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.
(photo courtesy of Flickr user Pagan555) and taken from an earlier version of this article for my postcards blog Lost Touch.
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,
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
I’m delighted to have once again contributed to the wonderful independent publication: Now Then. This is my article, taken from Issue 6 (found here). It’s my most personal article yet but it is very much an obituary of a town, not a person.
I arrive at my Auntie’s funeral an hour ahead of the rest of the family and to stave off the chill of the air I decide to walk around the town; a tiny Northern town much like any other, a place where I spent most weekends of my youth at my Grandmother’s pebble-dashed council house. My life’s knowledge of the place was really limited to my Grandmother’s street, the toy shop, and the graveyard where my Nan and I would talk to my Grandad’s gravestone whilst she proudly washed it down. We explored much further of course but these are the only places I committed to memory and could point out to you now on a map - everywhere else was an adventure of anonymity; a walk in a nameless forest, a mysterious country lane where my doll fell under the tyres of a car. My world was contained within a few hundred metres and my boundaries were marked, not by street names, but by a tree or a lamppost and so it shall remain nameless in this: its obituary.
My Nan had died a year before my Auntie and her house, which I have to pass on route from the railway station, is now occupied by a young family. It struck me, as I imagined new life in the old building, how her walls, once covered in that textured Anaglypta wallpaper which I’d take so much pleasure from pushing the crescent tip of my thumbnail into, were likely smooth and modernised and that my last ties with the town were being cremated later today - I’d never come here again. This was a new grief. A grief of brick and stone, dated shopping precincts, antiquated corner shops, and railway tracks leading away from me into a town and time intangible.
I first of all visit the library - the modernist block of ghostly-grey brick that even as a child seemed little taller than I was, and has a smell never replicated in any building I’ve been in since. It was here the most radical change of the town played out before me; a train carriage had been attached to the rear of the building serving as both an innovative extension and as a museum commemorating the town’s railway. Next I approached the precinct, a cluster of shops that I had always eyed with suspicion for in the precinct there was no toyshop, no sweet shop and no one my Nan deemed worthy of showing me off to. I thought that now, at the age of thirty, it was time to pay the place a visit. You can imagine it - a precinct like any other; fairly brutal in its 60s modernity and darker now than the planners’ untainted vision of it. The precinct is much like the library in its minute stature yet I’m surprised to notice that there’s an upper floor. Dashing up a staircase at the rear of the grounds the private mezzanine level reveals itself as a cluster of squat, little flats with net-curtained windows and all the space and intricacy of a shipping container.
I don’t have time to go any further than that, other than an intuitive visit to the corner shop where I stand at the magazine rack as if hypnotised - searching for my out of print adolescence in the pages of Mizz, Sugar and Smash Hits magazines only to be brought back to my thirties in those of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. The bell jar of nostalgia is already cracking, and that’s why I’ll never return.
Technology, or serendipity, is on my side on this one - Google’s Street View cars have neglected to drive down my Grandmother’s street; you can just glimpse the neighbours’ windows in the distance as the car drives on by, but her own house is obscured by the bloom and berries of a Rowan tree thus suspending the street of my childhood in all its pebble-dashed glory.
In Portuguese, and in Welsh, the words “Saudade” and “Hiraeth” come close to defining this grief of place, and in Brazil the feeling is recognised with an official Saudade celebration every January 30th.
The anonymous murals of Spring Gardens post office.
These murals that sit above the counters of Spring Gardens post office have always stood out to me as something quite lovely. They brazenly straddle the internal windows and allow me to eye them up and down until my number is called; try to photograph one of them and you’re as good as out on your ear - they’re very much the architects’ peep show. They leave me sated that even during the most mundane chores I can still get my fill of art.
Countless times I’ve taken a tour group through the post office to a chorus of "I’ve never noticed them before".
How do a series of huge brutal reliefs that squat just a few feet above the counter go unnoticed time and time again, but most intriguing of all is who made them?
I became a little obsessed with crediting these reliefs to an artist and found myself for much of last year lost in the archives, reeling from a multitude of dead ends and uncertainties. I have a theory, and a solid one at that, but I’m still looking for that definite answer, that "yes, you’re right, this is what happened".
