The Great Exhibition of what? Culture, region and development in England’s north

Newcastle (left) and Gateshead (right). Image: Getty.

The Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) begins on 22 June, and runs for 80 days. Culture secretary Matt Hancock told a launch event in Gateshead earlier this year that it would be “the biggest event in England” this year, and would “bring tourism and deliver growth” – although, in fact, he personally wasn’t in Gateshead, and delivered his contribution via a pre-recorded video. Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, meanwhile, has claimed the Great Exhibition of the North “will be talked about for decades”.

These bold claims raise several questions. What is GEN? How did it originate? What will be its impact? And, above all, what is it for?

Based on Tyneside and centred on three “hubs” – the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage music centre in Gateshead, and the Great North Museum in Newcastle – GEN describes itself as “a free, summer-long celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit”, incorporating “a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”. From each “hub”, walking trails extend across the city, organised around the themes of art, design and innovation, linking various visitor attractions and events. Organisers anticipate that 3m people will visit the exhibition – comprising 60 per cent in-region day visitors, 30 per cent out-of-region day visitors, and 10 per cent overnight visitors – and will collectively spend £184m locally.  Alongside these events, a Northern Powerhouse Business Summit will take place in July.

The Great Exhibition of the North was conceived by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and first mentioned, briefly, in the Autumn Statement of 2014 as a companion piece to his Northern Powerhouse initiative. Northern towns and cities were invited to bid to put on the exhibition: local actors in the North had wanted a series of events in major cities across the region, but the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) insisted upon a competition between places.

Government guidance, published in April 2016, stated that “the winning venue will create and implement an exhibition that celebrates great art, culture and design of the North of England, showcasing local artists and performers, cultural organisations and creative businesses, promoting innovative and entrepreneurial activity, and highlighting research conducted by universities in the region”. The government announced it would contribute £5m towards the exhibition itself, in the expectation this would attract additional private funding. Another £15m was allocated to a legacy fund to attract further cultural investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

Bids were assessed by a panel including representatives of the DCMS, the Design Council and GREAT, the government's international marketing campaign. It was announced in October 2016 that Newcastle-Gateshead had won the competition – although it was noteworthy that other big Northern cities, such as Manchester and Leeds, did not bid. A national committee led by DCMS oversees the implementation of GEN.

Ministers’ claims for GEN’s impact need to be set against the modesty of its funding: £5m would not buy Newcastle United FC a run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder, but would, almost, buy a sensitively refurbished Grade 2-listed house in Notting Hill. Meanwhile “The Factory”, a £110m theatre and arts venue which will be built on the site of the former Granada Studios in Manchester, announced in 2014 by George Osborne alongside GEN, is to be funded by a contribution of £78m from the UK Exchequer and £7m from the Arts Council. GEN is small beer.

Attempts to attract private sponsorship also led to a shaky start for GEN. The announcement that BAE Systems, a major defence contractor with a presence in northern England, would be a key sponsor generated a backlash from some artists, who claimed that BAe’s funding was a form of “artwashing”, or that it “tainted the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North”. A number pulled out of the programme.

BAE quickly withdrew its sponsorship. Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister condemned the critics as “snowflakes” and “subsidy-addicted artists” – an odd complaint given the GEN represents a government subsidy to artists. Local artists announced they would hold “The Other Great Exhibition of the North”.  The likely problems arising from an arms manufacturer sponsoring an arts event were anticipated locally but overruled centrally.

The most intriguing question arising from GEN concerns what it is for. According the government appointed chair of the Great Exhibition, Sir Gary Verity, it aims “to change people’s minds about it being grim up north” and dispel the idea of the region as a place of “flat caps and whippets”.

This curious trope was repeated to me in discussions with some of the architects of the exhibitions’ programme. Successive waves of politicians have attempt to give the image of the north a makeover through Garden Festivals, marketing campaigns and the like. The aim has been both to change external perceptions and raise local pride and aspirations.

But my unscientific poll of young people in Newcastle and London revealed none even knew the phrase that seems to animate GEN. Like Don Quixote, Sir Gary is tilting at windmills, and missing an opportunity for a deeper discussion about the changing nature and value of regional culture and identity.

There is a good likelihood that Newcastle and Gateshead will enjoy the party. The region was adept at putting together a bid in short order that met the requirements of DCMS. Local officials and volunteers will work hard to pull it off.

But this will not alter the fact that GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives. Indeed, GEN offers evidence for Simon Jenkins contention, “There is nothing more gauche than Whitehall ‘being nice’ to the provinces.”

John Tomaney is professor of urban & regional planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.


What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.


That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.

All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.