Manchester was somewhere I never planned to visit, however, I was pleased to find myself in the Northern Soul town while in transit from Glasgow to Helsinki, and took a couple of days to explore the city. There’s more to Manchester than music and football, as you’ll discover.
The First Night
My lovely hostess picked me up from the bus station and took me to her local favorite for dinner – the very friendly and unpretentious ‘Jam Street’, on Upper Chorlton Rd. You phone in advance to find out the two or three dishes on offer for the night – usually one meat, one veg and one fish – then drop by for a satisfying meal made with organic ingredients and served in a cosy, home-cooked vibe. I had the spring vegetable stir-fry with parmesean dumplings (delicious), while Maria tried the beef & sweet potato curry (also good although she said could have been a little spicier). A real treasure, the corner cafe with outdoor seating for the warm summer nights, and on our visit the entire cafe joined in singing “Happy Birthday” for one of the regulars, who then dispensed chocolate cake to anyone who wanted some – also rich and tasty.
Exploring the City
In the morning I took the daytripper bus fare – at £3.50 it’s a much better value than £1.95 each way – and ventured into the city to explore. All I really knew about Manchester was the music scene in the 80′s-90′s and some vague idea of a heavily industrial past. Maria pointed me in the direction of the ‘Common’ cafe in the Northern Quarter, so I decided to head there, then wind my way back via Primrose Gardens through the main thoroughfare.
The first thing to strike me on the bus ride into town is the incredible range of dilapidated yet still imposing architecture – the city really wore its wealth on its streets in the old days. A magnificent ornate green-tiled picture palace looks almost in ruins just beside the city university – which also boasts a music school, and some cheap plentiful food choices, from the vegan collective cafe to the burger and chips in the cart along side the park.
A Peek into the Past
A little further along Oxford St and The Palace speaks volumes of the grandeur of the past, in a town built on textiles, glass, and the lucrative transatlantic trade between the Americas, Africa and UK – tobacco, cotton, and slaves. Not only did the suffragette movement begin in Manchester, it was also the first place to start anti-slavery campaigns, and the Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley St has a fine exhibition of the historic and recent events that have shaped the culture, attitude and life of the city.
I stopped in there to check out yet another ornate building, and was rewarded with a well-designed and thoughtful selection of paintings and ceramics – some of the only decorative pieces to feature industry and smokestacks instead of the usual bucolic landscapes, reflecting the realities of life in a burgeoning factory town. The gallery offers activities for kids including the wonderful ‘explorer tool belt’ which promises to turn your child’s visit into a real adventure, along with an interactive laboratory for hands-on creative experiments, free guided tours, a gift shop and cafe. Manchester is renowned for a vibrant cultural life, and was also home to the Women’s art movement, reflecting the local side of the suffragette campaign.
I Continue on Strolling…
I pass through Primrose Gardens (more a bus stand and square than actual garden) with a small and nicely laid out arbor amidst the paving and pedestrians. Turning into Oldham St, I have only the vaguest sense of orientation and am thus forced to keep stopping into the many vintage shops (‘Best Vintage’ really is the best, at least for my on-trend Jil Sanders retro 80′s utility jacket, perfect for spring and only £3) and asking for directions to ‘Common’ cafe. I’m heading there partly just to have a purpose and destination in mind, in addition to the reputation it has for a lively atmosphere, interesting décor, good music, food and art. They also have a twice-monthly quiz night, art exhibition and live music all there on Edge St.
Along the way I drift into Junk, a stylish retro vintage store that also offers dressmaking courses and other activities including sustainable fashion under the ‘School of Junk’ imprint; then find myself on Tib St in the marvelously decadent Kiku, stroking handmade silk, brocade and feather corsets and dreaming of a wildly exotic new outfit – and life. The perfect excuse for new hair from the astonishing array of wigs at Paul’s Hair and Beauty World. Oldham St is also home to the Oxfam Emporium and a wide range of music shops.
A few more turns brings me onto Oak St and the Manchester Craft and Design Centre, housed in an inspiring building, formerly the Victorian Fish market and packed with artisan studios and shops where you can pick up a gorgeous piece of jewelery – I loved the perspex range of cut-out birds and animals – ceramics, glass, furniture and painting. I’m highly tempted by ‘a few nice things’ on the corner featuring tailored jackets and bags.
If you feel like a little more guidance and storytelling on your stroll, check out the range of special walking tours provided by New Manchester Walks. Experience all sides of the city and everything from the Industrial Revolution Machine Age, to the Manchester Nobody Knows, choose the Swingin’ Sixties or Old Salford Pub Walk, or a more political angle with Engels and Marx, The Frock-Coated Communists, to Victorian Shock City and the dark side with tales of the Manchester Dead.
If it’s Nightlife You’re After…
There’s a world of post-Manchester possibilities depending on your interests and music style. I would head straight for The Deaf Institute, with an eclectic directional program offering everything for the discerning musical palette, from the Gateaux show – highlighting new French bands – to the Last Harbour (dark dusty mood, gothic archness and deadly strings) with Samson & Delilah and Goldmundo, the ‘now wave’ Phenomenal Handclap Band or El Diablo’s Social Club, ‘one of Manchester’s best underground hangouts for psychedelic disco deviance’ offers to take you ‘to rack and ruin’! More of the ‘Now Wave’ scene is on offer at various venues; Coco Rosie plays the Manchester Cathedral; Four Tet the Club Academy and The Antlers at St Philip’s Church Salford – Now Wave promises to ‘give the past a slip’ with the sounds of the near future.
If ‘dirty analogue house and techno’ is more your thing, get along to be part of The Chapel Experiment on Wilmslow Rd, or Contort Yourself at the Roadhouse on the first and third Saturday of every month with electro-techno-disco-cosmic-acid-bass. The fabulously named ‘Worriedaboutsatan’ can be heard at the Nexus Art Cafe, while Ground Zero Presents Wisp, Global Goon and more at the Music Box on Oxford St. If nothing in the above options can get you out dancing, well I don’t know what else to suggest!
Now you’re on Oxford St, duck into the Cornerhouse for a varied cultural menu, with everything from a cinema showing arthouse, world and new releases, to the small yet excellent magazine range in the bookshop, two cafes, and three floors of art gallery.
The Greenroom is an intriguing showcase of club-nights, music and cabaret, with organic, fair trade and locally produced drinks, some free events and with upcoming attractions including Green Bohemia and Mother’s Ruin, you’ll be glad you stopped by.
A Few Words of Safety Advice
If you feel like it’s a bad idea to go down a street then it probably is, so trust your instincts. Despite the ‘urban regeneration’ program and University located there, I had strict instructions not to loiter in Salford looking aimless or lost – a pity as it’s apparently where much of the darkly brilliant TV show ‘Shameless’ is filmed. So if you find yourself over the river, don’t keep wandering – turn around and get back into town. The University of Salford offers an arts program of exhibitions, literature and music which make it worth the trip. I’m assured that although the unsavoury reputation of some areas may well be deserved much has changed over the past ten – fifteen years. Manchester is still one of the coolest Northern towns – go find out why for yourself!
- Jodi Rose