Northern has teamed up with Manchester Literary Festival to celebrate the local literary landscape

I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with Northern in the past. Let’s just say my Manchester commute on the Buxton line didn’t always run smoothly… 

The rail operator’s new partnership with Manchester Literature Festival, however, is something I can get behind. Designed both to celebrate the northern literary landscape and encourage people to explore beyond the big cities, it shows there’s more to trains than commuting and more to British literature than the Big Smoke. 

It’s an important initiative considering the London centricity of UK publishing

Of course, there’s a plethora of places and people that fit the bill, but this particular partnership focuses on Manchester and Hebden Bridge. One may be a Lancashire metropolis, the other a Yorkshire market town, but they both share a rich literary heritage and are separated by just a short train ride though quintessential rolling hills and millstone grit stations.

As part of the partnership, award-winning poet Helen Mort was commissioned to write a poem on the 34-minute journey. Entitled There & Back, it features a verse on each station stop: from the ‘industrial tattoos’ of Rochdale to Mills Hill, where her granddad once lived on a street that smelled like pickled onions due to Sarson’s Vinegar factory nearby. The full poem can be seen at the bottom of this article. 

2018 05 14 Helen Mort
Helen Mort with the ‘There’ part of her poem, which can be seen at Manchester Victoria Jonathan Pow

Considering Manchester Literature Festival stemmed from the Manchester Poetry Festival, poetry is a strong part of its programme. But Mort’s #NorthernPoetryTrain is only one half of the Northern project: visitors to the literature trail website will also find a tour around Hebden Bridge’s literary hotspots, developed especially for the partnership. A Manchester version is due to follow later this year.  

It’s an important initiative considering the London centricity of UK publishing, and follows several recent attempts to diversify the industry and highlight northern literary talent. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the Northern Fiction Alliance, featuring some of the region’s most exciting publishers. 

2017 05 17 Hebden Bridge 1
Hebden Bridge isn’t just picturesque; it also has a strong artistic heritage Jonathan Pow

Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose Books is one such example, having published Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole. Recently shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize historical fiction prize, this unflinching novel is based on the fascinating true story of the Cragg Vale coiners (number 5 below).

Other bookish locations include the Stubbing Wharf, on which local legend Ted Hughes based his namesake poem, and the Hepstonstall graveyard where his wife - American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath - was controversially buried. 

2018 05 14 Hebden Bridge Literary Trail
The Hebden Bridge literary Trail Northern/MLF

Of course, Hebden Bridge isn’t Yorkshire’s only literary mecca. Perhaps the county’s greatest legacy is that of the Brontës, whose Haworth home lies just twenty minutes away. With 2018 being the bicentenary of Emily’s birth, the Brontë Parsonage is holding several anniversary events and Northern Fiction Alliance publisher Saraband is launching an intriguing new bio on the ‘mysterious’ sister, often overshadowed by her more confident sibling Charlotte.

Manchester has its own icons, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Anthony Burgess, and both regions abound in contemporary talent (including Confidential’s very own Sarah Tierney, whose evocative debut Making Space was released last year and is based in Whalley Range). But the North West has tonnes of places worth visiting, whether you’re a bookworm or not, and that’s something Northern is very keen to highlight: check out these day trip suggestions for starters. 

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Sarah Tierney’s evocative debut is set in Whalley Range

Northern’s Regional Director, Liam Sumpter said: “We’re excited to have teamed up with Manchester Literature Festival to celebrate the rich literary heritage of the north…a big part of our marketing is celebrating everything the north has to offer and (MLF) is a great example of this.”

Cathy Bolton from Manchester Literature Festival said: “Now in its thirteenth year, MLF brings the world’s leading authors to Manchester, providing an opportunity for people to meet their literary heroes and discover new ones. With many of our guests travelling to events by rail we are delighted to be working with Northern on this exciting project, celebrating the landscapes of Manchester and the Calder Valley which have inspired an array of world re-known writers…and continue to shape some of our most promising writers of today.”

2017 11 02 Maxine Peake At Manchester Literature Festival Festival
Maxine Peake at last year’s MLF

Over the past decade, MLF has featured many of the biggest names in literary fiction and spoken word from across the globe, including: Martin Amis, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Malorie Blackman, William Boyd, Tracy Chevalier, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Drabble, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Anne Enright, Helen Fielding, Neil Gaiman, Seamus Heaney, Alan Hollinghurst, Howard Jacobson, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Armistead Maupin, Eimear McBride, Val McDermid, David Mitchell, Walter Mosley, Andrew Motion, Jo Nesbo, Patrick Ness, Audrey Niffenegger, Ben Okri, Arundhati  Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Anita Shreve, Lionel Shriver, Kate Tempest, Colm Toíbín, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Sarah Waters, Fay Weldon, Jeanette Winterson and Xinran.

This year’s festival will take place 5-21 October 2018, with tickets on sale from early August - to find out more and book tickets for special trailblazer events, visit

Main images: Jonathan Pow 

'There & Back' by Helen Mort


At ten, my globe

was this tiled atlas,

crimson-black veins

the neural pathways

of Yorkshire,

Lancashire. Here,

it’s always evening


and I’m holding

my dad’s hand, asking

what’s Huddersfield?

but now we’re moving,

travelling backwards

till we’re out of sight,

now I can’t see

the curve

of his face.



