28 September 2014

England: Manchester – who knew?

An eclectic mix of old and new
What a great city! Vibrant and pulsating, full of colour and energy – these were my first impressions after spending just one day in Manchester.

It has quite a large, spread out city centre – or, at least, it felt like that after we had spent several hours walking from one end to the other and criss-crossing back and forth. Manchester is known as the first modern industrial city, built during the Industrial Revolution, and so is synonymous with cavernous warehouses and towering mills. For me, this is one of its attractions and I enjoyed its unique mix of old and new buildings, with their wonderfully eclectic architecture.

I saw more gargoyles than I’ve ever seen in one day before, as well as carved stone heads and full figures and other ornate sculptural ornamentation. I was warmed by the overall red tinge to the urban landscape, created by the red brick used to construct most of the older buildings. And, though there were many tall modern buildings, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by concrete-and-glass skyscrapers, as I sometimes do in big cities. The transport system also seemed very efficient – there are modern trams, rather than an underground, which were cheap, fast and efficient.

We caught the train from Northwich to Manchester, an hour each way as it stopped at several stations along the way (there are express trains for commuters), then the tram from Manchester’s Piccadilly Station to Deansgate to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. It’s a huge place, spread over five old buildings which are worth a look for their own sakes. One is the first railway station ever built, the former Liverpool Rd station, which opened in September 1830. Its interior has been restored and refurbished so you can relive the glory days of rail travel.

One of the museum buildings and a Langton-JAP speedway motorcycle

A 1911 Vulcan 4-4-0 locomotive and an Imperial Touring Car, dating from 1904
The exhibition spaces at the museum are large, well explained and have good hands-on activities for kids young and old. There is lots of working machinery, particularly in the Power Hall, which is full of engines and trains. In fact, transport is one of the major themes, with lots of transport-related exhibits, and, naturally enough, there are many displays related to Manchester’s industrial past, dominated by textiles and mill machinery. I can also report that the café had good food – yummy lunchtime pizza, and I was impressed with the museum shop – I bought a very cool tshirt that lists all the components of the human body on the front.

The John Rylands Library, side and front views

Next stop on our Manchester meander was the John Rylands Library, a truly magnificent building that has recently been restored and refurbished. John Rylands (1801-88) was, at one time, the owner of the biggest textile-manufacturing business in the UK, became Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, and was also an unpretentious philanthropist, sponsoring orphanages, homes for the elderly and public buildings. The library was founded, in 1900, by Ryland’s wife, in memory of her husband.

The Reading Room, the staircase, the cloisters - all magnificent!

The neo-Gothic building, with Arts and Crafts details, is like a cathedral that pays homage to the book. It has cloistered walkways with carved stone bosses, some in the shapes of flowers or leaves, others with dragons and griffins. It boasts double-height reading rooms, full of glass-fronted cases of wonderful old books – its Special Collections are reputed to be the best in Britain. Its ‘nave’ is an enormous reading room with stained-glass windows at each end, towering above and illuminating statues of Mr and Mrs Rylands. The staircase is more grand than any I’ve ever seen, with huge Gothic arches and a view up to the Lantern Gallery above.

Barton Arcade
And the exterior of the building is just as impressive, with an ornate façade on Deansgate and gorgeous gargoyles of all sizes and designs, sometimes sitting atop guttering hoppers and downpipes, other times perched at the junctions of window arches. The whole place was simply amazing, right down to lamps shaped like inverted cotton flowers because that’s how Rylands made his money. Highly recommended if you ever get the chance to visit!

After admiring the library we continued down Deansgate to the area of the city that was severely bombed by IRA terrorists on 15 June 1996. First, we detoured through Barton Arcade, a winding covered arcade with an ornate roof of glass and wrought iron that was built in 1871 and is still home to fashionable shops, cafés and bars, then wandered past the lovely medieval Music School building, built on the site of Manchester Castle.

Where the older buildings were destroyed by that massive 1500-kg IRA bomb, a huge shopping centre now stands but there are also plenty of open spaces, populated by benches where Mancunians can enjoy the open air and sunshine. We walked through Shambles Square, home to the extremely popular Old Washington Inn – the oldest pub in town, which was relocated to this site in 1999 – to Manchester Cathedral, another grand old building with fantastic gargoyles.

Shambles Square

Manchester's Anglican Cathedral
The pulpitum

Originally constructed in the late 15th century, the Anglican cathedral was extended and remodelled in the Victorian period, and received further repairs and restoration after the 1996 bombing. The interior is now a mix of old and new, which didn’t particularly appeal to me – colourful dangling decorations in a centuries-old doorway is not to my taste but does, I assume, make the building more appealing to the younger generations of worshippers. 

There were many wonderful old features, though – the choir stalls were intricately carved and rivalled Chester’s in magnificence, the screen (pulpitum) that separates the nave from the quire is particularly fine, as are the carvings on the misericords.

From the cathedral we headed to Albert Square where an area roped off for a jazz festival didn’t help with getting photos but I still grabbed several of the impressive Victorian Gothic Town Hall, a monument to Prince Albert and a gargoyle fountain that was erected for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria – presumably, no resemblance intended! 

Our route from there to the railway station, to catch the train home, took us through Chinatown, with its Asian restaurants and signs and a very grand archway. By then, I was footsore, a little sweaty and rather weary, but very impressed with Manchester. I will be back!

Manchester Town Hall

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