So, Manchester! Over the years we had heard a lot of good things about how vibrant a city it is. And I also knew of the gay village and Canal Street from the ground-breaking 1999 drama Queer as Folk. So I was pleased when I realised that this was to be city number 19, which we should shortly be able to judge for ourselves. To give some context, this was a somewhat unplanned escape – some friends were due to visit us, but unfortunately had to cancel about a week before the weekend. So Greg took the opportunity to seek out a last minute deal, and our 19th city break was born.
We traveled by train, which proved to be a pleasant journey. We had an enjoyable train picnic on the way catered by trusty M&S. And I only slightly startled a fellow passenger who was deep in thought when I opened our fizz with a rather large ‘pop!’ … 😉
Our hotel was very close to the train station – the Hilton DoubleTree. We usually avoid chain hotels, but as this was a last minute arrangement there weren’t many alternatives. Overall the hotel was perfectly decent. It was very well located (very central – we could see Canal Street from our window), and had some interesting touches such as an iMac in each room rather than a TV. We were also very impressed with how they handled complaints – we mentioned to reception in the morning that our room was rather warm, and that the aircon was proving somewhat ineffective. When we returned that evening we found a note from the repairman who had resolved the issue (confirmed by the room being much cooler). But what particularly impressed us was that the card also promised a warm cookie if we handed it in to reception, plus we’d also been left a miniature toolbox with mints in it! In addition the hotel manager caught us for a chat as we checked out – so I have to say that their response was probably the most impressive to a room issue I’ve come across.
First, a word about the weather. We’d been assured that Manchester was invariably overcast and wet, but for both the Saturday and Sunday that we were there it was hot and sunny with beautiful blue skies. When we remarked on such to the locals we were always rewarded with a strong response – either an earnest assurance that it would soon pass, or a grinning comment that it was always like this, followed by evil laughter. Whatever the normal situation, for us it was an early taste of (a good) summer. Too much so for Greg who managed to burn slightly! 😦
For our first day we took a walking tour of the city center, which Greg adapted by combining several available online routes. I enjoyed tramping round the center, and was pleasantly surprised by how condensed it was – we didn’t take any transport the whole day! Greg had once visited the city for a conference, and he enjoyed showing me his old conference hotel which was the Palace – a wonderful old building originally built for the Refuge Assurance Company in 1891 and now Grade II listed. It included “the Grand Room” which was a most magnificent ballroom (albeit unfortunately not open when we visited, so I had to admire it through a crack in the door). When Refuge Assurance moved out in 1987 the building was intended to be the new home of the Hallé Orchestra but the required £3 million could not be raised and instead it became a hotel in1996. We also stopped by the Britannia Hotel, to see the marvellous iron cantilever staircase with a balconied stairwell which dominates the entrance hall. Originally it was the Watts Warehouse, an extravagant textile warehouse built in 1851. It was built in the form of an Italian Palazzo with each of the five stories was decorated in a different style (Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan, French Renaissance and Flemish) and the building has turrets with large gothic rose windows.
As we walked round Manchester I couldn’t help but observe the real mix of old (mainly late Victorian) and new – we admired some stand-out modern architecture including a couple of impressive sky scrapers. One is the “Student Castle” (all the mod cons for a modern student including ultra fast broadband and wifi in every room) and the Beetham Tower; from the ground to the 24th floor is a Hilton hotel, floors 25 to 47 are residential apartments. The architect lives in the top floor penthouse which occupies the top two floors. The penthouse apparently includes a large garden containing 21 olive, lemon and oak trees all of which are over 4 meters tall and were shipped from Italy.
There was some world-class running taking place in the city center, for the Manchester Great City Games. As we passed by we saw the men’s 100m para-atheletics race that was occurring. After admiring this briefly we worked around the crowds to enter the John Rylands library, part of the library of Manchester University. This is the number 1 visitor attraction on Trip Advisor (isn’t it wonderful where the no. 1 city attraction is a library!), and we could soon see why – it was absolutely stunning. The building had been purpose built in 1889 by Enriqueta Rylands who intended it to be principally theological and thus the building has the appearance of a church. The architect’s design was based on an Oxford college library, but he and Mrs Rylands had frequent disagreements, with Mrs Rylands overruling him on decorative elements, stained glass and statuary. The core of the library came from George 2nd Earl of Spencer’s private collection of around 40,000 books, which Mrs Rylands purchased in 1892 to expand her own book acquisitions. Many of the original rooms and halls are open for the public to wander round, including an exhibition showing off an impressive collection of original books and book illustrations by William Blake. However the most special room was the reading room, which puts some cathedral halls to shame! It was a totally wonderful space, and fabulous to see such a location dedicated to the religion of learning.
