Old industrial cities have re-invented themselves, while outstanding wilderness areas like the Pennines are still just a short drive away. Maureen O'Connor takes a trip up the M1
Okay, so Manchester, Bradford, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Hull and Liverpool sound like a roll call of dinosaurs from the Industrial Revolution. All black stone or grimy brick, mill chimneys, oily canals and decaying docks. And it is true that most universities in the north of England have their roots in that gritty manufacturers' paradise that the Eighties pretty well wiped out.

But do not be fooled. The great cities of the north, where universities sprang up in the 19th century to serve local industries, have found remarkable and imaginative ways of reviving themselves to face the future. The Coronation Street terraces and heavy industrial sites have begun to disappear. Regeneration has brought the Tate Gallery to Liverpool's Albert Dock, yuppie apartments to Salford Quays, a national festival of contemporary dance to Newcastle and a host of projects that have improved the quality of life in a region where the cost of living is mercifully lower than in the overheated South- east. Small wonder that a couple of years back more Old Etonians signed on at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne than at Cambridge.

So if you are not a northerner by birth (which guarantees a deep bias) what has that great swath of England that encompasses Lancashire and Yorkshire and the ancient kingdoms of Cumbria and Northumberland got going for it apart from cheaper beer, sometimes impenetrable accents and chippy self- confidence?

The simplest answer is contrasts. Although most of the northern universities are in cities or fair-sized towns, with plenty of reminders of the industrial past, most are also close to areas of outstanding natural beauty.

After all, most of the great wildernesses of England are in the north and many of its cities claim that they are not only great places to be in, but also easy places to get out of.

Sign on with the University of Sheffield or Sheffield Hallam and you are a mere bus ride from the Derbyshire Peak District. Go to Teesside in Middlesbrough, where industry undoubtedly still smokes, and you will find the beaches of Redcar and Saltburn are 20 minutes down the road.

The sprawling West Yorkshire conurbation, which includes universities such as Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan, Bradford and Huddersfield, still allows you to be climbing on the Cow and Calf Rocks at Ilkley or potholing near Malham Tarn in less than an hour. And on the other side of the Pennines, access to the hills and moors above Manchester, to the Lake District or north Wales is no problem from Liverpool, Manchester, Preston or Bolton.

And then there is sport. Cricket is still taken seriously in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where local leagues flourish. Football fans are spoilt for choice in a region where Manchester and Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield may be less than 30 minutes away. And for those who like to participate as well as watch, many universities offer superb facilities.

Then there are the things which come as a complete surprise. An annual poetry festival, for instance, in Huddersfield; the best - and probably the cheapest - curries in the country in Bradford; the Hull Truck Company, a seedbed for innovative theatre, in Hull. Or you can see the spectacular and award-winning glass buildings of the University of Sunderland at the mouth of the Wear or window-shop at Harvey Nichols and a host of other Knightsbridge trendies right in the heart of Leeds.

Not all the region's universities have their roots in the the 19th century. It is never wise to favour Lancastrians over Yorkshire folk, of course, and the Sixties expansion of university places prudently gave both counties a new campus university - in Lancaster and York. Both are architecturally modern - even brutalist - but offer the advantages of collegiate living. So, too, does Durham, which has the added advantage of a situation at the heart of the mediaeval city. In the Red Mole survey of student opinion, the northern universities did spectacularly well.

Durham came top overall, with the best accommodation and architecture, and Lancaster won the poll for the most attractive students of both sexes. In the night-life league, Leeds came top, with Northumbria second, and Manchester and Umist come in these days at a mere ninth and tenth.

The Hacienda is now truly only a distant memory.

Not that night-life these days need be confined to one city for pleasure- seeking students. Some of the northern cities that remained resolutely Labour-controlled through the long night of Thatcherism have bequeathed to poverty-stricken students decent, and often cheap, public transport.

Manchester and Sheffield boast modern tramway systems, while Tyneside has its metro. If it is not happening for you on the doorstep it is generally not too difficult to get yourself somewhere where it is.

The north of England is not really a homogeneous region. Cosmopolitan Manchester is not the same as Hull, which is less isolated since the opening of the Humber bridge but still something of a world apart. That bridge means that Hull is now home to a campus of the newest university, Humberside and Lincolnshire, as well as the University of Hull.

Booming Leeds, which has turned itself into a major financial centre, is very different from Bradford with its substantial Asian population.

The north-east has a proud tradition of its own. But what many newcomers find is that one of the myths, at least, is true. Northerners have remained friendly folk, still given to chatting in bus queues and startling the politically correct by the endearments they use to strangers.