‘HOME’ a new cultural centre on First Street on the southern edge of the city.

At Home in Manchester

13th November 2015

Deborah Mulhearn sets aside her self-confessed cynicism to
find she that really enjoys a visit to England’s second city...

‘I like Manthester,’ lisps a little voice beside us. It’s our three-year old daughter, and we are amused as we’ve only got as far as the Wimpy on Market Street, and also slightly alarmed because, as born and bred Liverpudlians, we have a natural antipathy towards our Northern neighbour. What she likes, of course, is the spicy beanburger and bright red ketchup. We’re impressed that she’s seen something here we’ve evidently failed to appreciate.

But this was twenty-odd years ago, and Manchester has spent the past two decades reinventing its gritty post-industrial and rather gloomy reputation. The city is now arguably the hub of the much-vaunted ‘Northern Powerhouse’ economic strategy, and, perhaps more importantly, perceptions of it have changed radically too.

Manchester was always at the centre of technological and engineering innovation, though, from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The first canals, the first steam-powered cotton mill, the first small-scale computer, the first splitting of the atom, the first oral contraceptive and the world’s first test tube baby all happened here. And just a decade ago, graphene, the world’s thinnest and second strongest material, was developed at the University of Manchester.

Fast forward twenty-two years from that memory, and I’m here again with my daughter. We’ve been here many times in-between, but not together for a long while. We want to see the changes wrought, the exciting cultural buildings, the quirky cafés and clothes shops, and the general buzz of a city that has the feel and confidence of a regional capital.
Like Manchester, we are also more sophisticated these days, and for our first coffee stop we head, not to the Wimpy (which, in any case, is long gone), but to HOME, a new cultural centre on First Street on the southern edge of the city. HOME replaces the former Cornerhouse cinema and the Library theatre, both threadbare and in need of new surroundings.

While this stitching together of two distinct cultural organisations might rankle with Mancunians, to outsiders like us it feels like a seamless join. Inside it’s Tardis-like, with plenty of room for the five cinemas, two theatres, art gallery, café bar and restaurant to spread out, and its art and drama programmes look ambitious and exciting.

HOME occupies one corner of Tony Wilson Place, named in honour of the TV presenter and music promoter who co-founded Factory Records – famous for signing the band Joy Division – and the fabled Hacienda nightclub, which was just across the road. We think this iconoclastic and radical man, who died in 2007, would find this slightly perturbing, if not downright hilarious. As for the name HOME, we’re less sure. We wonder whether people arrange to meet at ‘the HOME’ or just at ‘HOME’ (and what confusions that could create) – and while the place is sharp and sleek, it’s not particularly, well, homely.

From there we cross to the Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra and the main concert venue for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This opened in September 1996 and was perhaps the fanfare, appropriately enough, for the new Manchester. Just a few months before, a huge IRA bomb had devastated part of the city centre. While no one was killed, over two hundred people were injured, and many of Manchester’s retail and commercial buildings were destroyed, causing millions of pounds worth of damage and the loss of thousands of jobs and livelihoods.

The bruised and battered city welcomed the new developments, which had the effect of opening Manchester up, quite literally, in terms of its streetscapes and buildings, but also in its cultural and economic ambitions. Manchester became a modern international city, looking beyond the confines of its sometimes dour redbrick Victorian streets and industrial past. The Dickensian parts are still there, but cleverly woven into shiny new streetscapes.

The concert hall is named after the Bridgewater Canal, a privately owned canal that connects Manchester to Runcorn on the River Mersey. It’s said that is, built to carry the coal that powered Manchester’s mills throughout the Industrial Revolution, was the canal that heralded canal-mania in the 18th century.

The network of canals, waterways and connecting basins are, however, not very conspicuous in Manchester. They wind almost surreptitiously behind, between and below the buildings and roads, and unless you step down from street level, you are hardly aware of them. But once you do step down at Deansgate Locks, as we do opposite the Bridgewater Hall onto the Rochdale Canal towpath, it’s a revelation. It’s hard to believe we are in the heart of a bustling, noisy city.

