Travels in the North of England


Illustration by Kitt Byrne.

Every year I make about four trips to the North East of England. This extraordinary part of the country, so often looked upon by the people of the South as a land of cheerless desolation, has over time become one of my favourite places to visit, for reasons that only a person who has spent a considerable amount of time there will understand. Although home to many rare and beautiful flowers, the countryside of the region has a beauty that in places borders on severity: it bears very little resemblance to my native Somerset, where the fields bloom with marsh orchids and cowslip. Instead there is ruggedness to the landscape of the North East, a formidable and endearing bleakness, which can also be found in the small market towns that glut the region and which provides them with an irresistible character.

Of all these towns, Darlington is one that I have been to the most, and also one of the few that I know well enough to discuss here. It does not have a particularly good reputation. I remember watching an ITV documentary a few years ago on David Harker, the cannibal and one-time Darlington resident, which seemed to me to suggest that Darlington had nurtured Harker’s insanity and led him to commit his terrible crimes. How the town had achieved such a remarkable feat was explained using stock footage of several endomorphic men drinking in a Darlington pub—a sign, viewers were to believe, that alcoholism (and probably obesity while we’re at it) was rife among Darlington’s many feckless inhabitants. This peculiar bit of filmmaking, clearly designed to maximise the horrors of an already horrific story, painted Darlington as a sad and unpleasant place. It was quite different from the town that I had by then become quite well acquainted with and had grown to like very much.

The reputation of a place is, in my experience, rarely founded on personal experience, but more often than not on the credulity of those who eagerly repeat what they have heard about it without ever visiting it themselves. Despite what ITV may say, Darlington does not deserve to be condemned. It is an attractive town, unspoiled for the most part by the meaningless plunder of commercial development, which in London has just about succeeded in destroying anything of historical importance and replacing it with monuments to greed and self-satisfaction. No conceited developer in recent times has thought to plough money into Darlington, and as a result it still owes much of its appearance to the Victorian era, and in particular to the Peases, the wealthy Quaker family that commissioned many of the town’s buildings. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the clock tower is undeniably Darlington’s most recognisable landmark. It features none of the striking red terracotta for which Waterhouse was known, looking much like something from a fairy tale book, with a tall brown spire that is more or less free of typical Victorian embellishments.


Other buildings from this period, particularly those of George Gordon Hoskins, add much to the aesthetic beauty of the town. Yet they also serve as a reminder of Darlington’s past, when through its associations with the birth of the railways it became an important hub for industry in the North. In the days that have followed, Darlington has been dealt a less favourable hand, and like so many former industrial towns has become a centre for administration, with EE and Student Finance England employing many of the town’s inhabitants. This, I suppose, is what happens when a government decides to make some quick cash, and sends much of the country’s industry overseas; we become a nation of administrators and customer service assistants, unable produce anything of value, and reliant on the employment of one of four corporations.

It is no wonder, given this state of affairs, that Darlington is a moderately deprived area. But like most deprived areas it benefits tremendously from a strong community of residents, who devote much energy to the planning and promotion of local events. Small businesses such as Guru, a well-loved boutique store, play an especially integral role in establishing a sense of community spirit that is hard to find in more affluent towns. I sometimes forget living in London of the alternative culture that is strangely ubiquitous throughout the North and means so much to such a broad range of people. I tend to presume that Londoners are somehow more hippyish than the people of the North; but Guru, and its ability to stay in businesses for almost four decades, suggests that there is plenty of unconventionality, and particularly in Darlington where culture exists in spite of poor funding. The arts centre, founded in 1982, has recently closed down. But the Civic Theatre remains, hosting a mix of musicals, dramas, plays and pantomimes; and in recent months The Majestic cinema has been returned to its former art deco glory, recalling a time when Darlington had more cinemas per head than any town in England.

Since I first visited Darlington, six, seven years ago, I have developed several meaningless rituals to which I now strictly abide. The first of these is that I always make sure to read a copy of the Northern Echo, Darlington’s flagship newspaper, which came to prominence in Victorian times, when it was edited by the great William Stead. Under Stead’s assiduous guidance, the paper won many accolades from important Liberals of the day, including William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and E. A. Freeman who went so far as to describe the paper as the best in Europe. My personal fascination in The Echo’s current form lies primarily in the hysterical tone of its Hear All Sides section, which compiles the opinions of some of Darlington’s most passionate thinkers. The subjects they discuss in these pages ranges from pedestrianisation to young people’s propensity for vulgarity and destruction. Nobody could deny that these people believe fervently in the things they write.

