Manchester is me. Born in Preston but raised in Manchester I have been wanting to visit for some time now just to see whether it was now as good as I still imagine. So off we went for 5 days to see whether it would be the sort of place we might want to live – eventually. Cornwall is great, but there isn’t much culture. Yes I know it has got culture, but nothing like Manchester with its history, industrial monuments, historic buildings, theatres, cinemas and restaurants. Also our village has no pub and no public footpaths…two big drawbacks. Anyway our first stop, after a five and a half hour drive, was Altrincham which is on the Western fringes of Manchester and almost into Cheshire, a lovely County. I particularly wanted us to have lunch in the converted Market Hall which sounded very much like a smaller version of the one in Lisbon we had so recently enjoyed. First impressions were good.We wandered around the stalls on the outside and then the interior where, like Lisbon, there are food booths and eateries all around the perimeter. And they were all selling local and ‘artisan’ foods (and beer and wine). F. ordered a wood-fired oven pizza whilst I went to the wine shop where I was able to sample before ordering, a nice touch. One red was an Austrian on the stallholder’s recommendation…excellent. Large tables are set out in the middle of the Hall and you find yourselves a seat. Normally I don’t like this kind of ‘sharing’ set-up, but here it was fine.Away from the Market Hall there were a good few restaurants as well. And Altrincham looked to be a nice pedestrianised shopping area, pleasant to be in. Yes, the sort of place we would live. However, unlike in my youth, the average house price is around £430,000 – way above our means. Interesting. Having booked into our apartment at CitySuites which was all we could have wished for – clean, city-centre, roomy, good city views from the 13th floor…….we decided to have a little explore on foot on a circular route of the centre I knew well. I don’t think anyone can fail to be impressed by the quality and impact of some of the buildings from the city’s heyday in Victorian and Edwardian times. The streetscapes are very like a mini London. Here the Art Gallery…..and here the Central Library fronted by the amazingly good tram system (so unlike Edinburgh). The Town Hall featured Santa as preparations were made for the lights switch-on, but very unfortunately this terrific Alfred Waterhouse building is shut until 2024 whilst renovation takes place. We’ll be dead by then! We got a glimpse of one of the arcades off Peter Street, and then as we were passing by Pep Guardiola’s new restaurant Tast we decided to call in……. and had a very pleasant time sitting at the ground-floor bar, and making a booking for the next night.Next day the view from the 13th floor was very urban, but what was striking, and we marvelled at it throughout our visit, was how much building and development is going on in Manchester. Everywhere you look there are cranes and building plots, and buildings of all shapes and sizes being worked on.And there is a very strong juxtaposition of old and new. From our window we could see, beyond the building site below, the medieval Cheetham’s Library complex and in the background the brand new half-triangular shape of the National Football Museum. And as we crossed from Salford to the city of Manchester itself the cathedral, which we were making for, became apparent….and it was surrounded by beautiful buildings of all ages…..The gates to the cathedral were clad with the red rose of Lancashire which was very heartening to a rabid Lancastrian like me….and once inside we were struck with the marvellous quality of the modern glass (presumably, as Manchester was the worst affected cathedral after Coventry in the War, the originals were all destroyed).When we think about cathedrals we generally think of places like York, Westminster, Salisbury and so on. It was really a great surprise to us therefore how impressive Manchester cathedral is, and how historic. Granted a lot of the stonework is Victorian restoration, but at its heart is a medieval building which is quite the equal of many better known cathedrals. Some of the fabric in the tower predates 1421, and the tower arch itself is 800 years old.The late 15th century carved wooden angels all with gilded musical instruments were quite a sight….and I was interested in the statue of Sir Humphrey Chetham (1580–1653), the most successful gentleman merchant of seventeenth-century Lancashire who was educated at my school Manchester Grammar or as it is more correctly known The Manchester Grammar School.In the Quire we couldn’t resist lifting up all the seats and seeing the wonderful and often amusing 16th century carvings on the misericords. I tried one out and I have to say that it served its purpose well. It was quite comfortable standing up but leaning on the support. Indeed these seats are held to be some of the finest carving in the whole of Europe at the time.The various higher clergy stalls were magnificent, and the detailed work exceptional.It was also, as you might expect from Manchester, a very open and friendly