As a child, I used to get pocket money in the form of a five pound note depicting George Stephenson, so-called ‘Father of the Railways’. As it happens, Stephenson was also born a ten-minute drive from the house I grew up in. The small cottage in the village of Wylam, on the banks of the Tyne, still survives as a National Trust property, and it is a building I passed by countless times during my childhood, on Sunday afternoon walks by the river with my family. To me, strolling past the birthplace of the man who was on pretty much every banknote I’d ever handled (I would rarely get my hands on any more valuable notes back then) was unremarkable: why shouldn’t such a famous person from ‘the olden days’ – the man who invented trains – have come from my part of the world?
That, however, was the first post-decimalisation Bank of England note to be graced by somebody from the North of England – and, it has subsequently turned out, the last. Stephenson was succeeded on the fiver by Elizabeth Fry (who was from Norwich), and then by Winston Churchill (from Oxfordshire); more recently, Charles Darwin (Shrewsbury) was replaced on the tenner by Jane Austen (Hampshire); Adam Smith on the £20 note was of course Scottish, but will soon be replaced by J.M.W. Turner (a Londoner). Austen’s face now sits on the notes in our wallets partly as the result of a campaign to ensure that women who weren’t the Queen (born in Mayfair, by the way) weren’t completely lost from banknotes, after Fry had been shunted offstage by Churchill. This was a laudable campaign; I actually would like our banknotes to go ‘women only’ for a time, if only to see the inevitable outraged Daily Mail headlines. There is no shortage of noteworthy (pun intended) British women who could be included; my first pick would, perhaps, be Rosalind Franklin. But nor is there any shortage of noteworthy northerners (Richard Arkwright, James Cook, William Wilberforce, to throw out just three names). One day, we might even be really radical and depict someone who is both northern and a woman (Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst, any or all of the Brontë sisters).
Of course, neither the under-representation of women, nor that of northerners, is the result of some great, nefarious conspiracy: nobody in the Bank of England intentionally set out to exclude certain characters from their banknotes. But it is, perhaps, indicative of the way in which our national popular consciousness instinctively and unthinkingly looks south: this being in spite of the fact that the North of England is, self-evidently, superior to the South in almost every way.
I am of course being somewhat flippant here, and I hasten to add the disclaimer that I write this as someone who has very contentedly made his life in the South East, and who (unlike many of my fellow northerners) has enormous fondness of the vast, endlessly-exciting metropolis of London, perhaps still the world’s greatest city. Nevertheless, those who only rarely venture beyond the capital are losing out. The natural landscape of the North, for instance, is without parallel anywhere else in England; it has been a commonplace to praise it since at least Wordsworth (another northerner), but the centuries of adulation heaped on the Lake District do not detract from its sublime beauty. Crossing over to the other side of the North, the coasts of Northumberland and North Yorkshire respectively are the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the whole country.
But it isn’t only nature which packs a visual punch. The approach into Newcastle, my home city, on the East Coast Main Line – high bridges spanning the deep valley of the Tyne and the neoclassical Georgian city rising up in steep layers – always fills me with pleasure, and not only because it means I’ve arrived back home. Don’t just take my word for it: Newcastle’s Grey Street was voted the best street in the UK by Radio 4 listeners not so long ago. Meanwhile, Durham Cathedral, not far to the south of Newcastle, is without doubt the single finest building in Britain – bar none. York Minster isn’t too far behind.
Culturally, too, the North has always been revolutionary. The most successful and influential popular musicians of the twentieth century anywhere in the world – the Beatles – were four working-class boys from run-down, post-war Liverpool. And long before the North transformed popular culture, the region had of course transformed the very fabric of the world in utterly unimaginable ways, as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution: Manchester was the world’s first industrialised city, spawning innumerable technological innovations that then made their way to the less-developed South, and beyond.
