Wednesday, 27 February 2019

A Weekend in Manchester

Being an adult is complicated. Just when you think you're nailing life, with all its attendant concerns - work, parenting, finances - something knocks you sideways and you realise you'll probably never really know how to truly do life right. Which is possibly why I spend quite a lot of time reminiscing about more simple times: a time when work was just about financing the rent cheque and going out dancing; when weekends were for sleeping in and hanging out, not about trying to pack in as many mundane domestic tasks as possible in 48 hours just to feel slightly on top of things at the start of the new week. When I think of that pre-home-owning, child-rearing period, I always think of Manchester, of being young and in love, of having limitless time to just, well, be. 

A teenage love affair with New Order set me on the path of discovery to this great northern city. Evenings ensconced in the family living room, watching things like The Tube and Old Grey Whistle Test, made me fascinated by life Up North. Having never been further than Birmingham, I became enthralled by the idea of this mythical land that lay beyond the Midlands. Home to amazing music, charismatic impresarios like Tony Wilson and era defining clubs like the Hacienda, 'Up North', or rather Manchester in particular, had a magnetism that I found intoxicating. 

Features on upcoming bands like the Stone Roses, of 'Madchester' fashion and acid house in magazines like The Face lured me in even further. I became friends with a guy from Bury at Sixth Form and realised that I loved the self-deprecating, no nonsense attitude of Northerners, and their wit and sense of humour. It's no wonder, really, that, within months of starting at university, I met a young man who hailed from just outside the city...we're still together today.

I fell in love with a Mancunian (well, someone from Saddleworth, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it) and Manchester. Weekends at uni were frequently spent zooming up the M1 to hang out in the city. I'm sure it wasn't the case, but I always remember those days as being sunny - a far cry from the grey landscapes that come to mind when you think of the industrial North.
In those days, we'd scour the stores at Afflecks Palace, buy records at Eastern Bloc (owned by a member of 808 State) and hang out in cool stores, picking up club flyers to paste to the breeze block walls of our halls of residence. We'd go to the Hacienda and dance to Italo House and acid. Owned by New Order, I had my tiny mind slightly blown on passing Bernard Sumner in the club one night - he even said "Alright, mate" to my other half, an event that still crops up in conversation to this day: "Remember that time when Barney from New Order said hi to you in the Hac?!"
But that was a long time ago, and we don't go to Manchester much anymore. So with half term rolling around, and February always being a tricky one to get right in terms of travel plans - UK beaches seem too unpredictable - I decided we'd make a long overdue trip, with the kids, to a city we both hold with affection in our hearts. 

It's a great destination for families - easy to get around, with lots of free attractions and plenty of things to do indoors when those Northern skies, inevitably, open. It would be hard to describe Manchester as 'pretty' - it has photogenic corners, for sure, but this is a city that encapsulates the concept of Northern grit, with its imposing Victorian architecture and hints of its industrial heritage around every corner.  

There are graceful squares and smart streets here, such as St Anne's Square and King Street, while the revived Northern Quarter has brought a vibrancy back to the city that reminds me of my visits here back in the '90s. Back then it was all about the aforementioned Hacienda (now luxury apartments), Man U footballer's hangouts along Deansgate and the pre-club scene at the Dry Bar. But today the Northern Quarter draws the cool kids to hang out at its cafes, bars, vinyl stores and boutiques. 

We loved mooching about this area, stopping at amazing homeware store Oklahoma and Evelyn's, a gorgeous cafe-bar blending industrial-style fittings with a profusion of overhanging greenery - it's a great spot for breakfast, brunch or cocktails. We also loved Federal Cafe, just up the road. Plenty more hip drinking spots vie for your attention in this area; if we'd been visiting without kids we definitely would have hung out here come nightfall - I loved the look of some of the drinking haunts in the area, including Cane & Grain, The Abel Heywood and Trof.

Shopping comes in all shapes and sizes, from high-end fashion at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges (these are big stores rather than provincial concessions) to vintage pop-ups, with the huge Arndale Centre featuring all the usual high street stalwarts. But more interesting shopping lies back in the Northern Quarter, where you'll find independent boutiques and streetwear stores filled with hard-to-source Nikes and Vans in all colours and styles. 

