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.]