ARTSManchester is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, so it’s no surprise that the arts scene here has always been hard-grafting and endlessly inventive. It might not have the glamor of Miami or Basel, or the money and connections of London and New York, but it’s got style, chutzpah and an enduring energy.
We have great artists at this year’s Manchester International Festival, and we’re working towards the opening of [the arts center] Factory in 2020. We hope it will be the crucible of a new Cultural Revolution. Big ideas do well in this city, and there’s no shortage of them.
John McGrath, artistic director, Manchester international Festival
BUILDINGSManchester has a few dominant architectural styles, ranging from Gothic Revival leviathans like the Town Hall to gleaming developments like Hardman Square, built by the locally born architect Norman Foster. What truly defines this city, though, are the remnants of the Industrial Age. Here, Tom Bloxham MBE, co-founder of property regeneration firm Urban Splash, describes how he puts these “dark satanic mills” to good use.
“Manchester has changed so much since I moved here 30 years ago. Back then, there was no motivation to develop anything, no critical mass of people. The city would empty after 6 p.m. on weeknights. A change came about in the early 1990s, with the arrival of ambitious developers, architects and designers. We wanted to improve city life and create better places to live, work and play. Urban Splash has specialized in turning disused mills, of which there are plenty, into contemporary lofts.”
COMEDYManchester humor has always hinged on three things: self-deprecation, a keenness to prick pomposity and the ability to find the funny in the grind of everyday life. These qualities are summed up by the city’s three most beloved comics.
DIVERSITYManchester is home to Britain’s second largest Chinatown (after London), which is easy to find due to its large and lavish archway, as well as its second largest Jewish community—which, ironically, settled in 1788 around the parish church (now the city’s Cathedral). Melting Pot Manchester is also home to large Indian and Pakistani communities, with a stretch of Wilmslow Road, in the city’s south, dubbed “the Curry Mile.”
ENGLISHLike many northern towns, Manchester has its own vernacular. Up here, a bread roll is a barm, and dead means “very” (as in: “I’m dead hungry, I am”). Hanging (minus the ‘h’) means “unappealing.” Then there’s ee bah gum, which used to be a way of swearing without swearing, as when a small child spills juice down your kecks (trousers). Mancunians tend to say ta-ra instead of “goodbye,” and may tell you to put wood int’ ‘ole (shut the door) on your way out.
FOODEating in Manchester can be confusing for some. “Dinner” is what you eat at lunchtime, whereas “tea” is the evening meal. And while many local delicacies involve meat and its derivatives (see “dripping,” or congealed fat), the city is said to be the spiritual home of vegetarianism: An 18th century curate named (ahem) William Cowherd, the story goes, preached that people should “eat no more meat till the world endeth” (he also told them to abstain from alcohol, which didn’t catch on either).
And while the city has become a foodie mecca over the last decade, local staples like black pudding, mushy peas (“Manchester caviar”) and Eccles cakes are enjoying a revival. “There’s a lot of money here nowadays, but there’s still a no-nonsense attitude,” says Roger Ward, whose three local “chop houses” have a collective age of 450 years. “All are still serving traditional British food,” he adds, “in huge portions.”
GENIUSIn 2004, University of Manchester researchers brought us Graphene, a super-conductive “wonder material” that—one atom thick but 200 times stronger than steel—promises to transform everything from medicine to computer technology. Andy Wilkinson, head of UM’s Graphene Enabled Systems, points out that the material’s hexagonal atomic structure “looks just like the cells of a honeycomb,” which is apt. “Everywhere you go here, you see bees—on buildings, lampposts, park benches, garbage bins.” The bee motif was incorporated into Manchester’s coat of arms in 1842, and, despite being superseded by the smiley-face logo in the 1990s, still stands as a symbol of the city’s industriousness.
HOSPITALITYSince a slew of grand hotels opened at the turn of the 20th century to serve the new railways—including the fabled Midland—Manchester has not been short of high-end digs. More recently, there has been a flurry of contemporary options. These include: the Radisson Blu Edwardian, inside the historic Free Trade Hall; The Lowry Hotel, beloved of footballers and A-listers, lording it over Chapel Wharf; the design-fixated Gotham, converted from a former bank on fancy shopping drag King Street; Great John Street Hotel, a chic townhouse set in an Victorian school; and the Hilton, Manchester’s tallest hotel, with rooms rising to the 23rd floor of the landmark Beetham Tower on Deansgate. The latest luxurious addition is The Principal, which recently opened on Oxford Street, inside the magnificent shell of the iconic Refuge Assurance Building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the man behind Manchester Town Hall.
INDUSTRYIn Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, there is a statue of James Watt, one of the greatest inventors in human history. His adaptation of the steam engine in the 1780s was a big step on the road to the modern world. Watt was born in Scotland, never lived in Manchester and his steam engines were mostly made in Birmingham, and yet in 1857 his statue was erected in the most eminent public space in the city. Why?
