Manchester Airport evokes great memories for me, not so much the flying away to a far off land, rather it makes me remember the air-fix models you could buy from duty free and of the plane spotters gathered together on the roof of the airport with their radios that tuned in to air traffic control. My dad wasn’t quite a plane spotter but we did have those models around the house and he did take me to loiter behind people who had those radios. I’m sure he would have liked a radio of his own someday but this stealth listening had two selling points, it was effortless and it was free.
In the summertime, as a child, the airport was our most popular haunt. We’d wander around the great lounge marvelling at those huge Venetian glass chandeliers that hung so majestically amidst the shops in the departure lounge.
The chandeliers weigh almost 2 tons each and were designed by royal architect Stefan Buzas, originally the chandeliers included pieces of coloured glass but during a cleanup to remove tobacco stains it was decided that the the design would be modernised by the removal of the coloured shards.
The chandeliers were removed from the airport entirely in 2003, one is housed at St Helens World of Glass (here), a second is at MOSI but remains in storage to this day having never been displayed, and a third was purportedly used as part of Helen Maurer’s Light Landing piece at Tatton Biennial. Number four’s location is a mystery.
Once my dad and I had browsed the travel gadgets on sale and leafed through the albums in the music shop we’d head over to the runway. And it’s the runway that’s the reason for my visit today - to explore the old air traffic control tower with photographer Andrew Brooks.
The new control tower, built to replace this one, was built in just nine days and opened last summer on the airport’s 75th anniversary, it was nominated for the Building of the Year by Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, but lost out to Number One Riverside in Rochdale.
Here in the original control tower there’s a palpable feeling of abandonment - some electronic displays are still lit up as if the last person to leave did so in a hurry,
This morning I was on Alan Beswick’s breakfast show on BBC Radio Manchester talking about little known facts of our buildings, and about my upcoming events for Manchester Histories Festival - Faques.
You can listen to the breakfast show here:
I thought I’d also take the chance to quickly comment on a few of the unusual facts mentioned by callers in to the show - well, I was crowned BBC Radio Manchester’s Head of Quirk so it’s only right I fulfil the role of quirk reporting…
Alan mentioned the houses on top of the Arndale Centre:
True. This was Cromford Court and was indeed a housing estate on the rooftops. They were demolished in 2003. I wrote about the estate and have some fantastic archive images here
The Imperial War Museum is designed to look like an exploded hand grenade:
False. Not quite right but not a million miles from the truth. The building’s concept is the fragments of a shattered globe. Each fragment represent earth, air and water or land, sky and sea where battles are fought. This symbolism continues in the use of each fragment - the Earth segment is the openness and earthliness of the museum space, Air is the entrance to the museum, and Water is the canal viewing platform.
There are little hillbilly men on a rooftop in Piccadilly
True. And I wrote about them in detail for one of my very first articles. They are Alpine style men and were quite damaged by the weather over the years but have been lovingly cleaned up. You can read about the little men of 79 Piccadilly here.
The Refuge Assurance building is made from smaller than average bricks
Well…I love this fact, and I they do look smaller so yes, I guess it is true but I don’t know much about brick sizing conventions. They were certainly specially commissioned to complement the terracotta decorations of the building so the size no doubt plays a part in that sympathetic design process. Have you ever looked closely at the facade of the building and the clock? You may well spot some interesting things when you do - castles, boats and insects are hidden throughout the building including an ark on the roof that’s not visible to anyone except the birds.
There’s a train station underneath the Arndale centre
True. Indeed there is, underneath Topshop, though you shouldn’t get as carried away as to think of it as a complete station - it’s more of a cavity in the foundations that would have been a station if the Picc-Vic line went ahead. I talk a little of it in my fictional account of how Manchester might have been if architect Joseph Sunlight was head of city planning (here)
There’s a steam train underneath Victoria Station
False. The caller said that he’d seen this himself so I don’t want to doubt him but I’m positive it wasn’t there in the 70s when archivist Ken Howarth explored the tunnels, and it almost certainly isn’t there now during the renovations. I did some research and what I think the caller was referring to is the front end of a pacer cab that crashed into the buffers at Liverpool Lime Street. I’m not sure why it ended up under the station at Manchester and I have confirmation that it’s no longer there - there’s a photo of it in this article.
There was a graveyard under the station, and last summer you may have found yourself in a secret location, taken through a dark, man-made tunnel, and it may or may not have led you to a gig that was maybe held in the underground arches of the station which is normally used for storage of old furniture. Maybe.
Toilet and catacombs under All Saints Park
True. Kind of. I actually don’t know about the toilets but it seems unlikely if they’re directly underneath the park because the catacombs the caller speaks of is a part truth - All Saints park is a mass grave for cholera victims (like many of Manchester’s parks) so it is consecrated ground and can’t be built on as a consequence. There’s a plaque to commemorate these burials at the park, on St Augustine’s church side of the park.
