an them they could have had a referendum and if it had gone through it would have been the will of the people.
What we actually have is a referendum based on a decision made in Westminster as part of the Coalition agreement. It has not been asked for by the people of Bradford district and that is a crucial thing to remember.
If you are going to have a referendum – ask a straight forward question. If I had a pound for every time I have been asked to explain what the referendum question means by constituents in Wibsey, I could have paid off a considerable chunk of the Greek national debt – people are confused!
I reject the notion of Mr Cameron that they are going to put powers and money and resources and power only into areas that might actually support their pet project. Resources should follow need - not people being blackmailed and cajoled to voting a particular way.
If you’re going to vote for a mayor – vote for a mayor because you believe in it. If you are a government of this nation you give resources to those areas that need it, not those areas that vote what you consider to be the right way.
Bradford is not a city, it is a Metropolitan District, it is made up of towns, villages as well as Bradford City. And for one person to be expected to reflect the views of such a diverse community and such a large geographic community is actually impossible however good the individual is. The services provided by Bradford Council are wide and varied. Yes there are education, regeneration, housing,
parking, landscapes, highways, environment, cleansing - what you are actually expecting to do is having one person to be a master of all trades – that is not going to happen.
The current system we have may not be perfect, but what it does do is allow the council to pick the best out of 90 people to carry out those functions. What it does allow to happen is that your local councillors from whatever party can lobby, cajole and influence policy in line with what local constituents want.
You need to be clear that an elected mayor can ignore the wishes of those local communities, can ignore the wishes of the local councillors that you will continue to represent. They will become a cypher - your ability to influence through the electoral process on a year on year basis will disappear as the mayoral grip from the centre decreases.
You will be left with a situation where the only influence your local councillors will have is to try and block budgets and block projects and that will bring the system grinding to a halt. I would urge you to be very careful what you wish for and I would urge you to think carefully if you want one person far away from the your doorstep making all your decision or do you want to work with a system – where you can annually influence what happens in Bradford and your community. I would urge you to think carefully of the way forward for this city that we live in and we all love.

Councillor Jeanette Sunderland – Liberal Democrats

Thank you very much to the organizers for organising this event. I don’t support an elected mayor – they have tried. They have had power in Bradford for ten years - I think it was John Ryan who started the petition for a mayor in Bradford and there wasn’t a public appetite for it.
There is certainly malaise in the city and there is certainly a problem in politics. There are more people who are members of the caravan club than members of a political party. For someone who has committed 18 years of my life to public service I find that is a real sadness. Another thing I feel very sad about is the complacency of that lack of engagement in politics and the debate about how we want our world to be organised leads to such complacency amongst politicians because if you’ve got a view about us – you need to find out what the view of our politicians is about the public, particularly the 50-60% of people who don’t even bother to turn up to put a cross on the ballot paper. So there is an issue – there’s a malaise, there’s a problem with the system that we have. There’s an issue around councillors - absolutely not picking a fight with anybody in the room – but there is. They’re a variable quality are councillors across the city and that is something that we have to address. The system of politics itself – how do you engage with your politicians locally? How many of you voted at the last local elections?
How many people in this room actually voted at the last local election? (pause for response – almost 2/3rds raised their hands)
I came across a young man who said he voted for the first time, he was nearly in his 50s, voting for the first time. So are mayors democratic? What really worries me as a Liberal Democrat is the amount of concentration of power in one pair of hands.
We’ve seen examples from history where people have made it exciting and people have joined rallies and followed people up and down the streets and we’ve seen the consequences of some of those actions as minority people have become the problem that we need to sort out in order to make everything a much better world.
The Liberal Democrats would take power, and we would break it down – the lowest level at which you could make a decision in your neighbourhood. I’ve got two issues with the formulation of the policy – the first is we’re moving to a federal system of government and we’re doing it off the back of a question that nobody seems to understand and most people have not read the leaflet either.
There’s a huge change taking place in the political system and its being pushed by a Prime Minister who says we will threaten you if you don’t do what we say – we will not give you a seat at the table if you don’t do what we say. So the biggest shift in power in the country is taking place off the back of a question we don’t understand and threats being given out into the Yorkshire Post about what will happen to Bradford if it doesn’t have a mayor.
The other issue to me is that mayors are at odds with the other set of policy, which is around the local enterprise partnerships. Whether you think they’re a good thing or a bad thing – they’re in place and they’re working and huge strategic decisions around the place have been taken including people from Wakefield, from Leeds – so what are we going to do with that system? Turn it all on its head? And actually have a series of mayors fighting it out, because they will be fighting it out – and I suspect that they will all be men, and I suspect that they will all be wealthy, which is the other issue about where do people like me and you get involved in politics. Because if power is to be concentrated in the hands of one very wealthy man in this district - where will the voices of ordinary people get heard?
So I would say vote no, I would take power to yourselves in this local election and find out about these people that are putting themselves forward, find out what it is they stand for and then make an informed choice about that. I would say vote no. Thank you.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Something for Christmas...

