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On my ambles around Manchester now I’m back on my feet to some extent, I’ve made sure I don’t wander too far from a tram stop should my ankle decide it’s had enough. Either that or get an Uber. But, as things seem to be improving, I thought I’d try a walk into Greengate, across the river from the cathedral and get close to Exchange Court. It’s not finished yet but it’s reached its full height of 130m and is currently the second tallest building in the city after the Hilton Tower. By July/August this summer it’s going to be in fourth place though when the two Owen Street towers surge past it. It’s making quite an impact on the skyline with its gold coloured cladding so I thought I’d get closer. Here it is from Greengate Square just in front of the cathedral.

Its name, Exchange Court, is a nod to the Victorian railway station that used to be in this area. Bits of the viaduct leading into it are still there but the piece you see in this next picture is going to make way for yet more apartment blocks. The change in this area is stunning. Five years ago it was an area of derelict buildings and surface carparks that had been there since the 1960s. Now it’s a thriving, dynamic part of the city boasting the likes of Pep Guardiola (Manchester City’s much lauded manager) among the residents.

Th closer you get the more overwhelming it becomes, towering impressively over the surrounding area.

And it’s having a friend. On the carpark next to it another tower of 110m is just beginning. Actually they are squeezing two buildings on the site, the tall one and a smaller block. It’s going to rise straight out of the river so they are at the point of putting the foundations in and securing the river bank. Something which has been held up by an unknownabout overflow from the river that disappears under where the tower will be.

This is what The Residence will look like when it’s finished. It looks like it’s in splendid isolation but Exchange Court is within metres of it to the right of it. Something to remember if you buy an apartment I suppose.

And there’s another carpark next to The Residence that I imagine the developers are circling around as I post.

The company behind Exchange Tower, Renanker, have a reputation for planning and building whatever they set their minds to. Along with Allied London, they are dramatically changing the skyline of Manchester. They are building the aforementioned Owen Street Towers which we now have to call Deansgate Square I hear. They have just announced ANOTHER tower, provisionally called the Crown Street Tower. It will be 152m tall, 22 metres taller than Exchange Court. It will look like this.

It’s going to be built as part of the Great Jackson Street development as part of the rebuilding of a triangular piece of land hedged in by Chester Road, the Mancunian Way and the River Medlock. It’s already busy with the Owen Street/Deansgate Square towers and three more already have permission to be built. I hear that eventually there will be 25 towers on this site which has, for decades, been surface carparks and cheap storage units. This, below,  is an idea of the site and the massive amount of development that will happen. As you come in from the airport, it will look stunning as a first impression of the city. The buildings won’t all be in the same style, by the way. As each part is built the style will change but the effect will remain dramatic. The Crown Street Tower will be built on the tip of the triangular site (left in top picture) where it will dominate the Chortlton Road roundabout system.

Will all the towers be built? Well, as things are, they will. All the major economic regions of the world are on the up, together, at the moment. In spite of Brexit, the U.K. economy is doing much better than expected. And Manchester is flavour of the month at the moment with local, national and international developers who are pouring money into the city to build. And the buildings aren’t just left empty. As soon as they are finished they are occupied with people who have come to the city to take up jobs with the companies that want to start up here.

Amazon are the latest to join the party looking for a Manchester HQ to complement and support their operations at Manchester Airport and Warrington. The clever money is on that they will take the entire Edwardian Baroque Hanover Building  just off Exchange Square. It’s renovation has nearly finished. Close to Victoria Station and the tram stations, it’s a prestigious building close to others that Amazon would like to occupy to build an entire Amazon campus in the city. 

I had a bit of a wander about today. First to the High Legh Garden Centre to look for some bedding plants. The pots we have around the house were neglected in the autumn due to my ankle injury. The summer bedding held on to December but a couple of severe frosts did for it all leaving the pots full of blackened, decaying plants. Being January there’s not much about but, hopefully, in a couple of weeks there might be something on offer. All I found was some primulas in Bents yesterday, so I’ll put those in when it stops raining. And there are some tulip bulbs I bought which haven’t made it to a pot yet. Poor things. 

