PLAYWRIGHT, poet and novelist Julia Darling has won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award - Britain's biggest literary prize.

Ms Darling, who will receive £60,000 over three years, picked up the first cheque, for £20,000, at a ceremony at Newcastle Assembly Rooms last night.

She said: "I think it is the most incredible privilege to win this award. It will give me the opportunity to relax and think more about what I want to write.

"I love teaching and writing plays, but this means I will be able to concentrate on my new novel."

The 46-year-old added: "We are so lucky in the North to have this because there is not another award like it in the country."

The Northern Rock Foundation created the award in 2001, in conjunction with New Writing North, to develop the region's writing talent.

The first winner was Durham poet Anne Stevenson.

Ms Darling, who lives in Newcastle with her two teenage daughters, began her writing career with a performance group, The Poetry Virgins, and has written extensively for the stage, recently completing a residency at the Live Theatre in Newcastle.

She has written two novels, Crocodile Soup, published in 1998, and The Taxi Driver's Daughter, which will be published by Penguin in August.

She also plays a leading role in the North-East writing community, is a project fellow at the University of Newcastle and runs regular writers' workshops.

Crime writer Val McDermid, one of the judges, said: "The greatest satisfaction of judging an award such as the Northern Rock Foundation Writer's Award is to find a winner as worthy as Julia.

"Her writing speaks for itself, it is fresh, adventurous and restless in its search for constant development.

"Few writers can have put as much back into her community as she has, and while this award is judged purely on the quality of the work submitted, I know many people will also see it as a tribute to the hard work she has done in supporting other writers."

* See Tuesday's Books page for a full interview with Ms Darling.