The sky is overcast and the temperature is 0 degrees Celsius. Flying into grey Manchester — once a Roman province, cradle of the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s powerhouse of production during the Second World War — reminds me of ‘Mud below, smoke above’, essayist Thomas De Quincey’s words when he first chanced upon green farmlands turning into factories.
It’s only when I step out that I discover an engrossing Left-leaning city that mirrors the robust optimism and charm of Northern England.
‘National Umbrella Day’, reads a sign in the warm lobby of The Principal, with its large bronze horse sculpted by Sophie Dickens, great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens. There’s a steady drizzle outside, but tour guide Sue McCarthy pulls down the flaps of her ushanka hat and leads us through the Rochdale canal embankment to Deansgate Locks. Opened in 1798, the 51-kilometre-long canal was used to transport cotton and coal that made Manchester famous. Today, it is used for leisure boating. Emerald-headed mallards eye us curiously as we walk past pubs alive with graffiti, and the 47-storey Beetham Tower looms like a ghost in the mist. We scramble over the wet reconstructed battlements of Mancunium, a Roman fort in Castlefield that lent the city its name. The proverbial giant leap away is the Museum of Science and Industry, lodged in an 1830 warehouse on the site of the oldest surviving passenger railway station. Children on vacation are everywhere — learning the workings of Arkwright’s frame and the birth of modern computing.
You are politely requested to sheath your dripping umbrella as you walk into the high-vaulted reading room of the John Rylands Library, raised in memory of Manchester’s first multi-millionaire. The late-Victorian Neo-Gothic building is reminiscent of Hogwarts and holds treasures such as the earliest extant New Testament text. Past the business district of Spinningfields festooned with Chinese lanterns is the Royal Exchange, where Britain’s wealth was coined. Now a theatre with a stage designed like a space module, it has the names of actors embedded in brass on its tiled floors.
In the heart of Piccadilly, past a huddle of wet pigeons and nondescript stairs, is Bundobust, the newly-opened beer and Indian food restaurant. Lunch is Gujarati-inspired street food eaten amidst desi posters, Indian beats and an English crowd.
Spend the afternoon gaping at four floors of football exhibits at the National Football Museum — shirts worn by Pele and Maradona, a giant portrait of Eric Cantona and the ball used in the 1966 World Cup final, when England actually had it “coming home”. My favourite is the corner dedicated to Donald Bell, the only professional English player to have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and the collar and medals given to Pickles the dog, the museum’s mascot, for discovering the stolen Jules Rimet trophy.
Walk past the Victorian-neo-Gothic Manchester Town Hall on Albert Square, where Sherlock Holmes was filmed.
The Manchester Art Gallery has been a treasure house of Victorian art since 1823. Recently, it reinstalled John Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ that had been removed to ‘prompt conversation’ on the female form. The ornate frame has a sea of Post-it notes with opinions stuck alongside.
It’s ginger cake and a pot of Earl Grey at the Whitworth Art Gallery, gazing at the drooping crocuses and a statue resembling a nose-less Voldemort in the outlying gardens. Inside is a host of exhibitions, such as Apna that celebrates women’s clothing from the Indian subcontinent, and a choir whose soaring voices can be heard at the Edwardian-design Royal Infirmary across the road.
An adventurous way to get to Salford Quays that houses the Imperial War Museum North is to take the WAXI (water taxi). But rather than arrive like frozen Inuits, we take a taxi driven by a friendly Karachiwala, who deposits us outside a building that resembles a savage fortress; its interlocking shards represent the nature of conflict on land, sea and air. Inside, exhibits explore the battles Britain and the Commonwealth have fought since the First World War — JRR Tolkien’s revolver, a tank that toddlers explore, letters from officers who fought the Japanese in Burma, weapons used by Para Special Forces, a ‘smelling’ gallery filled with little caps that open to offer the visitor the pungent stink of mustard gas, the damp of trenches and the brine of sweat and fear; and, if you are lucky, a tour by a veteran. Don’t miss the shop with its souvenirs and Spitfire cufflinks.
Order a char-grilled herbed chicken at Gorilla, a gig venue and restaurant located under the railway arches. Wash it down with Boots of Spanish Leather (gin, Campari, red wine and sherry) before walking down to the Palace Theatre to watch Flashdance. A night out at Manchester must end with that musical classic ‘What a feeling’.
The writer was in Manchester at the invitation of Marketing Manchester and VisitBritain.
News credit : TheHindu