The historical Castlefield is a conservation area
Whenever independent travelers arrive in an unfamiliar city, the first hurdle that they have to overcome is the initial disorientation stage. Although Manchester is much smaller than London in size, it was still a bit daunting arriving at a station full of busy commuters. Luckily, I found the free metroshuttle (fantastic idea) bus stop outside of the station and took advantage of these buses as much as I could during my stay! Yet I always find that the best way to see a city is on foot, which also helps me to find a sense of direction.
Since I only had about 36 hours in the city, I tried to squeeze in as much as I could before the museums and galleries close at 5pm. I also downloaded a few Manchester apps as guidance, but the one that I love is Manchester Time Machine (for iphone & ipad only). This app was developed by Manchester Metropolitan University featuring an extensive rare historical footage of Manchester from the North West Film Archive. Its GPS technology allows users to pinpoint a location and watch film relating to it. It is absolutely fascinating to see how the city looked from the past vs the present day. An impressive and innovative app!
The site of a Roman fort in Castlefield
I was staying in Castlefield, a conservation area that is listed as the world’s first urban heritage park. This area is not only the birth place of Manchester, it is also home to the world’s first industrial canal built in 1764, and the world’s first railway station built in 1830. There is also the remains of a Roman fort founded in AD 79, and its name Mamucium eventually evolved into the name ‘Manchester’.
It is hard to miss the huge contrast between the old and the contemporary architecture in Manchester. Before the trip, I didn’t realise that contemporary architecture is so prominent in the city, and was surprise to see the diverse range of architectural styles within the city.
Top right: The Art deco House of Fraser building (also known as the Kendal, Milne & Co. Building) was designed in by Louis David Blanc in 1938; Main: Aldine House/ Riverside was designed by Leach Rhodes Walker in 1967.
The regeneration of the city centre was a result of the IRA bombing in 1996. The centrepiece of the project was the glossy Urbis building (now the National Football museum) built in 2002 by a local architect Ian Simpson, who was also responsible for No.1 Deansgate, UK’s tallest residential block completed in the same year. It is impossible to miss the architect’s slightly imposing buildings while walking around the city esp. the Beetham Tower, which is the tallest skyscraper in Manchester completed in 2006.
Top left & 2nd row: Manchester Civil Justice Centre; Top middle: No.1. Deansgate; Top right: Beetham Tower; 3rd & 5th left: Urbis/National Football Museum; 3rd middle & 4th row: 1 The Avenue
Personally, I am more fond of the distinctive and intriguing Manchester Civil Justice Centre designed by Australian architecture firm, Denton Corker Marshall in 2007. The building has received many awards for its sustainability credentials and innovative engineering design, and was shortlisted for the RIBA‘s Stirling Prize in 2008. Another interesting and award-winning building is The Avenue (for retail and business) designed by Sheppard Robson in 2010, situated next to the historical John Ryland Library.
Due to time constraint, I did not have time to visit Imperial War Museum North, which was designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind in 2002. It will certainly be on my list when I next visit the city.
Art & design exhibitions
Probably one of the must-see attractions in Manchester is the Manchester Art Gallery (free admission). Although the gallery is not huge, it would still take at least 2 hours to wander and enjoy the exhibitions. The current exhibitions include “The Sensory War 1914-2014” (until 22nd February 2015) and “AZ.andreazappa” (until 22nd March 2015), which showcases photographic dresses designed by by Manchester-based media and textile artist Andrea Zapp.
Manchester Art Gallery – Top right: Antony Gormley’s sculpture; 2nd row right: Work by Banksy; 3rd row: Andrea Zappa’s exhibition; 4th left: Piccadilly Gardens (1954) by LS Lowry; 4th right: Work by Roy Lichtenstein; 5th row: The Sensory War 1914-2014; Bottom row: Kathe Kollwitz’s prints
“The Sensory War 1914-2014” is an excellent and thought-provoking exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War. The show examines how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies utilised in a century of conflict beginning with the First World War. One of the most harrowing sections is a series of photographs showing disfigured or disabled soldiers returning home from war. I was particularly saddened by Nina Berman‘s “Marine wedding” and the tragic story of Marine Sgt. Tyler Ziegel.
Another section shows work created in the 1970s by the hibakusha, survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Many of the pieces are simple drawings, but they illustrate the horrors of war in the most direct manner. Yet my favourite at this exhibition is the profound prints created by German painter, printmaker, and sculptor Kathe Kollwitz. It is hard not to be touched by the sorrow, despair, suffering and humanity seen in her work, which addresses mortality, poverty and the fragility of life.
People’s History Museum
Another gem in the city is the People’s History Museum (free admission), the only museum in the country dedicated to the history of British working people in the last 200 years. The museum was refurbished and reopened in 2010, and it is situated in a Grade II listed building that used to be a hydraulic pumping station.