From here we passed though a small food market, and met the crumpet boys; two friendly local lads who were running a crumpet, jam and tea stall. We sampled a white chocolate and raspberry crumpet, with homemade blueberry and rhubarb jam, which was splendid. Thus refuelled we then visited the Royal Exchange Theatre, which had made great use of the old cotton exchange hall (the biggest in Europe in it’s day) to add a theatre in the round. Interestingly the floor wasn’t strong enough to support the stage and seating, so the whole theatre is suspended on a cradle in the middle of the exchange hall. It looked like a fantastic space, and it was interesting to admire the Edwardian hall with a very futuristic pod in the middle. From here we walked through the Arndale shopping centre, but were decidedly unimpressed. Much more interesting was Afflecks – a quirky collection of smaller shops, especially vintage clothing, laid out in a series of never ending corridors where you never knew quite what was round the next corner!
From here it was a short walk to China town, where we had dinner. After some consideration we tried Happy Seasons – a small restaurant just down from the paifang (Chinese gate). It was visually very unassuming, but what swayed us was the large number of Asian customers easting here, including a small queue into the street! After only a short wait we were seated and despite the modest decor enjoyed a fabulous and great value meal, including the most tender roast duck we’ve ever had. We returned from our meal via Canal Street, which was buzzing and full of a diverse crowd looking like they were anticipating a full evening of fun ahead. 🙂 We enjoyed the atmosphere as we slowly meandered through, and hit our hotel to unwind and get a good nights sleep after a busy day.
Sunday was the day of the Manchester 10k run, so quite a few people were about. For us though we’d decided to visit the Salford Quays and the Lowry. It was another very nice sunny day, and we weren’t in any hurry, so we decided to walk. Our journey commenced via Canal Street, which unsurprisingly was much more peaceful than the evening before (almost deserted). With the sun streaming through the trees which lined it, it had a European feel, and we enjoyed our stroll down it only passing one or two other souls. From Canal Street we were able to go down to the canal itself, and set off walking along the tow path. It was my plan to go as far as possible along the canal itself, and only hit the road when necessary. As it turned out you can go the entire way along the tow-path, which made for a great walk; along what felt like a secret route through the city. It reminded me slightly in that respect of the Appian way in Rome, and although very different in many ways we both enjoyed being able to get away from the crowds (as we had in Rome) and experience a journey similar to a route which might have been taken historically. This was especially interesting being race day, as several times we passed by or under a section of the race, and could hear, but never see, the throngs of people who were sometimes only some feet away.
Our initial journey was very industrial, travelling between tall buildings, sometimes derelict, with a few locks to mark our progress. After about 20mins the view opened up, and we found ourselves passing an exquisite lock-keepers cottage which was perfectly maintained and looked like it came from the set of a period drama. Just beyond it was a small car park hosting a local market. We couldn’t resist, and had a delightful time wandering past the food and craft stalls whilst a very enthusiastic 3 young guys played music to entertain the visitors. After this short break we rejoined the route and passed over a strikingly designed modern bridge, which to our surprise was somewhat bouncy. From here we could watch trams and trains passing by on the viaduct above us, as well as enjoy seeing a couple play frisbee on some grass with their dog (an enthusiastic labrador, who was remarkably good at catching the frisbee mid-air given a decent enough throw!). Round the corner from here were some towers of flats, and several inhabitants were out on their balconies enjoying the sun and perhaps a morning paper or book.