I began to make notes for this piece whilst sitting in the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, where I was involved in organising the launch of an education initiative. A few hundred metres away on the banks of the Wear stood St Peter’s Church, which began life over 1,300 years ago as St Peter’s Monastery; remarkably, part of the fabric of the original Anglo-Saxon building still stands. It was here in the seventh and eighth centuries, alongside the twin monastery of St Paul’s just a few miles away in Jarrow, that the Venerable Bede, one of the most important British historians ever to have lived, wrote the first history of England; from here that Bede popularised (though did not invent) the Anno Domini dating system. It was also here that the world’s oldest surviving copy of the Latin Bible – the Codex Amiatinus – was produced (created in the seventh century as a gift to the Pope, the manuscript is now kept in the Laurentian Library in Florence). In its heyday, Wearmouth-Jarrow was perhaps the single most important intellectual centre in Europe, and hosted what was likely the most extensive library in Western Christendom. Sunderland was a global hub of academic excellence at a time when, for instance, Oxford (the city in which I currently live), was not much more than an illiterate farmstead on an obscure stretch of the River Thames.
And yet today, like so much of the post-industrial North, Sunderland has some of the poorest levels of education in the whole country. Measured by the most recently released set of GCSE results, Sunderland is comfortably in the lowest ten percent of all English local authorities. This summer, 34% of Sunderland pupils achieved a grade 9-5 pass (that’s roughly A*-C in ‘old money’, though the new scales don’t quite map neatly onto the old) in English and Maths. In London, the figure was 48%; the national average was 39%. The Daily Telegraph’s most recent list of the top 100 schools in England (by A Level results this time) shows that, of the nineteen that are state schools, a grand total of zero can be found in the North East of England. There are also zero to be found in Yorkshire, zero in the East Midlands, and a solitary one in the whole of the North West. There are eight in London – where, incidentally, school spending per pupil is highest – and a further four in the wider South East. Unless we seriously believe that young people in, say, Sunderland are less intelligent and have less inherent potential than those who live in Sutton, the perpetuation of such extreme levels of educational inequality represents an unconscionable national failure.
I arrived in the North East for this particular event by train. It was a blessing that I was travelling from the South and not from somewhere else in the North, so poor are public transport links between so many northern population centres. It is a shocking fact, and an indefensible failing of our national infrastructure, that from Manchester it takes less time – 2 hours and 8 minutes – for a train to cover the 260km (as the crow flies) to London, than the 170km to Newcastle, which takes 2 hours 22 on the very fastest trains. About a year ago I attended a conference at which I recall a Manchester MP, in a discussion about definitions of ‘the North’, stating that to the management of Manchester Airport, the North of England is defined as anywhere within two hours’ public transport of said airport. I pointed out that this measure, ludicrously, would place Milton Keynes in the North, but not Newcastle or Carlisle.
Manchester is designated (along with Leeds) as one of two eventual northern termini of the final phase of the proposed High Speed 2 railway. This, if it ever comes to exist, will almost halve the London-to-Manchester journey time. According to our illustrious former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, this is all in aid of the much-feted ‘Northern Powerhouse’. However, there has been little to suggest that this buzz-phrase means anything more in practice than, at best, the ‘Greater Manchester Powerhouse’. As much as I love Manchester, I am not sure that all policy-makers understand that there is more to the North than the Rainy City. Will whatever benefits that are brought by HS2 actually cross the Pennines, or penetrate into the Lakes, rather than simply trickling down the M6 and West Coast Main Line? I suspect we already know the answer to that.
In George Stephenson’s day, the railway lines started in the North and later made their way downwards. Opened in 1825, the world’s first stretch of steam-powered public railway, engineered by Stephenson himself, ran between Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees; the first inter-city railway, also engineered by Stephenson, linked Liverpool to Manchester in 1830. London got its first steam railway six years later. I think Stephenson had the right idea. We could do a lot worse than to start HS2 in the North, and better connect the region’s cities. Connect them also with Scotland; then build a branch linking Liverpool to North and South Wales; and another connecting Birmingham and Bristol to the West Country. Then, finally, link this truly Northern Powerhouse to London by building down towards the capital. Certainly, let London have HS2 – eventually. But first, let’s give the North a chance to re-level the playing field once more on its own terms.