Archive for February, 2017


You know your city is important/photogenic when games, books, TV programmes and films start using it as a backdrop for their efforts. Cities like London and New York are frequently destroyed in apocalypses. Recently I saw the city of Singapore dumped on top of the city of London by aliens. Neither place fared well.

Manchester isn’t immune. A particularly nasty game was in trouble a while ago for some pretty nasty scenes in Manchester Cathedral. The entire city was burned from end to end in the zombie movie ’28 Days Later.’ And now we’re featuring in a post apocalypse game where robots have taken over and Manchester has been destroyed and taken over by nature. People in the city have always wanted a park in the centre. But this, featuring a ruined Hilton Tower, may have taken things to the extreme. Great pictures though.

I do enjoy a good book. I like to read. And, I’ve discovered it has to be a book. I do have ‘books’ on my iPad but, at the end of the day, I find I don’t like to curl up in bed at the end of the day with my iPad and read a chapter. And I do tend to forget I’ve got books there as well. I’ve downloaded some and they are just there, wherever ‘there’ is, forgotten. I’m not alone either, the sales of paper books is rising again in the UK while downloads are falling. It seemed we still like mooching about in bookshops and picking out a good read. 

I’m about to finish ‘The Flame Bearer’ by Bernard Cornwall. It’s the latest in a series of ten. To say I’ve enjoyed them is an understatement. I’ve read all ten back to back, apart from the last few pages of this one, over the last year.

I like history, and the further back the history goes, the better I like it. ‘The Flame Bearer’ is set at the end of the Dark Ages at the point where England was being forged together out of the old Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. I can’t decide where Manchester was in those days. Some maps had us in Mercia, others in Northumbria, maybe we were fought over and moved from one to the other. The remains of the Roman province of Britannia are still there with the Saxons living among the ruins of their towns, wondering how those people could have built so well. The Saxon kingdoms fought each other at that time and all of them were under attack from invaders from Denmark and Scandanavia. First they come to raid as Vikings, later they come to settle, dispossessing the Saxons of their land. At one point it looked as if the Saxons would lose, with the King, Alfred, holed up in swamplands on the Somerset Levels. If he’d lost we would be living in Daneland, not England, now and, maybe, Danish would have become to lingua franca of the world. 

It was a fascinating period in our history and I’m amazed, given how important it is to how we are now, it isn’t better known. Bernard Cornwell has woven a lot of detailed history into his books with actual characters from the period actually doing the things they did. You learn a lot of history.

 

Bernard Cornwell has done a lot of research into his own ancestors and has discovered that he is related to the people who lived in Bamburgh Castle in the Dark Ages. Thanks to Gareth Evans for the great picture above. It’s a dramatic fortification on the north east coast of England, north of Newcastle. The present castle is a stunning medieval building with Victorian additions added to make it a comfortable home. Before that there was the Dark Ages building, the Romans had a place there as did the Ancient British. It’s within sight of Holy Island, an ancient religious place which still has a special atmosphere today. People who believe such things believe that the veil between heaven and earth is very thin here. Both these sites feature in the books.

Among all the history and geography of Dark Ages Britain, Bernard Cornwell has created a fictional character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (the ancient name of Bamburgh) who may have been his ancestor. Born into a Christian Saxon family living at Bamburgh, he falls into the hands of Danes and becomes a slave. His master grows to like him and treats him as a son. He becomes a pagan and a warrior. His ability as a warrior bring him into contact with Kind Alfred and the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg becomes interwoven, very cleverly, with the real history of England as the Saxons face annihilation and fight back to establish England as the nation we know today. It’s a damn good read.

I actually started reading the series with the ninth book of the series, ‘Warriors of the Storm.’ I picked it up just before Christmas 2015 as a present to myself and something to read over the festive season. I enjoyed it and was delighted to see that the BBC was doing a televised series of the books called ‘The Last Kingdom.’ It was very well done and very faithful to the books. A second series is being shown this Spring. I am looking forward to that but don’t let the excellent BBC adaptation put you off reading the books. Speaking to a friend, he informed me of the rest of the series which he had read, and passed on the rest to me which has provided me with much of my recreational reading for 2016. I thank him. 

