Two Cities

This is a map of my world until I was about 18.


I’ve been away a long time and my accent erodes and sometimes it is only my unusual vowels that make people look at me quizzically. If you want to locate the area on a map of the UK, you just follow the coast up from Wales until you find that bit which looks like a man coughing into his hand.

Like a lot of Britain, it is a small-big place. A train can take you from the centre of Liverpool to the centre of Manchester in 40 minutes. Assuming traffic was amenable, you can drive the width of this map in an hour (more or less). Yet it is full of places that have their own identity and history. The map includes parts of two historic counties (possibly four depending if bits of Yorkshire or Derbyshire have crept in at the righthand edge), Lancashire and Chesire but essentially the area is South Lancashire. In more modern terms the map contains parts of Lancashire, Chesire but mainly Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Liverpool and Manchester are basically the same and completely different. Liverpool was a Georgian city that grew rich on the slave trade and sugar. Manchester was a Victorian city that grew rich on coal and cotton. They’ve been rivals for nearly two hundred years. Liverpool is the Beatles obviously, but Manchester is The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, and Oasis. Liverpool is Liverpool FC and Everton and Manchester is United and City. Liverpudlians talk one way, and Mancunians talk quite differently (or so it would seem if you lived there). Liverpool is from Venus and Manchester is from Mars or vice versa or perhaps two different planets completely.

In the 1970s, local government reforms led to the creation of new administrative counties to update the old shire system. That caused some angst as the English counties dated back to before the Norman Conquests. South Lancashire gained Merseyside (a county that covered Liverpool and much of the hinterland along the Mersey) and Greater Manchester (a country that radiated out from Manchester to encompass the declining industrial towns in its orbit). The drawing of the boundaries was a political act in multiple senses — a mix of recognising demographic history and gerrymandering*. However, one aspect was to firmly (if arbitrarily) assign all those towns that stretch out between the two cities to one city or the other. Wigan, for example, is Greater Manchester, St Helens is Merseyside, although both towns think of themselves as neither Manchester nor Liverpool and are happy in their own rivalry with each other.

Those towns between the two relative giants have their own history and identity. One key difference is sport. While Manchester and Liverpool are world famous for their football (aka soccer) teams, the towns in between are famous for their Rugby League teams**. The places between the two big clusters of people have their own history that’s often quite distinct and particular. In some cases, they were company towns: St Helens was the home of Pilkington Glass, Widnes was a base for chemical giant ICI (since absorbed by other multinationals). Describing any one of them in terms of “Liverpool” or “Manchester” feels absurd and actively un-informative.

Of course, you can’t ignore those two big clusters of people, poised like a barbell on the Lancastrian stretch of the M62. It’s a two-body system with two gravity wells sucking roads, rail and industrial-revolution era canals between them, creating a messy spectrum of identities in-between.***

Please feel free to apply this as analogy :).

*[The industrial town of Widnes, famous for being a major centre of Britain’s chemical industry, ended up in Chesire rather than Merseyside despite it being quite literally on the side of the Mersey. More recently that’s been rejigged.]

**[Some towns are famous for both of course. Wigan has a very notable Rugby League team and a famous football team also. Blackburn is more famous for its football team (and according to Wikipedia, ice hockey these days?)]

***[If I have to pick sides, I pick Liverpool though.]

17 thoughts on “Two Cities

    1. My mother’s family is from Yorkshire (I was born there, though I didn’t live there for very long). In fact, there are Hepworths in her family tree. Only the name though, not the actual genetics (long story).

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  1. Do you play board games at all? Extend that map as far north as Barrow-in-Furness, and you have basically the entire game board of Martin Wallace’s classic board game Brass. (Recently re-released as Brass: Lancashire along with a cousin game Brass: Birmingham.)


  2. Oddly enough, right now I’m watching the first few episodes of “The Frankenstein Chronicles” with Sean Bean — who was born in a little town in West Yorkshire, which Google Maps tells me is quite close to Manchester.


    1. The Pennines are in the way though. They’re not that impressive as ranges of hills go, but they’re enough that there’s a noticeable difference in accent and so on.


  3. I lived most of my childhood in a smallish town partway between Birmingham and Coventry. When we moved to Australia there was a boy in my class who came from Birmingham. Our Australian classmates were extremely perplexed that we had very different accents.

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    1. Well, for Australians it seems the only real discernible sub-accent we have in this country is the North Queensland drawl – Australia basically grew up alongside radio and rail, and any chance we had of getting separate accents in each state (much less in various regions within the states) was smashed by the arrival of modern communication systems and their homogenising effect on language. There are some dialectical differences from one state to another (it used to be reasonably possible to pick a person’s state of origin by asking them what their swimwear was called) but even there, things are starting to smooth out into a sort of bland sameness.

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      1. Funnily enough, I was in Melbourne last week, and it was the first time in years someone has said ‘I can tell from your accent that you weren’t born here’. I think my accent has slowly merged into the local Adelaide ‘slightly more English than the rest of Australia’ accent.

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  4. There’s definitely one other county in there – bottom left corner is part of Flintshire.


  5. Just circling back on a more sincere note to say that I found this post to be incredibly sweet and affecting. I love to think about place and time and I can really sense both of these ingredients here for you. 🙂

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