We knew it, of course. To natives, it’s always been obvious. Newcastle is the best city in which to bring up a family. And not the best merely for bringing up families, as every Geordie I’ve consulted adds: it’s simply the best. But mine is a tale of two cities, both dear to my heart.
Moneysupermarket.com calculated which are the best UK cities for families (you can see it on their website) on the basis of the following features: outstanding schools; provision of parks or open spaces; crime (burglary) levels; and (perhaps a revealing mix) average salary, job opportunities and average house price.
Unsurprisingly, the sheer cost of housing tumbled London towards the bottom of the table while, to my surprise (for reasons I’ll explain), Derby and Wolverhampton were placed second and third, mainly because of the relationship between moderate salaries, job opportunities and low housing costs.
Indeed, newspaper reports suggest that Wolverhampton would have come top but for its poorer provision of parks when compared with Newcastle.
All this intrigued me in particular because I brought up my family in Wolverhampton, where we lived from 1981 to 2008: indeed, it was a happy time and our quality of life was high. Full marks to the Traffords, then. Clearly we demonstrated prescience in settling in a place that proved to be the country’s third best for bringing up families and, having completed that process, moved to the best.
No. The reality was quite different. It happened that I was offered jobs that suited me in the leading independent schools in each of those cities: lucky old me! I guess I might claim, as a headteacher twice, that I’ve contributed to both cities’ counts of “outstanding schools”: but that’s enough bragging!
Notwithstanding the accolades awarded to the two cities in which I’ve spent nearly all my adult life, people “dahn sarf” aren’t really aware of either of them: and even if they are, they can’t imagine actually living in them.
They picture Wolverhampton as a grimy Midlands place with a funny accent – but where no one actually goes. As for Newcastle, they have an impression of a cool “party city”: still, hey, it’s just too far north.
Actually, to my mind both cities where I have been so happy have much in common. Both are un-self-conscious, and without pretention. Indeed neither city takes itself too seriously, and their inhabitants readily laugh at themselves.
Both cities have an iconic football ground at their heart, the game causing more pain than pleasure: yes, the Toon generally manages more glorious achievements than the Wolves, who currently languish in the middle of the Championship rather than anticipating the step up. But Saturday afternoons give rise to the same breathless hush in the city centre, even dedicated shoppers keeping at least half an ear out for the next roar from the ground to signal triumph – or disaster.
Both cities enjoy a similar average salary-to-house-price ratio, property being pretty affordable by national standards. I confess I was surprised that Wolverhampton was reported as having better job opportunities. When I left it in 2008 the recession was biting and what manufacturing remained in the West Midlands seemed to be relentlessly shedding employees. In 2015 one newspaper dubbed Wolverhampton the most miserable city in Britain.
In defiance of those bad-news stories, Jaguar has opened a new high-tech plant for building its engines: that’s going from strength to strength, with the manufacturer’s promise of engines for future models going there too – and then there’s the supply chain to that factory. It all creates prosperity.
Both cities have long histories: the Romans built a wall close to Newcastle, of course, while Wolverhampton was founded under a royal charter by the Lady Wulfrun, a Saxon noblewoman. And both treasure legendary local characters around whom countless jokes are woven: the ubiquitous Geordie the butt of Newcastle humour and, in Wolverhampton, two hilariously dim characters named Aynuk and Ayli (Enoch and Eli).
And if I had to choose between them? Newcastle wins on grandeur of architecture: and it has one crucial asset that Wolverhampton lacks. The area between Wolverhampton and Birmingham boasts more canals than Venice, though you might feel it’s not quite the same. But I recall our arrival into Newcastle by train to start our new life there in August 2008. As we crossed the river and looked downstream across the other bridges, we said to one another, “That’s what a city needs, a great river.” We haven’t changed our view.
Quality of life? Certainly. And I haven’t space here to discuss the theatres, the Sage, the eating places, the great pubs, Ouseburn, the Toon Moor and the glorious countryside just minutes away.
I’m rather pleased someone has actually attempted to apply some kind of measure to quality of life – intriguingly, from the point of view of an organisation dedicated to fiscal measures.
When studying the UK’s cities, and my tale of two in particular, I’m just glad the economists’ analysis gave the same answer as good old gut-feeling and sentiment!