Northern Charm

While I wasn’t one of those five-year-olds with an entire train-themed bedroom, I did look forward to seeing the National Railway Museum in York, England for months (perhaps had I read more history the “Richard III Experience” would have possessed the same draw…). It didn’t disappoint – I spent the entire day gawking at huge steam engines, modern electric trains, and various ephemera from the early days of Britain’s illustrious railway history. My favorite engine was the bright blue Mallard, the current world record holder for steam engine speed (126 mph). If you ignore the weight requirements, the reliance on coal, and the lack of infrastructure left for these iron stallions, it would almost make sense to go back to steam today.

I did a bit of darting around the country after seeing Ironbridge. Taking an indirect route to Hexham, close to Hadrian’s Wall, saved me a lot of money (at the expense of time) with the added benefit of a stop in Newcastle. The High Level Bridge there, built by Robert Stephenson 150 years ago and still used by trains, cars, and pedestrians today, is an impressive structure to walk across and gaze at. Hadrian’s Wall itself is quite a feat considering the barren landscape, full of craggy rock outcroppings and hills, upon which it is built. There’s a youth hostel* at The Sill which makes a convenient base to explore the wall and its old Roman forts (and to enjoy pub food at the Twice Brewed Inn afterwards).

The thing visitors should remember about northern England, as one cafe worker noted to me, is how friendly everyone is (especially compared to that oversized, overexposed city down south…). He was right – in York, everyone from cafe owners to ticket sellers will happily start a conversation with you. If talking is not something you enjoy, there’s also the old-time streets and city wall of York, Clifford’s Tower and the York Castle Museum (a great resource on English history, including modern history, in general), and lots of chocolate factories (Kit Kats were among the delicacies perfected here). ‘Northern Charm’ isn’t a tongue-in-cheek joke in England as it is in some other places.

*YHA hostels in the UK are tame, spotlessly clean, and welcoming to people of all ages – something that can’t be said about all hostels. I really enjoyed staying in them in Bristol, the Brecon Beacons, at The Sill, and in York. Breakfast at them is really good, too.

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