So begins our whodunnit…
The staff at the post office don’t know very much about the murals, but what they do know is that they were a gift from Manchester University when the building opened 4th August 1969.
I’m certain that they’re wrong.
A post office has stood in Spring Gardens since 1623, and this current building promises to fulfil its postal requirements for “the coming 60 years” (until 2029). Designed by Cruikshank and Seward, Spring Gardens was the largest post office in the north when it opened and heralded the arrival of new mechanised sorting offices in the area at a total cost across all sites of £5m. In January of 1969 the lead architect, Lee Monks, fell from the 6th floor during an inspection of the building and was killed.
In anticipation of the opening of the post office there were multiple articles in both regional and national press, several pages were dedicated to the new site and yet the murals, though given cursory mention, are never credited to an institution, a student, or an artist. As if the extensive press coverage wasn’t enough the Piccadilly Hotel created a commemorative omelette called the ‘GPO Surprise’. That’s right, a commemorative omelette.
Surely if news was so lacking that a post office gets a four page spread (yes, really) somewhere in there they’d thank the university and name the students responsible. This seals the deal for me, they’re not a gift.
During this time public art was becoming more prevalent and Percent For Art schemes were common practice across much of the world (Bolton has a scheme to this day) and although there was no UK wide initiative the seed was planted and many buildings incorporated some form of public art into their plans. Sadly, although lots of buildings of this era are often artistically decorated it’s the art that’s first to go when the building begins to look a little dated. It’s because of this fact that the murals intrigue me further; it’s quite the feat that they have survived the extensive renovation especially when they are both anonymous in origin and really, quite crudely mounted.
Thinking back now I recall my initial interest in the murals was driven by the possibility that they could be the work of
Back in 2012 I acted as a guest curator for Northern Spirit and their Wondrous Place project. Over the course of a week I wrote about Manchester Hippodrome, Sunlight House and the Picc-Vic underground transport system that never materialised, and tied these visions and memories together by imagining them all occurring at one time, under the fictional remit of architect Joseph Sunlight as head of the city (now Cottonopolis) planning department. I’ve republished these articles, as one, below.
My family are predominantly from Liverpool, and so it’s safe to assume I’m the black sheep of the family in my adoration of Manchester. I love it because I feel like I’ve made it my own. It’s a city where it’s very easy to do that and to carve yourself a place where you slot in and feel at home regardless of your roots. It’s also a challenging city to love because you have to work at it. There’s nothing immediate about it, it’s small yet spread out, it’s unremarkable in many ways, and you certainly don’t get that breath-taking moment of flinging open your hotel window and gazing down on an urban paradise – its not an easy city for a visitor to love.
Manchester was my blank canvas when I first came here and it remained that way for several years, just a corner of the canvas was filled in and it was rudimentary and pencil drawn. Then I realised that I hadn’t approached the city like I do all other cities; as a tourist – always asking questions about its history, its art, exploring the streets and getting lost in its dead-ends. I did this and my canvas became florid in its detail. I still explore like this everyday because there’s no reason, in any city, for that curiosity to ever wane.
I’ve adopted Manchester as a home and so it saddens me when a building I love is at threat, with that in mind I’ve looked at what Manchester could have been had these threats never reared their heads. What we’ve lost and what we almost had.
Over the years there has always been a kind of marvellous futuristic machinery at work behind the scenes of some of the major buildings. In the late 19th century Manchester Hydraulics Systems supplied this brand new source of power to the air conditioning of John Rylands Library (in itself a ground breaking concept at the time), the safety curtains of the Opera House, the organ of the Cathedral, and the clock of the Town Hall.
The Palace Hotel, image by Skyliner.
The Palace Hotel on Oxford Road used this hydraulic power in a fashion not dissimilar to something you’d expect to see in the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. They installed a series of tubes in what was then the Refuge Assurance Building, and inside of leather-bound capsules they would seal notes before dropping them into the suction system and transporting them to another part of the building.
Sunlight House on Quay Street is perhaps something of a silent star in amongst all of these landmarks and ground-breakers. It’s a grand building on an otherwise bland street, it’s not a building whose name is instantly recognised nor is the purpose of it clear to the everyday passer-by, but it’s this building that’s inspired me to look at Manchester as it could have been.
