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  • Mal McCallion

Greggs v Pret: are you northern or southern?

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Scientists use AI to map England's North-South divide, using food preferences as a key indicator.

Ever wondered where the North of England ends and the South begins? Well, you're not alone.

This age-old question has been a topic of debate for generations, with opinions often based on cultural, financial, and geographical differences. But now, scientists at Sheffield Hallam University have used artificial intelligence (AI) to draw a definitive line.

The AI's conclusion? The dividing line runs right past Watford Gap rest area, a hub of fast-food outlets and petrol pumps on the M1, 80 miles from London. This location has long been seen by Londoners as the marker dividing the South from the rest of England. The phrase "north of the Watford Gap" has even become a common reference to the North.

The scientists' approach was to replace preconceptions with something more tangible – food habits. They fed the locations of popular Northern and Southern chain restaurants into an artificial neural network, the same technology used to predict the outcome of nuclear reactions. The goal was to identify the line separating Greggs stores, a Northern favourite selling sausage rolls and steak pies, from Pret-a-Manger, a London-based chain known for its vegan avocado wraps and specialty coffees.

The AI generated a heat map showing 'Northernness' or 'Southernness'. The fact that the dividing line passed Watford Gap was uncanny, according to Robin Smith, one of the physicists involved in the study.

However, the debate over what constitutes North and South is far from settled. Some Northerners argue Watford Gap simply isn’t far enough away from London. Broadcaster Stuart Maconie suggests the North begins about 100 miles from the Gap, in Crewe, partly because that's where women in shops and cafes start referring to customers as “love” or “pet”.

Smith and his team are now looking to fine-tune their neural network by feeding in more data points associated with North and South, such as the location of supermarkets with a strong Northern or Southern base. They're also working on a new AI model to settle another old debate—whether it’s better to run through a rainstorm or stoically walk, as a Northerner might.

So, while the debate may continue, it's clear that AI is offering a fresh perspective on this age-old question, and in the process, making the science more accessible and engaging for all.

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