I'm still checking in here from time to time and have several matters to post about when I get time. Sorry for the delay.

Meanwhile, this latest product has quite a lot about the North in it: The English Village, published by Michael O'Mara.

Goodness, you can even get it on Kindle, the first time that's happened to me, although Morris Minor and A Mini Adventure are going that way shortly.

More (quite) soon. All warm wishes M

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Back at last

Goodness, it's been a long time. I am sorry. The trouble is, that we are spread so thinly out here, like some sort depressing sandwich filler, that it's not easy to find the opportunity to update. Here I am, though, partly to let you know about one ray of sunshine: the Guardian's Northerner which has changed from an email to a blog and now appears more often; every day in fact, so far. Here's hoping that Helen Carter and I, and with luck other contributors soon, can keep that up.

Another book meanwhile. Years ago, when I was on the Bradford Telegraph & Argus just after completing my journalist's proficiency test on the Bath & Wilts Evening Chronicle, there was a very nice, gentlemanly chap in the echoing old building which housed the paper, the former warehouse of Milligan & Forbes, celebrated textile men in their Victorian heyday. He was called Hew Stevenson and he was the big chief, the MD of Bradford's subsidiary company of Westminster Press (a great Northern institution, WP, which survived the 1930s depression in part because its Liberal, and often Quakerly shareholders were content to go without a dividend for quite a few years to see it through).

Well, Hew has now written an excellent book about his family firm - or firms, because their interests in the North East extended from chemical engineering to ownership of the Shields Gazette, which later joined the WP stable too. On the way, one of the vast and varied Stevenson tribe picked up the ownership of Vulcano, the islet off Italy which gives us the word 'volcano', to extract sulphur from its still-active crater (until in 1881 it blew up, and that was the end of that).

Jobs for the Boys (Dove Books) is a mighty tome and costs £30 but it paints a marvellous picture of Northern (and originally Scottish, admittedly) energy and enterprise - of the kind which is no by any means dead. I've just done a Northerner on Barnsley football club becoming the first in the League to be powered entirely by solar electricity. The £1 million contract went to a cutting edge firm in nearby Dodworth.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Dem stones

Towards the end of True North there's a section on the numinous nature of the region's wild landscape. Religious or not, visitors are seldom unmoved by landscapes such as Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, and shrines such as the little chapel of the 'Four Cs', saints Cedd, Chad, Caewlin and Cynebil, at Lastingham. One regular walker is the rock musician Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes, Brain Donor et al) who is greatly interested in other rocks - the mysterious monoliths and stone circles left by our ancestors in the distant past.
Penny and I, and a group of friends from my old Bradford Telegraph & Argus days, discovered the excellent circles and other remains above Boot on a week's walking holiday at the end of last month. Take the path through Eskdale Mill (run by a delightful family and still grinding flour with its two huge waterwheels), climb the fellside through an abandoned group of farm buildings and loop gently to the left. At least three circles lie in the tawny grass with views of Harter Fell one way (above) and the Scafells another. Certainly a numinous place.
Cope doesn't describe these ones but he has a good selection from the North in The Modern Antiquarian,  (Thorson's 2000), including some in places since disturbed by modern man, such as fields by the M6 at Shap. The book's only disadvantage is its vast size, a monolith in itself and impractical to take on walks.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Walk cheerfully over the world

Cumbria's fells are associated with my great namesake, Alfred Wainwright, whose seven guides to the Lake District mountains contain much interest beyond his meticulously detailed, spidery ways to the summits. As a person, alas, he holds very little appeal for me. Read Hunter Davies' biography Wainwright (Orion 2002) and I think you'll see why. More appealing in character, although not so inspired an author, was his immediate predecessor William Palmer, whose output was even more prolific than AW's. So prolific, indeed, that some suggested of his more far-flung walking guides that he might not actually have been to the southern parts of the UK which he described.

I spoke about Palmer to a meeting of the Wainwright Society a year or two ago, after a friend lent me one of his early books which had handmade drawings on the lines of AW, although nowhere nearly as accomplished. Was Palmer an influence on the great man, I speculated? Anything he could do, AW could perhaps do better? And if something such as the Palmer book could get into print, then why not Alfred's own work? It cannot be proved, I don't think, after working my way through assorted Palmer papers in the Cumbria county archive. But books such as Wanderings in the Pennines (Skeffington and Son 1951) froms whose endpapers I took this map, are an enjoyable read and have odd treasures, rather as the Pennines' barren wastes do too.