Dear Cottonopolis, dear town

of moss and bog. I like your empty

benches and your bramble-twine. I like

your leaves of peeling paint. You look

like the teacher I never had -

flint eyes, cloud-coloured hair.

Stay with me, Moston. Tell me

something I don’t know. 

            - Hasty, 9.27 to Leeds


Mills Hill

It’s LOVE backwards in the window

of a terraced house: magenta capitals.

It’s the frayed ribbon of Oldham Road

and the gate that reads STRICKLY

NO DOG WALKERS. It’s grandad

on the platform, waving, jogging

on the spot, pretending

to keep up with us.



Two black dogs on leads

drag a man the length

of a hedgerow. The day

is a caught scent.

My heart fills slowly

like the level of a lock.



You were George-Clooney-grey this morning

and you had your neat industrial tattoos on show.

You were holding an oil-bright magpie

and a single newspaper. I tried

to read over your shoulder

then the sky took all the words away. 

            - Speechless, 9.47 to Leeds


Smithy Bridge

An old man unseats himself

says give my regards to Ilkley

and his friend answers I will

but Ilkley doesn’t exist here

only a stately home

where the slim windows

seem to multiply

like frogspawn


and wind turbines


turn the day over

and over, making

more of it

each time. 



Your small name

and your big ridges

planted with pylons.


How the horses all turn

to face Manchester

as they graze.


The tinder of felled birches

and the match of 10am

unused, unstruck

this store of




I was flying from a tunnel.

You were edged by vivid rocks,

wrapped in a woodland shawl. You

had rooks in your hair. I was

moving too fast. Meet me

next time at the junction

with your flashy redbrick jewellery on. 

            - Speedy, 10.01 to Leeds



Everything is painted sage

or landrover, or brand new wellingtons -

a deeper colour than the lichen

of the church. The hillside

turns away, shaded with jealousy.


A weathervane. The cool, black tracks.

The unsmudged lipstick of the station doors.

The breath of passengers

outside the waiting room

transluscent, rising, mingling.


Hebden Bridge

Come with me, Dee from Bradford

with your tiny silver nose stud,

walk with me from the bridge.

We’ll laugh at ourselves in the windows

of vegetarian cafés, our faces

tasteful bric-a-brac. There’s time


and we’ll run off with it,

find the hills you used to long for

from the carriage window as a child

the bleached, frost coloured flanks

above Heptonstall, like snow hares

patient, tentative, pausing

to test new air. 


ii. & back



Small bullet slicing the afternoon

seeks expansive market square,

proud chimney tops and spires

for long journeys into summer,

mud and cuckoos, leaf-canopies

Must have own Post Office.

             - Ambitious, 14.24 to Manchester 



The poster pinned to the fencepost

says talk to us, so I do.


I describe the low and high places

of the land, the rabbit-coloured

undergrowth, the leaning

improbable sheds. I say what I mean


by stranger and by homecoming

and rooks settle in the branches

and nothing contradicts me,

nothing murmurs its assent. 



Little lover, stealing

the duvet of the sky

and curling into it

switching off

the valley moon

and reading alone

by the light

of the silver canal.



As if I could step down from

the train, walk blinking through

the birth and boom of wool,

the clamour of the Rochdale Pioneers,

as if I could touch baize,

kerseys and flannels

my body whirring

spun like cotton

on the river’s spindle.



You say ‘mind the step’

and I think of you climbing down

from heaven, treading gingerly.

I know your secrets,

Blue Pits Village, know your given name,

your ancient boundaries.

Oh, build new walls

around me, Castleton. I promise

to tread carefully. 

            - Cautious, 14.45 to Manchester


Mills Hill

I’m still a kid

on the sandpapery platform

with my Reebok Classics on,

waiting for the arc of track

to sharpen with sound,

waiting for the rails to sing,

waiting for the train to show itself,

smelling the vinegar

and hops of home. 



Orange flowers

and autumn leaves

the size of dawn

on the Welcome mural. 



I used to dream of flying

above Accrington and Burnley

Bury, Radcliffe, Pendleton,

fast over Skipton, Gisburn,

Nelson, Colne and touching down

somewhere this map could only

gesture to - black margins,

daubed white with Zeebrugge

Antwerp, Ghent, all the

the world after Oldham


and now, all I want

is to ghost the tracks at night

go unnoticed

to the boundary

of the place I was born

and the place my name’s from

throw stones

at the terrace window

where my grandad’s pianos

still keep their music

land just one right

and hit the keys

with a noise

that might be




Helen Mort has published two collections of poetry with Chatto & Windus, Division Street (winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize, shortlisted for the Costa Prize and T.S. Eliot Prize) and No Map Could Show Them. Her first novel Black Car Burning is forthcoming in 2019. Her play Medusa toured with Proper Job Theatre Company in autumn 2017, and her short story collection Exire is forthcoming from Wrecking Ball Press.  She joined the Manchester Writing School as Lecturer in Creative Writing in September 2016.