England’s northern soul

Melvyn Bragg, presenter of a new BBC Radio 4 series on the history of the north of England, talks to Rob Attar about how this region has forged a distinct identity over the past 2,000 years

Newcastle upon Tyne, 1877, published in the Illustrated London News. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

What do we mean when we speak of ‘the North’?

This is open to dispute, but I think we’ve made a fair shot of it in the series. The map we’ve drawn starts in the far north across Hadrian’s Wall, from west to east, and then we go from Wallsend down the North Sea to the Humber and Hull. We trundle across country, including Sheffield, and get to just below Liverpool before going up the west coast back to the wall.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What do we mean when we speak of ‘the North’?

This is open to dispute, but I think we’ve made a fair shot of it in the series. The map we’ve drawn starts in the far north across Hadrian’s Wall, from west to east, and then we go from Wallsend down the North Sea to the Humber and Hull. We trundle across country, including Sheffield, and get to just below Liverpool before going up the west coast back to the wall.

So it’s that chunk and it contains a mass of northern landscape. It contains the place where the Romans made the most intensive military settlement. It contains the place where the Vikings arrived. It contains the place where the industrial revolution – in my view the greatest ever revolution – took place. And it contains the place where the idea of nature began to replace the notion of reason.

This entity we’ve made has got twice the population of Scotland. If it were an independent country, it would have the eighth biggest economy in Europe, and it’s probably as inventive as any similar area in the world.

When did the North first develop its own identity?

Well the North actually began the English identity. We were there in the beginning. After the Romans left in the early fifth century, there was a period of around 200 years of warring tribes in the North. The whole thing broke down, but what came out of it eventually was the kingdom of Northumbria, around the North East. That was the first kingdom of the new England. It conquered or had alliances with virtually every other section of England, right down to Wessex.

Northumbria had some important things going for it. First of all, it had very good soldiers. Secondly, it had the cultural backing with works such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Bede’s history of the English people. There was also the infusion of religion, in a powerful way. Augustine had brought Christianity to the south of England, but in the North, it came through what we used to call the Celtic religion. You can see evidence of it in some of the great crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross and Gosforth cross.

This was one entity reaching out to the whole of that part of the islands – and that was further reinforced centuries afterwards by the arrival of the Vikings. Yes they did go to other places, but mostly it was to Cumbria and Yorkshire, and in great numbers. Firstly they came to loot, but later they came with their wives to settle and brought an immense amount of place names, family names and different ways of farming. At stage after stage, you find the North having a separate history.

What has the attitude of the South traditionally been to the North?

They have tried to control it from the beginning – at least since 1066. William the Conqueror, who was an absolute sod, thought the North was very dangerous because the Scandinavians kept coming and so he adopted a scorched earth policy. If you went there for many decades, even centuries, afterwards, there would be very few big settlements except fortresses. So the north-south divide began very early and this is typified again when Catholicism was outlawed, as it were, by Henry VIII. It was in the North that you had the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion against the South.

You have to remember the North was a very long way from the South in those days, so it was developing its own dialects, language, settlements and a persisting religion that had largely been stamped out in the South. Even Chaucer, in the 14th century, wrote that southern people could not understand those from the North because of the different words they used.

Because of its distance from central government, has it been easier for people in the North to rebel?

I don’t know whether it’s been easier, because people have also rebelled in the south of this country – as we know from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 for example. But there has been a steady sense in English affairs for a very long time that the North was a problem and that it was set apart.

That became much less so when the industrial revolution arrived and the North became a cash cow, a wonderful place for people in this country to make enormous amounts of money. The North was the centre of Britain and, for decades, it was this region that was producing the wealth and setting the pace of the country. All of a sudden, this small island had 35 per cent of the world’s trade, was the world leader in producing all kinds of things and was building railways in America, China and India.

At a similar time, one other thing the North gave to the world, and not just the South, was the idea of the importance of nature. When Daniel Defoe, a great Londoner, came up to the North he described it as a place of horror where nobody wanted to live. Yet not very long afterwards, Wordsworth was saying that this was a place to inspire the finest feelings and thoughts. Out of that came the idea of taking on nature through walking in beautiful places, climbing hills and that sort of thing. So this was a massive change in intellectual and emotional attitudes to nature and the way people lived their everyday lives.

Do you think the North has a different relationship with Scotland than the rest of England has?

Yes and it’s been largely antagonistic – although not always. The Scots have been a threat to the North and so they had to guard against them, not only with the wall but also with castles. The North has had to define itself against both Scotland and the South.

Yet it’s interestingly muddled, because in the border areas of the country there are the same families on both sides of the wall. People’s land goes either side of the wall and their herds of cows and flocks of sheep do likewise. So, not only have the borders been heavily disputed territory, but they’ve also been a little entity of their own.

You’ve talked about some of the times when the North set itself apart from the South. But were there also periods of co-operation?

There were, especially during warfare and particularly the world wars. Even before that, people would come down from the North to join the armies that were going to France, because, apart from anything else, it was lucrative. And of course the aristocracy of the North owed allegiance to the king – and part of that involved coming down to bring knights, archers and soldiers.

In more recent times, what have de-industrialisation and economic decline in parts of the North meant for its relationship with the South?

I think many people in the North feel very strongly that they’re always getting sold short. For instance, tens of millions of pounds could be spent on a garden bridge in London, whereas wonderful museums in the North, such as Bede’s World, may get completely cut. The North has enhanced problems that the South doesn’t have, and that’s basically because of a lack of investment and caretaking.

During the industrial revolution, the North did have great resources and it did great things. It created amazing cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, the latter of which still has more public monuments than any other British city, including London. But when the resources go, everything declines.

What hopes do you have for the future of the North?

If there were reasonable investment, the North could do very well. It has done very well in certain areas when it was given a chance. But things are let go – the big steel industry for example. Newcastle was at one stage the only place in the world where you could build a complete ship, with washbasins, beds and sheets and so on. There were 150 different types of carpenters employed on it. But we lost all that.

How important has being northern been for your own identity?

It’s difficult to talk about your own identity because it is often something other people tell you about. But I was very aware of the vastness of the North and I think that sort of thing has had an influence on me. I was also aware of the way people spoke in the North being different and – I know this is a cliché – but when I go north the people are more friendly. And there is definitely a feeling of a different history and of different expectations.

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Cumbrian-born Melvyn Bragg is one of the country’s best-known writers and broadcasters. He is the longstanding presenter of The South Bank Show and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.