And the pleasure isn’t over. Bernard Cornwell is, I hope, working on the next book in the series, hopefully for my festive reading for Christmas 2017.

Walking into the city centre from the new bridge on the Ordsall Chord to my next destination took me through Spinnigfields. Here’s a few pictures of the last big building project in the area, No.1 Spinningfields. Once this is completed the area is just about finished, bar a little tinkering here and there, and Allied London will, hopefully, be able to turn its attention to its new projects on neighbouring St. John’s and the London Road Fire Station. We are excited about both.

There are now six ‘lampshade’ things outside the recently completed XYZ Building. They are actually representation of cotton bobbins, a nod to Manchester’s industrial past, and they are lit up at night. You can see No.1 in the distance on Hardman Square.

The glazing of No.1 is almost complete. Once it’s been given a clean and is lit up its going to look stunning at night. The building was topped out a couple of weeks ago. The mayor was up there with a children’s choir. The top floor, without glazing so far, is double the usual height of a floor. Some swanky London restaurant is going to open up there with a roof top restaurant. You will be able to dine among the trees of a rooftop garden once it’s all finished. I think this place will be popular. When can I book?

I’d cut through Castlefield to get to the next big project that I wanted to look at. This time it wasn’t a building project, more a huge infrastructure project that had reached a dramatic point in its implemention. When the Victorian railway companies piled into Manchester to link the city with the rest of the country and make money from the cotton industry, they all built their own lines and railway stations. Anxious to look after their own interests, they didn’t bother with linking the railway lines and stations across the city centre. It was the same with the other big cities including London. But those companies have long gone leaving it awkward, if you arrive at Victoria, to get to Piccadilly and visa versa. London has long solved this problem. And in Manchester it is possible to do it by changing trains at Salford Crescent or using the tram system. But it’s still not possible to take a train in the north of the country and travel to the south through Manchester without changing trains and delays. And time is money of course. 

We’re in the middle of a huge upgrade of the railway system of Manchester city centre to solve all these problems and create what is called ‘The Northern Hub.’ It’s going to cost hundreds of millions of £, a lot coming from government funds (that’ll be me) to support their Northern Powerhouse initiative. This project is to develop Manchester, and other northern cities, as an alternative development focus to London. It does seem to be working, in Manchester at least. The Northern Hub is a number of different projects. First has been the stunning development of Victoria Station. New platforms are to be built at Salford Central (to serve the new business district at Spinningfields) and Piccadilly (for more capacity at one of the busiest stations in the country) and a huge redevelopment of Oxford Road Station. But what they are concentrating on at the moment is the Ordsall Chord, the building of the missing link between Victoria and Piccadilly Stations. This map shows where all the projects are on the system. 

This picture shows what the finished Ordsall Chord will look like. It links the railway viaducts out of Victoria with the viaducts in the Castlefield area and crosses the River Irwell (looking suspiciously clean in this picture) and a series of surface car parks that used to be occupied by old Victorian industrial units. The buildings at the bottom of the picture are the Liverpool Road Station (oldest on the planet) and now part of the Science Museum. You can also see the Stevenson Bridge crossing the river. It’s a Grade 1 listed structure, making it as important as Manchester Town Hall or St Paul’s in the nation’s architecture. As part of the the project, it’s being restored and shown off to better advantage so we can enjoy this, somewhat, hidden treasure. The residents of Castlefield tried to stop this important, infrastructure project saying it damaged local history. What they really meant is that they didn’t want more trains passing their apartments. My opinion is if they want peace and quiet there are plenty of well appointed villages in Cheshire, Lancashire and the Yorkshire hills they can move to. 

What they did last week was lift the bridge over the river into place. 600 tonnes of specially treated steel (the rust colour isn’t an accident) were inched into position by two of the most powerful cranes in Europe. It literally stopped the traffic. I was there the day after when they were locking it all together. These are my pictures of this remarkable project and Manchester’s newest iconic structure. 

I have to thank Manchester Confidential and David Blake for these pictures off Twitter.

And this wonderful aerial shot comes from Aerial Video TV. Thanks a lot!

