Two rival cities with rich traditions, a medieval masterpiece, an island unto itself, and some of the finest countryside in England…this is just a flavor of what the northwest has to offer. Dominating the region is Manchester, arguably England’s most exciting city and the unofficial capital of the north. Just across the Pennines is Liverpool, fiercely proud of its own heritage and well able to put it up to its bigger neighbor in all matters from food to football. Near to both is Chester, a historic Tudor postcard with a legacy dating back to Roman times. And, just to prove that the northwest isn’t all about humankind’s concrete footprint, you can get away from it all in some of Britain’s most beautiful – and walkable – countryside, in northern Lancashire and on the Isle of Man.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The weather tagline on Manchester radio station Key 103FM introduces the forecast for ‘the greatest city in the world’. It’s a ridiculous bit of local hyperbole, but behind the bluster Mancunians both native-born and imported are convinced they live in a pretty fabulous city. A rich blend of history and culture is on show in its museums, galleries, and art centers, but what makes Manchester really fun is the swirl of hedonism that lets you dine, drink and dance yourself into happy oblivion. The uncrowned capital of the north is also the driving force of the Northern Powerhouse, a government program of investment and development that looks to corral northern England’s 15 million people into a collective force to rival London and the southeast. As a result, the city center looks like a construction site, with a host of new buildings rising up from streets that are being dug up so as to lay down miles of new tram line. The city of the future is being built today.
With a red-sandstone, Roman-era wall wrapped around a tidy collection of Tudor and Victorian-era buildings, Chester is one of English history’s greatest gifts to the contemporary visitor. The walls were built when this was Castra Devana, the largest Roman fortress in Britain. Beyond the cruciform-shaped historic center, Chester is an ordinary, residential town; it’s hard to believe today, but throughout the Middle Ages Chester made its money as the most important port in the northwest. However, the River Dee silted up over time and Chester fell behind Liverpool in importance.
Few English cities are as shackled by reputation as Liverpool, and none has worked so hard to outgrow the clichés that for so long have been used to define it. A hardscrabble town with a reputation for wit and an obsessive love of football, Liverpool also has an impressive cultural heritage: it has more listed buildings than any other city outside London, its galleries and museums are among the best in the country, and its ongoing program of urban regeneration is slowly transforming the city center into one of the most pleasant cities in northern England to have a wander in. And then there are the Beatles: Liverpool cherishes them not because they’re wedded to the past but because the Beatles are such a central part of the tourist experience that it would be crazy not to do so. The main attractions are Albert Dock (west of the city center) and the trendy Ropewalks area (south of Hanover St and west of the two cathedrals). Lime St station, the bus station, and the Cavern Quarter – a mecca for Beatles fans – lie just to the north.
Blackpool’s enduring appeal – in the face of low-cost airlines transporting its natural constituents to sunnier coasts – is down to its defiant embrace of a more traditional kind of holiday, coupled with the high-tech adrenalin hit of its famed Pleasure Beach amusement park. The town is also famous for its tower and its three piers. A successful ploy to extend the brief summer holiday season is the Illuminations, when, from early September to early November, 5 miles of the Promenade are illuminated with thousands of electric and neon lights.
Lancashire’s handsome Georgian county town is a quiet enough burg these days, but all around is evidence of the wealth it accrued in its 18th-century heyday when it was an important trading port and a key player in the slave trade.
The Ribble Valley’s largest market town is best known for its impressive Norman keep, built in the 12th century and now, sadly, standing empty; from it there are great views of the river valley below.
FOREST OF BOWLAND
This vast grouse-ridden moorland is somewhat of a misnomer. The use of ‘forest’ is a throwback to an earlier definition when it served as a royal hunting ground. Today it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which makes for good walking and cycling. The Pendle Witch Way, a 45- mile walk from Pendle Hill to the northeast of Lancaster, cuts right through the area, and the Lancashire Cycle Way runs along the eastern border. The forest’s main town is Slaidburn, about 9 miles north of Clitheroe on the B6478. Other villages worth exploring are Newton, Whitewell, and Dunsop Bridge.
ISLE OF MAN
Forget what you may have heard on the mainland: there’s nothing odd about the Isle of Man (Ellan Vannin in Manx, the local lingo) and even its famous tail-less cat isn’t that strange. No, the island’s reputation for oddity is entirely down to its persistent insistence that it do its own thing, rejecting England’s warm embrace in favor of a semiautonomous status (it is home to the world’s oldest continuous parliament, the Tynwald), which really just lets it continue operating as a popular tax haven. What you’ll find here is beautiful scenery in the lush valleys, barren hills, and rugged coastlines. In 2016 UNESCO designated the Isle of Man a Biosphere Reserve (one of five in the UK) marking it out as one of the most beautiful spots in Britain to enjoy nature. That bucolic charm is shattered during the world-famous summer season of Tourist Trophy (TT) motorbike racing, which attracts around 50,000 punters and bike freaks every May and June. Needless to say, if you want a slice of silence, be sure to avoid the high-rev bike fest.
The island’s largest town and most important commercial center is a little faded around the edges and a far cry from its Victorian heyday when it was, like Blackpool across the water, a favorite with British holidaymakers. The bulk of the island’s hotels and restaurants are still here – as well as most of the finance houses that are frequented so regularly by tax-allergic Brits.
At the southern end of the island is Castletown, a quiet harbor town that was originally the capital of the Isle of Man. The town is home to the old parliament and one of the finest castles on the island.