North, south and my new home in the east

Ellen's children in Haworth, West Yorkshire, famously home to the Bronte sisters.

Ellen's children in Haworth, West Yorkshire, famously home to the Bronte sisters. - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

As the joke goes, northerners live on gravy; southerners live on its train.

Oh yes, the north south divide has been a source of much humour, some outrageous stereotyping and sometimes not-so-nice rivalry, for hundreds of years.

The general consensus seems to be that while we are all English, we are certainly not the same.

This week we went on a family holiday to West Yorkshire.

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It’s a part of the country I know well, having started my career as a journalist at a paper in Halifax. I met my husband, a Yorkshireman through-and-through, while I was there but I also have links of my own to the region. After all, my surname originates from the bleak but stunning Widdop Moor just north of Hebden Bridge and my grandmother grew up in Skipton.

Having said that, these credentials do little to prevent me from being labeled a “southern softie”.

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My received pronunciation gives the game away along with my sloping vowels in the words “bath”, “laugh” and “glass” and my insistence that the midday meal is lunch and not dinner and the evening fare is supper and not tea.

I first crossed the Watford Gap in 1998 to study at Manchester University.

It wasn’t until then that I really discovered the many differences between north and south.

Northern men work hard and play hard. The girls are feisty, opinionated and hardy. On Friday and Saturday nights they get dressed up and head out coatless despite the bitter temperatures. The people are generally friendlier and the food stodgier. They eat pies, parkin, pastry and thick chips soaked in salt and vinegar. The landscape has a dour beauty, with cities nestled between rich and rugged moorland, spectacular hills and colourful towns.

I grew up in London with its noise, dirt and hubbub of people all living stacked on top of one another, cramming into Tube carriages and red buses, eyes down.

It is a city bursting with history, incredible architecture, secret alleyways and a sense of purpose.

You might think the bustling bright lights, diversity and culture would have given me a street-wise edge when I arrived to live in a northern town. But actually, I think I was pretty naïve about the rest of Great Britain.

In the capital city, residents are more concerned about the divide between those who live north of the Thames and those who live south of it than with anyone who lives outside of their urban bubble.

Londoners don’t really like to cross the boundary between the two, despite the fact that there really isn’t much difference between leafy Belsize Park and the equally leafy Wimbledon.

Peter Sellers once joked about the perils of being a resident south of the Thames in his famous sketch, Balham: Gateway to the South. It was he who coined the stock cabbie response, “Sorry mate, I don’t go south of the river,” as ‘sarf’ Londoners struggled to get home after a night out in the West End.

I think the reason for the London north south divide is simply because, if you live in a massive city you want to find a corner of it that you can identify with, and have familiarity with, your neighbours.

A nice sentiment perhaps, but actually I didn’t really feel like I was part of a community in London.

I only discovered that sense of belonging when I moved to Suffolk.

Now Suffolk falls firmly in the south of the UK but weirdly it has a lot of elements of the north.

It too has a beautiful landscape, green and lush, and is home to friendly people. You can strike up conversations with strangers without being sneered at and there is a wonderful quality to the light here that is lacking in London but can also be found in the wide-open skies of the north.

However, Suffolk has something that neither London nor many areas of the north can boast: people who live here live longer.

A national league table of premature deaths, published for the first time last month, revealed that nine out of the 10 worst spots in England are in the north.

At the bottom is Manchester, where there were 455 premature deaths per 100,000 last year, followed by Blackpool with 432, Liverpool with 389 and Salford with 382.

Boroughs of London fared little better with 320 in Islington, 327 in Hackney and 337 in Barking and Dagenham.

In sharp contrast, Suffolk was in the top 20 most healthy places to live with 225 premature deaths per 100,000.

Don’t get me wrong, I like visiting the capital to take in the museums, galleries, the theatre and the nightlife. I also love a trip up the A1 to the many interesting and beautiful places in the north.

But now I have found it, Suffolk will always be my home. And if the stats are right and all goes well, I should be around to enjoy it for many more years come.

n Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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