There are BT tunnels underneath Piccadilly Plaza
True. City Tower itself is an important site for the city - during the war Manchester made the decision to protect communications as a priority and as a consequence we have the Guardian tunnels (now owned by BT). The entrance to the tunnels is just over by China Town and they do indeed reach far out of the city, going as far as Ardwick and possibly beyond. City Tower hosts a variety of masts for communications so the tunnels leading here is no surprise. A further tunnel just behind the tower exists, or at least it did, and this was for the banks. There’s a photo of the bank tunnel on my article about City Tower here.
There was an underground swimming pool on Oxford Road.
True. It belonged to the Gaskell’s and much of it would have been underneath the former BBC building. You can read about it in our visit to the partly demolished BBC site from early in 2013
Alan also mentioned a little garden outside of a signal box in East Manchester, I don’t have a story on this one but I have seen it and can confirm its presence.
Faques event details and booking can be found here, I will also be selling illustrated maps of all the locations closer to the time.
As the Irwell acts as the invisible boundary between Salford and Manchester, Pomona is the limbo that buffers that waterway; it’s the tapering slice of land that makes way for the river to graze the Bridgewater Canal before both waterways abruptly branch off in opposing directions.
Once a bustling dockland and now a serene wasteland, Pomona, as small as it is manages to straddle Salford, Old Trafford and to a lesser extent Manchester (it takes mere minutes to reach from central Manchester on foot). These edgelands of Manchester are our alternative countryside.
Now owned by Peel with future plans to redevelop the area into apartments, the area has become one of interest to many people including botanists. It has been speculated that drastic steps have been taken to prevent the area from becoming listed as one of ecological importance, as noted by a resident in 2011:
“I jogged past this site this morning, and couldn’t believe what Peel had done to it! The area had previously supported a lot of native shrubs and trees. Mountain ash, gorse, silver birch, etc were all growing there. I even picked wild apples from there last year, too. The site undoubtedly would have provided a lot of habitat for indigenous wildlife and it was great to see a bit of wilderness and biodiversity in what is a very built up area.
I know the site was ripe for development but Peel have obliterated any bit of greenery, whatsoever, and churned it into a muddy, sterile mess which looks more akin to the battlefields of WW1. In what is undoubtedly a “scorched earth policy” towards the site, I still have to ask was it really necessary to remove every single tree ,shrub and blade of grass? Even those mature trees which were growing right by the banks of the canal, and which wouldn’t have got in the way of their developments, got the chop.”
The tragic tale of Spreepark, Berlin.
Just visible from my hostel, along the river towards Treptower, a ferris wheel pokes above the trees. It’s hidden in the forests of Plänterwald, in the former GDR of Berlin and was part of a popular theme park for school children visiting from Eastern Bloc countries and originally called Kulturpark Plänterwald. Opened in 1969 it was sold twenty years later to Norbert Witte when it had closed with the falling of Berlin Wall. In 1991 it reopened as Spreepark, the sale to Witte also saw the park declared as a nature sanctuary. This declaration was partly what shut down the park some 10 years later when car parking for the venue was dramatically slashed in order to protect the woodland.
At the start of his tenure at Spreepark Witte purchased new rides from a closed amusement park in Paris called Mirapolis, these included the pirate ship, ferris wheel and the plaster dinosaurs which are left crumbling there today. By 2001, due to dwindling numbers, the park that once saw 1.5 million visitors a year, declared bankruptcy.
In 2009 a documentary by the names of Achterbahn (Rollercoaster) was made by directory Peter Dörfler, the story focussed on the bankruptcy and the measures the Witte’s went to to claw back their fortune and get out of debt. The Witte’s soon travelled to Lima, Peru and took with them six rides so that they could eventually open a new park - Lunapark. The city of Berlin were not particularly enamoured with this move as the Wittes left not only a decaying park but also their multi-million debt.
At the heart of St Ann’s Square stands the only surviving 18th century church in the city (celebrating 300 years in 2012) and the second oldest in Manchester, the tower of which is said to mark the geographical centre of the old city and the surveyor’s benchmark can be seen carved into the stone by the tower door.
And the church has a secret hiding in its safe.
The church was built in 1712 as part of a redevelopment of the area and is said to be designed by Christopher Wren, or one of his pupils, and was later restored by Alfred Waterhouse. At the time of erection the tower, though not seemingly large today, was visible all across Manchester - at which time was a small market town.
One of the windows of the church is dedicated to the memory of Hilda Collens who founded the Northern School of Music (part of today’s Royal Northern College of Music).