It was in Manchester that Watt’s engines were first used to mechanize the spinning of cotton. The city’s multi-story mills, their huge chimneys belching smoke, created an entirely new urban landscape. The steam engine also revolutionized transport—the world’s first inter-city railway was opened here in 1830. As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester lays claim to being the first modern city, and a brilliant Scotsman played a big part in that.
Alan Kidd, author of Manchester: Making the Modern City
JAIL BIRDUsually, a city’s correctional facilities tend to be tucked away somewhere out of view. But Strangeways Prison, Manchester’s hulking Victorian anti-chateau, casts a shadow over everyone approaching the city from the north.
It also has a high profile in popular culture. In the U.K. show Shameless, Frank Gallagher often mentions his time there. The Smiths’ final studio album was called Strangeways, Here We Come. It was also the site of a notorious protest in 1990, during which some of the inmates danced like the Happy Mondays on the roof. The area surrounding the prison is a hotspot for the sale of counterfeit goods.
KITCHEN-SINK DRAMA“Kitchen Sink” drama, which plumbs the lives of ordinary people, has deep roots in Manchester. A Kind of Loving, the 1962 classic, was shot and set here. Filmmaker Mike Leigh carried on the tradition, and Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running soap (57 years), made it a household staple. More recently, the raunchy family drama Shameless brought the city’s brand of social realism to the U.S.
LOWRYL.S. Lowry, known for his matchstick figures teeming outside factory gates, is Manchester’s most famous artist. He was also a style icon, says James Eden, owner of local fashion brand Private White VC. “Lowry and his subjects are synonymous with the single-breasted, fly-fronted cotton gabardine raincoats that were a staple for many of the garment makers that were dotted around Manchester through the ages,” says Eden. He points out that pretty much every hip Manchester band, from The Smiths to Joy Division, has been portrayed at some point skulking moodily while wearing these long coats.
MUSICLiverpudlians like to call Oasis a “Beatles tribute band,” but that’s probably envy talking. Liverpool may have had the Fab Four, but add all the members of Manchester’s famous bands together and you’d have an army.
NIGHTLIFEManchester has always liked to party, but it found itself as the epicentre of global youth culture in the early 1990s through its dalliance with rave culture. Much of the action centred around the legendary Hacienda club, which was cofounded in 1982 by Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. The Hacienda shuttered in 1997 and became apartments. Today, clubbers can throw shapes at Hidden, a huge new techno playground on industrial land near Strangeways. Sound Control, in the student area of Oxford Road, has live acts and club events. And everything from rock to reggae can be found at Band on the Wall—more than 80 years old and going strong—in the Northern Quarter.
OLYMPIANSIf Manchester were a country, it would have finished fourth in the medal standings at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Athletes born or based here won a total of 24 medals in Brazil—18 golds, five silvers and one bronze—more than sixth-place Russia, which won just 13 golds. No wonder, then, that the city hosted Britain’s Olympic homecoming parade last October. This success is largely due to Team GB’s cycling squad, many of whom live near the Manchester Velodrome—the U.K.’s first indoor cycling track—and who won 11 medals between them.
POETRYManchester isn’t known for producing poets, but it can boast John Cooper Clarke, Britain’s “punk poet laureate” who, at the age of 68, is as profane, offbeat and brilliant as ever. With his toilet-brush hair and beggared physique, he looks like Ronnie Wood and talks like a man in a hurry. His poem “Evidently Chickentown,” set to music, was featured in an episode of The Sopranos: “The bloody pubs are bloody dull / The bloody clubs are bloody full / Of bloody girls and bloody guys / With bloody murder in their eyes.” While much of his work is hardly family-friendly, he is also capable of skewed tenderness (“I wanna be your setting lotion / Hold your hair in deep devotion”) and sparky wit, as in his “Haiku”: “To convey one’s moods / in seventeen syllables / is very differ”
British monarchs tended to give Manchester a wide berth until Queen Victoria visited in 1851. She was rewarded with two statues—in Peel Park and Piccadilly Gardens—along with a road and railway station in her name. Even so, she snubbed the grand opening of the Town Hall in 1877, after the city refused to remove a statue of Oliver Cromwell (who’d had Charles I beheaded 200 years earlier). Old Ironsides, though, had the last laugh: England now has more roads named after him than it does Victoria, and that controversial statue of him remains.
RIVALRYIn a very real way, Manchester is a divided city, and it is divided by color: red in the west, blue in the east. It’s difficult to overstate the depth of antipathy between the rival supporters of Manchester United and Manchester City, two of England’s biggest soccer clubs. United is the world’s richest club, and by far the most successful Manchester team, winning the domestic league title 20 times and Europe’s top trophy three times. The names of legends such as George Best, Bobby Charlton and David Beckham are known far beyond the 75,000-seater Old Trafford stadium. City, though, have become a major powerhouse in recent years, since becoming bankrolled by Abu Dhabi royalty. The team has moved into a new 55,000-seater stadium, won the league twice and nabbed the world’s most highly rated manager, Pep Guardiola, from Bayern Munich. It’s a tough situation for United fans, who have had to abandon that old beloved chant: “Let’s all laugh at City: Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
SALFORDWhen I started out in the 1980s, Manchester dominated the English music scene, and I was lucky to shoot some great musicians. One day, I got a call asking if I’d do a session with The Smiths. The job should have gone to a big player, not someone who was sleeping in his darkroom, but they’d seen my work and wanted me.