My other rituals are altogether less stimulating. They include an obligatory trip to Boyes—a department store found in many Northern towns that seems, inexplicably, to sell every product imaginable, including those that haven’t been sold elsewhere for decades—and a visit to one of Darlington’s many historical buildings. One that predates the Victorian era is St. Cuthbert’s Church, which owing to poor funding exists in a state of mild neglect. Built in 1183, it is an important example of early English churches in the North of England, with a great tower and spire rising from the intersection of the nave and transepts. Sir Gilbert Scott, who along with Waterhouse was one of Britain’s greatest Victorian architects, described it as on the whole one of the most uniform parish churches anywhere, and one of the most beautiful too. He was not wrong.


Buildings of similar antiquity abound in the North, and can easily be reached if you have access to a car. Along with Barnard Castle—a beautiful market town whose admirers have included Daniel Defoe, William Wordsworth and Hillaire Belloc—the place that I enjoy visiting the most while staying in Darlington is the little coastal town Whitby, which is reached by driving across a vast stretch of moorland, generously shrouded in tiny shrubs. Few views are more breathtaking than the one seen while driving along the steady incline towards the town. There, for just a brief moment, the ruins of Whitby’s famous abbey become visible, appearing as three accusing spikes directed at the sky. Built sometime in the 11th century, this “W”-shaped structure was half-demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries, and for centuries has served as a useful landmark for men at sea. Nowadays tourists from every part of the country go there to see where Dracula came ashore in Bram Stoker’s immortal novel. This connection has helped, in part, to inspire in the Whitby Gothic Week, a music festival that takes place twice a year, and generally involves throngs of newspaper-coloured twenty-somethings sprawling themselves over ancient grave stones.

I personally have great affection for the Goths of Whitby, this small act of impertinence aside. They add a quirky sort of character to the town that is noticeably absent in similar places. In the South, and in particularly where I grew up in the South West, the inhabitants of seaside towns seem to share a rather conservative attitude towards anything out of the ordinary. But this isn’t true of Whitby, where dozens of shops sell chocolate coffins and macabre paraphernalia, and the average resident’s position on this peculiar sub-culture seems to be either one of ambivalence or obliging acceptance. One can easily understand why the Goths choose Whitby for their bi-annual celebration. There is something dark and Victorian about the town that extends far beyond its connection to Dracula. Perhaps it has something do with its location overlooking the North Sea, which gives it a sense of remoteness, and frequently welcomes in a dense swathe of sea fret to the old bay. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that, in spite of the decline of its jet and fishing industries, it still has the look and feel of a town that has barely changed in the last hundred years.

We are fortunate that what has changed—the characters and their old way of life—has been lovingly documented by one of the great artists of the late 19th century. His name was Frank Sutcliffe, a photographer from Headingly in Leeds, who earned a meagre living taking portraits of holiday-makers, but made a name for himself photographing the ordinary people of Whitby: the fisher people, the ragged local boys, the young woman sitting in sombre introspection beside the shore. Sutcliffe’s photographs were incredibly original for their time. They captured a way of life that, even a decade after they were taken, was already starting to disappear. By the turn of the century, when the new ways had more or less superseded the old, the demand for Sutcliffe’s work began to increase. His photographs became quaint nostalgia pieces, admired by collectors not only for their impressive composition but increasingly for their sense of history too.

On my most recent trip to Whitby, I looked through a collection of Sutcliffe’s work and had little difficulty picking out some of the locations used in his photographs. The people might have gone, but for the most part the buildings are still there, and there is no denying that it has retained much of the spirit that makes Sutcliffe’s photographs so brilliantly captivating. Only towards the pier, where the old suddenly gives way to a stretch of amusement arcades, do you begin to suspect that Whitby could have lost some of its charm. Elsewhere, the town is steeped in history, particularly on the east side, the old town, where in the mid-18th century Captain Cook lodged while fantasising about life beyond the horizon of the tempestuous North Sea.