I then drove to Chorlton and caught the tram into the city. I hadn’t had breakfast. I thought I’d try somewhere new, well new to me at least. I went to Pot Kettle Black, next to BarberBarber in Barton Arcade. Everytime I get my hair cut I think I should go in but drink so much coffee while waiting for the cut, I go off the idea. It’s run by two local rugby players, Jon Wilkin (St. Helens) and Mark Flanagan (Salford Reds). Rugby players don’t command the stratospheric salaries that the football players of the likes of Manchester City and United do, so they have to look to their futures beyond the game. They took some flack from their teammates about opening a coffee shop in trendy Manchester but their mates will be thinking they were onto something. It’s successful and expanding.

I went for the trendy breakfast of the moment in the UK with crushed avocado, flavoured with lime and chilli, and poached eggs on a slice of sourdough bread. I couldn’t be anymore bang on trend. I had a flat white coffee. Both were delicious. And here’s my new, orange Oddballs OBBLE hat, plenty of those to be seen in the stands at St. Helens and Salford. Not so many crushed avocados though.

Talking of BarberBarber, Johnny has been doing a little on street advertisement for the business. This is his ‘A’ board on Deansgate. The barbershop is always busy but a little promotion isn’t a bad idea in quiet January.

Next to Waterstone’s, the book sellers on Deansgate to pick up a book I’d ordered. Cicero, an Ancient Roman politician, lawyer and orator, said  ‘A room without books is like a body without a soul’. It was on the wall behind one of the Deansgate windows. How very true. Certain modern politicians, well one in particular, might disagree with that, especially as the book I was picking up was about him and none too flattering either I’ve heard. But I doubt if Mr. Trump has heard this quote or, indeed, heard of Cicero. I got my copy of ‘Fire and Fury’ by Michael Wolff. Mr Trump says it’s all lies of course but he says that about anything that he hears that he doesn’t like.

I’m not a fan of him. He’s part of a wave of ‘popularism’ that’s sweeping the world at the moment that’s led to him being president of the United States and Brexit over here. The last time we had this amount of popularism in the world was the 1920/30s and that didn’t end well did it? Sometimes you just need experts to take control. I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling my surgeon how to operate on my ankle and, when I get my car fixed, I’m not in there telling the mechanic how to fix it. So why do some people think that someone with zero expertise can run the most powerful country on the planet? And it’s not as if he actually won! Mrs Clinton got more votes than he did. It seems they have applied a system that might be good to elect a state governor to the process of electing a president and the guy who came second got all the prizes! Democracy? I think not.

Well Mr Trump has done one thing. He’s persuaded me to buy my first ever book about the political process. He might argue that’s it’s all lies but it is an entertaining read I have to say. Almost unputdownable I’d say. I just put it down to do this. So far I’m feeling very sorry for Melania. I did wonder about her. Is having a penthouse, with the accompanying lifestyle, on the top of a tacky skyscraper in New York enough compensation for having to, you know,…..do it with someone like Trump? Well it seems that they spent little time together even when in New York. He used to wander about America playing golf and visiting his other houses and entertaining himself with the likes of Stormy (who looks just like his daughter, Ivanka….just saying) and she was happy, with her son, doing lunch and shopping in New York. According to the book he told her he wouldn’t win and when it was over life would go back to normal. Well it didn’t, did it? And we are all paying the consequences. Apparently the poor woman was in tears on election night, and not of joy. And it did take a while for her to move to Washington.

This was a LOT later in the morning. I needed some coffee and the thought popped into my head as I passed the tower of St. Ann’s Church. They have a little café in there, selling teas and coffees and homemade, by the ladies who go to the church, cakes, biscuits and scones. I had a deliciously moist, buttered slice of Bara Brith, a fruited Welsh tea bread where they soak the fruit in tea before adding it to the bread. And there was a big mug of coffee. All for £3.50 (couldn’t even get the coffee for that much at other coffee shops in the city) with the proceeds going to the church. 

I walked about quite a bit and was delighted to find that my foot didn’t hurt at the end of it. Hopefully it’s another step on the road to recovery. 