Although I mostly like to write about Manchester and more recently, Liverpool, there are a few places I’ve seen on my travels that are perfect Skyliner fodder - notably some theme parks that have fallen into disrepair after being abandoned.
The first is in Sweden, located behind an arts house that many years ago was a borstal. The house itself is a sight to behold, in the middle of nowhere just beyond an old chapel of sorts carved into the rock face and surrounded by a lake and forests, inside the enormous house are countless bedrooms some of which were once cells, an old bakery in the basement, some exhibition spaces for the artists that now occupy it, and a cluster of neighbouring cottages along a dirt track on the approach.
The area of Sweden, Tanum, was the first municipality to require urine-separation toilets which combats the global shortage of phosphorus. That requirement isn’t one that the borstal pay much mind to given that there’s not even running water here.
Not far from the house you can find the largest Greby in the region - an iron age graveyard, and an UNESCO word heritage site covering 18km at Tanumshede; a site full of bronze age rock carvings. Whilst staying at the borstal I met a lady who was staying there as part of her promise to her husband to visit all the UNESCO sites in the world, something they had planned to achieve together but her husband died suddenly only a few weeks before.
The old borstal
exhibition space in the basement
An old cell
The room for the naughtiest boys in the borstal
An old bakery in the basement, in complete darkness.
The borstal at night
Behind the house however is Sommarland, an abandoned theme park.The park was a wonderful and haunting thing to find in the woods behind the house.
Sommarland was closed in 2004, I first visited the water park in 2010 and as exciting as it was negotiating the rotten climbing frames and water slides it was the houses surrounding the park that I was most drawn to.
The bombed out church, St Luke’s, stands at the top of Bold Street in Liverpool. The official name is St Luke’s in the City and was nicknamed the Doctor’s Church because of neighbouring Rodney Street which houses all the consultants and doctors in the area. St Luke is the patron saint of surgeons, physicians, and artists - fitting even more now that Ambrose Reynolds, original member of Urban Strawberry Lunch, is artist in residence at the church building and runs regular events in the venue including art installations and film screenings.
“We see ourselves as kind of guardians of this church; protecting it, stopping it from falling down, we try and make it a little bit better every day. We do out best with the garden. Even the rain water we’ve collected in the crypt that goes into here - every problem is turned into a solution. That’s very much the way we work.”
St Luke’s was bombed on 5th May during the 1941 May Blitz in Liverpool in an attempt to shut the port city down; shutting down the ports effectively shuts down the country. Ambrose tells me that churches were targeted to demoralise the residents. Twelve other churches were bombed; six were demolished, six were rebuilt and St Luke’s was abandoned and left as it was - a roofless cavern with grass in place of tiles and trees growing where supporting pillars would be.
The beams, burned to a cinder, can still be spotted in parts of the structure - blackened and torn apart. It was the burning beams that caused the roof to cave in, not the impact of a bomb itself, which is why so much of the rest of the church remains standing.
In the original bell tower, right above our heads, a beam juts out from one wall and has hung there, precariously, for seventy-two years. Ambrose, with an insouciant attitude to health and safety laughs and eventually suggests we stand somewhere else, just in case.
St Luke’s was famous for its bells, especially how they were framed - the first metal bell frame in the world. The bells were named Peace and Good Neighbour and they first rang out on 23rd April 1831 (shortly thereafter the neighbours lodged a complaint for disturbance of the peace).
Today, the bells are replaced by recovered alloy wheels (which you can hear chime at the end of the recording at the beginning of the article).
There are parts lying around in the bell tower that are largely unrecognisable, relics propped up against a crumbling wall.
AR: “These are original beams and bits that we’ve found. I think this is a part of a chair. That’s part, I think, of the original clock mechanism. The clock stopped at three thirty in the morning, which is when it was bombed. The bells came tumbling down and cracked and they were taken away to Manchester and stored until the 50s/60s and then they were sold as scrap. Makes you sick, doesn’t it.”
As we walk back into the centre of the building Ambrose points out the art displayed in the long grass and as we come along a pathway to a pond decorated with flowers and painted tyres he explains how it was made in the 1970s by a job creation project, a project that he himself was involved in; his first encounter with the building he became so fascinated with.