A walker really after my own heart was Benny Rothman, the Manchester Communist who played a robust part in the opening-up of miles of previously private footpaths, notably on Kinder Scout where he was arrested at the Mass Trespass in 1932. I devote a long section in True North to the radiant idealism of men such as Rothman and the joy which they took not only in the hills and wilderness - something eloquently shared by Wainwright - but more important, in seeing their fellow human beings indulging in the same delights. AW surely had that deep down, but he knew how to hide it. Rothman and his pals feature deservedly and heroically in Freedom to Roam by Howard Hill, published by Moorland in 1980. Does anyone recognise my title for this post btw? It's George Fox's famous instruction to Quakers, which continues: "answering that of God (or we might also read Good, MW) in everyone."

Lights, action, lakes, mountains...

When you get to Cumbria, one of the joys is the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, the classy phoenix which rose from the ashes, or at to be more mundanely accurate, the departure of the famous old Blue Box mobile stage. My family and I had a memorable evening in the latter during its final Cumbrian days, swaying in the wind as we gripped our seats in the curious assembly of a convoy of lorries which adapted - like one of the 'transformer' children's toys which were a fad at the time - into a full scale theatre, complete with auditorium and ice-cream girls. Alan Hankinson tells the story of this Northern wonder in The Blue Box, published by Bookcase in 2009. My illustrious colleague on The Guardian in the North, David Ward, has brought the story up to date in sparkling style with Encore!, also published last year by Bookcase, which tells how the fine new building came to be. The original Blue Box is now at Snibston, near Coalville in Leicestershire, no longer mobile but up and running under its proper title of the Century Theatre -  see 

Much instruction and joy is to be had from both, as from a plethora of local histories of West Cumbria, the Lake District's plain sister, where I hoovered up booklets such as this The Parish of Lamplugh, edited by Betty Marshall and Anne Lister and published in1993 by Lamplugh parish council. I was enjoying a week with friends in the serene beauty of Ennerdale at the time. Reading the booklet at night, after crawling up to bed following a day on Pillar or Gable, reminded me usefully of the great industries which flourished - Seker, Marshon et al - and still flourish - Sellafield notably - so close to the quiet paradise of the fells. And of those which flourished and still flourish in the heart of the National Park, such as the slate-mining at the top of the Honister Pass. The sky doesn't really look like that at Lamplugh, btw, Sellafield nothwithstanding.

North-Westward Ho!

No one has complained (yet) but the last few posts have been shamelessly Yorkshirist. Time to go somewhere else, and how better than on the Settle and Carlisle railway line? The southern extension of this to Leeds, and ultimately London, runs below my house in the Aire valley near Apperley Bridge; and I was looking at the most dramatic point on the whole line only on Sunday, when a group of us strode in bright sunshine from Ribblehead to Oughtershaw. The famous viaduct and the ghostly site of its once swarming 'Navvy Town' was behind us all the way.

It is hard to believe, nowadays, that the line very nearly closed in the 1980s. The Battle for the Settle & Carlisle by James Towler (Platform 5 Publishing 1990) tells how determined and knowledgeable community activists saved the day. Towler, who died in 1999, was a mighty warrior who was once told by an opponent: "The trouble with you is, you travel on too many trains." How pleased he would be, today, to see how the line which he helped to save, as the dogged and learned chair of the north's regional transport users' consultative committee, has become a thread connecting regeneration between the West Riding and the Cumbrian-Scottish border.

Cumbria. That means floods, and much has been written about recent ones, from Carlisle's inundation in 2005 to Workington and Cockermouth's devastation last year. Coincidentally this excellent study Floods in North West England: a history c.1600-2008, came out from the Centre for North-West Regional Studies at Lancaster university in December, the 16th, impressively, of their occasional papers. I must collect the other 15. It was providential to me, putting some of the more dramatic headlines and analyses into a long, soaking context of unruly rivers and rain. I apologise to the joint authors for my inept scanning which has removed their names. They are Sarah Watkins and Ian Whyte.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

God's own council

One of the great shames of modern life is the absence of the West Riding county council, which was probably the best local authority ever known. Its combination of Labour members from what is now South Yorkshire, Liberals from the textile belt and Tories from around Ripon made for an atmosphere of vigorous but co-operative debate; a sort of coalition atmosphere before its time. As mentioned several times already on this blog, it also employed the greatest local authority education officer ever known in the UK, Sir Alec Clegg. I was reassured (with justification as it later turned out) when my two sons went to our local high school, Benton Park, and I read that it was originally commissioned by Clegg (who, typically, used a leading firm of architects, Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners. In Sheffield, he commissioned a comprehensive from Sir Basil Spence. Shades of Zaha Hadid designing the new Evelyn and Grace Academy in Brixton; trying to raise everyone's game).