The surface car parks are fast disappearing as well as this area revives and becomes another extension to the vibrant city centre. The sea of blue cranes mark a £700,000,000 development called Middlewood Locks. It’ll be a new residential and business district just a few minutes walk from Spinningfields, built around a old canal basin and funded by Chinese money.  

These apartments are on former wasteland at the Wilburn Street Basin. People are moving into the  blocks on the right while the builders finish the blocks on the left. 

Two more blocks going up on the riverside by the Quay Street bridge, two of several to be built including a couple more towers.

Back to my tour of building projects in Manchester after my day out in Yorkshire. On my way to my next one I passed through Castlefield. It’s an interesting bit of the city. Its name refers to the fact that there used to be a Roman fort here. And the ‘chester’ ending of Manchester is the Latin word for fort as well. If you know where to look you can find original bits and there’s a fun reconstruction as well. It’s where Manchester was born nearly 2000 years ago. At some point in the Dark Ages Manchester moved up Deansgate to the area around the cathedral and the Castlfield area was abandoned.

In the Industrial Revolution Castlefield became a hub of activity again. Canals and docks were built lined with factories and warehouses. Later on the railways came and built the first railway station in the world at the Manchester end of the world’s first passenger railway. Huge brick and cast iron viaducts were built bringing railways across the area. Most are still in use today bringing the trams and suburban trains into the city.

The area declined when industry moved out, the canals stopped being used and bigger railway stations were built in other, more convenient, parts of the city. 30 years ago it was virtually abandoned but, because of its history, people saw potential and began to revive it as a place to live. Old warehouses were converted into apartments and offices, new blocks were built. Historic buildings were restored and converted into museums and the like.

I like this area. It’s interesting. Some people find the architecture and the viaducts forbidding. And it is true there is an ugliness about the area that is weirdly beautiful. Today the area is dominated by the Hilton Tower on Deansgate as you can see in some of these pictures. I like the contrast between the old and the new. This contrast is only going to be intensified when they finish the Owen Street Towers across Chester Road from the Castlefield Canal Basin. Chester Road itself is historic. Few people who use it as a commuter route into the city realise that under it runs the ancient Roman road that took Roman armies from Chester over to York or up to Hadrian’s Wall and the edge of the Roman Empire, stopping for a break at the Roman fort of Manucium.

After being stuck inside all yesterday sheltering from Atlantic Storm Doris, I needed to get out and about some. Doris was the most vicious storm we’ve had in a while causing destruction and disruption but we were, mostly, back to normal today.

I decided to take the car and drive up the beautiful Ribble Valley, to the north of the city, and cross the border and visit Skipton in Yorkshire. It’s a prosperous market town with handsome stone buildings, a wide high street with an impressive church and castle at one end of it, surrounded by green hills.

It’s a focal point for the local, rich farmlands. There used to be some industry here and there are a couple of impressive woollen mills in the town. Manchester was all about cotton but Leeds, which is close, is all about wool. The mills are now apartments or have been filled with other businesses. It’s the gateway to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. It has  a famous market that attracts people from all over. Tourists like the attractive town and it’s within commuting distance of Leeds. Even on a cold February day it was busy.

Some pictures of the little streets off the High Street and some of the pretty buildings in the town…

It was market day in Skipton and the high street was lined with stalls selling stuff you might need. The Manchester markets I like to visit sell a lot of stuff you might like but you don’t necessarily need it. There is a difference…

At the top of the High Street is Holy Trinity Church. It has the biggest clock on a church tower I’ve seen in a long time. Inside it had that old church smell of dust and hymn books undisturbed for centuries…

Here is the gatehouse to Skipton Castle…

I went to this rather nice wine store where I hoped to find a particular wine. Sadly they didn’t have it. I did have a look at the whisky collection for which it is famous and noted that it now has a formidable gin collection. Gin, especially small batch, artisan gin, is big in the UK at the moment…

I was attracted to the Celebrated Pork Pie Establishment…

Here are some of the pies in the window…

Did I buy any? It would be rude not to…

I bought this huge pork pie. Yorkshire is noted for its pigs and pork pies and Yorkshire ham is, justifiably, famous. I had to buy some jam and currant slices as well. An old fashioned treat found across the north of England…

