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Just beyond URBIS, on a tiny site between that and Victoria Station is another building project that is starting off. We’ve been waiting for this one for years. As it is, it’s not a wonderful introduction to the city when you arrive at Victoria. People won’t be impressed if the first thing they see is a semi ruined building. It’s going to become a Hotel Indigo. At one end is a decent little building called City Buildings. It’s a historic building because it was the first, purpose built, office building in the city. I suppose before that offices just took space in other buildings. As long as I can remember it’s been in a sorry state of repair but it is a decent building. There used to be a jumble of little buildings behind it but they have long gone. 

The idea was to use the City Buildings as the public rooms and reception for the hotel and build a tower behind it for the bedroom block. This is what it will look like…

It was first mooted years ago but then we waited and waited and waited. We thought it would never happen especially has it had been one of those projects set up after the banking crisis. It’s part of the co op’s NOMA scheme which was the one thing in its favour, they may be slow but they do get things done, eventually. 

However, what seems to have happened is that it’s been delayed while they complete the Second City Crossing of the tram system and the refurbishment of Victoria Station. With all that building going on I suppose the area couldn’t take another building project.

Well at last it’s started. City Buildings are swathed in tarps and stuff is going on behind them and they are putting in the foundations of the bedroom tower. It will be a good addition to this part of town.

Byron, not the famous romantic poet, the burger restaurant in Manchester. I not fond of burgers, you’re never sure what’s in them, especially at the lower end of the market. But sometimes you just have a yearning for some old fashioned junk food when no amount of quinoa will do. Manchester has its fair share of budget burger joints (you know the ones) but I decided to head for Byron. I’d heard good things about it. There are three in the centre of Manchester, the first on Deansgate, a new one on Piccadilly Gardens and, the one I headed for, in the Corn Exchange. If I changed my mind I could always go to Pho or Wahaca. But I stayed on course for Byron as I want to eat my way around all the food offerings in the Corn Exchange. Some pictures of the domes above the food court in the Corn Ecxchange…

You can enter Byron from the food court…

Or you can come in from Cathedral Gardens. In summer you can eat outside but there were no takers on a cold February afternoon.But it does have a glass conservatory on the side where you can have the illusion of sitting outside and still stay warm on a cold day…

I was on my own so I asked for a table where I could watch the world go by in Cathedral Gardens. You can see a lot. Around the gardens are Chetham’s School of Music with the brand new concert hall that I’ve yet to visit, there’s the beautiful façade of Victoria Station and the URBIS building, now the National Museum of Football. In the distance you can see the curved profile of the Peninsula Building, one of favourite office buildings in the city.

It was half term so there were a lot of young guys skateboarding outside. They were taking risks doing tricks. I wondered which one was going to end up in hospital while I had lunch. My money was on one of the youngest who was either foolhardy or fearless, or a combination of both.

My lunch arrived. I had a beef burger with blue cheese and all the bits and bobs in a brioche bun and some fries. All delicious. I had a glass of Merlot with it.

I had wanted some white chocolate cheese cake but it was off. So I had some hot chocolate fudge cake and vanilla ice cream. It was good but I really wanted that cheesecake.

Cathedral Gardens is home to at least two of the youth tribes of the city. Here are some more of the skateboarding guys outside the Cathedral. They like to hang out here with their girls who don’t skate but just watch the boys. And, in the warmer months, it becomes the favoured haunt of Manchester’s Goth community with teenaged guys and girls, dressed in black and heavily made up white make-upped faces, hanging out. But only the skater boys today, couldn’t even see any of their adoring girlfriends. Both tribes have been hanging out here for years. I suppose, as they grow up and go to uni or get a job, they stop coming and the area gets handed on to younger kids. I did have a narrow miss, a while ago, with a lost skateboard that had thrown its rider. It came at me with some speed and hit a wall with a crash, narrowly missing me. It was one of those moments when I realised I’d grown up as my first reaction was ‘B****y Kids!’ Fortunately I said it in my head as the kid who lost control of the board was so apologetic it would have been bad mannered of me to have cursed him out. And I really didn’t want them thinking I was one of those bad tempered old blokes who hates kids. 

I have been posting about all of the building projects that are mushrooming around the city centre. But this post is a bit of a diversion as it’s about a project that is being planned for a part of the city being called St. Michaels. It’s on the south west corner of Albert Square and stretches along Jackson’s Row almost down to Deansgate. 

Most of this site is made up of the old Police HQ building for Manchester. There’s an handsome, Portland stone office block on Southmill Street and a collection of buildings and courtyards, including some cells (been in one, another story) behind it. The police decamped to their new, state of the art HQ in north Manchester a few years ago where, it could be argued, it’s probably more needed. The police do have a police station in the city centre but city centre Manchester is a pretty crime free zone with most of the police time taken up with problems to do with drink; those hen parties can get out of control. Apparently there has NEVER been a burglary in the city centre. We wander about the city centre with no concern, mostly, of being a victim of crime. The policemen wandering about the city in their iconic uniforms spend a great deal of time being photographed with tourists. Long may this continue.

