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.


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