A pop up barbershop at Skipton Market. Good idea to start a business. I like the enterprising spirit of this…

A trip to Yorkshire wouldn’t be complete without meeting a couple of Yorkies. These two were checking out the market. They looked a bit nervous. Maybe they thought that Storm Doris might return and whip them off to Oz or Kansas. It was cold so they looked smart in their Friday coats…

If you are walking a Yorkie at Skipton Market you will need a traditional flat cap. They used to be the headgear of choice of the working class men and boys of the industrial north of England but now they are a fashion item worn by all…

On the way back to the car I liked this garden of gnomes…

I was excited to see what progress has been made on the Owen Street towers. It’s the largest development in the city at the moment and one of the largest in Europe. When finished there will be four towers on a site that has been cheap industrial units and surface car parks on land between the end of Deansgate and the Mancunian Way. It’s been like this for decades and isn’t a great entrance to the city centre as you drive in from the western and south western suburbs. Here’s what it will look like when it’s finished. We’re looking at the towers from the Castlefield canal basin.  

There will be four towers. The smallest tower will be 122m (37 storeys), the next will be 140m (40 storeys), the third will be 158m (5o storeys), almost as tall as the nearby Hilton Tower. But it is the fourth we are most excited about. It will be 200.5m tall (64 storeys), the first building in Manchester to break through the 200m barrier, just. Being 31.5m taller than the Hilton Tower, it will be the new tallest building in the city and the fifth tallest building in the country. At ground level there will be gardens and a podium building full of all kinds of services (gyms, a cinema etc.) for the occupants of the apartments. They have started the tallest tower and two others it seems. The tallest will reach its full height by late 2018 and the entire scheme will be done and dusted by 2020. Here’s what it all looked like yesterday.

It’s such a big project that they’ve set up their own concrete factory on another piece of spare land so they have a constant supply. The four towers being built now are just the beginning of a considerably larger development for this part of the city. Plans for the rest haven’t been released yet.

I got talking to one of the builders who was doing something with the perimeter fence. They are always interesting to chat to and know stuff about what’s going on. He was obviously proud to be part of this project and did a lot of waving at the fresh air above our heads as he described where the towers were going and how high above us they would be. I was able to tell him about ANOTHER scheme that’s being developed at Trinity Islands about ten minutes walk away. That will be six towers on either side of the inner ring road linked together by sky bridges high above the ground like those buildings you see in Singapore or Dubai. And one of them is planned to be ONE METRE taller than the tallest Owen Street tower. We decided that there was a lot of willy waving going on in Manchester at the moment with architects and developers saying ‘my willy is bigger than yours!’

I think this will be my new project to follow closely over the next few years.

 

Directly across the street from the newly begun Axis Tower, they are planning to build another tower, even taller than Axis. The existing building came down before Christmas but they haven’t started building the new one yet, it’s just a flat piece of land at the moment, so no reports.

Just around the corner on First Street is another building being put up and well on the way to being finished. It’s imaginatively called No.8 First Street. There’s a rash of these names recently….No.1 St Peter’s Square, No.2 St Peter’s Square, 101 Embankment, No.1 Spinningfields and so on. I suppose this one has been named so because it’s the eighth building going up along First Street. It’s just near HOME. This is what it will look like when it’s finished. It’s an office block. I like the little ‘parks’ inside the buildings. There seem to be a lot of them going in the new builds. Apparently Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has taken space here to expand their Manchester presence. 

It’s well under way. My pictures don’t look as alluring as the renders on a grey, February, Manchester day.

I went into the city on the tram yesterday. I find myself doing this more and more. Driving around the city centre is increasingly difficult and unpleasant. I’m told it’s a problem shared by successful cities and is a good one to have. If you can drive with ease around your city then it’s not doing well as people aren’t out and about doing stuff and stimulating the economy. So the closest my Mini gets to the city centre these days is Chorlton tram station.

