It seemed somewhat apt to arrive at the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution by train. Manchester was a favourite of mine when I visited back in 2007, and I was keen to show Paul the sights. We set aside two days in Manchester to get a decent feel for the place.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having a few track works today. We’re not going to be stopping before Manchester as we’re going to take a different track. But this is actually make us go faster, so we’re going to stop along the way for a twenty-one minute break so we will arrive on time. Here you can leave the train to buy snacks and so forth. I will update you later to let you know if we are to expect any delays.”
As an Englishman nearby so eloquently put it, “Why the bloody hell don’t they use that line all the time then?”
As we crawled into Manchester, the clear blue skies and Tudor buildings we’d experienced in York had been replaced by grey, heavy clouds and 1960s office blocks. I didn’t remember this about Manchester at all. My memories were full of that great mix of old and new, similar to Melbourne’s CBD.
I could see Paul’s imminent look of disapproval and tried to ignore it. After dropping off our bags, into the city centre we went. Hungry, we made a beeline for Manchester Arndale, a massive modern shopping centre built after the IRA bombing in 1996. Europe has hardly any food courts, at least in city centres, and Paul especially loves them. Nevertheless, a a dodgy burrito welcomed us to the world of Manchester’s haute cuisine.
After an afternoon of wandering around Manchester’s city centre, I was a little disappointed. Sure, the city has its pluses – a tram network, pockets of lovely nineteenth century buildings and some daring modern architecture. Little surprises like the John Rylands Library and the pubs along Oxford Road were winners, but there was a lot of so-so in between.
But where I found the real charm of Manchester was in its relatively new districts. The most famous are MediaCityUK and Castlefield, the former of which my jury is out but the latter of which I’m a huge fan.
I have a general rule of not trusting anything which has capital letters in the middle of a word, so MediaCityUK was always going to be a tricky one. It’s basically Manchester’s new water development – just like Docklands in Melbourne, HafenCity in Hamburg (again with the misplaced capitals) and Wilheminapier in Rotterdam. Just like its counterparts, it’s unfortunately a wind tunnel. But, the area has something. It’s got Old Trafford within spitting distance, the great (and free) Imperial War Museum just opened as well as theatres, restaurants and shops. Unlike other developments, it’s not at the end of a line, without through traffic. There are actually people around, working and living there. It’s got potential.
However, my heart really belongs to Castlefield. Neglected until about a decade ago, this is the area that put Manchester on the map. Castlefield was home to the mills, the railways and the factories that acted as the nucleus of the Industrial Revolution. Mercifully, it’s been saved as an ‘urban heritage park’ and they’ve done a fantastic job with it.
The suburb is full of brick and steel, but in a considered way which acts as a reminder that industry doesn’t have to be ugly. Spelling out the history for us is the excellent (and again, free) Museum of Science and Industry, which explains Manchester (and the country’s) heyday magnificently. A trip to Manchester wouldn’t be complete without a visit here.
And, as we collected our bags and headed back to the airport via another slow, chugging commuter train (Manchester’s one of the only places in the UK which has a rail link to the airport), again our mode of transport felt apt. Manchester’s children of its revolution may have been eclipsed by the achievements of others, but they’re sticking to what they know.