“Manchester was a really positive surprise for us. We had imagined it as a very crowded, very industrial city, but in fact, it has a real small-town ambiance. It also has a certain ‘industrial charm’, meaning that in spite of the unmissable industrial character, there’s an old-fashioned elegance to the buildings. There are also some very beautiful old landmarks in the city center, and the rapidly developing Media City is exciting in its own unique way.
Manchester is a much cheaper, friendlier, and quieter metropolis than London.
“I’m sitting in a big coat next at a large oak table on a wooden bench, sipping a pint of Guinness – they haven’t poured the head right. A northwest wind is blowing right through my scarf. Sometimes I shiver from the cold, but I do not betray my weakness; if other people are sitting outside, then I’m sitting outside too. 5 pm. It’s getting dark. No wonder, as it’s already mid-November. The cozy orange lights have been on in the small square for twenty minutes. Behind me is the murky water of the canal, to my right the water rushing through the sluice which has just been opened.
Above the narrow, bobbing houseboats, the canal is spanned in all directions by bridges of different periods and styles. Had I been brought here blindfolded, I might have said I was in Amsterdam, though the characteristic smell that pervades the city – most reminiscent of a mixture of engine grease and French fries – would have ruled out the jewel in Holland’s crown. I’m actually in Catalan Square, on the edge of downtown Manchester, sitting under the colorful umbrellas and listening to my teeth chatter. Cradling my beer, I wonder what images, feelings, and teachings I have taken from this city, which has been my home for almost half a year, and which I will leave behind in a few days.
Hopefully, nobody will be offended if I say that you don’t come to Manchester for natural beauty. The only geographical elevation comes from the frequent railway overpasses, and even by British standards, this place gets a lot of rain. That’s not strictly true – overall, Manchester doesn’t get much more total precipitation than, say, Rome, but what falls elsewhere as an occasional, torrential downpour lasting minutes, is drawn out here into endless hours of drizzle. When the temperature rises above 20˚Celsius for four days in August, or perhaps even the sun shines for an hour or two, the locals feel blessed with the most beautiful summer of the decade. So it is no wonder that the pub culture is so developed here – they say they couldn’t bear it otherwise.
The great thing about Manchester is that if I want a small town, it can feel like a small town, but if I want a big city, it can feel like that, too.”
OK, it’s supposed to be grey and overcast with fine rain that hangs in the air waiting to ambush you when you walk up to it. Then against all expectations, the sun shines throwing people into a panic. The place from being a grim northern city takes on the air of Budapest in summer and the joint is definitely jumping. In fact in the student area, where we were, the joint would be the appropriate word as there is a definite air of herb on the streets. There are ten universities in Manchester with over one hundred thousand students and it has made the place very young and dynamic. OK, actually large universities I’d say are 5 or six if you include Salford which is a different place, sometimes very different. Please note that Salford is a different city. However, if you are not up to speed with the hidden boundaries you might be unsure which you are in, Manchester or Salford. In general, it's better to know. Salford used to be considered risky but like anywhere there is good and bad. . When boils down it Manchester is no longer a grim mercantile city, well up to a point. You don’t tend to find groups of lads in their clogs standing on street corners ready to give you a kicking. However better to stay away from some parts of town, did I hear somebody say Salford, was unfair. If you fly into Manchester airport there are trains to Piccadilly station which is pretty much the center of Manchester.
The center of Manchester is not very big and pretty much you can walk everywhere if you want. We arrived on a Friday night and it was absolutely heaving. You had to battle your way along to get where you were going. All pretty good-natured but with a bit of an edge. It was chilly but there was no shortage of lasses in crop tops and short skirts and lads in T-shirts. As I said Manchester center is small enough to walk around. On the first day, we walked up Oxford Road and down along the Rochdale Canal to Castlefield. “Castlefield is an inner-city conservation area of Manchester. The conservation area which bears its name is bounded by the River Irwell, Quay Street, Deansgate, and Chester Road. It's a nice walk especially if you like boats and 19th-century architecture, though there is plenty of modern stuff as well. Castlefield is the terminus of the Bridgewater Canal, the world's first industrial canal, built in 1764; the oldest canal warehouse opened in 1779. The world's first passenger railway terminated here in 1830, at Liverpool Road railway station and the first railway warehouse opened here in 1831.” (WIKI) It's a nice area especially if you like industrial architecture and canal boats. The rail bridges overhead crisscross in a very impressive manner. Don’t get over-excited about the Roman remains, they owe more to the imagination than to archaeology, although the Romans did build a fort on the site. Another thing you might feel like seeing while your down that end is the Science and Industry Museum which includes the world's first-eve railway station, working steam trains, etc. Next to all, this is the Manchester ship canal. This was built when the import taxes levied by the port of Liverpool got too high and the burgers of Manchester decided to bring the sea to them via a large canal.
Next day the cultured people that we are going to the city art gallery on Mosley Street. An old imposing building, there are lots in Manchester, with a modern glass extension spliced onto the back. It is not huge but we particularly enjoyed the Lowry paintings, a local artist of the primitive school. We also had a look around the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. This is a fantastical building that has been likened to Hogwarts. Deansgate is one of Manchester's shopping streets and takes its name from the old Danes Gate because this is the direction the Vikings took when attacking Manchester. Just to extend the cultural damage to our feet we had a trip to Chetham’s Library. It is “the oldest public reference library in the English-speaking world established in 1653” (WIKI) It’s the only place that I’ve seen books so old and so valuable in the past they are chained to lecterns. Also, the library is famous as a place where Marx and Engels used to meet. There is a window alcove where they used to sit and plan the overthrow of Capitalism.
If you decide you like Lowry paintings it's worth getting the tram out to Salford Quays where the Lowry museum is. I might not have mentioned that most museums are free in the UK, (even after Brexit). If you get off a stop before the Lowry you can walk along the dockside of the old Salford Quays, well worth a stroll. We also tried to visit the Imperial War Museum on the other side of the dock. Not normally the sought of thing I would go for but I had been told it is very good and in no way glorifies war. It was Tuesday and it was shut, never mind.
Manchester has become famous for the so-called Northern Quarter, also called New Islington, but as someone remarked to me, ‘we know it’s Ancoats’ the first industrial suburb in the world. The area was as working-class as it could be but now it’s becoming gentrified. The North Quarter has become Hipster heaven with bars coffee shops and so on. It’s a good vibe but its popularity pushes prices up a bit. Although the main shopping street, Market Street, is the kind of street that could be anywhere it's redeemed by the number and variety of buskers on it. I particularly enjoyed the guy playing the Kora in Piccadilly Gardens at the top end of Market Street. Piccadilly Gardens owes more to concrete than garden but there is a rather cool fountain. Manchester doesn’t boast a lot of open spaces but St. Peters Square with its round library, reminiscent of the Parthenon in Rome is worth a visit. Also on the other side of the Library is St. Georges Square with the rather splendid Manchester Town Hall.
Another place worth seeing is the Exchange theatre, a glass and girder construction inside the old Royal Exchange building. You can see the boards listing which ship was bound were, leftover from when it closed as a place of commerce. Places to see The Lowry and Salford Keys John Rylands Library Town Hall Chetham’s Library Any of the Older Pubs and one or two of the newer ones.
Food: Fish and Chips. Don’t forget the mushy peas and malt vinegar Steak and Kidney pudding. If you’ve never had one you’ve never lived.
Entertainment: Royal Exchange Theatre Band on the Wall, rock, blues Hilary Step Jazz. Don’t forget museums are free, (mostly) Enjoy.
(Alan Durant, 2022)