church, not at all oppressive in the way of some of our historic buildings….I have not, in any other building, seen the precious charters associated with the building all out on display as here. This is one granted by Elizabeth 1. …..and here the 1421 charter of Henry V. I do hope this is a safe environment for them….Outside we quickly came across the Corn & Produce Exchange which, following the IRA bomb in 1996, was renovated and was a modern shopping centre till July 2014. The building was recently sold however and has been re-developed into a dining destination with 17 food outlets. Very nice too, although how successful the outlets are I do not know.Medieval and Edwardian together is a very nice mix I think…..and in Manchester now there are very many modern buildings with great visual impact…..here obstructed by the preparations for the ubiquitous ‘German’ markets.We were very impressed indeed by the Manchester Metrolink which is the tram/light rail system which has 7 lines extending widely to all compass points. In the city centre it is nowhere near as intrusive as you might think, unlike say Edinburgh, where the trams intrude into the cityscape quite badly…. Our next stop was the Art Gallery where we saw some interesting paintings eg this of Albert Square Manchester by Lowry’s teacher Pierre Valette …the smog just as I remembered it from the sixties!And we came across this painting of St Ives by Ben Nicolson…..but by and large a lot of High Victorian kitsch…I suppose this could have been expected of Manchester whose heyday this was….There was the odd bit of modern interest such as this Banksy…….Next by tram to Didsbury one of the more affluent suburbs. It had some interesting restaurants…..and shops…….and parks…..but felt very ‘suburban’ rather than ‘flash Manchester’ as it is supposed to be….Back to the centre of Manchester where we visited the impressive Central Library…..with its magnificent reading room…and we were struck by this memorial to the men and women of Manchester who fought in the Civil War against fascism from the grateful citizens of Barcelona…Between 1936 and 1939, 130 men and women left Greater Manchester for Spain to join in the fight against General Franco and his army of fascists. Like the rest of the International Brigade, they were appalled that a democratically-elected government had been overthrown and believed correctly that Fascism was on the rise in Europe. 2000 people in all left from Britain for Spain (including George Orwell of course) of whom 500 were killed….I had seen some very nice houses for sale in Bury during my researches so off we went on the tram…our first view was of the statue of Sir Robert Peel our first Prime Minister who was MP for Bury…a brief look round the centre showed some fine buildings but the overall impression was of a town on its uppers…So back to Manchester with its shopping arcades….big department stores…..and at last Tast for dinner….the menu was great, very reasonable, and the food excellent, and service from Edna of Barcelona impeccable…we really enjoyed ourselves here. A true taste of Catalonia from a Catalan masterchef, and opened by the one and only Pep Guardiola to make himself even more at home (he loves Manchester..)………even the amusing Giles Coren was quite impressed (for Manchester)….his review for him was positive…Sunday we went off to Cheshire to have Sunday lunch and visit the NT’s Lyme Park. The trees all over Manchester were absolutely amazing in their Autumn colours as we drove through the suburbs and it seemed like the whole of Manchester was one big park.As we reached our destination of Prestbury the scene became more refined with lovely trees, immaculate gardens and huge houses mostly hidden from view. This was footballer territory.And what a lovely place Prestbury proved to be.And the pub where we had lunch was just great…the Legh Arms or as it used to be known The Black Boy. Traditional pub fare done very well and good ales.We then just had time to drive around the area…Bollington, where a friend of mine from University lives, was pretty and with an interesting past. As its website says….’It is a town borne of its rural origins with the industrialisation of the area beginning in the mid 18th century and rapidly developing in the 19th when several large cotton mills were built, coal mines were opened and stone quarried. The opening of the Macclesfield Canal in 1831 provided important industrial development incentive as did the railway that followed in the late 1860’s. In modern times the mills have been replaced by, usually, smaller businesses although there remain two large paper coating mills, our biggest industry today.’ This mill still operates in the paper industry.But no wonder the residents know Bollington as Happy Valley….rural like Prestbury but just a little more workaday….Final stop, where we were the last visitors to get in, was Lyme Park – backdrop of course to the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a short drive away. I always remember it from my many visits as impressive, and so it proved. Whether it was the rooms….the fireplaces…..or the unique Lyme Missal or Sarum Missal. Handwritten copies of the Sarum Missal were commonplace in early modern England. The text of the Mass was broken up into sections, each major book opening with an illuminated letter and individual verses with a blue coloured letter. The body of the Mass was written in different coloured inks, fonts and sizes. Priests could then use this to navigate through the sections, without which the text would lose much of its meaning. The version on display at Lyme, however, was the first copy to be printed. It was produced in 1487 by William Caxton in conjunction with the printer Guillame Maynyal in Paris. It is deemed the most important printed book in the National Trust, which is indeed saying something.There were enfilades (suites of rooms with doorways in line with each other)……some with the Ancient Greek stelae or funerary monuments (there are many) which one of the Leghs filched on his Grand Tour…….how attitudes have changed!The wood carvings by the ultimate master carver Grinling Gibbons was of course stupendous, and Lyme has some of his best work….The extensive grounds are a delight which we will have to see on another day….and by the time we got back to Manchester the Christmas Lights had been switched on We then were off to the Castlefield Canal area which has a character all of its own, and on our way we passed the entrance to the Science Museum where we glimpsed ‘Rocket’ where it should be in the North of England rather than the Science Museum in London…….it was of course built for, and won, the Rainhill Trials held by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1829 to choose the best design to power the railway……The exhibition and events square overlooking the canal basin, with canopy all along one side, was an exciting area, and the venue for great music events apparently….and although wet outside (but atmospheric!) we did enjoy a drink in one of the big canal-side bars….Next day, and our last, we made our way to Chetham’s Library via the old Victoria station whose facade is carefully preserved, but whose interior is transformed into a combined mainline train and tram interchange which is very impressive…when I was a boy, trainspotting here, Platform One ran across the bridge from Victoria for 670 metres into Exchange Station making it the longest railway platform in the world.The Co-op has always been big in Manchester, and here is just one of 10 sites it operated from…Still on our way to Chetham’s…. what I call enjoyable architecture….We then passed yet another building site where the facade had been protected….in this case the Wholesale Fish Markets….We were now at Chetham’s ready for our guided tour of the ancient library. Chetham’s is now a world-famous (and infamous) music school, but the library is run separately. The coat of arms is that of Hugh Oldham founder of The Manchester Grammar in 1515 which used this site until 1931…Anyway, the tour. First through the medieval quadrangle…..the buildings, which continue to house Chetham’s Library and the Baronial Hall, were built from 1421, on the site of the manor house of Manchester, as a college for priests connected to the neighbouring Manchester Cathedral. They survived through the religious tumult of the Tudor era and the experiments of its famous 16th century warden, Dr John Dee who was a noted alchemist. Inside, the corridors now enclosed would once have been the doorways to the priests’ individual cells. The baronial hall is a wonderfully preserved example of the timber halls found in the north west of England, and is comparable in size with Ordsall Hall, Salford, and Rufford Hall, all in Lancashire. The magnificent open timber roof once accommodated a louvre opening to allow the evacuation of smoke from a hearth in the centre of the room.The purpose of the screen was to keep out draughts and to conceal the entrances to the buttery and pantry situated at the back of the hall. At the top of the hall an impressive oak canopy projects over a raised dais, where the warden and visiting dignitaries would have dined at high table. MGS pupils never stopped complaining how cold it was to have lunch here….The library is absolutely amazing and reeks of its age. It was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It can still be used by anyone….I wish I was here to make use of its facilities.But I was anxious now to see the Reading Room…..where we soon were after looking at a very old printing press which had been used until recently…..and in here is not only the library of chained books…but also the internationally famous alcove and desk at which Marx and Engels worked…here is the story..
The German industrialist and Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels lived in Manchester in the early 1840s and was employed by his father’s cotton thread manufacturing firm in Weaste.
During his time in Manchester Engels made many detailed observations leading to the publication of his influential work The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Karl Marx, who lived in London, was a frequent visitor to Manchester, and in the summer of 1845 he and Engels developed the habit of studying together at the table in the alcove of the Reading Room.