The next section left the city proper and felt more rural. We were briefly joined by a family of Canada geese, who seemed to appreciate the Japanese rice cracker we found to feed them. We continued our journey, occasionally passing another person, and before long found ourselves at the bridge by Old Trafford marking the entrance to Salford Quays. The road here was closed for the run, but we headed away from the pack and towards Salford Quay itself. We passed by the entrance to Media City, where the BBC now has a major outpost (Greg had checked about tours, but none were available during our visit). Instead we walked along the quay itself, passing a wakeboard competition outside the large water-sports centre there. A little further along we found our destination, and recharged at the cafe inside the Lowry, which is primarily a theatre venue. We visited the small shop, and couldn’t resist a postcard of ‘Jack’ the dog which Lowry drew and is used by the centre in some of it’s branding (we loved Jack’s buggy guarding service!). We then spent the next half hour or so admiring the collection of Lowry’s work on display; many of the more cartoonish pieces don’t do it for me, but I do rather like some of his cityscapes and other work (my northern roots showing, perhaps).
After the Lowry we looked round the adjacent outlet mall (which we found more interesting than the Arndale centre) and we wandered back to the local tram stop to catch a ride back to the city centre. The trams were frequent and cheap (single fare lower than the outrageous fees charged by FirstBus in Bristol), and it was interesting to see from a height the scenery we’d walked through at leisure, whizzing by much faster this time; in fact for some of the trip the tram had a distinctly roller-coaster feel about it! After a busy day we felt in need of rest and refreshment, and so visited a restaurant recommended by my brother, and ate Dim Sum at the Yang Sing. As he told me – the pork rolls are particularly good.
For our last day we decided to visit MOSI – the Museum of Science and Industry. It was only a short walk along the canal, the same direction as we’d gone the previous day and just a few minutes walk from where we’d found the market. MOSI has a very impressive setting, making use of the original Liverpool to Manchester railway terminus buildings. It is a multi-building museum focusing on Science and Industry, particularly in relation to Manchester. The first section had a technology focus, including a re-creation of one of the very first computers “Baby” – which as the display noted is approx 10,000 times slower than the iPads they use as information terminals! The main hall focused on the textile industry, and contained both a wealth of information and an impressive amount of machinery. The information told the story of the rise of the cotton industry in Manchester and the North West, which was the single most significant driver in terms of the growth of Manchester itself. It seems hard to overstate the impact of this, and we felt that Manchester’s industrial heritage remains a major influence on the modern day city. Much of the machinery was still in working order, as demonstrated by two enthusiastic members of staff as they showed an industrial loom and jacquard loom in action. Other halls focussed on communications – showing a range of devices from printing presses to radios, televisions etc. These highlighted a range of firsts for Manchester, stressing the local relevance.
Electricity came next, including some huge turbine and generator sections. After which we enjoyed a cup of tea and cake in the cafe; which was surprisingly good (splendid home-made flapjack). Following our break we explored the gas light section, Underground Manchester (with extensive coverage of the development of their sewers!) and the Making of Manchester, which was a history of the development of the city itself. Our final stops were the two halls full of machinery – one contained steam powered engines and the other was a vast hall full of cars and planes with links to Manchester (and a model of the USS Enterprise D, for reasons I wasn’t clear on…). All in all MOSI was very impressive, and we could have easily spent even more time there, but we had an early dinner reservation for which we didn’t want to be late.
So our final Manchester experience was at Saporro Teppanyaki (another recommendation from my brother), where we enjoyed a splendid meal taking advantage of their bank holiday Monday special. As with other similar Teppanyaki restaurants it’s as much a performance as a meal, and it was great fun watching the skilled chefs ply their trade and entertain the guests with some theatrics. Of course, that isn’t enough by itself, so we were pleased to find that the food was also of a high standard, and both Greg and I thoroughly enjoyed our special rice as well as the steak (beautifully rare) and (generous) scallops that we shared. A good meal to end our trip with. From there we enjoyed our last walk along the canal, and returned to pick up our bags from the hotel and return to the train station to be whisked back home.
Overall Manchester was an enjoyable visit, and we can easily see us returning. We aren’t generally great fans of London (too big), so Manchester seems a viable option if we want a weekend away from Bristol to a larger city centre.
I really enjoyed reading this. Sounds as if you had a super weekend. The centre of Manchester was extensively damaged by IRA bombs in the 1980s (not sure of the exact date) and much had to be totally rebuilt which gave an opportunity for some exciting architecture.
It’s a pity that more folk don’t head north – there is so much to offer. Newcastle is another gem. Hope you are both well. We have had some very cold and fog drenched days this week. At times it has been impossible to see the lighthouse let alone south cliff. I am still having 2 hot water bottles!!
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It’s lovely to read about Manchester, because I’m starting a new job there in August.