12 June 2006


So at the end of half term B. and I went to Manchester for a three-day weekend, having settled on it as a city we hadn't visited before (or for about fifteen years, in my case) which looked as if it would bear exploration.

This turned out to be an excellent choice. The sunshine helped of course, but the city is gorgeous -- lots of old (mostly Victorian, but some older) architecture mixed in with really interesting modern stuff:

The vast glass pylon at the top there is apparently the tallest residential block in the U.K. Or possibly Europe. I forget.

OK, so there are presumably grotty bits of Manchester as well, but fortunately as tourists we weren't required to visit those. It's just a shame our (cheap) camera is quite so rubbish at colours when there's bright sunlight. Also that I can't take a straightforward photo without sticking my idiotic finger in the way.

But the city was great in so many ways -- frequent free buses, a tram service (no photos of the trams, but I think my friend Patsy may have been involved in designing them, unless I'm thinking of Sheffield), lots of open green areas and trees and exciting bits of waterway just lying about the place. Also a gigantic BBC-sponsored TV screen opposite the major shopping centre.

Our hotel was located close to Castlefield, a district which counts as an urban heritage park in its own right, and more excitingly featured in several episodes of Queer as Folk. It also contains the Industrial Museum, where we learned the fantastic fact that Manchester used to have a network of pipes which delivered high-pressure steam around the city for purposes of hydraulic power. Apparently they're now used for fibre-optic cable networking. We also got accidentally locked inside the Power Hall at closing time on the Friday, which was less diverting.

Most of Friday we spent exploring the city, scouting out interesting locations and sampling therather disappointing Samuel Smith's beer at Sinclair's Oyster Bar. Oh, and briefly meeting up with B.'s aunt, who was inexplicably in town at the time.

For a great deal of Saturday we were at the city Art Gallery, famous for its Pre-Raphaelites but also playing host to an exhibition of artwork from the Miffy books. Then some more wandering around before going out to a stunningly posh restaurant where we were served with gorgeous food (the sweet potato chips were particularly to die for) and some startlingly expensive wine. Which was wonderful, even though I had to curtail my sampling of the cheeseboard to head off to...

...a very peculiar piece of open-air "industrial theatre" called Insect, which involved gigantic animated sculptures of insects, men dressed as ants, crickets and what may have been dung-beetles, copious fireworks and a great big crane. This review gives rather more detail of the story than was apparent to those of us in the audience at the time -- and these photos show rather more of the action than B. and I could actually see. But it was thoroughly spectacular nevertheless.

Sunday was unusually packed, involving a visit to the cathedral (which was rather surprisingly hosting a display of morris men and owls) and to Urbis, the museum of city living which we found entirely fascinating. (B. in particular remained fascinated by the exhibition of design and advertising long after I wasn't, but fortunately there was lots to do elsewhere.) The building showcases modern urban architecture with its exciting funicular elevator and is full of almost indefinitely interactive displays and exhibits. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject.

Having discharged our intellectual duties, we placated our inner hedonists with a pub crawl, visiting a handful of the pubs recommended in the 2006 Good Beer Guide:

1. The Marble Arch, which we wanted to visit mainly because of its in-house vegan microbrewery. Its products we found very good, especially the Lagonda I.P.A., but rather too similar to one another to sustain our interest. Although they weren't doing the chocolate one, and we didn't dare risk the ginger.

2. The Salisbury -- not recommended by the Guide, but standing in for The Font, which at 7 in the evening we found to be: a) playing louder music than we could comfortably coexist with, and b) nevertheless closed. The Salisbury was a Goth pub (I've no idea why I seem to be gravitating to those recently), but made up for it with Deuchars I.P.A.

3. Peveril of the Peak, a pub which apparently inherited its peculiar name from an old coaching-run.

Apart from the quality, this photo doesn't do justice to the weirdness of finding the Peveril's authentically garish tile facade marooned in its tiny island of antiquity surrounded by office blocks. The interior was equally tiled and enjoyably twee; the atmosphere was friendly, if quiet; the beer was OK, but would have been more exciting if we hadn't already visited the Marble Arch, who had provided the guest ales.

4. The Knott Bar, our favourite of the ones we visited. Architecturally exciting, being located in a reclaimed railway arch, with delicious food, splendid beer and a very convivial atmosphere (except for a half hour when for some reason a bunch of wankers arrived, shouted obnoxiously then buggered off). I have to confess I'm not entirely sure what we drank here, but it was nice. I have a vague memory of the sunset over Stonehenge, but I think that was probably just the tap badge.

5. The Briton's Protection, which because of the extreme niceness of the Knott we only reached when we were already quite tired. The series of small bars were pleasantly cosy, but we found the barman offputting and unhelpful, and the beer so-so. After our first, we went home to bed instead.

Monday morning we came back to Bristol. It's particularly important, when staying at a hotel, to fill up on the breakfast for which you'll be paying anyway -- if necessary to the extent that you don't feel the need for lunch. Vegetarians in particular need to ensure that they get a fair share of the eggs, mushrooms, hash browns, waffles, pastries, toast, marmalade, honey, youghurt and juice as well as the cereal, so as not to end up subsidising the bacon, sausage, black pudding and kipper consumption of the other guests.

For this reason -- and the brace of pizzas on Friday, and the expensive meal out on Saturday night, and the beer complemented with regular helpings of chips on Sunday -- I did appear when I returned from Manchester to have put on half a stone. But God, it was worth it.

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