AR: “This was put in the 1970s…they did the pathwork as well and we think it was the consecration stone that was originally here. We didn’t know there was a pond there for ages and realised it rained a lot and left a soggy mess there, we got young offenders in and they cleaned it out and it was full of human waste, junky needles, dead rats and clothes. It’s our reservoir as well because there’s no water - when the church was bombed the water main was bombed at the same time, it burned for seven days and nights. So we have no water right now and we haven’t had water for seventy-two years.”
Scattered around the building are very minute elements which have defied the odds to survive - in the very corners of the windows two angels painted on the glass remain despite the bomb, the fire, and the onslaught of stones children have thrown at them.
AR:"These windows in the middle, some of these were still intact when I was a boy in the 60s and 70s and one of my earliest memories is these lads who were throwing rocks through them - my mum would box their ears. And that’s kind of when I got a bit obsessed with the building."
So the windows were intact even after the bomb?
AR: “There were actual figures intact in the middle. I know the elderly gentleman who was the one who put in the last set of windows in the cathedral in the 80s; he was ‘Mr Stained Glass’ and he came in and it took him about an hour to get from the door to here and he said ‘decommission these windows’ and he wrapped them up in brown paper and string and took them off to Manchester where all things Scouse end up. So those windows are still somewhere. On some Russian millionaire’s yacht by now but they still exist. But he missed those two angels.”
Exploring the structure is fascinating, as it Ambrose’s dedication and struggle to keep the light of life burning there but today I’m here with the sole intention of exploring underneath the church, in the newly uncovered crypt, and to meet the man who unearthed it…
The Black Lion pub, on the corner of Chapel Street neighbours Blackfriars Bridge and has been in business since 1776.
The site is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the The Showmen’s Guild.
The Guild began life as the Van Dweller’s Protection Association in 1889 and protects the interests of travelling showmen who gain their livelihoods by attending funfairs. The incentive to set up the guild was in reaction to an evangelist by the name of George Smith. Smith believed his mission was to reform all members of the itinerant community in the United Kingdom, labelling them:
"Dregs of society that will one day put a stop to the work of civilisation, and bring to an end the advance in arts, law and commerce."
Of all the travelling showmen one of the most famous is Buffalo Bill and he and his ‘Congress of Rough Riders of the World Show’ once came to Salford.
Real name William Cody, Buffalo Bill toured his show in the United Kingdom to celebrate the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, putting on shows in London; Birmingham; and finally in Salford - choosing to remain here, on the banks of the River Irwell, for five months.
In honour of visit many of the roads of Salford were renamed, such as Cody Court, Sundance Court, Dakota Avenue, and Kansas Avenue.
During their stay a member of the show gave birth to a daughter, christened in Ordsall as Francis but her Indian name was Over the Sea. She was the first Native American born in Europe.
When the show returned to America at least two of the original cast did not. A man named Surrounded died in Hope Hospital and his body was said to have disappeared, the BBC had hoped to uncover it whilst digging the foundations for MediaCity but it’s most likely the body was transported to London and buried.
The other member who never left went by the name of Charging Thunder - he married a local girl and changed his name to George Edward Williams.
Williams worked as a cinema usher on Clewes Street for a spell before going on to work at Belle Vue Zoo taking care of the elephants. Apparently, when drunk Charging Thunder would head to the circus to sleep it off in the elephant enclosure.
His body is buried in West Gorton cemetery and he has two surviving grandchildren who still live in the area.
The Black Lion reopened in 2011 and Future Artists run regular film nights in the newly fitted cinema upstairs.
My third interview with the BBC - this time I’m there to argue the case for city living. Towards the end of the interview I talk a lot about Skyliner and the architecture of the city, as well my dismay at Manchester’s approach to heritage, and my love for Liverpool.
A small article originally published in Manchester Art Gallery’s Dreams Without Frontiers publication, curated by Dave Haslam. The theme is Sixties Utopia and my article is about the Piccadilly Hotel (now the Mercure)
What does Piccadilly Hotel mean to you? To George Best it’s hiding in a cleaner’s cupboard from Matt Busby. To the ears of the city its cantilevered form straddles the headquarters of Piccadilly Radio. It’s a hotel built only for cars. It’s the future suspended in the 60s.