Second day on the run where I had time for myself. Always welcome. So I arranged to meet up with a friend for a catchup and some lunch. It was a bitterly cold day with wind, rain and hail and snow in the eastern suburbs. I caught the tram to St. Peter’s Square and having first picked up tickets at the Bridgewater Hall for a later treat, walked over to Manchester Art  Gallery. They have been having a exhibition of art works by British Asian artists. We had gone to see some work by a guy called Hetain Patel who makes movies. We watched a couple. They were beautiful to look at but it wasn’t apparent what he was getting at but at least it gave us food for thought.

What we did enjoy was the work of another artist called Waqas Khan. He does this thing where he works in the silence of the night, puts himself into a kind of trance and makes tiny marks, sometimes dashes, sometimes dots, to produce his pictures. The marks were tiny and we were in awe of the amount of time he must have spent producing his work. There were even some where, at first, you couldn’t see a thing on the paper and had to stoop to catch the work at a certain angle, in a certain light to see anything at all. Here are a few examples but you really have to see them in a gallery to appreciate the delicacy and detail of his work.

Having had a wander around the permanent gallery collection to visit some old favourites we went for lunch. Neither us had been to FUMO, a smart Italian restaurant in No.1 St. Peter’s Square so we had booked to go there. It’s run by the same company behind San Carlo on King Street and several other popular restaurants in the city. It’s been on my list for a while but wanted to wait until all the building work was done in the square. It’s a two floor restaurant in the foyer of the building, with the two floors being connected by a curving staircase that takes you through the foyer. Although it was a Tuesday lunch time in January, the restaurant was busy but not when I took these pictures. Possibly the other diners had to be back at their desks and the like while J and I had time to sit and chat.

I did like the view from the restaurant, through the foyer and out into the square. It has some of the best architecture in the city to appreciate. And I liked the way the frequent trams animate the square. 

I’d booked for 1 30 and we were early so we had a cocktail in the bar. Both were liquid incarnations of local puddings. I had a Manchester Tart flavoured with vanilla custard, coconut and raspberries. J had a Bakewell Tart, not strictly a local pudding but not too far from the city, flavoured with raspberries and almonds. Delicious and dangerously easy to drink.

For first course I had some Mozzarella Cheese with Parma Ham on a bed of wild rocket, drizzled with Truffle Oil. J had some Bruchetta with tomatoes. There was more to it than that but I can’t remember all the details!

For main we both went for fish. J had a Prawn and Monkfish kebab. I had some Halibut in a tasty tomato sauce. We had a bottle of dry, white wine from Sicily to enjoy with it.

We both went for Sicilian Lemon Meringue Pie and some coffee. It was a good meal and a good afternoon.

  

I’ve had a bit of a Tom day. First of all I went to the gym to do my routine to get my ankle more mobile. Jimmy has upped the routine and it seems to be working. When I started a few weeks ago I’d limp out of the gym after doing it, now I’m walking quite normally. I’ve also checked with Jimmy that when one of the machines says ‘HIGH HEART RATE’ and flashes a red heart at me, this is a good thing and I’m not about to collapse. I can now wander about for about four hours now before my foot starts to complain as well.

A funny thing did happen at the gym today. It’s one of those computerised gyms with a key you put into each machine that loads your routine onto it so you can change the seat, position of various contraptions and the weights you are using personally. Two of the machines I used were used before me by a very fit lady who must have been in her 70s at least. She has a few decades on me. In both cases I had to decrease the weights for me from the ones she had been using! 

That humiliation over I decided to go into the city centre to my favourite barbershop, BarberBarber, to get my hair cut. Johnny, the owner was in sorting out a few things before he went off for some meetings. He looked amazing….black trousers, black shirt with white clouds on, a black and white houndstooth jacket and a pair of amazing shoes with leather printed to look like black and white zebra skin. Sadly no picture.

