Lancaster University, which I am a lecturer at, has been in the news a bit lately, having made it into the top 10 of both the Times and the Independent's UK university league tables. I'm afraid I can't take any individual responsibility for that, but it's nice all the same.
Suddenly, the media are taking an interest. Times journalist Penny Wark, who has never visited the place, decides to find out about it by looking at the city's website and speaking to Lancaster's regeneration director. She asks "Should Oxbridge fear Lancaster?".Wark isn't particularly impressed by the range of tourist activities: "you can stroll through its pedestrianised city centre, browse in shops and stop off for coffee and cakes. Oh dear" but seems more impressed with the areas of natural beauty. She describes the city as a "quiet place" which is "not especially versed in the dark art of spin".
Having lived here for 18 years (with a few years off for good behaviour), here is my guide if you want to live here.
1. Be green. Lancaster is a very environmentally conscious city. The one-way road system is often clogged and slow, and it can take 40 minutes to get to nearby Morecambe where the poor people are trapped (a bypass has been in the works forever but will probably never happen). The local council runs an endless "War on Cars" and have incorporated numerous speed bumps and speed cameras around the city, so if you have a car, don't expect to get anywhere fast. If you really must buy a car, paradoxically, you may as well have a Chelsea Tractor - otherwise your undercarriage will get scraped by the speed bumps and your electrics will be constantly breaking with all the bouncing around. And be prepared for some rather sour looks from your new Lancastrian friends who may stop inviting you to their celidhs and vegan suppers. Alternatively, you may want to get a bike. The council loves people who cycle, and have invested thousands in a network of cycle paths and lanes. Although you should bear in mind that it rains quite a lot here, and it's also quite hilly. So be prepared to end up with obscenely enlarged calf muscles and a permanent runny nose.
2. Practice your 'r' sounds. The local accent is gentle and favours "r". Chair is pronounced "churrrr". Floor is "Flurrr". Nearby town Chorley is pronounced "Churrrlaywurrr." Of course, if you're coming here to work at the University, you will only ever hear the local accent spoken by your cleanerrrrr.
3. Get a wallpaper stripper. Most of the housing in Lancaster is from the Victorian period, consisting of narrow three storey terraced houses. Many of them were completely ruined in the 1960s and 1970s, when horrible flock wallpaper, nasty pine panelling, avacado kitchens and saloon doors were added. They are now occupied by pensioners or students. At least they are very affordable - although many of them "need work".
4. Slow down. If you are from a larger city, or from "the south", you may be shocked at how slowly people walk here, and how some of the locals seem slightly confused or distracted. Especially in Marks and Spencers. At lunch-time. You may even think that they have been paid by a sinister organisation to get in your way. However, the real reason is that they have nothing to rush for.
5. Dress down. It is always fun to see the new crop of students in "intro week". You can spot the ones from urban areas because they are sporting "edgy" hairstyles and cutting-edge fashions. Gradually, perhaps with some relief, they realise they don't need to work as hard to impress people - in fact, fashion innnovation is looked on with suspicion. If you are a man and you want to dress smartly, you buy a shirt from Next. You will never have to worry, like your metrosexual brothers about checking your hair before you go out, or getting a six-pack to impress people. I spent six months walking around with paint-spattered shoes and nobody noticed.
6. Plan to be away in November or January. In the winter it gets dark at about 3.30pm and everyone looks depressed, as if they're in a post-apocalytic nightmare. Alternatively, the summer nights barely end, and Lancaster looks just like The Shire in Middle Earth - with lots of luscious greens. All that rain does pay off eventually.
7. Sleep well. Lancaster has one of the lowest crime rates of a university town - any serious criminals leave for bigger places the minute they can, and the ones that are left are more like lovable rouges. Even the "rough bits" are becoming gentrified. Also, the local newspaper, The Lancaster Guardian has a "name and shame" Courtwatch column on page 3, where it prints in detail the names, addresses and minor misdemeanours of all your neighbours. I suspect that this delightfully spiteful little column may play a small role in the low crime rate.
8. Get an outside hobby. The town centre is full of shops selling "outdoors" clothes and camping gear. There are lots of huge garden centres. Even though the weather is not always great, paradoxically, walking and gardening are big hobbies.
9. Develop a liking for cheese and beer. Crumbly, tangy Lancashire cheese is a speciality, as is the stronger Garstang Blue. A street market, which runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays is always packed out and is better than anything I've seen anywhere else. Lancaster has a lot of pubs, many with regional beers. I like Lancaster Bomber - just because of the name really.