Welcome to the real North

There are some fascinating photos online by Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.  They cover the North East and focus on Byker, where she lived, showing the gritty, grubby reality of our region in the early 1970s. 

Not that long ago, this is how people pictured the North East.  Pit villages.  Fishing.  Heavy industry.  Not quite the dark, satanic mills, but nigh enough.  It reminds me of that brilliant Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch – ‘a house? Luxury! There were 150 of us living in a small shoe box in’t middle o’t road!’

The rest of the country probably hasn’t moved on from those views, except maybe to add ‘good place for stag and hen parties’. 

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the North East know the truth.

We know that we can walk in the footsteps of John Dobson and Richard Grainger, marvel at some superb architecture, and enjoy some great food while we’re at it. 

We can go back even further and walk in the footsteps of the Roman centurions, posted to one of the furthest outposts of their Empire.  We can even visit a Metro station with signage in Latin.

We can transport ourselves, and our kids, to Hogwarts and relish over 700 years of history while the kids have a broomstick lesson.

We can walk the miles of stunning coastline.  I know I’m biased, but it really is magnificent.  And we can see seals and puffins in their natural habitat.

We can visit a working fish quay, and choose from an impressive array of fish and shellfish – Fortnum and Mason’s fish counter has nowt on North Shields. 

We can watch some great live shows and theatre, and see films on the big or small screen.

All this, and more, is on our doorstep.  How lucky are we?

We can make things even better, of course.  A lot of people miss out – we can improve affordability as well as physical accessibility.

Everything we enjoy doing needs to be ecologically sustainable, or our grandkids won’t be enjoying those seals and puffins. 

And we need to create a more joined-up transport system, so it’s easy to see how you get from A to B on a range of public transport options, that don’t cost the earth. 

We also need to keep our attractions authentic, so visitors feel they are being welcomed to the real North, and not to a plastic copy.  One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that local people, as well as tourists, want to have a grand day out.  Local festivals are key to this – making local people feel the event is their own.  Things like the Newcastle Improv Festival.  How brilliant to give people the opportunity to perform their own stand-up routines. 

The pandemic is likely to mean lots more people are having a holiday in this country, rather than abroad.  Staying local will be great for the local economy.  We have great scenery and historical landmarks, but we want a rich tapestry of food, music and local entertainment too. 

That’s why the North of Tyne is investing over £3 million in a two-year calendar of tourism and events.  And another £3.25m to support the recovery of the culture and creative industry.  We know that happiness is as dependent on what you do outside of work as what you do in work.

I’ve had several meetings recently with Sir Brendan Foster, and I’m supporting his sterling efforts to get the Government to financially back a bid to stage the 2026 European Athletics Championships in the North East of England. 

This would involve over 1500 athletes and 6 days of competition, showcasing the region, and with the potential to generate tens of millions of pounds of economic impact.  Hundreds of jobs and spin-out opportunities, and bring tens of thousands of visitors and spectators here. 

Brendan also persuaded me to run in the Great North Run on 21st September.  I’ve run marathons and half-marathons before, but not for a while!  We’ll see what effects the lockdown’s had on my stamina and my knees! I hope to see many of you there cheering us on. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 31 May 2021