I read anything I can about the WRCC, and declaim at talks, to the point of tedium, my nostrum about schooldays when I was proud to come not only from England's biggest county (Yorkshire, of course) but also its second biggest (the West Riding, which was larger on its own than rivals such as Lincolnshire or Devon). The West Riding County Council 1889-1974 by Brendan Barber and Maurice Beresford (published by the successor West Yorks Met County Council in 1979) is a concise introduction. Its cover may inspire you to go to Wakefield where the original County Hall is well-maintained, down to the proud stone collars carved with WRCC which hold in place its mighty drainpipes. Meanwhile publications such as Leeds Archives 1938-1988 (West Yorkshire Archive Service 1988) show the continuing lively existence of some services which the WRCC ran so well. The splendid Headingley Test ground lawnmower and other ancient material shown in the picture at the top come from that.


Leeds has an interesting tradition of thoughtful architects, from Cuthbert Brodrick who built the mighty Town Hall (and then retired very young to live with a mysterious woman in a Paris suburb), to the current Civic Architect, John Thorp. John is the last person in Britain to hold this title, and has lived to see the city's architecture department shrink to himself from over 400 staff - such has been the reduction of directly-run municipal services in the UK. John's book on his skilful and patient 'urban dentistry' in modern Leeds is due out in the next year and much anticipated. Meanwhile, I have made use of, and much recommend, these books: Leeds, the back-to-front, inside-out, upside-down city (Stile Books 1979) a short but typically original series of ideas about the city by the late Patrick Nuttgens, who was professor of architecture at York university before becoming director of Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Metropolitan university. And How to be a Happy Architect (Black Dog Publishing 2008) a similar sparky collection of notions from Irena Bauman, who stirs up things architecture and planning-related most successfully in contemporary Leeds.

Barnsley chaps

The Aspects of... series is one Britain's biggest and best collection of books on local history and - Hooray - its publishers Wharncliffe are based in Barnsley. Their excellence lies in commissioning local historians to contribute examples of original research which build up fascinating local histories, free of the endless recycling and repetition which - however useful for an introduction or general knowledge - limited the use of guidebooks for True North. This volume on Barnsley itself, for instance - and note that it's the fourth - has pieces on a shepherd, a Victorian 'magnetic healer' called The Superlative Professor Best, and mediaeval stained glass. There's also a fascinating piece on two brothers called Illingworth, sons of a Barnsley farm labourer, whose energies were released by emigration to the United States where both became steel-making magnates and millionaires. The cover of this volume also points up the way that the series reveals the whole context to cliched images of placess. You wouldn't maybe think that this vast mansion was in Barnsley. But it is, Wentworth Castle, sister stone elephant to Wentworth Woodhouse mentioned three posts below. It now flourishes as the Northern College, which gives a second chance at higher education to those who missed out first time. The gradual restoration of its gardens (one of the best rhododendron collections in the UK, among other things) has also won many awards.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Breaching the peace

Considering the strength of the average Yorkshire Tyke's sense of identity, it's interesting how many battles have taken place across the county. I remember being taken to Marston Moor (1644) when I was still at primary school - actually because my father was campaigning at the time for Parliament to be moved there from Westminster (it's a nice open space close to York and a move would still be an excellent plan). A street in east Leeds called Penda's Way recalls the elusive battle of Winwaedsfield (655), whose supposed site shifts about wildly depending on archaeology's latest metal-detecting extravaganza. Wherever it took place, it was hugely influential in Britain's progress from paganism to Christianity. The Northumbrians beat the Mercians ten-nil. Yo!

Another great local battle always fascinates my mother, ever since she was told as a child that the Cock beck on the outskirts of Leeds, towards Tadcaster, flowed red with blood for days afterwards. This probably was the case, since the Roses battle of Towton (1461) was the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. Some 26,000 men died (but the Yorkists won, so that was all right). We've also got Stamford Bridge (1066) and a sea battle off Flamborough Head (1779) which I've written about in the Guardian many times because divers are always trying to find the main ship involved - the Bonhomme Richard, whose commander Paul Jones was the buccaneering first 'admiral' of the American rebel fleet which won the engagement. Even more embarrassing for the Royal Navy than HMS Astute's recent problems off Skye. Yorkshire Battlefields by Ivan Broadhead (Robert Hale 1989) has been a trusty friend.

Well met by moonlight

There was a time when many people would have been unable to complete the artist's name on this catalogue, which I have only managed to scan in part. Not any more. Just last week, a painting by the Leeds policeman's son John Atkinson Grimshaw went for over £100,000 at auction in Alnwick, Northumberland. The couple selling the moonlit study of Liverpool's Salthouse dock had bought it for £100 in the 1960s. That was in London's Burlington Arcade whose dealers always charge premium prices. The value of money has changed since then, but only enough to mean that the £100 is worth £1440 today.

