Northern England’s Capital: Manchester Grooving to a New Energy
Manchester England was named Mamucium by the Romans. That’s because the original fort was built upon a hill that reminded the early explorers of a woman’s breast.
I told that story on the radio and my hosts got worried about the FCC. The remains of the earliest settlers can be found at Castlefield, in Deansgate.
The city in the summer of 2010 was lively, full of young people sitting by the canals in Deansgate, enjoying drinks and watching as narrow barges plied the waters with passengers sunning themselves on the decks.
Our visit was timed well since Manchester is a hotbed of football, with two Premier league teams within its city limits and two others nearby. The city is in the running to host the 2018 World Cup — we came just in time to watch the final match between Spain and Holland at a local pub.
What we found was that Mancunians take their football seriously. Each room of the Dean’s Gate pub was filled with earnest viewers, no chatter, no silly hats, no giant Spanish or Dutch flags or painted faces. Just people who really wanted to watch this game.
Manchester hasn’t always been a hip and lively city. In the earliest days of the industrial revolution, the population soared from about 40,000 to a staggering 2 million. The city did not require its workers to join the guilds, like many neighboring towns, so the result was that thousands of workers ended up in Manchester. Today about 450,000 people live in the city, with more than 2.5 million in the greater Manchester area.
Outside of town there is an odd-shaped tall building that houses an unusual recreational activity. It’s a ski hill, providing a downhill ski experience all year long!
Within a short drive are the magnificent Yorkshire Dales, gentle hills bordered by ancient stone walls that are a hiker’s paradise. Sweeping green lanes provide the hiker with a marvelous stroll in just about any direction.
The city center has some impressive architectural highlights, the first being the city hall that is often mistaken for a cathedral.
Out in front, a gigantic figure is portrayed beneath a tri-cornered roof. That would be Prince Albert, who is beloved for helping the city during the terrible days of the Blitz during World War II.
The city was carpet bombed by Nazi planes and you can experience a lot of what this must have been like at the Daniel Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum North, located just over the river in Salton Quays.
This museum, bearing the same stainless steel skin that makes Bilbao’s Guggenheim distinctive, covers a very high open room. Inside you’ll quickly find out why. One of the decorations hanging from the ceiling is an actual Falklands War-era Harrier jump jet.
Follow the wall and you’ll find artifacts, from letters written home during the Gulf war, to dogtags and ration cards used in the first world war. Every war beginning with the War to End All Wars, gets its due here. It’s mostly, though, about what war does to citizens, not only soldiers.
Videos of Hitler
While I was walking around looking at the artifacts and watching video of Adolf HItler’s speeches to his fellow Germans in 1939, the lights all of a sudden dimmed, and it became dark. What follows really sets this museum apart. Voices were heard booming out of speakers throughout the large room, citizens of Manchester who recalled what it was like to live under attack.
Images of these people were projected in massive scale on the walls, and the combination of hearing their voices and seeing the images brought the dark days of World War II into sharp focus. It was a ten-minute collage, combining many different elements and points of view. Powerful!
Free Trade Hall and Radisson Hotel
Another building that is now famous in Manchester history has morphed into a combination of old and new: It’s now the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, but in another day, it was the Tradesmen’s Hall.
There is a concert hall inside, and two important moments in musical history played out on its stage. First, in 1966, Bob Dylan played an electric guitar and an audience member famously yelled out “Judas!” upon hearing the first blasphemous note.
About twenty years later in the early 1980s, the Sex Pistols, led by Johnny Rotten, burst upon the scene, playing their first gig here and waking up all of England, and eventually, all of America with their famous lyrics attacking the Queen.“God save the queen/ She ain’t no human being/ There is no future in England’s dreaming…”
In the audience at that performance were many musicians who would go on to leave their mark and establish Manchester as a musical hotbed: Morrissey, the Smiths, Joy Division and many others.
Just above the 19th century facade looms the modern hotel; it’s an architectural oddity with this old building preserved and facing the street, yet the top towers into a modern multi-story hotel.
Gay travel in the city is boosting tourism of another kind. The Gay Village is what it sounds like, and brings many other travelers to Manchester. There are dozens of bars and funky shops painted in funny ways along the main street.
Chasing Mr. Scruff
On my last trip to Manchester, I caught a glimpse of a poster advertising one of my favorite musicians, Mr. Scruff. He’s made a great big name for himself with his DJ performances and his own strikingly good musical compositions, and was born here in Manchester. He was playing that night, and we set out to find that club where he was advertised.
It’s not easy to find, as we found out, and by 11 o’clock we gave up trying to find Sankey Head. It turns out the club has since closed, so we’ll never see Mr. Scruff there any more. But the next day we set out to get out own Mr. Scruff fix by visiting his tea room. It’s as close as we’ll come to seeing the man himself.
Dining all over the North of England was a delight. An intense appreciation for using local foods and a tendency not to overfill the plates were part of what I loved and appreciated. On one night we tasted ox cheeks and another it was tender succulent local lamb.
Breakfasts, however, were not a highlight. I just don’t really need any more fatty sausages, grilled tomatoes and Marmite. The porridge, thick and hearty, was what I craved.
The city of Manchester has a good vibe to it, it feels safe, and even after the world cup final was over and the streets were ringed with police officers in yellow vests, it never felt harsh or that people were out to do us harm.
The city was rocked in 1996 by a huge 3000-pound bomb planted by the IRA, and a Marks and Spencer department store along with a city block was destroyed. Amazingly there were only minor injuries, but this act of terrorism was a catalyst for a huge influx of money to open up the city center and a turning point… in a good way.
Now the city is known as family-friendly, and there are more than 90 museums and galleries within the city region, as well as the famous Manchester Wheel, an out-sized Ferris wheel like the London Eye.
A good choice for us was the Hilton Deansgate Hotel, with its famous 23rd floor bar with the spectacular view of the city, 360 style. We watched the second half of the World Cup Finals there.
The canals that weave in and out of the Deansgate area are lined with fun cafes and bars and every so often, one of the slow barges makes its way past.
Women wearing very revealing clothing were everywhere when we visited in July, pulling down very short skirts and stumbling in pumps on bumpy sidewalks.
It seemed that this city is where every under-twenty-something goes to have a good time, and the club-like dress became comical. It was the same in Newcastle — so many girls nearly falling out of their bras and hitching up too short skirts. Funny!
The area of Salton Quays, which is across the river from the city proper, is poised to become a very busy area in the next few years. That’s because the BBC, England’s national radio and television broadcaster, is moving nearly 3000 of its employees up from London to a new state-of-the art TV studio being built on the channel here.
Soon there will also be a digital content creation complex completed, which will bring high paying jobs and a spirit of entrepreneurship to this lovely waterfront neighborhood.
Shopping is said to be best in the Trafford Center, in the city center with 200 stores and 30 restaurants.
We watched on Sunday as teams from local businesses competed in canoe races in the Salton Quay canals, and a British Navy ship, the HMS Atherton, offered people the chance to come aboard and learn about their minesweeping work in the Persian Gulf.
It was a windy day, but like most Brits, nobody minded a little wind when the sun was shining down on the city of Manchester.
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