Piccadilly Hotel (to eventually become the Mercure) has no ground floor pedestrian entrance - because this is the future and why walk when you have a car. A vast William Mitchell mural made of broken pianos spans four whole floors of the stairwell because art and architecture go hand-in-hand in the future.
William Mitchell constructing the mural
One face of the decade’s utopia is Simon Dee who filmed the end credits of his talk show Dee Time on the concrete car ramp of the hotel. In his convertible Jaguar, with a model on his arm, Dee spins down the concentrically-looping concrete ramp with the insouciance of a man with no troubles. And in the 60s he had none. Dee’s 60s were his dreams; no frontiers. From his beginnings in pirate radio his career spiralled ever onwards and his lifestyle became one of a playboy. His 60s are forever captured in a bell jar of parody by way of the film Austin Powers, based on Dee himself.
Dee Time closing credits
And as he hits the road and waves goodbye to the crowd at the foot of the ramp, upstairs Albert Finney (Charlie Bubbles, 1967) lays supine on a bed, outside Julie Christie strolls across the concrete mega-structure (Billy Liar, 1963), and everybody else? They turn a blind eye to the fact that the ceiling collapsed twice during the opening ceremony because this place, this hotel, is promised to be the greatest hotel in all of Europe.
Julie Christie, Billy Liar. City Tower in the background.
Manchester Art Gallery and Dave Haslam present Dreams Without Frontiers; a publication to accompany the current exhibition.
Skyliner contributed an article under the themes Sixties Utopia, focussing on Piccadilly Hotel. There are contributions from a range of wonderful people including Maureen Ward, Julie Campbell, Dan Russell, and Greg Thorpe. Greg is responsible for one of my favourite regular columns: Manchester in Residents, over on his blog Manhattanchester.
In 2012 the CIS tower celebrated it’s 50th year (as well as it being the international year of the Co-Op) and this year the new headquarters at Angel Place will open. In tribute and celebration Skyliner presents an exclusive look at the 1962 commemorative brochure.
Thank you to S.L. Scott for the beautiful artwork in the image above and to the Co-Operative for allowing reproduction of the brochure.
"The Directors of the C.I.S have pleasure in enclosing Commemorative Booklet of that great occasion on 22nd October, 1962, when H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T., so graciously opened the new building in the presence of a large number of guests from Home and Overseas.
It is hoped much pleasure will be derived from the contents of this souvenir booklet and that the typescript of what was said on that notable occasion will recall many happy memories.”
"New Head Office premises of the Co-operative Insurance Society Ltd, Miller Street, Manchester, England"
"To the applause of a large crowd that had gathered in Miller Street, Prince Philip, accompanied by Rt. Hon. The Earl of Derby, M.C., Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire, walks to entrance where he was greeted by Messrs. Wild and Dinnage, who accompanied him on his tour of the building."
"(Top right) The first visit is 60 feet below ground to the Control Room
The Crescent occupies part of a row of houses and opened as a licensed dining room in the 1860s.
The first pub in Greater Manchester to be granted a 24 hour drinking license, home of free chip barms and the pub in which Marx and Engels are said to have met and certainly considered it their favourite back when the pub was named The Red Dragon.
When developers tried to turn the venue into student accommodation a few years back, the regular customers campaigned against it and successfully sol the building was granted listed status and is now protected.
The surrounding of the pub are interesting also. Cross Lane to the rear is home to the The Buck Hotel where Buffalo Bill spent an evening drinking before punching his taxi driver in the face and thus revoking his freedom of the city award before it was even granted.
If you wander a little further past the pub you’ll find yourself in Fire Station Square. This site was home to Salford Fire Station and the firemen’s houses that surround it.
Aside from the striking architecture here it’s also the location of Salford’s smallest listed building in the form of the red telephone box. There are two left in Salford, the other being in Worsley.
The red telephone box is the most successful K6 model and was home to an art installation during 2013 titled 'Conversations We Wish We'd Had'.
The K6 was designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott who completed Battersea Power Station; the redesign of Tate Modern; and, at the age of 21 (with no experience), he won a competition to design Liverpool Cathedral as part of a larger team of five.
