In 1996 the IRA set off a bomb in the centre of Manchester. The objective was destruction…but the city’s response was one of defiance and ultimately Phoenix-like resurrection.
Whatever the politicians say, at a grass roots level many people in Manchester believe that the bomb was good for the city.
As I stand looking at the glass wonderland of the Urbis Exhibition Centre, the Manchester Wheel and the Printworks I remember the first time I set foot in Manchester, arriving at Victoria Station to negotiate moody streets that were dark, ominously quiet and positively seedy.
The bomb changed all that. This part of the city centre was reborn; a triumph of Manchester spirit over adversity. The Urbis has been around for quite a few years now, but this area of Corporation Street still feels on the shiny and new side. I loved the way Manchester was transformed into a thriving modern European city that was fun to spend time in. But in some ways parts now feel as though they have become an anonymous anywhereland. It’s probably because the names trying to catch my attention from shops, bars and restaurants could be in any city in Britain. Hard Rock Café and Nando’s just don’t do it for me. The products of Madmen types, they’re for those who like (or need) labels.
The bland uniformity of the shops around me are claustrophobic. I need somewhere that has earthy character oozing with originality…I need to be in the Northern Quarter.
Manchester’s Northern Quarter
As long as I’ve known Manchester, the Northern Quarter was home to an eclectic mix of fashion designers, quirky shops and great bars – Band in the Wall was a particular favourite and I spent many a memorable night (in a blurred sort of way) there listening to some cracking bands.
Situated between Picadilly and Ancoats, its reputation as being the creative heart of Manchester has, if anything, grown. It is the place to go for individuals who want to break free from the herd, something that becomes obvious from the moment you enter its network of gritty, industrialised streets bordered predominantly by red brick buildings.
To get there, I shoot through the Arndale shopping centre to emerge opposite a row of grubby kiosks. There’s nothing slick or fancy about them and they feel real. Ahead is the antidote to soulless High Street shopping; Afflecks Palace
Shopping in the Northern Quarter – Afflecks Palace
The haunt and hunting zone of freaks, punks, neo-hippies, Goths and everybody else who is turned off by mass produced ‘designer’ wear, Afflecks Palace is a shopping centre for people who don’t normally enjoy shopping. It’s almost as much a bizarre urban theme park as it is a shopping experience. There are Pagan shops, fetishist shops, military gear, tattooists, theatrical wear, punk, retro, American Graffiti styles, Japanese kitsch, rubber dresses and vampire clothing – all are staffed by people wearing the clothes they sell which makes for some interesting sights.
There are a zillion things here that I want to buy; things I didn’t realise I desperately needed like German paratroopers’ boots or a Dalek’s head (seriously). I’m overwhelmed with the overdose of originality and seek out a coffee shop to acclimatise.
It’s as quirky as the rest of Afflecks and the owner possesses that particular brand of Manc humour which can come across as downright rude to the uninitiated (or maybe he actually was rude). He hums and haws at my Scottish £20 note (something I discover that still winds me up) but the coffee’s good and the setting suitably Bohemian – even the cola is original.
The shops in the streets outside Afflecks aren’t quite as outrageous, but they’re still unique; from fancy hat shops and outlets displaying real designer wear from the best of Manchester’s young new talent to time-travelling places selling rockers clothing.
However, exploration is cut short by the fact that it’s raining – did I mention this was Manchester – and I decide it’s time to see what the pub scene has to offer. There are a number of tempting places; I’m guessing the Soup Kitchen isn’t a real soup kitchen, but I’m looking specifically for a chunk of the traditional Manchester pub scene. By pure luck I strike gold.
Bars in Manchester – The Castle Hotel
From the outside it looks like the sort of place that’s home to four old guys in flat caps talking about pigeons. But if a re-visit to the Northern Quarter has taught me anything it’s that looks can be deceiving. The Castle Hotel looks like a traditional old bar, both outside and within it’s dimly lit interior – but it’s a drinking haunt of artists, musicians, Northern Quarter residents and students. A poster on the wall outlining recent events tells me all I need to know – Northern Quarter Book Club; Preston is my Paris Launch and the intriguing sounding Dr Butler’s Cowboy Extravaganza – I immediately want to sign up for a Bad Language Writers Collective. I order a pint of scrumpy and a chunky egg butty and ask the barmaid if I can photograph her pumps. Instead of slapping me she smiles and says ‘luckily, I’ve just buffed them up for you,’ What can you say to that?
An explore of the place reveals a wonderfully atmospheric, rejuvenated Victorian bar. A back room with a small stage is clearly the performance area. The bar’s open air terrace makes me smile, it’s a tiny courtyard enclosed by towering red brick walls; it is the consummate urban terrace – it is so Manchester.
I know I should continue exploring but it’s still drizzling outside and the scrumpy was extremely quaffable… plus the barmaid’s pumps really are impressively dazzling. I order another scrumpy and sit back down in a shaft of light by the window. I was in the Manchester I was looking for, so why not take the time to enjoy it for just a little bit longer?
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+