Manchester may be “happening” but it also has a fascinating industrial past that's been rejuvenated in recent years
The word “happening” and Manchester
have been joined at the hip for some years. Yet despite an urban renaissance that has embraced a cutting edge musical reputation, signature shopping centres and a new tram system, Manchester boasts an older heritage that is easily overlooked in the dash for contemporary acclaim.
This is a city that remains rooted in its past, most obviously in the historic mills, warehouses, canals and cotton factories that date from the second half of the 19th century. And while its foundations lie in the Industrial Revolution, when Manchester was a major global force, and its canals linked it to all parts of the country, its origins lie further back in Roman times.
The Roman Fort of Castlefield, found close to the train and road viaducts, marks the spot where Manchester was founded as Mamucium by the Romans, as a staging post between York and Chester. Here you’ll find the old Roman granary and the main sandstone fort gates. The first of four forts here was built in 79AD. They had eventually crumbled into disrepair by the Industrial Revolution, and the process of industrial decline in the area was intensified in the 1950s as motorised transport overtook the canals. The fort was rebuilt in 1987.
Castlefield remains a maze of tree-lined canals, warehouses, railways and viaducts, intersected by wooden footbridges and bars and cafes. Duke’s Lock is a secluded haven, quiet enough for passing herons to settle down and hunt for fish. Four railway viaducts crossed the Castlefield canals in the 1800s, and three remain in use. In 1825, the German architect Karl Schinkel visited the city and declared that the recently erected blackened buildings looked as though they had been standing for 100 years.
Nearby, close to the smart Deansgate Quay building apartments, lies the Bridgewater Canal, the first to be constructed in Britain and opened in 1765, linking the industrial north to the slate mines of North Wales. Duke’s lock marks the connection to the Rochdale Canal, which was the first waterway link across the Pennines.
I made time to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, housed in the pavilion-like shell of the white-wooded 19th-century Liverpool Road Railway Station, generally held to be where the age of the railway began. And a short walk away you’ll find Liverpool Road, with the striking, Lego-like Hilton hotel ahead of you (the ‘h’ of Hilton was missing on my visit), and Deansgate, home to the vast former Great Northern Railway Company’s Goods Warehouse, once a huge interchange between canal, rail and road networks, and today a shopping centre. The three tiers of brickwork, dating to 1898, are superb.
Close by Bridge Street stands the Peoples’ History Museum, housed in an Edwardian hydraulic pumping station. Currently closed for renovation, but due to reopen in late 2009, the museum repays a visit, and skilfully presents some of the most dramatic and influential chapters in Britain’s social history, from the Peterloo Massacre, which took place just a few hundred yards away, to the suffragette movement. There’s even a recreated 1930s Co-op shop. If you have children in tow, let them take the box-making test. This involves presenting them with a piece of cardboard and some glue and turning it into a box. In the mid 19th century you would be paid by the box, and 60 seconds was the maximum time you could take on each box in order to earn a living wage. Much slower and you were headed for the workhouse. (While the museum is closed, some of the most popular exhibits are on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.)
A 10-minute stroll back to the centre leads to Portland Street and the old Princess Street Warehouse, now a hotel and, a little further along the road, the old Watts Warehouse. Once the largest drapery business in Manchester, the warehouse is also now a hotel (with fetching rose windows on the upper floors) but, like its Princess Street sister, recalls the cotton, textile, dyeing, weaving and spinning industries of the city’s industrial heyday. The nearby Rochdale Canal, which runs close to Manchester Piccadilly station, should not be overlooked. It runs by the enormous Redhill Street Mills, including the 18th-century Royal Mill. At the time of writing, loft developments were bringing a new lease of life to these buildings, suggesting that, while Manchester moves on, it is dragging its past with it.