What is it about Atkinson Grimshaw? Easy, most people would say. The moonlight. And there is another example of a point I bang on about in True North: the fact that easy cliches about dark grimness in our region are tosh. The book gives lots of examples of Northern light, from Leverhulme's Port Sunlight on the Wirral to 1930s Fresh Air & Light schools in colliery towns all over the region. Grimshaw is another example and I specially like his work because, as the introduction to the book featured in my picture says, "Grimshaw's moonlight fell on all his subjects, from landscapes to city streets. Always, though, there are people about..." Their presence (even though I have failed to scan in the oarsmen and other figures on my picture, maybe because it's of London...) is another attraction of the True North. The book, incidentally, is the Catalogue of Leeds City Art Gallery's exhibition in 1979 which gave the AG revival legs. The introduction is by Dr David Broomfield who was then head of art at Liverpool Polytechnic, and a Grimshaw specialist.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Making do

I argue the case in the book True North that the tradition of inventive manufacturing up here is alive and well. The story of the late Jimi Heselden is an example which I would like to add to future editions: a charismatic inventor who used his mining redundancy after the 1984/5 strike to set up a hugely-successful business making his Bastion gabions which defend NATO bases and hold back floodwaters all over the world. He also illustrated another argument which I try to make - that many of the industrialists were great philanthropists too, a tradition obscured in both social history and - especially - fiction by the dramatic struggle of the workers against less enlightened employers. I don't mean to plug my operations generally, but I recently tried to make this point on Comment is Free on the Guardian's website - see - after attending Heselden's funeral, held at his factory. The thread was interestingly sympathetic.

Anyway, here are a few books relating to this subject. First, from the very non-industrial paradise of the Hambleton Hills, comes Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn by Peter Thompson (Dalesman 1979) which tells the story of the famous woodcarver whose mice delight children (and others) who hunt them down in churches and other places where Mousey's work is to be found. The skill is what normally excites people about Thompson, but I also admire a man, son of the village joiner, who set up a lasting business and prompted many others to start. I remember doing a Guardian piece about the remarkable cluster of furniture-makers which has grown up around Thirsk, including Antony Gormley's older brother John, sadly deceased, who started the firm of Treske, by Thirsk train station.

I referred to Sir Titus Salt in my Comment is Free piece, and I have mentioned some of the many, instructive books about him in posts below. Less well-known is Sir James Roberts, who bought and rescued Salt's (and the village of Saltaire) when the mill went bust in 1892. He revived both and is properly remembered by Roberts Park, on the far side of the river Aire from the village. I've got this excellent article from the Yorkshire Journal about him, Silk-hatted Bradford Millionaire by Peggy Hewitt, which she sent me in a photocopy. The YJ was a beautiful and interesting but short-lived production in the 1990s and early 2000s by Smith Settle of Otley.

Finally for now, you can still find excellent bargains at the works outlet shops of Northern businesses. This Factory Shop Guide by Gillian Cutress and Rolf Stricker, who first published it themselves in 1987, is out-of-date now and such things are largely replaced by the internet. But we used it to our advantage, as sweeping velvet curtains bought at a bargain price from the factory shop in Lister's titanic old mills on the hilltop in Manningham, Bradford, remind all visitors to Wainwright Towers.

Get ready for a bit of reading

Aaah... Bit more time now, with my companion moths blog just gone into hibernation. So I will try to catch up after the very erratic progress of True North in recent months. Sorry.

I was on the M1 near Rotherham this week and just caught a glimpse of Keppel's Column, one of the four great follies on the Wentworth estate (above, from above and beautifully betrayed to GoogleMaps by its shadow), whose history and beauty - as a great dark hole at night amid all the lights of urban South Yorkshire - is so well described in Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds, praised in a post some time ago. Follies are always fun to see and explore, but they almost always have a deeper interest; in the case of the Wentworth ones, they introduced me to the strength of support in 18th century England for the American rebels. The Wentworths, including the Marquis of Rockingham who was twice Prime Minister, were staunchly in this camp. Their own, Northern, sense of independence was one of the reasons why. As for Keppel, he was another sympathiser with the Americans, a highly political admiral who was also an MP and would, I am sure, be full of comments about British foreign policy were he alive today.

Follies and similar curiosities are everywhere in the North. Just two examples of books which have helped me with them, for now, but I'll add others. The Story of Nun Monkton by Rosemary Enright, a beautifully-produced and characterfully-written book, published by a group of local villagers, has this nice picture of the Payler monument in the Priory's grounds. It serves as an excellent introduction to the dead end community near York, where the Alice Hawthorn pub, named after a racehorse, has - thank goodness - reopened after a period of closure.

The East Riding Treasure Hunt by Howard Peach (Smith Settle 1995) is full of goodies in this, often-overlooked part of the North. My favourite is the Waggoners' Memorial at Sledmere, erected by Sir Mark Sykes to honour 1200 farmworkers from his estate who formed an expert battalion of horse-handlers in the First World War ( a similar operation to that so eloquently dramatised by Michael Morpurgo in The War Horse). I especially like it in part because it gave me the chance to fulfill one of my ambitions - to get the word 'wainwright' into The Guardian as a common noun. Sad, I know, but we all have these whims.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Drewe fails to draw

Just a short note. I'm away from my books but want to recommend some film-related ones. The prompt is going to see Posy Simmonds' story of Tara Drew enjoyably turned into a film, albeit one which struck me and Penny as more 'TV-sized' than up to the big screen. We went to see it in its first week of release at the Leeds-Bradford Odeon in Thornbury. Do you know how many other people were in the cinema? Six. Guess how many giggles there were apart from our own, fairly regular ones? One.