Andy was working today. He’s cut my hair before and done it well, as has the tall guy whose name I can’t remember. But I had my hair cut by, to me, a new guy. Frank, or Francesco as his mother would know him, learned to barber in Sicily, he then took his skills to Rome and from there to London where he worked in Johnny’s barbershop just on the edge of the financial district of The City. Johnny has asked him to relocate to Manchester. Francesco has been happy to do this. In London he had to pay a small fortune for a small place, one hour’s travelling time, by Tube, from where he worked. While Manchester isn’t exactly cheap it’s a damn sight less expensive than London which is why a lot of people are relocating here. In Manchester he has a much nicer, and cheaper, apartment just beyond Manchester Arena and he can walk to work in five to ten minutes. 

Francesco said he would give me the ‘perfect’ haircut and this he did. He also persuaded me to have a cutthroat shave. First thing, I’d sacrificed a shower and shave to get to the gym where I could shower afterwards. Lazy Tom! My shave was all quite a performance involving varoius oils and unguents being rubbed into my face, two applications of hot soap being shaved off, hot perfumed towels being applied, eyebrows being shaped. It was all very relaxing and I think I may have booked a week in Taormina, Sicily, Frencesco’s home town. Worse things could have happened I’m sure.

I then went to the Google store in King Street to book a seminar on writing for a blog and I’m having a one on one about the use of social media to promote business. If it doesn’t work for this, it will be useful in my work life. And I got some tickets to see the production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at the Royal Exchange. My ankle problem meant that I didn’t see any of their autumn season but they have extended their amazingly popular Christmas treat for a couple of weeks. Something else to look forward to.

Walking back to the tram station in St. Peter’s Square took me through Albert Square past the Town Hall. It’s one of Manchester’s most important and iconic buildings. When people want to show something is coming from Manchester, this Grade 1 listed, Victorian Gothic building is usually what they show. It’s where we welcome important visitors to the city, where we come together to celebrate achievements and where we come together in times of sadness like the Ariana Grande concert atrocity last May. 

Across this building was a banner proclaiming ‘We’ll be back in 2024’ for, yesterday, it closed. This 140 year old building is in dire need of attention. The public areas are, as always, beautiful, but the heating system, the electrics (electricity hadn’t been invented when this building was opened) need upgrading badly. And behind the magnificent façades and the wonderful artworks, the fabric of the building is crumbling. So it will close for six years and hundreds of millions of £ will be spent on bringing it up to standard for the next 150 years. If they do it correctly, being Grade 1 listed, one of the most important buildings in the country, we won’t notice a thing has changed inside when they reopen. The skills that will be developed here restoring this much loved Manchester building, will be transferred to the restoration of the Houses of Parliament in London, a building that, ironically, Manchester Town Hall has often stood in for in movies and TV shows. 

We have been living in something of a cultural desert since Christmas so we decided to do something about it and visit an art gallery. Manchester has an abundance of them but I suggested the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight on the Wirral Penisnsula. I had ulterior motives.

For people outside the UK, and some in it, the Wirral Peninsula is a piece of land between the estuaries of the Rivers Mersey and Dee. On the north bank of the Mersey estuary is the city of Liverpool. If you make a bit of money in Liverpool, it’s common for people to move out of the city. Some go north towards the pretty seaside town of Southport or into the pleasant, green Lancashire countryside. Others choose to cross the Mersey (either by the ferries or the tunnels) and move into the tree lined suburbs of the Wirral.

It’s not all pleasant, tree lined suburbs, around Birkenhead it is all docks and very industrial. A Victorian industrialist who came from nothing, Lord Lever, created a chemical company and made a fortune. He set up a chemical works on the Wirral where he made his various products including his famous ‘Sunlight’ soap. The plant, modernised, is still there. Lord Lever was very concerned about the welfare of his workers while others weren’t. He acquired a plot of land next to his plant a built a model village for his workers. He called it Port Sunlight, after his famous soap.The houses were head and shoulders above the standards many workers had in Victorian times. They were roomy and had three bedrooms so that the parents could sleep separately from the children and the boys and girls would have separate rooms. They had bathrooms with running hot and cold water, amazing in those days. They had gardens with lawns out front and back gardens where people could grow fruit and vegetables. The houses were built of the highest standards and had different designs.