Manchester was the original Cottonopolis, a city built on the textile trade and the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who kept the mills and factories going. The damp climate was perfect for spinning the cotton, because the threads did not break easily. The cotton industry has now all but gone, and grassy banks line the towpaths; geese and ducks meander, and an assorted mix of old and new locks and bridges languidly criss-cross the water. Many of the mills and warehouses have been converted into apartments, and there are wharfside pubs and bars, well-kept barges decorated with flower pots, all creating a secluded and almost sylvan scene. Still, we wouldn’t be surprised if a ghostly gaggle of mill girls came clacking round the next corner in clogs.

Coming back up to main ground level, we walk through the traditional shopping streets of Deansgate, King Street and Market Street (pointing out the site of the late-lamented Wimpy, of course). We cross the tram tracks to the Northern Quarter, another post-industrial area that’s reinvented itself, but this time as a haven for quirky, independent shops. Historically this was the centre of the cotton and later the rag trade, but it fell into decline with the loss of the manufacturing industries overseas.

This area has seen a more piecemeal regeneration, without the sleek glass and steel buildings, but in this way it retains its bohemian atmosphere. Shops, galleries and cafés are slotted into these unreconstructed warehouses and factories, and everything from vintage clothes to vinyl records can be found amongst its grid of now colourful and crowded streets.

On Thomas Street we find what we are looking for: Teacup Kitchen. We’ve been warned there are often queues to eat here, but it’s worth the wait. Teacup Kitchen is owned by a local musician and DJ known as Mr Scruff, who blends the rare and premium teas on sale here. These exult in names like Red Lychee, White Peony and Assam Gold. (The tea is apparently also available at Mr Scruff’s gigs, as an alternative to alcohol.) We agree to leave space for one of the fabulous cakes. We share a piece of flourless chocolate cake but then have to order the rainbow Battenberg because it looks so good.

To work off the impressive lunch we decide to walk to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery, just outside the city centre on the University of Manchester’s Oxford Road campus. This has been here for years, but since its reopening earlier this year it is now drawing in visitors – and accolades - from all over the world. It won Museum of the Year in July this year, and was shortlisted for the prestigious RIBA architecture award, the Stirling Prize.

The gallery sits in a small park, and a new glass extension behind the building creates a kind of urban orangery that brings the outside in, and the inside out.
But it’s not so much the building and the new spaces that make it such a splendid place to be, beautiful though they are; it’s more the buzz of being among happy, friendly art lovers that are clearly appreciative and excited to be here.

Back in the city centre, our last stop is a building that’s impossible to miss from a distance, though we’ve managed to ignore it all day at street level. This is the 170 metre high, 48-storey Beetham Tower: the highest building in Manchester and the tallest residential block in Europe.

The Hilton Hotel occupies the first 22 storeys, and on the next floor up is the Cloud 23 cocktail bar, with a panoramic view over the city and surrounding countryside. Above this are the penthouses and swish apartments. We sit on the western side to watch the spectacular sunset. We can see Snowdon and the Welsh hills, and just make out Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in the gloaming. The lights of the chemical plants over to the west are beginning to come on, changing it into a twinkling fairyland. Down below we can see the canal basins and towpaths where we walked earlier.

We ask to take a peek at the view from the private lounge for Hilton guests, on the eastern side of the bar. This looks over the city itself, and from this height we get the sense of Manchester’s scale and how it was shaped, not only how the old and new parts of the city link up, but how its rugged past and glossier present have been woven and stitched together. Beyond are the Pennines and the Derbyshire peaks, and from this panorama we can see how Manchester grew out of and into the surrounding towns, all built on cotton, and linked to a less illustrious past of slavery, servitude and exploitation.

This sobering fact brings again to mind the mill girls, but these miraculously change into a huge hen party, glammed-up and laughing loudly, emerging from the lift. We descend lightning-quick and join the rush hour crowds at street level jostling their way to tram, train and bus stops. We head for the bright, beckoning concourse of Piccadilly Station. “I like Manchester,” says my daughter.

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