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The call of the Northern lights

Matt Salusbury explains why international students should check out the north of England

Liverpool will be forever associated with the Beatles, and you’ve been living in a cave if you’ve not heard of Manchester United. (Other world-class football teams from ‘up north’ are Liverpool, Newcastle United and Manchester City.) Liverpool boasts the Beatles Museum, John Lennon International Airport and the Cavern Club, where the early Beatles played, but the north of England offers much more besides.

While the English you hear up north may come with an unfamiliar accent, northerners have a reputation for being friendlier than ‘down south’. The city of Leeds, with a population of over half a million, is known as ‘the largest village in England’, while a 2013 poll by a leading estate agent voted the town of Harrogate the happiest place to live in the UK.

Many of the cities of the north of England are friendly university campus towns with a big student population and a vibrant nightlife to match. Manchester (the UK’s second city, with one of Europe’s biggest universities) has over 500 pubs, while Leeds, with one of the biggest student populations of any city in the UK, has a large number of pubs, clubs and ‘super-clubs’ at student-friendly prices. And if super-clubs are not your thing, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle also have world-class art galleries. The cost of living is generally lower up north, especially accommodation.

Outside the cities of the north are the national parks of the Lake District and the Peak District, for walking, hiking and even mountaineering. The small town of Ambleside, near Windermere, England’s largest lake, is the ideal base for exploring the Lake District. The nineteenth-century poet William Wordsworth, one of the ‘Lake Poets’ whose works were inspired by the natural surroundings, ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ in the Lake District.

The seaside spa town of Scarborough has beaches, rock pools and its own aquarium. One of Britain’s most famous playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn, is based in Scarborough, and the town’s theatres host world-class productions and international drama festivals. The historic fishing villages of Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby – in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula it’s where the vampire count is shipwrecked – are a hop, skip and a jump away from Scarborough by Yorkshire Coast Line rail, as is the city of York.

Harrogate is another spa town, well known for Betty’s Tea Rooms and home of the Yorkshire Tea brand. Visitors can ‘take the waters’ in the historic Royal Pump Room and wander the RHS Harlow Carr botanical garden – one of several in the town.

The city of Sheffield, surrounded by hills, has a reputation as one of England’s safest and greenest cities, with more trees per person than any city in Europe, and the Peak District and Pennine Hills are on Sheffield’s doorstep.

Much of the medieval city walls of the ancient county town of York still remain, as well as York Minster – its medieval cathedral – and the Shambles, York’s almost intact medieval street. York is also a handy departure point for the rugged hills and valleys of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The historic cathedral city of Chester was originally a Roman settlement and is named from the Latin word for an army camp. As well as having some impressive Roman remains in its museum, it’s the only English city with all its defensive walls still intact. The beautiful scenery of the hilly north Wales coast and its Victorian seaside resorts are a manageable journey away from Chester or Liverpool, as is Alton Towers – the UK’s biggest theme park.

Newcastle has its famous bridges along the River Tyne, and the Metro Centre, one of Europe’s largest shopping malls, is nearby. As well as having easy access to the Lake District and, over the border, to Edinburgh, Newcastle is handy for the Hadrian’s Wall Path – running along a chain of forts from coast to coast it once marked the border of the Roman Empire (now served by the Hadrian’s Wall County Line), while the CrossCountry railway will take you from Newcastle to the majestic castles of Northumberland. Two hundred years of border warfare with the Scots have left the county with over seventy castle sites.

Leeds – the UK’s third biggest city – is also a centre for media, and the computer game Grand Theft Auto was developed there. The city has over a thousand shops and its Kirkgate Market is the largest covered market in Europe, but it also has medieval churches and the remains of Kirkstall Abbey.

While Liverpool had the Beatles, fans worldwide of miserabalist pop superstar Morrissey will know ‘Manchester – so much to answer for’, while super-groups Oasis and Take That are more recent pop products of Manchester. The BBC recently moved much of its TV output from London to Salford Media Village.

Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle have international airports, while the high-speed East Coast Mainline will take you from London to Leeds and onward to Newcastle in under three hours. The West Coast Mainline puts London just a couple of hours away from Liverpool and Manchester by high-speed train, and it has a branch to Chester.