The streets were wide and tree lined. He had churches, schools and community centres built and, at the centre of the village, he had the Lady Lever Gallery built which he used to house his extensive art collection and open to all so his workers could enjoy it and be inspired by it. He encouraged the children of his workers to strive for further education and financially supported them. Concerts and plays were put on in the village’s auditorium.

You could be out in a village in rural Cheshire but you’re actually close to the centre of the big city of Liverpool.

Here’s the Lady Lever Gallery.

A taste of Lord Lever’s art collection, still free and open to the public to enjoy.

Lord Lever actually had a house in the village as well. He lived here while his mansion, nearby, was being renovated. He had another estate near Bolton on the edge of Greater Manchester as well. It was also convenient for his office a couple of hundred metres away. It’s now a community house where people from the village come to meet up. Here it is. I was stood outside and was invited in for a little tour. All very interesting.

But I’d really come to see the house next door to the community house. In Peaky Blinders, when Tommy starts to make a serious amount of money he starts to launder it to make it respectable. Ada gets a rather nice house in Primrose Hill in London (actually it’s in a street in the Georgian quarter of Liverpool across the river from Port Sunlight). And Aunt Polly gets a nice house in tree lined Sutton Coldfield, a nice suburb of Birmingham I’m told. It gives her a nice place to house her newly rediscovered son, Michael. And she engages a maid. Here they are arriving to take possession. Aunt Polly leads the way followed by Tommy, sadly missed John and youngest brother Finn. Arthur must have been having one of his ‘issues’ on this day. Of course you can take the girl out of Small Heath but you can’t take Small Heath out of the girl. When the police noisily raid Aunt Polly’s house looking for assorted Peaky Blinders, she rushes out into the street telling them ‘Keep it quiet! This is a respectable fucking neighbourhood!’

And here is the actual house. I tried to stand where the above picture was taken but couldn’t as I’d have been on someone’s garden.

The ‘church’ appears in Peaky Blinders. It’s not actually a church but was used as one for a while, while they built to actual church on the other side of the village. It’s been a school and is now a community club called The Lyceum.

Tommy has a moment’s reflection on this bridge close to Aunt Polly’s house.

Here’s my picture of the actual bridge.

I came across these wonderful pictures from Manchester’s last protracted building frenzy in the 1960s. The economy was booming and Manchester was anxious to build on some of the bomb sites that still disfigured the city centre after World War II. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the boom didn’t last. Unfortunately, Manchester was about to lose a lot of its old industries and was about to go into a decline that it took until the 90s to recover. Fortunately, it meant that a lot of our Victorian heritage wasn’t swept away to be replaced by the brutalist architecture fashionable at that time.

But some buildings did make it and we’ve grown quite fond of one or two of them. Top of the list is the CIS Tower built for the banking and insurance arm of the Co-Op. It opened in 1962, making it 56 years old this year. With its new solar panels on the service tower, providing power for the tower and the surrounding buildings, it still looks good. It was the tallest building in Manchester until 2006 when it was overtaken by the Hilton Tower. The present building boom is going to see it fall even further down the list. It was, arguably, the tallest building in the UK and Europe at one point. It’s still the tallest office building in the country outside of London. It was designed to look like one of the towers being put in New York City at the time. It’s Manchester’s little bit of mid-twentieth century Manhattan. Here are some pictures of it nearing completion.

But the pictures that really impressed me were these of some of the construction workers having a tea break, reading the paper, high on one of the tower’s girders. No helmets, no safety clothing, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of rope to tie them to the building in case of a fall. In the second picture some of the guys seem to be climbing along the boom of one of the cranes with no regard to the drop to the ground below. Beyond them you can see the industrial, inner suburbs of Manchester, all about to be swept away.

The Manchester pictures reminded me of the iconic picture of the New York construction workers having lunch on a girder high above a building in the Rockefeller Centre, thirty years before the Manchester ones, in 1932.

