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It’s grins up north

THE Premiership season is upon us from tomorrow — and taking in a match is a great way of exploring some of England’s most fascinating areas.

The north west of the country is the heartland of football, with a rich array of history-filled clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. But most fans either do the day trip to the big cities, or stay overnight and miss out on the bigger picture.

Think extended football break and you could catch a game, enjoy some of England's best food and scenery, enjoy the thrills of a roller-coaster park and follow in the footsteps of Lord of the Rings creator JRR Tolkien.

The promotion of Blackpool to the Premiership brings another good reason to head across the pond for a break that all the family can enjoy.

We flew into Manchester and hired a car with Budget at the airport. From there it's a cinch to get around the region. Liverpool's around a half-hour away, while you can be sipping a cappuccino in central Manchester in the same amount of time.

The area is well served by motorways, and the trip up to our first stop -- outside Blackpool -- took less than an hour from Manchester.

Situated just a few miles outside bustling Blackpool, the sleepy hamlet of Wrea Green comes as a shock.

Why? This place, if it were in TV land, would have a higher homicide rate than Johannesburg. That's because it's straight out of Midsomer Murders. In reality it's laidback, well-heeled and the kind of place that stressed-out urbanites migrate to for the good life.

It's got all the elements of a quintessential English village: A pretty little church and vicarage; a pub next door with outside tables overlooking the medieval green and duck pond; and cricket on the grass. Leafy olde-worlde cottages make up the picture.

We stayed at the renowned Villa Hotel (www.the-villahotel.co.uk), typical of many in the area, with all the welcome of a country inn, a cosy bar, antique furniture and top-class food.

It's also a great base for families. It's child friendly and, after a day on the rollercoasters in nearby Blackpool, it's a nice quiet corner of the countryside with sheep grazing in the adjoining field and the village just a few minutes walk away.

Weekend deals are good value, with a two-night stay on Friday, Saturday or Sunday for just £125 per night, per double room, which includes dinner in the restaurant and full English breakfast.

Nearby Blackpool (also with air links from Dublin) is a must for families. The football ground is close to the city centre, while the Pleasure Beach is a must-see. It's got one of Europe's biggest and scariest rollercoasters -- the Big One -- which is definitely not for the fainthearted.

More coasters and gentler rides (including a vintage steam-engine trip) can all be found at the Pleasure Beach (www.blackpoolpleasurebeach.com), which is a must-see if you have kids in tow.

Another great attraction at any time of the year is the indoor waterpark (www.sandcastle-waterpark.co.uk), which boasts the world's largest indoor roller-coaster waterslide.

You can also get thrills in the great outdoors. In the beautiful Ribble Valley, which cuts in and out of neighbouring Yorkshire (again, think Emmerdale), lies Gisburn Forest.

It's home to Cycle Adventure (www.cycle-adventure. co.uk), which organises mountain biking in the stunning and unspoilt area.

Open group rides start from £20 per person, while you can also organise private guided adventures from £75 per person. If you want to go it alone, adult bikes can be hired for £18 a day, while it's £9 for children.

The area is full of surprises, and it inspired JRR Tolkien to write his Lord of the Rings trilogy as he was a student at the local Jesuit Stonyhurst College (which looks like a real-life Hogwarts).

The local hotel -- a mecca for foodies in the area -- is the Shireburn Arms (www.shireburnarmshotel.com), situated in the pretty little hamlet of Hurst Green.

Propertietor Steve Alcock is an expert on the world-famous author, and the hotel -- a favourite of Tolkien himself -- promotes a 5.5-mile Tolkien Trail, which reveals how local landmarks inspired settings in the books.

Also stunning is the trail around Beacon Fell Country Park, and head ranger Andrew Greenwood informed us that you can see across to Ireland on a clear day from its hills. It's just outside Blackburn, where we caught the local team in action against Manchester United in one of the final games of last season.

The ground is mostly modern (revitalised in the mid-1990s with steel magnate Jack Walker's funding) and is very much a family club with a friendly atmosphere in and around the impressive Ewood Park stadium (see www.rovers.co.uk).

Think Blackburn and you could be forgiven for thinking it's just about fish and chips or curry houses, but just outside the city is the Clog & Billycock gastropub, one of the cutting-edge restaurants owned by English celebrity chef Nigel Haworth.

Organic cheeses, mouthwatering steaks aged for 35 days, locally sourced fish and vegetables and sinful desserts are all on the menu, which is surprisingly easy on the pocket. You can check it out on theclogandbillycock.com.