It was an interesting cultural experience which I haven't yet worked out. I'm sure it packs them in amid much hilarity at the Screen on Islington Green. But I think that it is a very metropolitan subject and world, seen with a very metropolitan eye, for all that its very metropolitan characters are operating, uneasily, in a region of great distinction, Thomas Hardy's Wessex; specifically Dorset.  They didn't really seem to be there. The landscape was just scenery, and that would have been still more the case had Posy chosen instead our Northern Cotswolds such as the lush county swathes of the North Riding or parts of Lancashire's Furness. 

There's a bit in True North about the way that Hardy's land is affected by superficial imagery as badly as the North, and Tamara Drew is further evidence. No offence to Posy. She, Penny and a colleague once played cricket for Cosmopolitan against the New Statesman, and the Guardian's then, delightful, film critic Derek Malcolm, also batting for Cosmo, wrote a poem which started: 'Penny, Pandora and Posy - a trio of which to dream.'  I only dream of one. The match was also notable for Martin Amis's playing for the New Statesman and being determined to win at all costs, bowling at the heavenly trio as if they were Test players.

Welcome blaze of colour

No I am not dead. Sorry once more for another lacuna (the title btw of the excellent Orange Prize-winning book I'm reading by Barbara Kingsolver). It just takes too long to do the cover-scanning etc to add to the bibliography in these busy times. Fear not, though, it will be completed. 

For now, I just want to hail a new set of postcards available at Leeds tourist office in the station. The colour may be a bit over the top, but I sympathise with that, so relentless is the tide of grey, grim Northern images. Still. Yes, I am perhaps becoming obsessesd and will maybe go mad, but it is lovely that another publisher has seen the bright, light, exciting side of Leeds (as Keith Waterhouse does in City Lights, very warmly recommended many posts below).

It is not a minority view. London publishers exert far too powerful a hold and they want a grim North, troubled childhoods and the rest. But the very cheerful woman who sold me the cards was as delighted as I was. We also compared notes on the city's new open-top sight-seeing bus (a blindingly obvious butt of metropolitan scorn but excellently previewed by the Guardian's Leeds blogger John Baron on and agreed that the commentary is ace and told us both things we didn't know. Hope they're true...

You can also tour Leeds at weekends by canal and river boat.  So bin all that stuff about 'capital of empty flats' etc and come and enjoy. The two cards I've featured show (below) St Paul's House, which is that colour, and (top) offices in Park Row, which aren't quite, except during outstanding sunsets or when you've been smoking something you shouldn't have been. The sky above St Paul's House is also genuine. Leeds is dryer than Barcelona, remember.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Sorry to have so rubbish about keeping this up to date recently. My companion blog about my moth trap has kept me busy, and there's always a little light journalism for the Guardian to get done. But I have to post today, after one of the most extraordinary experiences in my Northern reporting life: Penny and I spent the day at Castle Carr and saw its amazing fountain come to life.

I'm blogging about this on my True North blogspot because it is a wonderful example of the 'green and the grey' Northern countryside which forms one of the chapters in the book. The ruined Victorian hunting 'lodge' (actually a 17-bedroom castle which makes the Devonshires' place at Bolton Abbey look like a cottage) is at the head of a lovely, lovely valley which is also full of monuments to Calderdale's great industrial past. Some bring tears to your eyes, such as the gravestones of 'orphan child workers' at Wainstalls mill (now converted into flats), but others like Castle Carr have you jumping up and down with glee. The estate belongs to a characterful farmer and retired magistrate called Frank Schofield, a piratical figure with an eye patch and long white hair, who opens it every now and then for good causes.

The fountain is its glory. Even at Chatsworth, I have not seen a plume to match this - a vast column of peaty spray thrust upwards by simple gravity descent from a reservoir on the moors high above. On the way home with our friends Brian and Elaine Craven, to whom unlimited thanks for inviting us along, we went through little paradises such as Jowlers (see pic above) and Booth. I could die of happiness but won't. Here are some more pics...

The ruined castle from across the valley:

And here it is close-up (a previous owner seems to have had ambitions to use it as a quarry, but what's left is in good hands now):

Here's the ground-plan when it was sold in 1874 after the poor guy who built it, Captain Joseph Priestley Edwards of Fixby Hall, near the M62 at Ainley Top, died in a train crash and his family weren't interested in keeping it on. Thanks to the very nice gentleman who lives nearby and brought these plans along to the Cat-i-th-Well pub where we ended the walk with Timothy Taylor's and a hog roast:

Now, this is what the fuss is all about. Looks quiet, doesn't it?

