I don’t really know Manchester very well. Having visited only a handful of times in my adult life to catch up with friends, for work visits or for gigs, I never had the opportunity to get to know the city. What I have seen in that handful of visits over, hmm … about 22 years, is that there have been significant changes. The city centre I seem to remember visiting during my University days, has now developed into a much larger, vibrant and exciting place. So on this basis, to tie with a flying visit to town to meet a friend who has recently moved there (oops, it’s been a year) and my old Uni pal who has lived there for ever, I had a Sunday morning to spare before heading back home.
What should I do? What should I see? The unanimous answer from everyone was the same – take a wander around the Northern Quarter.
As luck would have it, the hotel I had booked (Travelodge Manchester Ancoats) was located right on the edge of the Northern Quarter. Perfect. I had some free time on the Saturday afternoon after checking in, but as England were about to take on Sweden in the World Cup Quarter Finals, the sun drenched streets were crowded with excited fans aiming towards any pub they could squeeze into! My first thoughts, despite this distraction, was wow. This area seems pretty cool.
So, what exactly makes it cool, I hear you ask?
Well, a brief bit of research into it’s recent history tells me that the Northern Quarter was not defined as a district until the mid 1990’s, and has since become a huge cultural part of the city – home to art galleries and installations, alternative clothing and music stores and the wonderful Afflecks Palace – a former department store turned into a collection of independent retail outlets for alternative clothing, music and pretty much anything else that you could want.
Two main points of focus for this blog (I probably do need to get to the photos at some point, eh?) are the area’s architecture and art, both of which are a joy and a feast for the eyes. So after a relatively early wake up call on a quiet and sunny Sunday morning, off I went to explore the area.
Given the subject matter of this article, it’s very photo heavy. You have been warned.
The red brick buildings, many of which feature external fire escapes bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the New York City suburbs. So much so, that the area is often used as a film set to replicate the streets of NYC – Captain America: First Avenger being one of the bigger budget examples of this. Wandering around streets such as Dale Street, Lever Street, York Street and Back Piccadilly (thanks to my friend for the tips), you can clearly see why.
Aside from the architecture, the other thing that gives the Northern Quarter it’s current identity is the street art. We are not talking standard graffiti here, although there is plenty to be seen which is impressive – we are talking large scale murals that cover the entire wall space at the end of a block, through to smaller pieces on the side streets and the shop front shutters.
Many of the larger murals were created during the Cities of Hope festival in 2016 – a street art festival which bought together some of the world’s best street artists, to create pieces of work which raised awareness of social issues while raising money for local Manchester charities.
The worker bee has become something of a symbol for industrial Manchester, but so much more so in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack where 22 people lost their lives. There are many pieces of art which reflect these bees, but the most prominent is the large mural on the side of the Koffee Pot Cafe on Oldham Street, featuring 22 bees to reflect all those who lost their lives. The piece was created by artist Russell Meham, also known as Qubek. Simple but effective.
Look around the city, and there are plenty more murals featuring the bees, as well as some more subtle pieces.
The street art of the Northern Quarter is constantly evolving – don’t expect a piece that you saw a photo of on Instagram last year to necessarily still be there today, I looked for some pieces that now don’t exist, but I found it interesting to wander and take a look at some of the smaller pieces in more detail.
Many pieces of art are homage to the stars, the residents and businesses that make Manchester the city it is.
It seems to be the case that where there is wall space, there is some form of art – even the shop fronts don’t escape it. The security shutters of many of the Northern Quarters businesses featured some of the most impressive pieces that I saw.
Everything that you have seen above I found while wandering within a 0.5 mile radius of my hotel, over the space of couple of hours. The art is literally everywhere, and this is a small part of it.
Having never really thought of Manchester as a destination as such, despite people’s positive comments, I am now already planning and looking forward to my next visit, so I can explore the Northern Quarter further and experience some of the vibrant, interesting and alternative shops, cafes, restaurants and bars in the area which was something I didn’t have the time to do on this visit. I should give a little shout out to Ezra and Gil on Hilton Street, a super cool little cafe that’s awesome for breakfast.
Manchester, until next time …..