As England's second city, Manchester too often is ignored. It is dismissed haughtily by Londoners as merely a provincial town, much as some New Yorkers might disdain Chicago.

The analogy with Chicago is, in fact, more than semantic. For Manchester, the capital of England's industrial, populous northwest, is also at the heart of rich farm lands, lands once rich in coal. Like Chicago, it has a masculine aura, the feel of a city of broad shoulders. There is a palpable sense of the intense character of its past, and there are great architectural treasures in which you can trace Victorian building styles from beginning to end. It also rains a lot.

Manchester, moreover, is the perfect gateway to some of the loveliest, least-explored areas of rural England: Lancashire, Cheshire, the Derbyshire Peaks. The Lake District's ravishing scenery and the abbeys and castles of Yorkshire are not far off, either -- although each deserves a trip in its own right.

Manchester's myriad advantages, which are slowly being recognized, could mean that in the near future the city will get the kudos it deserves. In fact, British Airways has recently added a thrice-weekly service direct from New York to Manchester, which testifies to the city's growing appeal. Or you can catch the train from London's Euston station. The speedy "Pullman" that runs morning and evening gets you to Manchester in less than 2 1/2 hours. And the amiable stewards will serve you a great English breakfast in the morning or tea, drinks and supper in the early evening.

Manchester is a relatively compact city, one that's easy to get around in. Most of the points of interest are within easy reach of one another in the city's center, and there are plenty of London-style taxis with extremely friendly drivers. But plan to rent a car if you want to get a feel for the history of the surrounding countryside.

Manchester's history is the history of industry and commerce in Britain, of social reform and good works. The city has traditionally been a purveyor of art, culture and information to the masses, and a tour reflects both past and present. You find yourself constantly dipping back into history and coming out in 1985. This history, in fact, is the history of 19th-century England and the British Empire, although its origins are rooted in another empire: Rome.

In A.D. 79, Agricola's legions, en route from Chester to York, established Mancunium (from which the city gets its name) on the banks of the River Irwell. You can visit the ruins of the original Roman fort in the downtown Castlefield area, a dazzling redevelopment site. Here is the Air and Space Museum, there the Museum of Science and Industry, complete with the gleaming innards of old steam engines. And Castlefield is the site of the oldest passenger railway terminus, built by George Stephenson in 1830.

When that first run, from Manchester to Liverpool, was made, folk prophesied doom due to newfangled machines. But by 1850, rail travel had changed the face of the 19th-century world as ineluctably as television would the 20th. (Incidentally, the back lot of Granada Television is also in the Castlefield area. This is the company that made "Brideshead Revisited" and "The Jewel in the Crown." The old-fashioned, Hollywood-style back lot has permanent sets for the Sherlock Holmes series and "Coronation Street," a wry saga of northern English life and one of the world's longest-running soaps.)

Manchester's history as a commercial center began in the 14th century when Flemish weavers made it famous for textiles, but it was in 1798, when steam was applied to cotton spinning machines, that it became the heart of the new industrial world.

There was plentiful coal in the region to fuel it all, and evidence of it can still be seen in a fascinating side trip from Manchester to Wigan Pier. The famous landmark of Orwell's book, "The Road to Wigan Pier," isn't a pier at all, but a loading point for coal. There's an unreal sense here that you have turned back the clocks.

The industrial boom brought with it the clamor for reform, and in 1819 the Peterloo Massacre saw hundreds injured near Manchester as they petitioned Parliament for the repeal of unjust agricultural and import laws. It was the Kent State of its day, and reforms followed. The liberal Manchester Guardian was born; for a time, Karl Marx hung his hat in Manchester.

And those traditions of reform extend even to the city's most famous commercial offspring, Marks & Spencer, the department store chain that has branches in nearly every city in Britain. Known for its quality merchandise and welfare programs for its workers, it all began in Manchester in 1884 when Michael Marks opened a stall at the local market. Today, in addition to the Marks & Spencer store, Manchester's sleek downtown streets contain all the best of Britain: Habitat, Burberry, Laura Ashley, the lot.

But it is the local architecture that has the most allure. In the 19th century, Manchester was built along monumental lines as befitted its stature as a leader in the new industrial world. Its buildings provide a panoramic history of Victorian architecture.