But what's this?

And this?

and THIS?

No wonder that brollies sprouted like mushrooms....

Because here's the fountain at its glorious peak (and it lasted for 15 minutes, until the moor-top reservoir was almost drained):

I'll find out when it's next going to be open and will post here, to let you know and spread the word. Oh, and further to prove my True North points, P and I and the Cravens saw a notice at a farm on the way back saying Eggs For Sale. A lad appeared and we asked to buy half-a-dozen. "We've only quails' eggs left," he said, apologetically. New North - True North - or what?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A mighty dynasty

Kitson is a famous name in Leeds, and in many spheres. The family founded the famous Hunslet Engineering Works whose trains are still to be seen all over the world, some of them puffing up the Andes to Lake Titicaca. There's another one on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and we've got this nice picture of a retired loco slumbering away at Kirkstall, where enthusiasts run a narrow gauge line through the woods from Kirkstall Abbey. By the way, if you are in those parts, the Abbey House museum is great - as is the abbey itself, of course, plus its excellent new interpretation centre, and the cafe/restaurant at Abbey House is just tremendous. Delicious food and really nice staff. See 0256E1B0043190A.
Anyway, the Kitsons also entered politics as Liberals and produced two sons who were great patrons of the arts. Sydney was an architect who designed a number of villas in Leeds and the original building of the College of Art whose alumni include Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (check out the new Hepworth gallery opening in Wakefield next year - He became the biggest collector of Cotman watercolours in the world and left the bulk of them to Leeds city art gallery although the Victoria and Albert, which was bequeathed a smaller number, fought a desperate but I am glad to say unsuccessful battle to get hold of Leeds' allocation. The story is well-condensed in Cotmania & Mr Kitson by David Boswell and Corinne Miller (Leeds City Art Galleries 1992) which accompanied a very good exhibition.
Sydney's brother Robert was an equally generous patron of the arts, responsible for the wonderful mosaic by Sir Frank Brangwyn in St Aidan's church. This was originally to be a fresco, but Brangwyn declared Leeds' atmosphere too mucky and insisted on the much more expensive tiles. St Aidan's got their own back in a Yorkshire way only ten years ago, when the congregation organised their own cleaning of the mosaic with off-the-shelf materials and a ladder lent by one of them, who worked for the fire brigade. Art experts were in fits, but they did an excellent job.
Robert retired to Taormina in Sicily on his doctor's advice (what a nice doctor to have) and built the famous and wonderful Casa Cuseni there, with more work by Brangwyn. He was so popular that during the Second World War, the locals hid his valuables while he was in exile, and chose him as their mayor when he returned as soon as Field Marshal Kesselring and his Nazis had cleared out. The Kitsons' story unites many aspects - enterprise, philanthropy and art - which deserve a greater prominence in the history and image of the North. For the Casa Cuseni, which until recently has been for sale, though you'd need oodles of cash, see The little pocket book at the top incidentally, is for 1885 and was given to me by the marvellous Enid Lakeman, lifelong campaigner for proportional representation, when I worked with her at the Electoral Reform Society in 1971. She must be strumming her harp at the moment, with Britain's fab new reforming coalition. Her father worked at Hunslet Engineering and the book belonged to him.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Cinema gris

The North has its own version of Cinema Noir, best summed up by Beryl Bainbridge's remark, when filming a documentary on Tyneside, that only a TV crew would choose to go to the beach at Whitley Bay in December. Rain, mist, all continues up to the present day, vide the recent exciting but grimissimo TV adaption of the Red Riding trilogy by David Peace. I have a bash at all this in True North and I have been helped by many books which explore the wider and much benign overall tradition of films about, and made in the three regions.Talking Pictures, The Popular Experience of the Cinema, edited by Colin Harding and Brian Lewis (Yorkshire Art Circus 1993) was one of the first, excellent publications to come out of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford - a brilliant location for such a place, with many of the locations used in the film of Keith Waterhouse's wonderfully celebratory Billy Liar nearby. Sorry about the blue line on the cover; that's my incompetence with Adobe Photoshop.

An even better look back is contained in the 324 pages of Movie-Makers and Picture Palaces by G.J.Mellor (Bradford Libraries 1996). A treasure trove.

Finally Dorothy Newlyn's Theatre Connections (Newlyn 1995) is an autobiography by a woman who was instrumental with her husband Walter in getting us the fine West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Apart from telling the story of that campaign, she is also enjoyable and interesting on the theatre and cinema of her Yorkshire youth.