We dragged the kids around Afflecks, our go-to shopping destination in the old days. Yes, they're still flogging 'And on the Sixth Day, God Created Manchester' t-shirts, alongside a proliferation of bee embossed merchandise (the bee is the symbol of the city) but there are lots of specialist, niche things to be found in this treasure trove of the weird and wonderful. Housed in a grand old department store, which started life as a drapery called Affleck & Brown, it's a maze of eclectic indie shops, selling everything from rare vinyl to American candy. You can pick up vintage curios, get a tattoo or a piercing, or enjoy vegan coffee and cake. It's a ramshackle feast for the eyes, with retro arcade games in the corridors and old band posters plastered to the walls - an absolute must-visit for soaking up Manchester's unique vibe.

Child-friendly all-weather entertainment can be enjoyed at the Football Museum (£25 for a family ticket) or the excellent free Science and Industry Museum - this is a brilliant collection of exhibits that trace Manchester's industrial history, taking in steam engines and locomotives, as well as textile machinery (more interesting than it sounds - this part of the country was built on cotton wealth) and early computers. The adjoining Air and Space hall is closed at the moment but will hopefully reopen soon, allowing access to a fantastic collection of planes and vehicles. An interactive science area is filled with stuff for kids of all ages to play around with. 

Manchester Art Gallery is another cultural highlight in the city. Entry is free and there's lots to see, including evocative paintings of the city by LS Lowry which are a highlight. On our visit there was a brilliant Martin Parr exhibition, featuring photos of Manchester from the 60s up to the present day, as well as a great collection focusing on Nordic Design. It's a lovely place to hang out, with a pleasant cafe and shop to explore, too.

If architecture is your thing, you're truly spoilt in this city. I love the contrasts that decorate the skyline in all directions here; it's a place where cranes abound and sleek high-rises stand next to squat old Victorian pubs and there are lovely gems all around if you look a little more closely. You can stumble upon unexpected loveliness in Manchester's urban heartland - the Peveril of the Peak pub, a beautifully tiled building and the only detached pub in the city - is a wonderful relic of Manchester's bygone days. 

Take a wander to the cathedral and stop by Shambles Square, home to the Old Wellington pub, built in the 1500s and the oldest building of its kind in the city. If quirky bookstores, housed in buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Brooklyn, are your thing, be sure to pop by Paramount Books on Shudehill. 

The sweeping square that houses the city's town hall is also worth a look, while Barton Arcade, just off Deansgate is a lovely place for a coffee - its tiled floor and glass dome is lovely. While you're here, if you have football fans amongst your number, don't miss a quick stop at the Classic Football Shirts shop.

Indoor child-friendly entertainment abounds in the cavernous Printworks complex, where you'll find a cinema, adventure golf and lots of family-orientated eating options. If you're playing it safe with food, try an find one of the chain restaurants that's housed in an interesting venue - thanks to the proliferation of vast, grand Victorian buildings in Manchester, many fail-safe restaurants have taken up residence in old banks and other impressive buildings. 

The Zizzi on King Street is a perfect example - if you must keep the kids happy with pizza, it's nice being able to do so in such impressive surroundings. If you do have more flexibility on the restaurant front, I highly recommend El Gato Negro, also on King Street - it serves exceptional tapas in a lovely setting. 

Music and football are defining features of this city; you can go on a The Smiths tour or make your own pilgrimage to key locations synoymous with this legendary Manchester band - we'd been wanting to visit Salford Lads Club for some time and did so on this occasion. With its dedicated The Smiths room and interesting history, it's worth a little detour if you want to see an old school lads club in action (it remains a working facility) and have an interest in Manchester's musical history. 

On this side of the river you'll find Salford Quays too - home to MediaCityUK, this area is well worth a visit. Kids will love seeing the buildings where their favourite CBBC and Cbeebies shows are produced. You can also visit the Blue Peter garden and check out the stars honoured in the walk of fame. ITV also has a base here, and tours of both respective broadcasters HQs are open to the public (the ITV tour focuses on its classic Northern drama Coronation Street.)

Look over the water and you'll catch a glimpse of Old Trafford, a reminder that this city is passionate not just about the arts and music but football too. I'm not really a football fan, but we did go on a tour of the stadium a few years back and I found it much more entertaining that I expected. 

But for me personally, Manchester is about music - it's might be a very long time since Voodoo Ray blared out of car stereos or members of New Order said hello to us in the Hacienda, but this city will forever remind me of my musical awakening and the vibrancy of Northern club culture, of kids wearing Stone Roses-style bucket hats and baggy flares. It's changed a great deal in the intervening years, but Manchester remains a defiantly brilliant counterpoint to its southern counterparts. And I remain in love with it.

For budget-friendly accommodation in the city, we stayed at the perfectly located Premier Inn Manchester City Centre (Arena/Printworks)

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