Exploring England: Is it really grim up north?

“It’s grim up north.”

When talking about the north of the UK, you will always hear a southerner use this idiom, no matter what the subject of discussion.

Growing up in the south, I always heard this infamous phrase but I never thought much about it. At least I thought I didn’t. The phrase comes from way back when the north of England was dominated by heavy industry, including mining. Combined with the rugged landscapes and colder, greyer weather than the south, we southerners can’t help but think it must be grim.

is it grim up north

So I never went up there.

Years later, however, many of my friends moved north for university, specific jobs and affordable housing. My boyfriend was even born in the North; one side of his family still live there. And so, finding ourselves back in the UK, we decided to take our backpacks north to visit them and see if it really is as grim as people say.

is it grim up north
Driving through the countryside, rolling green hills lined with free-standing stone fences stretched for miles.
is it grim up north
The National Trust preserve historic sights and land, including Bolton Abbey and the area around.
is it grim up north
Ornate buildings stand proud along the streets of Harrogate.
is it grim up north
In Darwen, they even have emus.
is it grim up north
Liverpool’s old industrial docklands have been regenerated into museums, cafes and bars.
is it grim up north
Football supporters watch a Liverpool match at Camp and Furnace, an industrial warehouse on the city’s outskirts converted into a bar.

It turns out that a backpacking trip across the north had much more on offer than I originally thought. Before heading off, I had some pretty bad preconceived notions of the north of England, most of which turned out to be wrong. The cities and towns of the north have changed a lot since that phrase was coined. Recent regeneration programmes, conservation of historic buildings and the countryside, and an appreciation for arts, means that the north is an unexpected cultural gem for travellers. It’s not all that grim up north after all.

Have you travelled to the north of England? What did you think?

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

20 thoughts to “Exploring England: Is it really grim up north?”

  1. Loving this Charlie, you are welcome back up North anytime :-) We can show you the delights that West Yorkshire has to offer hehe xx BIG hugs xx

    1. That’s a funny coincidence!
      Where in England have you moved to? The sun only ever comes out when you’re not particularly hoping for it I find, haha. The sun being out doesn’t mean it’s warm though! =/

  2. I’m glad you’ve discovered the North of England, it really is a beautiful place, though I am a bit biased, being from up here! I think a lot of Northerners have bad misconceptions about the South of England too, it’s not somewhere I’ve ever felt a desire to explore, but this has almost inspired me to give it a go!

    1. Where in the north are you from?
      You definitely should give the south a go; it’s a bit warmer down here! Cornwall is still the most incredible place I’ve been in the UK (St Ives, Tintagel, Boscastle) but the south is dotted with historic sights and a lot of green walking too :)

  3. My parents were born in North Yorkshire and I spent some of my summers as a child visiting my grandparents in Saltburn. Great post Charlie! I hope one day I have the time to explore the countryside there.

  4. Lovely photos. I was also born in the south, and really rarely go up north, and it’s totally true how lots of us think it’s a bit grim up there. I would love to travel around there a little more. I studied in Huddersfield for a bit (didn’t last long before I moved back to London), takes a lot of adapting.

    1. It really is, I think lots of us are just brought up being told that by people who’ve never been though – such a misconception. I think living there would definitely take a lot of getting used to, you’re right.

  5. The North! It’s my favourite region of the UK, as I was born in a small farming village not far outside Harrogate, which it’s nice to see feature here (it really is a lovely town). Newcastle and York are fantastic cities, and the countryside is beautiful. Plus, I might be biased, but I always found northerners to be friendlier than their southern counterparts, too – plus we do the two British classics, fish & chips and a full English breakfast, better than you folk in the sunny south. OK so maybe it’s not sunny, but sunnier.Glad to see you challenged your preconceptions and explored! :)

    1. Yes, everything was lovely. I visited Newcastle and Durham a while back and really loved that too, I’d forgotten even! I took the advice you gave me on CS and went to Betty’s too! Actually I ended up in both Betty’s (the original and the garden centre type one?) just by coincidence of seeing 2 different sets of people in one day. haha.

      I think the friendliness definitely depends on where you are… I haven’t explored enough of the north to know though!

      More like the flooded south!

  6. The whole grim up north thing is a rather complicated matter. I’m a Northerner, born and bred (born in Newcastle, raised in Sunderland (ouch) and then spent the rest of my growing up in Northumberland.) I love the North, I think it’s home to some wonderful landscapes, it’s a lot cheaper and we know how to party although so does the South, I will add! However, whilst the situation is getting better, there are certain places where you can’t ignore the fact that unemployment is still a problem and it unfortunately means that for me regardless of where I want to be, the North will probably not have the job opportunities that are suited to my skills and industry (although that is still undecided so who knows?!) Home will always be up North but for the foreseeable future, it won’t be where I’m settled. Luckily, I will always say breakfast, dinner and tea instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner so I will always have my distinguishable northern accent to fall back on!

    1. Yes, true words. The south is also having a lot of problems with unemployment too, although I know it’s not as widespread as the north. I was surprised when friends of mine actually moved up north for employment as well! One friend is a biologist, another works in logistics, and one in radiography. I guess people go where the work suits their skills.

      That’s such a funny thing to say! Tea is for the afternoon, like afternoon tea. I didn’t even know that Northerners switched it all up.

      Where are you living now, Naomi?

  7. (I’m completely stalking your archives today!) I LOVE this post, in fact I’ve written a post very similar to this in terms of sentiment but I haven’t got round to posting it on my blog. I’m really pleased all your preconceived notions of the North being grim have dissipated. Places like Bolton’s Abbey and the rest of North Yorkshire represent the beauty of the North very well!

    However, I grew up in Bradford which probably has the worst reputation of them all but it’s got a fascinating history. You only need to look up at the architecture to see that this used to be one of the most powerful and thriving cities in England due to the Industrial Revolution but now it’s only a shell of its former self – pound shops and pubs dominate the city. I guess Bradford is a city which you could actually call ‘grim’ but it’s my home and I’ve spent years exploring the interesting aspects of the city to see it in another light. However, I appreciate that tourists don’t have this time and will probably find it difficult to speak kindly about it.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I now live in London and the cost of living has been a big shock to me, it’s no surprise to hear that some of your friends located to the North. I find this South-North divide very irritating – instead of bridging the gap the Government keep pummelling money and development into the South. It’s no surprise that parts of the North look ‘grim’ because it’s being entirely neglected which has huge economical and social knock-on effects .

    If you’re interested in knowing a little more about the topic, I think you’ll like The Road to Wigan Pier by Orwell, it’s brilliant!

    Sorry, I’ve totally rambled on, but I’m very passionate about the North, and this subject in general :)

    1. Hey Shing, glad you enjoyed my post! Yes, definitely keen explore some more of it and actually a little sad I didn’t get up there earlier.

      I was pretty close to Bradford but didn’t visit, only because I was staying with friends/family in Leeds, Darwen and Keighley, which make a loop around Bradford rather than through it. I saw a few documentaries about Bradford a couple of years ago though, they were all about difficulties with race relations and how the city has real problems with racial segregation etc. but I’ve not really read up on it much recently.

      I also find the North-South divide irritating, and didn’t even realise so much about it until recent years. It’s just something I grew up hearing and didn’t grow up in a family who questioned the media’s spin of it being grim and pointless in the North. I really think that the North has a lot to offer, and it’s true that with a bit of money for regeneration it can really thrive – just like with Liverpool.

      Thanks for the book recommend, always appreciate film/book/etc. recommendations, and I’m very fond of Orwell. Also looking forward to seeing your post about the North whenever it’s done! =)

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