Not dead, just busy elsewhere

Goodness, sorry (again). It's been more than a month. I really apologise; it's been the election and this and that and the fact that the moth trap is up and running again and I can't resist doing blog entries for Martin's Moths (check out via the profile section on this page, and enter a new world).
I'm also a bit de-motivated by the lack of controversy about my assault on the Grimsters. This isn't just here on the blog, but I've been surprised at talks I've done in Newcastle and Hexham, that there hasn't been more of a fightback by the old Northern guard. At Northern Stage, they put up a lot of the gritty grey photos which have so dominated the Northern canon and we had quite a good discussion about that. But most people seem to be taking my Cheer Up Everyone trumpet calls like lambs. I must just show you my own grim and gritty slide which I showed at Newcastle (satirically, in the same breath as telling everyone how unsurprised I was to be staying at the Grey hotel in Grey Street). That was unfair, mind. It just happened to be Earl Grey rather than Earl Light, although his tea is notably lighter than the standard dark brew.

I took this pic in March and when I went back at the end of April for the Northern Stage talk, the slogan had been sprayed over. But it is a good question. I must find out why the hideous but strangely beguiling walkway below the High Level Brdidge came to such a sudden stop. The metal edge of the HLB, far above, is encrusted with dead pigeons incidentally. I wonder if the Kittiwakes got them.

However, the bibliography must press on, and here are another three publications which I have learned from and enjoyed. Some years ago, I went for a walk in Buck Wood, above the river Aire and Esholt sewage works near here, an area much pleasanter than it sounds. My stumbling across some old foundations led to making a Radio 4 programme on open air schools, because the concrete traces are all that is left of Thackley Open Air School. The programme in turn reinforced Christine Alvin's intention of writing a book on the place, about which she knows much. The result is The School in the Wood, Friends of Buck Wood 2008, which you can get direct from

Thackley is a comfortable and lovely spot. The centre of Bradford has notorious problems, with a huge hole where the Westfield development has run out of private cash. The easing of the recession (fingers crossed) should see work start again, but meanwhile the city council is bravely pressing on with its plans for a mirror pool the other side of the City Hall. Excavators are already at work. You can read all about the underlying thinking in Bradford Centre Regeneration Masterplan, Will Alsop Architects, 2003, probably not easy to get hold of but Bradford council or Alsop's should be able to point you in the right direction.

Finally for now, I like detailed books by enthusiast for recondite subjects, which often contain unexpected wider social issues overlooked by more general historians.
One such is Bradford City Tramways 1882-1950 by D M Coates, Wyvern Publications 1984. It helped me, too, when I was tracking down the former workshop of Bill Cull, the man who made Issigonis' Mini work with his continuous velocity joints - see A Mini Adventure by myself, Aurum Press 2009, if you want to know more...

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A little bit of this...

..and a little bit of that... Here's a foursome of books from the North East which show the diversity of life in that part of the North, for better and worse. Gary's Friends by Adrian Clarke (West Pier Press 2007) is a photographic essay on a group of drink and drug abusers on Tyneside and Teeside which may sound off-putting but is actually a riveting social document. It shows how closely a dismal way of life may be related to something quite different; one of the people who bravely agreed to be photographed and tell a summary of their life story is a cousin of Bob Crooks, the marvellous, long-standing chairman of Durham county council who features in True North. Another of his relatives was Sammy Crooks, the England footballer, and a third was Mayor of Durham city. The role played by family breakdown in creating individual disaster is desperately apparent in this book.

There's more gritty material in A Hole Like That - 13 Cleveland Poets, edited by Mark Robinson (Scratch 1994) and just one of shelves of excellent verse to come from the North East's grassroots (which are, after all, the home of the famous Bloodaxe imprint - - among others. It isn't only grit, though. The poets also reflect on the beautiful countryside which surrounds the industrial heartland by the Tees.

Off to the coast next, in the company of All Her Glories Past by David Phillipson (Smith Settle 1994), which tells the story of the Zetland lifeboat and her immensely long service at Redcar where she remains a visitor attraction.

Similar, lesser-known attractions abound in The Hidden Places of Northumberland and Durham by Emma Roberts (Travel Publishing 2003), which also has handy recommendations of places to stay on a visit. I have more than half-a-dozen Southern friends, who are otherwise staunchly metropolitan, but never let a year go by without a visit to Northumberland, both inland in the lovely and lonely National Park, or along the sensational coast. Alnmouth is the second best treat from the East Coast mainine after Durham and Holy Island is extraordinary. The pub there is the only place in the UK where I have listened to compatriots speaking English and been unable to understand them. Emma Roberts' book is one of a 'county' series and I've made good use of the Yorkshire volumes as well.

Oh, just as a PS to this post, I had a wonderful time at Headingley LitFest, helped by knowing almost every inch of that distinguished suburb. This is a genetic thing. My mum, who came to the talk and enjoyed the scones and butterfly buns (as I did), was born in St Michael's Villas and was also left wailing as a toddler in Shire Oak Road - where the talk was - by my Grandad who thought she'd shut up if he pretended to abandon her and hid behind a wall. She claims it just made her bawl louder than ever. The Litfest has posted a generous account of proceedings on their blog at I immodestly like the title of that link...