The Owen Street Towers have come on in leaps and bounds since my ankle incident, three months ago now. They are really making an impact on the city skyline and none of them are anywhere their full height. Eventually there will be four. Two (one about the same height as the Hilton Tower, the second, at 64 floors, will be the city’s new tallest building and the 5th tallest in the UK) are well underway. The glass cladding is racing up and it’s looking fine, especially on sunny days. A third one has just begun to rise but we are still waiting for the fourth. Not sure which this one is but I saw it rising above the Rochdale Canal where it disappears under Oxford Street and beneath the Palace Theatre.

Here it is again, looking from Oxford Street along Great Bridgewater Street. The little structure, called The Temple, is actually an underground bar that has been created in an underground Victorian gentleman’s public toilet. It’s name is a contraction of an old fashioned name for a public toilet…..a ‘Temple of Convenience.’

I took these two pictures from the middle of the tramlines in St. Peter’s Square. It’s a busy spot, toy have to keep your wits about you! In the top picture the Midland Hotel is on the right. The building going up at the end of the street is the AXIS Tower, a mere 28 storeys tall, being built on a tiny site by Deansgate/Castlefield Station. Another 35 storey building is planned for a piece of land beyond it. You can see the 64 storey tower growing on the left and the tower as tall as the Hilton Tower is just peeping from behind the Midland. In the second picture you can see the AXIS Tower again with the 64 storey Owen Street Tower. To its left you can see the Bridgewater Hall. This part of the city centre is changing dramatically.

Looking along Deansgate to the Hilton Tower. The Owen Street Tower that will be about the same height is in the distance a couple of hundred metres further out. The architect who designed the Hilton Tower, Ian Simpson, lives in the penthouse of his building. He’s also the architect of the Owen Street Towers. Rumour is he will buy the penthouse on top of his new tallest tower. 

 

What do you do if you are the amazingly sucessful leader of an early twentieth century criminal gang if you want to appear respectable? Well, first you invest your ill gotten gains in legitimate businesses like the nascent Birmingham car manufacturing industry. And then you buy an impressive country pile in the Warwickshire countryside where you can play the country gentleman far away from the insalubrious suburb back in the city where you made your cash. That’s exactly what Tommy Shelby did in Peaky Blinders, the BBC’s immensely successful and critically acclaimed drama about an actual, real life gang of criminals operating in Birmingham a century ago. Having said that the actual gang were nowhere near as cool and well dressed or, indeed, criminal as their TV counterparts.

Although set in Birmingham, much of the programme is made in Manchester. The BBC have a base in the city at Media City of course. But I think they choose Manchester because Birmingham reinvented itself as a ‘modern’ city in the 1960s and is now full of that style of architecture. Manchester was short of cash in the 1960s so the levels of rebuilding weren’t as as intensive so we still have a lot of our photogenic Victorian heritage intact, much beloved of movie and TV crews. We are jealously guarding our Victorian heritage (mostly) in our present building boom. 

In the series Tommy acquires himself a mansion called Arrow House in the village of Arrow in Warwickshire. The TV crew didn’t take themselves down to Warwickshire to film and settled on nearby Arley Hall in Cheshire as a substitute. It’s about twenty minutes from where I live. I’m practically a neighbour of the Peaky F*****g Blinders! They used the exterior for shooting and the interior was used for Tommy and Grace’s wedding. The library was used as Tommy’s study. I didn’t ask about the bloody Christmas Eve murder in the butchering room of the kitchens though. Here are some shots of the house. It’s actually the home of Viscount Ashbrook and his family who still live in it. It’s open to the public (as we love looking round other people’s houses) and gets used for TV and movie work, because a house like this is expensive to maintain.

The gardens are famous and are counted among the top ten of gardens in Europe. Even on a cold, January day with little colour in the garden, they were still lovely to wander around.

Not sure if Tommy ever played tennis.

A magnificent Cedar of Lebanon.

I did get a bit worried when I found myself in a part of the garden with winding paths, slippy steps and frozen leaves! I’m not good on those surfaces.

This is the herb garden where Tommy could send out for plants to flavour his food or his cocktails at one of his parties.

This is the kitchen garden. Nothing much in it now but in the summer it would provide fresh vegetables for the house. The brick walls would soak in heat from the sun and create a microclimate where peaches, grapes and apricots could be grown on espaliered trees (flat against the wall) for the house. In the huge glasshouse exotic tropical fruits like pineapples and bananas would be grown for Tommy’s table. 