Thomas De Quincey, born just around the corner on Cross Street, was baptised at the church and you can see the gravestones of his immediate family right outside. De Quincy wrote what is thought to be the very first book about drug addiction; Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and indeed he had quite the addictive personality - taking his opium dissolved in alcohol and stating “I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man”. Addiction literature was born.
During the air raids of the Second World War churches would often fall victim to the blasts, yet St Ann’s seemed to be lucky enough not to be targeted. Or at least that seemed to be the case until 1960, because St Ann’s has a secret and that secret is hiding in its safe.
In 1960, during repair works to the church, an unexploded bomb was found on the roof and since then the bomb has been locked away in a safe in the church.
Whilst I was in the church an elderly man named Ronnie came over to talk to me about the bomb, he remembered in the 70s when Cannon Morgan was on loan to St Ann’s from the cathedral. Ronnie alluded to a playful rivalry between the cathedral and St Ann’s and he’d asked Cannon Morgan what he thought of the bomb landing but not detonating: “do you think it’s because we’re such good anglicans here at St Ann’s?” to which the cannon replied: "perhaps, or alternatively it’s because the devil knows his own".
St Ann’s was once again lucky to escape further bomb damage, during the 1996 IRA bomb the upstairs windows were blown in on both sides of the church. The quite lovely stained glass windows were not damaged.
When I set out to see the bomb today my roll of film became, quite coincidentally, something of a triptych of bomb scenes.
I left St Ann’s and decided to head over to Hilton House on Dale Street
82 Portland Street - what a delight that nameless totem pole of windows is. I asked the building’s oldest resident, Colin of Colin Jellicoe Gallery, if he had a nickname for it, “work” he shrugged. So henceforth it shall be known as the Portland Street Erection.
image by Skyliner
Either side of number 82 are former weavers’ cottages that would become The Circus Tavern (perhaps the smallest pub in Britain) and The Grey Horse Inn which take their names from the doomed voyage of an equestrian circus which sank on the journey from Manchester to America. Originally the enquiry office of Great Eastern Railways, the dimensions of this unique building are glaringly out of place amongst those, its neighbours. Tall and slender amongst a row of dwarves; why does it stick out like that? I like to think that the building is a kind of beacon - a symbol of hope, space and light amongst those depressed, light-deprived workspaces that flank it.
For a long time I assumed it to be the oldest building in the row and the cottages built around it, but in fact it’s a later addition and so the way it stands out from the rest of the row was planned. Perhaps it was it part of a larger plan that was never realised, something more sympathetic that would have been built up around it, but it’s impossible to say.
Portland Street, 1904. Great Eastern Railway signs visible on number 82. Image care of Manchester Libraries. Ref. m04857
Built in 1883 by J.M. Porter, Porter was 20 years old at the time and still learning his trade as an architect and surveyor with Messrs Farrer and Co. I thought it a little peculiar that an apprentice should have the building credited to him rather than in the name of his employer and I was curious to see Farrrer’s back catalogue so I looked them up and therein lies the mystery. Seemingly Farrer and Co did not exist.
I traced a Farrer and Co in London, a law firm with quite an impressive and far-reaching history and ties with Charles Dickens, who I knew had ties with Manchester, but my fleeting moment of hope was dashed when they emailed to say they have no records of ever having run business from Manchester nor any connection to Porter.
image by Russell Hart Photography
For the most part the building was occupied by Great Eastern Railway, and the bricked sides of the building still show the outline of the old signage. After that it was occupied by a sportswear and textile store until, rather wonderfully, the site came totally full circle and became occupied by the current tenants - a hairdressers and an art gallery: the exact same trades that occupied number 82 before the current building was even erected.
A few weeks before I started my investigations a man from The Antiques Roadshow had visited Portland Street and mentioned to the occupants that it was likely the building dated back to the 1850s. I dismissed this date at first, but could he be right? If so then that would certainly mean the architect was someone else, but what does that mean for J M Porter and his mysterious employers?
In 1886 Porter moved back to his home in Wales and remained there, his company archives are held by Denbighshire County Council who can’t find any mention of 82 Portland Street.
Whilst researching the site I’ve called in to question the date, the architect, and even the firm where the architect purportedly learned his trade. Nothing adds up about this place, whole companies associated with it are seemingly non-existent and there’s not only gaps in the archives but chasms.
And that frustration, that’s the reason its a favourite building of mine. What I love, as my Columbo box set will verify, is a good old mystery and this one is a real head scratcher. Number 82 is wooing me with its slow reveal, a Portland Street enigma.
There’s a rather peculiar green metal arch above a window at the rear of the building, it looks like it might be a frame for a sign or a streetlight but why there on the back street? - image by Skyliner