The City Art Gallery, for instance, built in 1829 in the city center, is a good example of early Victorian architecture and is stuffed with great English pictures by Stubbs and Gainsborough and Turner. Next door, the imposing Town Hall, designed by the well-known period architect Alfred Waterhouse, was finished in 1877. Across town, housed in a 19th-century Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, the Manchester Jewish Museum tells the rich history of the local Jewish community. Perhaps most dazzling of all is the Rylands Library. One of the very great Victorian Gothic buildings, it is encrusted with the elaborate carving and stonework beloved by the period. Dating to 1899, it houses three-quarters of a million books, as well as the 1432 St. Christopher woodcut.

Another Manchester building, the Royal Exchange, boasts what was once the largest room in the world. It was the trading floor of the cotton exchange in the 19th century and now houses the Royal Exchange Theatre, a distinguished repertory company.

In fact, for a provincial city Manchester has a number of cultural assets: the Halle' Orchestra, an excellent opera company, frequent concerts, plays and dance recitals. But otherwise, Manchester by night is utterly dead. The trendier sorts -- those who work at Granada Television and Manchester University, for instance -- who would normally support a rich cafe' and restaurant scene, decamp to surrounding villages, for the quaint pleasures of Prestbury and Alderley Edge, leaving the city streets bleak. It's a pity, really. In almost any other city, the great Victorian buildings would be renovated into stunning urban residential quarters.

Manchester is a great base for a tour of the north of England. Encircling the city is a rich variety of small towns to visit. Just west of the central city, there is Salford, a town with a street scene typical of northern industrial life at the turn of the century, which has been completely reconstructed. There is an art gallery here, with the largest public collection by English painter L.S. Lowry. To the southwest is Knutsford, the "Cranford" of Mrs. Gaskell's famous novel of the same name, and there are stately homes such as Lyme Park and Bramall Hall at Stockport, southeast of Manchester. The former has a 1,000-acre deer park, the latter a timbered manor house dating to 1370 that is considered one of the best in Britain for its medieval wall paintings, period furniture and awesome ceilings.

A little farther afield, about 30 miles to the west, is Liverpool, well worth the visit for its cathedral, its Walker Art Gallery, Beatles "Trails" (tours of sites made famous by the legendary band) and renovated docklands. It is a city that is becoming increasingly part of the Yuppie scene, British division, with many of its town houses stunningly refurbished.

Just across the Mersey River from Liverpool is the Wirral Peninsula, a lovely backwater, perfect for fishing and camping, and then, 20 miles south, there is Chester. With its arcaded streets and black-and-white timbered buildings, Chester is also a famous Roman town, full of evocative ruins. From it, you can set out for the Cheshire countryside, thick in pine forests, dotted with charming black-and-white houses called "Magpie" cottages.

Southeast from Manchester is Derbyshire and the Peak District, all wild crags and untouched countryside where you can stay on a local farm or at Buxton, a Regency spa with period buildings, gardens and lots of charm. To the north is Lancashire, another rarely visited area, where the villages and the panorama of the Ribble Valley are fabulous pastoral finds.

England's northwest isn't exactly noted for its culinary grandeur, although Lancashire and Cheshire cheeses, black pudding from Bolton and Bunbury cakes are all local specialties. The best idea when touring the region is to pack both "Egon Ronay's Lucas Guide" and "The Good Food Guide" and take potluck. If, however, gastronomic pleasures are essential to your journey, venture further on, to Yorkshire to the east or the Lake District to the north, although each has enough to see for a couple of weeks.

Yorkshire beckons with the city of York itself, with Castle Howard (the "Brideshead" of the TV series), with Bolton Abbey and the sinister, breathtaking moors. Kildwick Hall in Kildwick is a 400-year-old Jacobean mansion with marvelous food, and at Ilkley there is the legendary Boxtree Restaurant, famous for its rustic decor and rich French dishes.

Head for the Lake District for the glistening waters and lush scenery of Wordsworth and Shelley and Coleridge and you find, at Grasmere, the charming hotel called Michael's Nook. On Lake Windermere is the very famous Miller Howe Hotel, where dinner is a theatrical affair. Best of all is the Sharrow Bay Hotel on Lake Ullswater, an inn where the food, hospitality and luxurious rooms define the essence of the great English country hotel.

You might even return one day to the north of England. "Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian (to Charles in "Brideshead Revisited"). "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."