Tommy was fond of his horses. In the garden there is a cemetery for favoured horses. One had a very un-PC name that you wouldn’t be able to get away with today. 

The house and gardens are surrounded by an estate of 1000s of acres of rich, Cheshire countryside.

The house is Grade II listed. Important to the country but we do have a lot of buildings like this in the UK. The cruck barn, however, is Grade I listed putting it in the same bracket as the likes of Manchester Town Hall or St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was erected about 1470 making it about 550 years old. The timbers would have been especially chosen from the forests for their shape to make this building. They are the original ones. While we have an idea of how they lived in 1470, the people who built this could have had no idea of how we are living today. 

Tommy does a very nice hot ham and cheese toasted sandwich, some  delicious florentines and some damn fine coffee in his café.

I’m sure Aunt Polly would, no doubt, make good use of their private chapel. They had an awful lot that needed to be forgiven!

The present owners like their Minis. I concur.

My walk back along Oxford Road and Oxford Street into St. Peter’s Square took me past the magnificent Principal Hotel. It’s one of my favourite buildings in the city. People I show it off to are stunned by it and come out with comments like ‘how did I not know this building existed?’ It’s a late Victorian/early Edwardian Baroque masterpiece. It was built in stages and, if you look carefully, you can just make out the joins. Richly decorated inside and out, the cherry on the top of the cake is the soaring, copper domed clock tower, a landmark on Oxford Road as you head into the city. It looks particularly wonderful on a cold, sunny, blue sky, January day when the red brick and polished terracotta tiles dazzle in the bright sun. It was built by Alfred Waterhouse (he built Manchester Town Hall and the wonderful Natural History Museum in London) and was finished, after his death, by his son, Paul, who added the clock tower.

It was built as the Refuge Assurance Building, an insurance and pensions building for the Cotton Barons of Victorian Manchester. They moved out to less expensive to maintain buildings in Alderley Edge, Cheshire in 1987. There was an idea that it would be converted into a concert hall for the Hallé Orchestra but, given the shape of the building, quite how that would have worked I’m not sure. The Hallé went for the new concert hall option with the Bridgewater Hall and a beautiful rehearsal space in Hallé St. Peter’s in the heart of trendy Ancoats. The building became the Palace Hotel, named, I imagine, because of its proximity to the Palace Theatre across the street. It did look beautiful inside and out but the interiors did need a refurbishment. Something we found out when we used it for a conference once. The hotel has changed hands and is now the Hotel Principal. Millions have been spent on it and it does look wonderful and I’ve seen where the elaborate plaster ceilings have been sorted out. The ‘Refuge’ name has returned to the building with the restaurant and bar area being named as such. The menu has been devised by the people behind sucessful Didsbury restaurant, Volta, in West Didsbury.

The entrance to the hotel is under the clock tower where the red brick and terracotta gives way to solid, grey granite. It’s one of the most impressive entrances to any building in the city. Originally the cotton barons would have arrived in their coaches and, later, their Rolls Royces (devised up the street in the Midland Hotel and built in the city just off  Stretford Road near Manchester United’s stadium) under the arch. The area has been carefully converted into the foyer of the hotel.

And just to the right of the main arch, in a smaller arch, is The Manchester Florist at the Principal. I’ve walked past it a few times and have always admired the display. It reminds me of the Flourish display under the tower of St. Ann’s Church in the eponymous square. Flourish (well various incarnations there of) have been on their spot for 115 years and are something of a well loved Manchester institution. The Manchester Florist has a few years to go to catch up but, with their beautiful displays of flowers and plants, they are another good edition to the life of the city and I’m sure they will do well in this busy spot. 