Nowadays the old house in which Cook stayed, the house of the Walker family, is a museum dedicated to Cook’s journeys and many correspondences. In all my years of visiting Whitby I have been inside only once and that was on my most recent visit during a heavy storm. Why I hadn’t been to the museum before I can’t quite say. I suppose there is just something about Whitby that makes you want to relax and do as little as possible, to waste hours in tiny antique shops or have afternoon tea or go shopping for books. This nevertheless is a lousy excuse in my case, since I have always loved the Cook story, believing it to be just as good as any work of fiction. It tells of how a lowly northern lad rose through the ranks of seamanship, beguiled his fellow seamen with his relentless determination and as a captain was widely regarded as an intrepid explorer and all-round gentleman. His famously impervious moral compass, which helped earn him this fine reputation, is said to have to have been influenced by a single incident that took place while Cook was working as a haberdasher in nearby Staithes. Supposedly, one day a customer handed him a shiny South Seas shilling, which Cook resolved to keep and replace with one of his own. The coin, however, had already caught the attention of Cook’s master who, noticing it missing from the till, accused Cook of taking it. So shaken by this ordeal was Cook that, from then on, he always strove to demonstrate a strong sense common decency. It is a shame therefore that his story ended so gruesomely, with his fleshless bones being recovered for burial at sea. It shouldn’t have ended that way, and hearing about it never gets any easier.

In addition to the Captain Cook house, there are several excellent museums in Whitby, including the one at Pannett Park, which celebrates Whitby’s long and sometimes rather unusual history. I have visited this twice before and both times been startled by the eeriness of the museum’s collection. Perhaps the strangest, most revolting artefact on display here is the “Hand of God”, a small withered hand that has been judiciously preserved in a glass jar so that future generations can be disturbed by it. It is appropriate, I suppose, that such a grimly religious oddity should be found in Whitby, given its reputation for all things dark and mysterious. This reputation, though clearly much inspired by the Dracula tale, almost certainly has its origins in Christianity, which swept to prominence in the North in the 7th century, aided by the tireless promotion of King Oswy of Northumbria. In part fulfilment of a vow, Oswy built Whitby’s first abbey, having declared before witnesses that, if he were to defeat Penda of Mercia at the battle of Winwaed in 655, he would build seven monasteries and devote his daughter to the religious life with or without her consent. Under abbess Hilda the abbey became known as the Lantern of the North. It was here that the famous Synod took place, which involved leaders of the Celtic and Roman churches debating prodigious theological matters, such as the date of Easter and which fruits were considered holier in the eyes of God—figs or pears.

Holy Hilda's abbey.

Holy Hilda’s abbey.

Hilda, who participated in these important discussions, is an interesting character for the incredible stories that surround her legend. According to Venerable Bede, she was the pious soul who encouraged Caedmon, an unlearned cowman, to sing what became the first Christian poetry in the English language. If we’re to believe the myth, the poem in question, Caedmon’s Hymn, came to its author in a dream. It is striking in its bold simplicity.


Now we must honour the guardian of heaven,

the might of the architect, and his purpose,

the work of the father of glory—as he the beginning of wonders

established, the eternal lord,

He first created for the children of men

heaven as a roof, the holy creator

Then the middle earth, the guardian of mankind

the eternal lord, afterwards appointed

the lands for men, the Lord almighty.


In the time of Caedmon, when Whitby was called Streanœhealh (a name I cannot even begin to pronounce), the townspeople believed that St Hilda had some of the powers often attributed to St Patrick. The local legend was that the ammonites found along the Whitby coast, those tiny swirls of fossilised rock, were once snakes that had been turned into stone by the majesty of St Hilda prayers. Having inspected one of these on my recent trip to Whitby, I can see how the townspeople could have believed this: they do indeed look like snakes. One of the great joys of any visit to Whitby is searching the beach for these miniature treasures as well as bits of jet, Whitby’s native gemstone, popular among Goths and, over a century ago, a grieving Queen Victoria. I personally like Whitby jet because it hasn’t been mined from the ground by an improvised slave child, as is true of most stones considered valuable or attractive by the general public. In Whitby you can find jet by looking about on the shore for bits of shimmering black. Mostly, after about an hour, your sodden hands will be full of slate and sometimes coal, though occasionally, if you’re lucky, you will find something worth keeping.