I got off the tram at Deansgate/Castlefield station. It’s a busy, ingeniously and beautifully designed station on top of the railway arches by the Rochdale Canal in the shadow of the Hilton Tower. It’s an impressive place to arrive in the city centre. Getting down to street level at the opposite end to the Hilton Tower there is the tiniest patch of land; awkwardly shaped and hemmed in on three sides by busy roads, the canal and the tramline, all of which have to be kept moving. Out in the suburbs you might think about building a nicely sized house with a not overly large garden. Here they are building a 93m tall (7m short of the magic 100m that we like), 28 storey tower. It’s going to be fun watching them do this one. They have, temporarily, stolen some of busy Whitworth Street as a storage yard. The plan is to build straight up from the tiny space and then cantilever the higher floors out over the canal to steal more space from fresh air. It will be a narrow tower and people buying apartments in it will have 360 degree views of the city with windows on both sides of the building. It’s one of the projects in the city being funded by Chinese investment. This is what it will look like.

This project has been a long time coming. It was first mooted about 2006 but fell foul of the Banking Crisis in 2008. It was resurrected several times since and we thought we would never see it happen. But it is. Yesterday they were pouring concrete into the foundations and you can see the base of the crane going in and appreciate the size of the site.

This tower is by Deansgate Locks, a series of railway arches now filled with popular and rowdy bars and Manchester’s rather fun Comedy Store. It’s known as the ‘Straight Village’ ; a heterosexual version of the famous ‘Gay Village’ further along the Rochdale Canal on Canal Street. It’s busy most evenings but especially at the weekends when it’s  stag and hen central when parties of young men and women celebrating the last weekend of singledom of one of their number descend on the area. The hen parties are worse (I know from experience) than the stag parties. If guys did to random girls what the hen parties get away with random guys they would get arrested. I suspect this poor guy, in the canal, fell foul of one of those hen parties. Brought into the city by a hen party, used and abused then dumped into the canal. Poor guy.

I thought I’d do a round up of all the construction projects that are happening in the city at the moment. We are in the middle of a construction boom it seems. From the city centre to the universities and out to the airport and then over towards Media City at Salford Quays, cranes punctuate the skyline. Guys, and women, in hi-vis vests and hard hats are everywhere. Across the suburbs houses and apartment blocks are going up to cope with the growth of the population.

A lot of the projects were on the drawing boards (if they use those these days, probably not) last year. Back in June 2015 some of us voted for Brexit. We wondered how it would affect the national economy and Manchester. There was real worry that the economy would contract and that all the building projects would be put on hold and then quietly abandoned.

Well neither of those things, so far, has happened. Quite the opposite, with growth in the UK economy top of the major world economies and the Manchester building projects are going ahead. After Brexit the £ fell and that made investing in Team UK considerably cheaper. Investors are taking the long view. We will eventually sort out Brexit and sail into calmer  economic waters and then all those investments made cheaply now will reap big dividends. London, as always, is the favoured city for investing but Manchester has joined it on the world’s radar and £billions are pouring into the city to build homes, offices and infrastructure. It’s seen as the core of the Northern Powerhouse, the name given by the government to regenerate the northern cities and economy. While Liverpool and Leeds are also enjoying growth, cities like Newcastle and Hull are still waiting. Manchester remains the star though with more development going on than all the rest put together.

This project is called Exchange Court. It’s an 130m, 44 storey apartment tower, 39m shorter than the Hilton Tower, currently the tallest tower in the city. Technically it’s not in Manchester at all but in the twin city of Salford but it’s within sight and walking distance of Manchester Cathedral and any visitor to the city wouldn’t know that Salford was a separate entitity. Both cities work together to develop the city as a whole. It’s built near the plateau that used to house Exchange Station, hence the name. A few years ago this area, called Greengate, across the river from the cathedral, was an open expanse of surface car parks, now it’s in a building frenzy.

The core of Exchange Court is just rising. I believe the tower will reach its full height some time in 2018. Apologies for the grey skies. It’s Manchester in February. Get over it.

The company who are building it, Renaker, have also built this apartment tower complex, Greengate Tower, about 100m from Exchange Tower. People weren’t keen on its bulk and colour while it was going up but, now that it’s finished and people are moving in, we are learning to like it. Renaker also own the car park between the two projects and plan another tower. 

This is what Exchange Court will look like. I like the golden cladding.