There has always been, and will always be, an ongoing debate on where the South of England ends and the North begins. Many think of Crewe as the boundary, others consider Nottingham and Birmingham as ‘Northern’. If we consider Ashby-de-la-Zouch as the centre of England, surely everything above it is in the North? The divide is an enigma, and the North itself is even more of a mystery to many a Southerner.
What cannot be disputed, however, is that the crowning jewel of the North is Manchester: the British capital of music, art, science, and a true home for every hipster. The city gave birth to the computer, the cotton industry, the Suffragettes, the railway, the splitting of the atom, professional football, trade unions, the first library in the English-speaking world, and the first female bishop. It is because of this long and fascinating history that Manchester sits as a bright flame among the dank rain and fog of the North.
Any trip into Manchester should start from the south end of the city, at the locally famous Deansgate-Castlefield Metrolink stop. The bumblebee-coloured Manchester Metrolink connects the city to its outer suburbs and beyond, and is affectionately known locally as the ‘Met’. From Deansgate-Castlefield you can marvel at Beetham Tower in all its enormity. The 47-floor Hilton hotel stands above the rest of the city like an oblong beacon, reminding one of the mysterious black cuboid in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. From here, Manchester Central is but a short stroll away; take in the architecture of the once-busy train station, now an event venue, and admire the grand scale of what was the entrance to the spectacle that was the North. As you look around you, notice the old warehouses that provide small hints towards Manchester’s industrial past.
It is at this point that you can submerge yourself in the city as you walk up Mount Street, past the grandeur of the Midland Hotel and into Albert Square (no, you’re not back in London, there’s one in Manchester too!) where you can admire the scale of the Town Hall. The square is packed with events and bars all year round for every occasion, from Saint Patrick’s Day to the Manchester Christmas Markets — the largest German markets in the world, outside of Germany.
Cut through Lloyd Street and you’ll find yourself in St Peter’s Square. Opposite you is the recently opened KPMG headquarters, to your right is Manchester Central Library — the largest library in the city — and to your left is the Cenotaph. Welcome to what many locals consider the gateway to the city centre and one of the busiest squares in the city. If you’re visiting during the week, take care not to get in the way of the hundreds of lawyers, financial advisors and office workers that flood the city; in traditional Northern fashion, they’ll storm through you with a cheeky smile and a ‘Hello’!
Take a left up Mosely Street and you will find the Manchester Art Gallery on your right, a free and exciting gallery, with a range of exhibits from traditional artworks to modernist and interactive pieces. As you walk through the gallery, take a look at not only the art on the walls, but the people inside; it is here that you will see the full variety of Mancunians (a native or inhabitant of Manchester, commonly seen wearing a football shirt or donning Dr. Martens boots), from the Northern family taking a trip out, to the office worker on his lunch break and the high art enthusiast peering at the L.S. Lowry painting on the wall.
Heading east to King Street will land you in the centre of Manchester’s financial district, overflowing with high end boutiques. If you’re visiting the city on a budget, be warned: this is an expensive and exclusive area so guard your wallet from impulse buying! After having admired the buildings of the Hotel Gotham and Agent Provocateur, following Spring Gardens northbound puts you in the centre of Market Street, home to many high street brands. What is most striking about Market Street is not the shops, but the people on the street itself. With street performers, pretzel stands, tightrope walkers, magicians, human statues and more busking musicians that you can wave a stick at, Market Street offers an extravaganza of noises, smells and sights.
At the end of Market Street is Piccadilly Gardens, a once vibrant and beating centre of the city now fallen into unfortunate misery. On the bright side, a recent petition signed by over 20,000 Mancunians has forced the council to take action, and new renovations to transform the gardens into a flourish of flowers and fountains and will hopefully be underway soon.
Walking from Piccadilly Gardens up Lever Street brings you to what defines Manchester: the Northern Quarter. With a plethora of vintage shops and boutiques, record stores, tattoo parlours, art galleries and all things indie, this truly is the living soul of the city. A visit here must be accompanied by a stop in the Nexus Art Cafe, a small, underground cafe centred around that which is at the heart of Manchester: creativity. Coming out of the Art Cafe, visit the famous mural of David Bowie by street artist Akse. Street art is encouraged in the Northern Quarter and on almost every corner will be a piece that catches your eye immediately.
The spirit of the Northern Quarter is captured in Affleck’s Palace, a self-professed ‘emporium of eclecticism, a totem of indie commerce.’ An explosion of creativity and colour, Affleck’s offers a shopping experience like no other in the city. With tattoo parlours neighbouring cereal cafes, and wig stores across the way from steam-punk cosplay, there is nowhere else that more perfectly demonstrates the diversity of the city.
From the Northern Quarter take a walk to the Printworks, a printing factory renovated into an entertainment hub where you can catch a bite to eat, watch a movie in IMAX, or simply admire the the conversion itself. This leads you to the National Football Museum and Manchester Cathedral at the top end of Deansgate road. Walking along Deansgate, which spans almost the whole length of the city, will show you an array of clubs, bars, restaurants, shops and cinemas. Halfway down you’ll come across John Rylands Library, which houses literally millions of first manuscripts and works millennia old in a gorgeously Gothic 19th century library, and still serves as one of the University of Manchester’s many archival buildings.
At the very end of Deansgate is your starting, and now finishing, point at the Deansgate-Castlefield Met stop. While one day isn’t nearly enough to get more than a glimpse of the city, I hope that you will be able to appreciate its electrifying aura. There is a beat to Manchester that keeps the city alive and thriving, and never has that beat been stronger than it is right now. The city is blossoming into a new age and is finding itself, once again, at the centre of a cultural resurgence.
Featured image © Andy Blackledge