You don’t have to worry about wasting time in Whitby. Time spent doing anything there is a pleasure. Yet it is often worth mustering up the energy to do something mildly active, given how much there is to do and see. As has become a tradition of sorts, I devoted some time on my recent trip to walking out of Whitby, this time to Robin Hood’s Bay, via what is known as the cinder track – owing to the fact that the path has been coloured with tiny pigments of coal left by countless carts being pushed along it. It is not a particularly strenuous walk. The path is more or less straight, with few hills or bumps to cross. The highlight of the walk, aside from the arresting view of the coast, is crossing the Larpool Viaduct, a towering structure of imposing red brick, 120 ft tall and 915 ft wide, with thirteen magnificent arches perched on stilted platforms above the muddy river Esk.

On top of the viaduct.

On top of the viaduct.


The view from the cinder track.

Leaning over the side of the viaduct’s tiny wall and looking down at the river below produced in me a peculiar feeling of dizziness unlike anything I have ever experienced before. So later that day, when I arrived back in Whitby, I stopped for a pint in The Elsinore in an attempt to stop my head from spinning. A trad-jazz band had just started playing, and their music had attracted a number of loquacious characters who, though strangers, were perfectly happy to chat to one another as if close friends. This is considered perfectly normal in the North, and not at all the behaviour of somebody who has lost his mind, as it is in London and its surrounding counties. Having lived in Yorkshire before, I always enjoy being reminded that the pubs of the North are still alive with affability. More than this, though, I enjoy hearing the accents—the soft twang of North Riding, the musical tones of what is known as Geordieland. All of the accents of the North come together in Whitby, the meeting point between Yorkshire and County Durham.

Back in Darlington I barely had time to do anything before my train arrived. But I did drive past the old Britannia Inn where, in 1849, J.M. Dent, the founder of the Everyman Library was born. Over the years Darlington has produced many great men and women, Dent being just one of many literary figures in a group of writers, poets, naturalist, archaeologists and actors. Among the most prodigious of the lot is Katherine Maria Routledge, a member of Darlington’s famous Pease family, who is remembered for undertaking the first scientific survey of Easter Island. There is also Ian Hamilton, known for his London literary magazines The Review and the New Review, and Ralph Hodgson, a poet who, though popular in his lifetime, can now be accurately described as an underrated talent. He was born in 1871 on Garden Street, the son of a prosperous coal merchant who hit the bottle and died while Hodgson was still only a boy. Perhaps as a method of coping with his loss, the young poet developed a great fondness for nature that in later life was to play an integral role in his poetry, inspiring his most celebrated works such as The Bull, and winning him many eminent admirers, including Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare and T.S. Eliot, who composed these lines in homage:


How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 

                          (Everyone wants to know him) — 

With his musical sound 

And his Baskerville Hound

Which, just at a word from his master 

Will follow you faster and faster 

And tear you limb from limb. 

How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 

Who is worshipped by all waitresses 

(They regard him as something apart) 

While on his palate fine he presses 

The juice of the gooseberry tart. 

How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson!
(Everyone wants to know him), 

He has 999 canaries 

And round his head finches and fairies 

In jubilant rapture skim. 

How delightful to meet Mr. Hodgson! 

                          (Everyone wants to meet him).


Hodgson settled with his second wife in Japan, lecturing in English Literature at the local university, and later retired with his third wife to a remote farm in Ohio. He died there in 1962, leaving behind a body of work that, though far from extensive, demonstrated an astonishing gift for sound and cadence. I sometimes wonder whether Hodgson ever thought about Darlington during his years of self-imposed exile. When he was growing up the town was a very different place to what it is now. Still a major centre for industry in the North, Darlington was marked indelibly by a momentary spurt of affluence that led to erection of those tall Victorian buildings in the centre of town. Hodgson will have been on the cusp of all this. He would have seen them built, though I doubt he would have cared much for them. What fascinated him most was nature, and Darlington is above all a green town; its verdant spaces leave their impression on the senses.

In the 18th century Daniel Defoe disparaged Darlington, writing that it had “nothing remarkable but dirt”. I suspect that some people feel the same way nowadays, though I wonder how many of them have actually been there, and can speak with any sort of authority on the matter. No doubt most of them will attest to the extraordinary beauty of Yorkshire. Speaking as a Southerner, I’m surprised that more people aren’t as savvy to the delights of the North East, since for me both places are as beautiful as one another.

Greetings from Whitby.

Greetings from Whitby.

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