It was a cold, frosty morning and I was worried about the plants. I got talking to the owner and her colleague. Leila (hope I got the name right) the owner, has come from Dubai and wasn’t enjoying the frosty morning any more than the plants. It’s winter in Dubai but a Dubai ‘winter’ is like a warm summer day in Manchester apparently. Her colleague (didn’t get his name) is originally from Zimbabwe (so he is used to warmth as well) but then moved to Somerset and now lives in Manchester. In spite of having six and five layers of clothes respectively (the years spent in Someset must have acclimatised him to an English winter some so he only needed five layers) they both enjoyed living in Manchester. Interesting that the city has become one of those international cities where someone from Dubai finds themselves working alongside someone from Zimbabwe. I’m pretty sure that that wouldn’t have happened a couple of decades ago. 

The display of flowers was beautiful.

Bees are still in evidence across the city.

I caught one of the Principal Hotel employees who greets the visitors as they arrive in his Peaky Blinders cap. I could imagine Tommy Shelby, after he’s made his money, arriving at a hotel like The Principal for one of his ‘business’ meetings or a liaison with some lady who had caught his eye. Or possibly both, Tommy is good at multitasking. The guy working in the florists is a fan as well and, after he’d found out I’d seen the entire season, we had a chat about future developments. No spoilers here.

 

Manchester doesn’t have city walls like Chester or York. In the past it was never big enough or important enough to afford or warrant them. By the time Manchester was big and important, the need for defensive walls had passed. In lieu of the walls, Manchester city centre is surrounded by a ring of Victorian railway viaducts which, until recently, has acted as a barrier to the expansion to the city centre. On the south side of the city centre this does not hold true where the viaducts give way to the barrier of the Mancunian Way, a high level 1960s road that takes traffic around the southern part of the city centre. It was meant to be the first of a series of motorways that were supposed to surround and bisect the city centre. The rest were never built which means we can have horrendous traffic but at least they didn’t rip down a lot of our wonderful Victorian buildings (the Town Hall was on the list of buildings to be torn down).

The Mancunian Way crosses Oxford Road and separates the city centre from the universities. It’s not a thing of beauty. And the ground underneath is a ‘no man’s land’ that seems to attract litter and some of the city’s more colourful characters. And it was this bit of land that I wanted to see.

The people behind Affleck’s Palace (alternative shopping ) in the Northern Quarter have taken the area over. Instead of litter and colourful characters they have brought in some old shipping containers, piled them up under the road and painted them in bright colours. Local, independent businesses have been invited in to take them over and a community of them is developing bringing some life to a dead part of busy Oxford Road. I’ve seen them do this kind of thing in some of the cooler bits of London.

Called Hatch, it’s in a great position. It was quiet yesterday but, once the universities are back in a few days, the passing people traffic, mostly students who like this kind of thing, are going to keep it busy. Not all the units are up and running yet as it only began to open before Christmas. But the units are all, mostly, let and later in 2018 they will bring more containers in for more businesses. It’s being used as an incubator for businesses that might transfer to the Circle Square development, just a few metres away, when it is finished. Developers love these schemes where, like in Spinningfields, there is a mixture of businesses, preferably independent and not just corporate giants. The containers will stay here for three years. But in other places where this kind of thing has happened, the containers and their communities have become permanent. 

Green walls are a ‘thing’ all over Manchester these days.

One of the containers will have a micro brewery, called ÖL. Beer, brewed in one part of the container will be sold in another part.

I had a coffee in TAKK. I’ve posted about this place before. They have a much loved, Scandi Noir/Icelandic themed coffee shop on Tariff Street in the Northern Quarter. I go a lot. Sometimes work has me meet people at Piccadilly Station and, if I judge they are the type of person who will appreciate it and there is time for a coffee, I take them on a five minute walk, past all the chain coffee shops, and take them to TAKK. I like to see their reaction especially if they are new to the city and have arrived with preconceptions of what it’s like here. This TAKK in Hatch is a new venture for them. I don’t think two branches make a chain do they? It was interesting to see how they have done the containers. They have taken the metal box and punched holes for windows and doors. TAKK was lined with wood which helped insulate the metal box and dampened down the noise you might have. There seemed to be a little kitchen out back, the counter with the coffee machines and then the public area. Very simple and very cool. I had a flat white coffee and a kind of Bakewell Tart Flapjack thing that was delicious. I pulled some cash out but this business is card only. I think this is the first business that I have come across that does this.