Today it's exactly 28 years since I moved to this side of the Irish Sea.

Of course I'd been around the British Isles before, mostly on family holidays. My first visit to Cumbria came when I was seven.

But I was never here for months on end, and in some ways England was more foreign than I'd expected. You don't have to leave the UK to leave the country.

Certain varieties of bread weren't available over here, there was a new set of chain stores and none of them accepted Northern Irish banknotes. And the Guinness didn't taste quite the same.

It was the reactions to the Northern Irish accent that surprised me most.

Everyone has an accent, whether they realise it or not, and I only really became aware of mine when I moved away.

There were two main reactions. Some people said how much they liked it while others found it difficult to understand.

Obviously I preferred the first reaction, especially when it came from members of the opposite sex, though it has to be said that the second was probably more common.

After the best part of three decades here I rarely think about it now.

But there are still occasions when I feel self-consciously foreign. That last came at the weekend.

I'm just back from two weeks in Belfast, and when I called at my local shop on Saturday night one of the staff said she could tell I'd just been home, because my accent was stronger.

Perhaps it was, though I don't know whether another two weeks' exposure to it would have made much difference. I spent my first 19 years listening to it daily, so I reckon it's unlikely to shift very far now.

And I never thought it was particularly strong in the first place. There are much stronger as well as much weaker ones in Northern Ireland.

And this is one of the advantages of regional accents - Scottish, Irish, Welsh or northern English.

As long as they're intelligible, they're generally classless.

But the moment a southern English person opens their mouth their social class is revealed.

If your regional accent is very strong or especially southern Anglicised, then it can carry class connotations. Paul Gascoigne sounds as if he belongs to a different class from Sting, but both are Geordies. There's a big difference between the two Scotsmen Malcolm Rifkind and Rab C Nesbitt.

But the gap is far wider in the south. Contrast Barbara Windsor with some of the other London Windsors, the ones who live in Buckingham Palace.

Although what's noticeable about the Queen is a shift in her own speech patterns.

Linguists who have analysed her Christmas messages over the years have discovered a change - what you might call a vowel movement.

So "the cat sat on the mat” would now sound as it does in middle-class southern pronunciations - and quite different from 1953, when it was closer to "the ket set on the met”.

The linguists are divided over whether she has done this deliberately or whether her pronunciation shifted very gradually over time, as some accents do. Maybe the last person to rhyme "cat" with "bet" rather than "bat" was the late Brian Sewell.

There's correct grammar, spelling and punctuation but there's no such thing as a correct accent, so I've never tried to change the way I talk. And I nurture a special hatred for phoney, put-on accents.

It was a month after I left home - during my first term at university - that Margaret Thatcher resigned. Many people were overjoyed. I remember being glad we wouldn't have to hear that ghastly, fake-posh voice on the news every night.

Chas Hodges, who died last week, had no such pretensions.

The singer, one half of duo Chas and Dave, was performing in the US in his young days, and singing in the American accent most rock'n'roll performers assume, when he suddenly felt a fraud and decided henceforth to sing in his natural voice.

That was one reason to admire him.

The same goes for others who sing as they speak, such as Billy Bragg, Suggs from Madness, Liam Gallagher or Davy Carton and Leo Moran, the vocalists with Irish band The Saw Doctors.

They don't feel the need to sound like someone they're not.

Neither do I. After all, John Cole never did.