Evidently the Library made a strong impression on the two men. Writing to Marx many years later in 1870 Engels commented: “During the last few days I have again spent a good deal of time sitting at the four-sided desk in the alcove where we sat together twenty-four years ago. I am very fond of the place. The stained glass window ensures that the weather is always fine there. Old Jones, the Librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active. I have not seen him on this occasion”.
Apart from the stained glass windows, which were damaged by a storm in the winter of 1875 and replaced by plain glass, the desk and alcove remain unaltered. The books which the two men studied are still held by the Library. And the facsimiles of these were available on the desk for us to consult. Fascinating material, a lot of it investigations into poverty at prior periods. I do wonder why this ‘shrine’ to Marx and Engels is not better known. It significance can hardly be over-estimated.
A real privilege to visit this great institution. I shall be back.A coffee was called for and from the Costa windows we had a nice view of some of Manchester’s modern architecture…Off then on the tram to Salford Quays. An interesting journey through much residential reconstruction….and a landscape very much of the twenty-first century when we got there…..and, thank God, Salford hadn’t forgotten some of the softer landscaping…A quick look across at the Imperial War Museum North..the first building in the UK designed by the internationally acclaimed architect, Daniel Libeskind, and built on a bomb site in Trafford Park where my Mum and Dad used to work, the first planned industrial estate in the world, and still (apparently) the largest in Europe.Then we arrived at the Lowry..designed by British architect Michael Wilford as part of the regeneration of this once heavily industrialised area. It doesn’t just hold the Lowry painting collection but three theatres and much else besides…but not many artists have a building named after them.We were greeted by a painting of Lowry himself by a friend and then….a very interesting display indeed on painters who influenced Lowry..followed by an absorbing history of the areas Lowry often painted…Oh, and I forgot, a perceptive documentary film interviewing him and those who knew him well…..before the paintings proper there was one more thing – a televisual presentation on ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenes of some of Lowry’s better known paintings…which I loved…I only recorded one painting as I was told off for using my camera (in a very friendly Mancunian way of course)…..But the thing about his art is that it is not at all just about industrial scenes and matchstick men. He was very fond of seascapes and these impressionistic paintings I liked more than anything. There were also some of his extremely good portraits. Lots of children in today with their teachers which was great to see. A really worthwhile visit (our second)…As I was now parched (you can after all only take in so much Art at one time) we headed quickly back to Manchester on the tram and made for the old Refuge Assurance building of my time which is now a magnificent hotel. Here we sat in comfort over a pint and admired the conversion in all its glory….Bent on more of the same we then called in to the palatial Midland Hotel where we had a very nice chat over a drink with the duty manager…..before ending up at the new hotel created out of the Free Trade Hall…in the Japanese bar of all places…..and remembering what I said about the building being named after Lowry here is a quote from one of my favourite historians A J P Taylor..’Other great halls in England are called after a royal patron or some figure of traditional religion. Only the Free Trade Hall is dedicated to a proposition………..’ (!!)A slow walk back to our hotel. We had done over 18,000 steps today. Tourism is hard work.So what did we make of Manchester? I thought it was magnificent, I loved the juxtaposition of old and new, and I thought all the development (really an incredible amount, more than anywhere we have seen) was very exciting. F. was not so sure. She thinks too much is being lost, and that there is a manic sense of building anything anywhere with seemingly no overall plan. It was certainly dirtier than Cornwall (although nowhere near as dirty as London of course) and there were too many homeless people, a huge indictment on the authorities….F. noticed that Manchester people seemed very proactive in helping these people and she became a giver herself rather than an ignorer. As for places to live, we both were disappointed in the suburbs which ironically were too suburban for us. I had been led to believe there was a village atmosphere in places like Didsbury and Altrincham, but that passed us by. However, it would be delightful to live on the very outskirts in somewhere like Prestbury with easy access to everything there is to do in central Manchester. Food for thought. As for Manchester’s woeful weather (a myth), we had mostly sun whereas we were greeted in Cornwall by storms, hail and absolutely torrential, almost tropical rain…….