We set it up for a day in November, so you can imagine what the weather was like. We shot a series on a Salford street, then in an alley, then in front of the Salford Lads Club. The boys were shivering in the cold, standing around this grim part of Manchester. Then it got too dark and we gave up.
Six weeks later, I got a call from the record company saying they were using the Lads Club shot for the album The Queen Is Dead. I made enough to buy my first second-hand car, and even now, fans get their own pictures taken in front of the club, adopting the poses The Smiths did on that damp day 30-odd years ago.
Photographer Stephen Wright
TRAMSThis year marks the 25th anniversary of Manchester’s efficient and much-loved tram system, which is on track to cover 66 miles and 99 stops by 2020. With services so frequent, few locals bother to consult a timetable when they leave home. That said, after Coronation Street featured a dramatic tram crash in 2010, several calls were made to the system’s operators by people saying they’d seen the incident on TV, and wondering if services would be affected by the incident.
UMBRELLASMeteorologists claim that Manchester is not the rainy city it’s made out to be, but others tell a different story.
“Moonlight on wet streets, the distant prospect of chimneys made phosphorescent by their own smoke, industrial valleys looking nostalgic in these nonproductive times…”
Author Howard Jacobson
“People think it always rains in Manchester. Not true, though I admit it’s the only town in the country with lifeboat drills on the bus routes.”
Comedian Dave Spikey
“Its main attraction is considered to be the timetable at the railway station, where trains leave for other, less rainy cities.”
Soccer player Nemanja Vidic
VIMTOA purple soft drink, Vimto was created in 1908 as a health tonic in cordial form— containing grape, raspberries and blackcurrant juice, plus “another 23 fruit essences, herbs and spices.” The precise formula is shrouded in secrecy. It can be drunk cold or hot—usually from flasks taken to winter soccer games—and more recently as a soda pop. Despite its roots in the temperance movement, its use as a mixer has been encouraged. A popular cocktail at many Manchester bars is a Cheeky Vimto—made with the British vodka alcopop Blue Wkd, for those who want to end their night with a tongue like a chow dog.
WATERWAYSWater has always been integral to Manchester life. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the River Irwell was a trading route. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1896 turned the city into a major inland seaport. The past four decades has seen investment pour into stretches of the river and canalways here. The old docks are now Salford Quays, a media hub; Spinningfields, a new business and residential district between Deansgate and the Irwell, is lined with waterside eateries and bars. And a 10-minute southwesterly stroll leads to Castlefields—home of the world’s first industrial canal and now a popular weekend hang-out spot.
X-FILESAll cities have their spooky events, but Manchester seems to have more than most. The Manchester Evening News revealed recently that local police received 416 reports of aliens, ghosts, zombies, witches and vampires over a five-year period. Here, a selection of the reported sightings:
- Emergency services took a call from a man who claimed he had been chased around Prestwich by hundreds of aliens.
- A woman told the emergency call handler that there was no such thing as the police, claiming she was a private detective stuck with other people in a ghost land.
- Police received an abandoned 999 call from a group of men claiming zombies were “getting them.”
- Police took a call from a woman requesting the witchcraft department.
- Caller rang police to say he was being harassed by vampires and it had been happening for years but they keep getting away with it.
YATE'S WINE LODGEManchester’s greatest claim to beer-related fame used to be that it was home to Yates’s Wine Lodge, Britain’s oldest pub chain (opened in 1884). It wasn’t a fancy place by any stretch, but the city’s new microbreweries are making amends.
This isn’t the newest kid on the block—it opened in 2012—but the pub has a lovely beer garden, and its list includes a flavorful Four of a Kind IPA.
Opened two years ago, this bar tends towards the adventurous: Past creations include a pale ale infused with beetroot and horseradish.
This quirky family-owned brewery opened at the end of last year. Beers include a watermelon-infused “mellow and hazy” wheat.
This Deansgate outpost of the Scottish chain has exposed beams, lively crowds and offerings like Elvis Juice, an IPA infused with grapefruit.
This slick bar opened not long ago as an offshoot of local favorite Beermoth, and has a rolling selection of adventurous international beers.
Porter Street Beer House
Possibly the city’s top craft beer pub, Porter Street has a huge list that includes a Kentucky gose brewed with red peppers and cilantro.
ZENWhen the sun sines, Mancunians descend on Heaton Park—one of the largest city parks in Europe—which has ornamental gardens, a boating lake, an 18th century orangery and enough grass to let you forget you’re even near a city.
Those who take their meditative activities seriously can get in the zone—and get an unusual view of Manchester—with yoga classes in the rooftop garden above Ply, an industrial-chic bar/restaurant in the Northern Quarter.
Equally sedate is the Central Library, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. The interior has cool open spaces, a vast dome, classical columns and an enormous stained-glass window with Shakespeare at its center.