What kinds of clichés pop through your mind when you think of Northern England? Vast, empty Yorkshire moors, working class lads in flat caps? Or perhaps your mind wanders to more modern stereotypes of David Beckham bending it for Manchester United. But the truth is, Northern England is a rich and diverse place with more art and culture than you can poke a Yorkshire pudding at.
Visiting England is about so much more than castles and enjoying the famed taverns of London. Northern England is a far cry from the industrial collection of cities it was renowned for during the early to mid 20th century and is evolving as something of a world-class cultural centre. With the next few years promising a huge amount of arts events in the north and the East Yorkshire city of Hull claiming the title of 2017 UK City of Culture, here are some of the reasons you should put Northern England on your cultural to-do list.
Death of the bard
It’s been 400 years since Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son died. Shakespeare, of course, still has a huge imprint on the British psyche, and Northern Englanders will be going all out this year to mourn his departure. While much of the action will be taking place in London under the auspices of the Shakespeare400 project, northerners will also be joining in the fun of speaking an “infinite deal of nothing”. March sees the Northern Stage in Newcastle Upon Tyne performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, entwining local amateur groups with the professionals of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For something completely different, try Lantern Theatre in Liverpool, which will be performing Man with a Porpoise, an “anarchic sketch trio loosely inspired by reinterpreting Shakespeare’s works to unrecognisable ends”. Also in Liverpool, the Everyman & Playhouse Theatres will collaborate with the celebrated Shakespeare’s Globe. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will play in a number of venues nationally and internationally.
Manchester’s uber-modern art
The former industrial hub of Manchester has become a mecca for those with a passion for modern art. Indulge your bohemian side with a visit to the Northern Quarter, where you’ll find never-ending rows of cafes, restaurants, vintage shops and art galleries. Check out Whitworth Art Gallery, a recently redeveloped world-class centre and winner of Museum of the Year 2015.
For those of the cinematic bent, you can’t go past the Cornerhouse, Manchester’s centre for contemporary visual arts and independent film.
The Litany of Liverpool
You don’t need to visit London to see the Tate. Liverpool has its own – set in fabulous converted dock buildings. With an extensive British and international collection, the Tate is currently exhibiting an Henri Matisse exhibition featuring his famed piece, The Snail (1953), out of its shell and its usual London home for perhaps the only time in our lifetimes.
The third quarter of 2016 will also see some incredible cultural offerings with the Liverpool Biennial. A highlight will be from the designer of The Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s album, Sir Peter Blake, with his pop-inspired razzle-dazzle design emblazoning a Mersey commuter ferry. While you’re by the waterfront, don’t forget the Museum of Liverpool. It will provide a fascinating insight into the city’s ancient and modern history.
All roads lead to Leeds
Well, not quite, but Leeds is only a 2.5 hour train ride from London, and worth every chug. Catch Shrek or Morecambe & Wise at the Leeds Grand Theatre, be blown away by the vocal talents of Opera North, and visit the City Varieties theatre, which has hosted some pretty big names…Ever heard of a fellow called Charlie Chaplin? Or Houdini, perhaps? Leeds is also known for the Northern Ballet as well as the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
If you’re after comedy Leeds has got you covered there too. The likes of Ross Noble and Jimmy Carr have been known to grace the stages of the Leeds Town Hall, or pop into the HiFi Club for other top-name acts. If you like your comedy a bit on the raw side, try Jongleurs for some emerging talent.
A whole lot of Hull
Throughout 2017, Hull will enjoy the title of the UK’s City of Culture. The city is currently hard at work creating a schedule of a full 365 days of “transformative culture”. The city is planning to tell the world about everything it has contributed – from wind turbines to caravans. It also wants to debate the ideas of freedom and social emancipation. Expect everything from theatre to poetry to unique ways of telling stories. Keep up-to-date by visiting www.hull2017.co.uk. Don’t forget Hull’s annual arty Freedom Festival, where you can witness some tremendous cultural offerings: think artists who paint with sand on the streets, giant puppetry installations and acrobatic dance choreography – just to get you started.
More than just the puddings
Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the only of its type on the planet. This natural, historic estate will see you strolling past work by some of the world’s greatest sculptural artists while sheep graze gently beside you. It’s a rural paradise as well as an unforgettable cultural experience.
Yorkshire is also home to Wentworth Castle, with its magnificent gardens. For a lovely evening out, try one of the castle’s regular “proms”, featuring concert orchestras and a firework finale. Bring along your picnic and some sparkling wine. Then there is the sigh-worthy Alhambra Theatre in West Yorkshire. This magnificent Edwardian music hall is where you’ll find performances by some of the country’s most famed performance groups – including the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal National Theatre. It’s an ideal place to see The Phantom of the Opera.
Off the beaten track
Close to Newcastle, you’ll find Gateshead. This is a town that’s worth a visit if you’re into sculptural art, as it’s the home of famed British sculptor Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. While you’re in town, swing by the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, where you’ll find some dazzling exhibitions. Currently on show is an exhibition called Bill Murray: a story of size, distance and sincerity by artist Brian Griffiths. It features four small-scale reproductions of buildings, each imagining how the Hollywood movie star spends his time. It’s absurd and fantastic.
Another Gormley piece, Another Place, stands peacefully at Crosby Beach near Liverpool.
An adventure of sound
No exploration through the cultural landscape of Northern England should be complete without a music festival – and the Alnwick International Music Festival is most certainly one to visit. Every year at the end of July and beginning of August, this small town is flooded with folk dancing, music, traditional costumes and voracious energy. The little medieval town’s small cobbled streets become literally awash with the sounds of yesteryear – you’ll think you’ve time travelled back 500 years.
All you need is your passport and an open mind
Northern England is a rich and diverse landscape for any cultural aficionado – whether it’s traditional forms like opera or Shakespearean theatre or whether you’d prefer contemplating the most obscure, contemporary works of sculpture and installations. The cities and towns are at once historic and yet cutting-edge – the only trick is figuring out just how much you can fit into one trip.