This is a fascinating museum full of historical objects, photographs, printed materials and documents about the struggle for equality and democracy of the working class people. The current exhibition, “A Land Fit For Heroes: War and the working class 1914-1918” (until 1st Feb 2015) examines how World War I changed society, radically altering the social, economic, cultural and political outlook of the British people. Although the subject matter of the exhibition and museum seems heavy, the curator have done a brilliant job in making the exhibits captivating, playful and yet informative at the same time.
Museum of Science and Industry – Last 3 rows: 3D: Printing the future exhibition; Wellcome Image Awards 2014 exhibition & the industrial looking cafe
As I mentioned in the previous entry, Museum of Science and Industry (free admission) is a ‘dangerous’ place as it brought out my inner geekiness. I am sure I can a day here admiring the beautiful old machine tools and engines, which I am sure many would consider as rather odd. A few hours here is definitely not enough, and reluctantly I had to skip the Power Hall and the Air & Space Hall.
The extensive displays are divided into the following theme: Industry & Innovation, Science & Technology, Energy, Transport, People and Communications. The historical backdrop provides context for the displays, and at times, it made me feel as if I were transported back in time.
There are many exhibitions taking place at the moment including: “3D printing the future” (until 19th April) and “Wellcome Image Award 2014” (until 14th Dec). If you want to learn about Manchester’s industrial past, then do not miss this interesting and educational museum.
Shops & cafes
Since it is close to Christmas, there are many Christmas markets scattered in different parts of the centre. But the trendiest part of the city is the Northern Quarter, which is home to the creative industries, independent shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.
The one-stop craft and design shopping destination is the Manchester Craft and Design Centre (17 Oak St) housed inside a Victorian former fish and poultry market building. It is home to 30 resident artists & makers who design, create and make a variety of handmade products, from textiles and ceramics to pewter and paint. It was a joy for me to see the craft and design scene thriving outside of London and that local designers and makers are being supported by the local council.
Top: Manchester Christmas markets; 2nd row: A window display of hats; 3rd and 4th rows: Manchester crafts and design centre; Bottom row: A building in the Northern Quarter
Not far from the centre is the Centre for Contemporary Chinese art (Market Buildings, 13 Thomas St), where you can find artworks by contemporary Chinese artists, but there is also a shop that sells books on contemporary Chinese art, as well as a range of jewellery, stationery and gifts designed by local Chinese artists and designers.
Top left: Playhouse exhibition at Cornerhouse; Top middle, right & 2nd row: Fig and Sparrow; 3rd row: Jewellery at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art; 4th & 5th rows: Sugar Junction
Another cool design and craft shop in the area is Fig and Sparrow (20 Oldham Street); not only does it sells stationery and unusual homeware made by local designers, it also has a cafe offering locally-sourced coffee and handmade cakes.
I stumbled upon Sugar Junction tearoom (60 Tib Street) and was attracted by its retro but homey decor. I love their in-the-book menu, and when I saw the vintage cocktail & cake set, it got me quite excited! I ordered the courgette & lime cake with an expresso martini, it was nice but slightly too sweet for my palate (but then again, I don’t really have a sweet tooth). The place is cosy and very friendly, so I would highly recommend it especially if you have a sweet tooth!
Back in the centre, I also enjoyed relaxing at the bar/cafe inside Cornerhouse (70 Oxford Street), a centre for contemporary visual arts and independent film. The centre has three floors of art galleries, three cinemas, a bookshop and a cafe/bar. As a fan of the French director Jacques Tati, I was hoping to catch the centre’s final exhibition, “Playtime” (until 15th Mar 2015) before they move to a new location next year, but unfortunately, I was there a few days ahead of its opening! The exhibition is inspired by Tati’s 1967 comedy masterpiece Playtime, and like the film, nine artists use comedy, space and sound to encourage exploration and play in the galleries. It sounds like a fun and interactive exhibition, such a shame that I couldn’t see it before my departure.
Manchester at night
Overall, I was impressed by how much Manchester has changed over the years, and on the way back to London, I could stop thinking how over-inflated and over-rated London has become! But what touched me the most was the friendly people whom I encountered during my short stay. Over the past decade or so, London has transformed so much that it is almost unrecognisable. Not only it has become the most expensive place to live on the planet, it has also become one of least friendly cities (after Moscow and Paris). The Mayor can go on promoting London as the best place to live to rich foreign property investors, but I am not sure how long this can sustain before things come crushing down.
It is no wonder many Londoners are leaving the city to live elsewhere in the U.K. If you are one of those, then perhaps you can add the vibrant and friendly Manchester onto your list?