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There's nowt grim about taking a break up north

The Policy Exchange says it's best to give the north of England a wide berth, but Mark Rowe has found plenty of evidence to the contrary

Slurping a blueberry smoothie in Lickety Split, surely the finest retro milk bar this side of the 1950s, I concluded that there are some seriously ill-informed people around.

The bar, in the town of Seaham on Durham's Heritage Coast, features a vintage Wurlitzer and a vending machine that dispenses design classic Coca-Cola bottles. Earlier that day I had explored Sunderland (visitnewcastlegateshead.co.uk), taking in a church that was key to Christianity flourishing in England; a collection of Lowry paintings in the city's museum; and lunch at Paprika (paprikacafe.co.uk), one of the north-east's newest and finest restaurants, in Sunniside, a revived historic quarter of more than 100 listed buildings.

But, according to the Policy Exchange, you should give these barbarian lands a wide berth. Two years ago, this right-wing think tank suggested, with a straight face, that The North should be closed down, and everyone who lives there should relocate south. Sunderland was singled out for particular venom. I wandered around the city's graceful Mowbray Park, where a statue of a walrus is a reminder of Lewis Carroll's sojourns here. I then visited the National Glass Museum and the Saxon Church of St Peter, which was once home to a youthful Venerable Bede and is now part of a bid for Unesco World Heritage Status. After all this, and while enjoying the impressively serene views of the River Wear's sandstone banks from the Wearmouth Bridge, one must wonder if the Policy Exchange report's authors had ever visited Sunderland, or anywhere in the region for that matter.

Newcastle's urban renaissance is well documented but the rest of the region, east of the A1 down to the Tees Valley, remains one of England's forgotten corners. Times are changing, though. Genuine tourist attractions now exist and hotels are springing up, from the Seaham Hall Hotel and Serenity Spa (seaham-hall.co.uk), the region's first five-star property, to the Seaton Lane Inn (seaton laneinn.com), a swish collection of 18 recently opened boutique rooms attached to a country pub with a superb restaurant.

The obvious starting point is Durham's coastline (thisisdurham.com), a stark yet drably beautiful post-industrial landscape. For 150 years, coal waste was simply dumped on the beaches, disfiguring them to the point where Hollywood sci-fi film directors used one, Blast Beach, for alien landscapes. Twenty years after the mines closed, a huge clean-up project, Turning the Tide, has unpicked the charms that made Lord Byron and Lewis Carroll linger here. Blackhall Rocks, once so scarred that it was the bleak setting for Michael Caine's final chase scene in Get Carter, now has a flourishing colony of rare little terns.

Cutting into this coastline is Castle Eden Dene Nature Reserve, one of England's last red squirrel strongholds, where the valley walks are simply superb, leading to a dramatic train viaduct facing the open sea. Close by is Peterlee, a quintessential post-war New Town, with two unlikely curiosities: an excellent award- winning tourist office, next to a bingo hall, and, deep in the bewildering maze of ring roads, the Apollo Pavilion, an eye-catching brutalist concrete structure. Named in a bout of improbable optimism after the Apollo lunar landings of 1969, it merits a brief detour off the A19.

Further south, having paused at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (visitmima.com), which looks to have been transported from the South Bank – and whose café, Prego, will serve you smoked cheddar and spinach pavé – I found the Tees Valley (visittees valley.co.uk) promoting tourism in inventive fashion. In the shadow of the Transporter Bridge – which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year and which you can now walk along or bunjee jump from – is the new Saltholme RSPB reserve (rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/saltholme). The approach road is through badlands straight from a Mad Max movie, your car windscreen filled with converging electricity pylons, petrochemical factories, gas pipes and flare stacks. But look upwards and you'll see geese wobbling between the pylons, with the scarp of the North York Moors on the horizon.

Further along the coast is the tiny village of Skinningrove, evocatively captured in the 1980s by photographer Chris Killip. The tiny harbour is home to crabpots and a restored coble, or flat-bottomed wooden boat, and it's overshadowed by thrillingly weathered cliffs. There are no cafés here, but at the head of the village is the ironstone mining museum, one of those wonderful, volunteer-run small museums that the UK excels in. There are plans to rebuild the jetty, allowing boat trippers from Whitby to dock. At low tide you can walk to Redcar, whose broad sands host the world kitesurfing championships this May.

Across the River Tees, north of Redcar, stands lonely Hartlepool, which will host the Tall Ships race in August (hartlepooltallships2010.com), when 100 sailing ships are expected for the four-day festival. In recent years Hartlepool's waterside has been transformed with a strip of fine restaurants overlooking the marina, while its historic quay hosts an excellent city museum and HMS Trincomalee, a gloriously restored Napoleonic era frigate. "Hartlepool has had its knocks over the years, and visitors don't automatically come here," said local spokesman Alastair Rae, "so we try harder to please."

Yet not all Hartlepool's attractions are recent. Old Hartlepool stands apart, on a headland overlooking the marina. There's a distinct, remote atmosphere here, and a special light that comes with being all but surrounded by water. At its heart is St Hilda, one of County Durham's finest churches, and named for the saint who founded Whitby Abbey. In its shadow is Verrills fish and chip shop, highly regarded by a clientele who drive here from far and wide. "Hartlepool is not what people expect," said Alastair. "They think it's cloth caps and terraced houses but the town's moved on. The catch is to get people here, and the Tall Ships will do that." He could be speaking for the entire region.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Cross Country Trains (crosscountry trains.com) offers regular services to Newcastle and Durham