Is St Helens really on the border of the North?

Melvyn Bragg presents the 10-part series The Matter of the North on BBC Radio 4
Melvyn Bragg presents the 10-part series The Matter of the North on BBC Radio 4
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Is St Helens on the border of the north? That’s the bizarre question raised in a new radio documentary by acclaimed novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

In his new programme, The Matter of the North, Bragg defines the north geographically as starting at the River Dee south of Liverpool to the Humber Estuary.

Johnny Vegas, undoubtedly St Helens' finest comedy export and a true Northern comic

Johnny Vegas, undoubtedly St Helens' finest comedy export and a true Northern comic

If the line is run directly from the Dee to the Humber, that places St Helens perilously close to the north-south border whereas towns and cities such as Grimsby, Scunthorpe, Sheffield and Doncaster are all placed in the south.

Bragg’s fascinating series also throws up a series of questions about what is northernness.

For many Sintelliners, our town, complete with its mining heritage and love of rugby league, remains quintessentially northern.

Introducing his programme, Bragg, one of the country’s best known broadcasters and writers, said: “It starts at Hadrian’s Wall, which goes from Cumbria across to Northumbria, in the west it goes down past Liverpool and into the estuary of the River Dee where it cuts across to the Humber Estuary in the east then back up the east coast to the wall.”

Bragg visited St Helens in 2014 for a TV programme on northern culture, visiting Dream.

Unlike the United States, where the border between north and south is drawn by the Mason-Dixon line, no such official distinction exists in Britain.

Instead, the matter of where the north starts has been a moot point for many, with gnarled Geordies scoffing those living near the rivers Dee and Mersey as being practically southern.

Dr Matthew Townend from York University told Bragg that historically, the dividing line between north and south was the Humber.

He told the programme: “North of the Humber was never part of England before the 10th century. There was no time before the 10th when a king south of Humber exercised kingship north.

“The North of England was a separate place, a separate Kingdom.”

Dr Townend also tells the programme this separation continued until the 12th century and he says the Middle Ages saw the first description of “Northern granite and southern softies”.

Bragg, a proud Cumbrian, also hails the work of Lancastrian comedians, such as St Helens’ Johnny Vegas, as some of the best this country has ever produced.

He said: “I think it’s a wonderful part of the world and like most people who have been born and brought up in the North I feel this is as much a country as any other more neatly geographically defined places on the planet.”