Back to the point. The St. Michaels project has brought together former Manchester United stars, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs (part of the famous Class of 92, big buds with David Beckham etc.) turned successful property developers, Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Police and the most divisive proposal for Manchester in decades. Gary and Ryan have always been sensible with their money. Some players go in for 24/7 partying and fast women but not these two (apart from an unfortunate dalliance Ryan had with his brother’s wife). They have gone in for property development  and are, along with a few other United players, rather good at it.

Gary Neville’s company has put in a plan to develop the old police station site. It’s a complicated story. First problem is some attractive and historic buildings will disappear. The office element of the police station on Southmill Street will go. This is a shame. It adds much to the streetscape in this part of town. It adds greatly to the walk from Albert Square where you marvel at the Town Hall to the impressive façade of the former Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Blu Hotel). Here is is…

Also going is the Jewish Synagogue on Jackson’s Row. The Jewish community in the city has been consulted on this and they are happy about it. The present building isn’t fit for purpose and a new synagogue is being built in the new development rather like they did with the Cross Street Chapel when they built this office block on Cross Street. The chapel is inside occupying the ground floor. It works well…

This is the building that is going. I have to say I’m not a fan. It looks like a bunker and was inspired by actual nuclear bunkers that were being built in the city at the same time in the 1950s. It does look like its might be able to resist a nuclear attack. But students of architecture are up in arms about it as it’s a great example of a building of its type. I will defer to their expertise…

The third building to be lost is the Sir Ralph Abercromby public house. We are losing pubs across the country at an alarming rate. This one is an old fashioned Manchester boozer. No fancy food, no cocktails, no small batch artisan gins, just a place for guys to get together and have a beer. But it is Georgian and has historic significance because it was used to treat the injured in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where Manchester people demonstrated for democracy and someone sent the army in. We will be commemorating the event’s 200th anniversary in 2019 and the loss of this pub isn’t going down well.

There’s also some concern about the Manchester City Council’s and Greater Manchester Police’s involvement in the project. Nothing illegal has been done but the following has happened. After the police station closed the city council bought the police station site from the police for £2.5 million. Now £2.5 million will buy you a nice house in the city, or a nice apartment, but it won’t buy you the best. And £2.5 million is very cheap for a large piece of development land in the city centre. When the company developing the site wants the land they will have to buy it for considerably more than £2.5 million with the profit being split between the police and the council. Nothing illegal but….

But all that pales into insignificance when you see the actual plans. It’s two towers containing a hotel, offices, apartments, restaurants, bars…a new district bringing life to a quiet, underused part of the city. From the air it doesn’t look too bad. You can see the towers in the centre of this picture….

The trouble starts at ground level. I took this picture of the site a couple of years ago. I use it as the background on my iPad and it’s at the top of my Twitter feed. It’s Manchester at its best. People enjoying leafy Albert Square on a sunny day surrounded by beautiful, Victorian architecture with modern Manchester, represented by the Great Northern and Hilton Towers in the distance. I had problems with online banking. I had to take my iPad into a branch to sort it out. The woman who sorted out my problem admired and commented on this picture. She thought it was Madrid…

If they get their way and St. Michaels goes forward in its present incarnation, this is what the view would be like…

It’s not the towers I, and many, many, many others object to, but their position so close the historic Albert Square with its beautiful architecture. They destroy the harmony of the area and completely overwhelm the square, even dominating the Town Hall Tower. If these towers, with their rather nice curved tops, were being built on a zombie car park on the edge of the city centre, like all the other skyscrapers currently being built are, we would be delighted with the plan. But here they are completely wrong. They loom over and oppress the square changing the character of this part of the city for ever. Opposition from people in the city, civic societies, the Victorian society has been loud. Local TV and radio have taken the story up and now, because of where they are, the national media has taken it up also. So controversial are they that the national government may have to decide what happens. The bronze colour is new. Before this they were to be black. Imagine how oppressive that would have been? When they turned bronze, few people noticed that they had made them even taller. 

This picture above is another one of how the buildings will look. I can’t believe that they would do this to Central Library. The way they break the curve of the library roof is nothing more than Philistine. This is so wrong I could cry.

And they completely dominate the view along elegant, curved Library Walk which, itself, has had problems with the glass blob at the other end…

The pretty Georgian home of The Friend’s Meeting House is completely dominated by the scheme…

And this will be the view of St. Ann’s Square if the scheme goes ahead. You are looking along New Cathedral Street towards the square. Can you see historic and beautiful St. Ann’s Church? No, because the colour of the stone of the church is almost the same as the tower. It ruins the view of a place I take people to enjoy the buzz of a big city surrounded by beautiful architecture. It even manages to hide the Hilton Tower, which being blue glass, provided a ‘halo’ of glass and light around the church tower. It’s a disaster and it upsets me as much as the picture of Central Library with its added shark fins. 

I’m a great fan of skyscrapers and I love the contrast between old and new architecture but, if this plan goes ahead in its present form, I think it would be a disaster. 

 

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.