Scott died in 1960 and the cathedral was finished some 18 years later. He is now buried with his wife at the entrance to the cathedral and in his honour a K6 red telephone box stands at the site.
In the centre of Fire Station Square is a monument of a sphinx, unveiled in 1922 this is a war memorial in honour of The Lancashire Fusiliers.
The Working Class Movement Library is also situated close by at Jubilee House. The original library was at the home of founders Edmund and Ruth Frow, on Kings Road in Old Trafford.
Expecting an imminent change in our social system “that the country will be governed by those who produce the wealth, that there will be a need and a longing to know what preceded these changes”, the couple merged their book collection in 1953 and it continued to grow until it took over their home, lining the walls of every room except the kitchen and bathroom and spilling out into the garage.
Further along The Crescent is the site of Salford Art School where local artist Ken Reid studied.
Named Best Writer and Best Artist by The British Society of Strip Illustrators in 1978, he created the character of Rodger the Dodger for The Beano (for a time, The Beano and Dandy were actually printed just off Chapel Street by printing firm DC Thomson).
Ken was in the middle of illustrating a cartoon character by the name of Faceache when he suffered a fatal stroke. He is buried at Agecroft Cemetery where a plaque emblazoned with an image of his creation Fudge the Elf adorns the gravestone.
It’s hard to place City Tower, formerly Sunley Tower, in the brutalist pigeonhole these days. It’s a white beacon of modernism guiding you across China Town, a siren of the 60s beckoning you towards it from its podium behind the classical architecture of King Street. It’s the third tallest building in the city, and remains the highest commercial office space.
And set within its facade is a concrete tribute to the scientific achievements of the city, because look closely - those gable walls are a giant circuit board.
My latest article for the wonderful Now Then - the layout and naming convention of streets. Featuring a housing estate in Chorlton and a series of American grid-style streets in Trafford Park…
There’s a long-vacated wine shop in Chorlton, the exterior of which is flanked by two huge bay windows and the blue frames are that kind of salt-eroded, windswept pastel found only on British waterfronts and in polaroids. Traversing the suburban landscape that surrounds the wine shop the houses begin to take on the same seaside form, it’s subtle and difficult to pinpoint the exact similarities but they’re definitely there and that’s when you notice the street signs: Fairhaven, St Annes, Lytham, Cleveleys, and it’s quite serendipitous but there’s long winding road that wraps around this estate and it goes by the name of Sandy Lane - a tarmac beach. Were these houses designed to mirror the architecture of our seaside resorts or have the streets, like dogs that resemble their owners, taken on the characteristics of the towns they’re named after?
Le Corbusier famously outlined his plans for a new Paris in his manifesto The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. The streets that had grown from the paths of least resistance, those traced by meandering pack-donkeys during medieval times, were not efficient for modern man. To Le Corbusier the city was a mechanism and neither character nor exploration were necessary components of his well-oiled machine. The streets in his vision were laid out in meticulous order, exact geometry that suited and served the way of man, and not the way of the donkey. Manchester, like much of the UK, is part man and a whole lot of donkey. But not entirely. Some of the order found within the grid layout of new transatlantic cities, their blocks and their numerical naming convention, made it to Manchester.
In 1886 American owned Westinghouse Electrical Company built besides the Bridgewater Canal on what had been meadows up until the completion of the Manchester Ship Canal. Westinghouse pulled out all the stops to have his enormous factory built in record time along with a model village for his workers. He based his Trafford Park Village on the regimented blocks of America and provided four avenues and twelve streets of housing, small businesses and community centres. Today the streets have been altered somewhat but this grid layout still exists to some degree
New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road was the location of the BBC headquarters for the North-West of England from inauguration on 18 June 1976 until it was demolished during the final months of 2012. Today a small part of the entrance wall still remains, and the road it once straddled is lined with bollards bearing the BBC logo in place of the standard Manchester bee.
The art galleries of a city are larger in number than you first perceive if you look not only to the official institutions but to the galleries that are formed in the corridors of hotels and the stairwells of office blocks.
One particularly exhaustive collection in the city is that of The Midland Hotel’s Wyverne Restaurant. Here in the Wyverne (every Midland hotel has a Wyverne restaurant) is the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
Return of the Mancograph - Version 2 now available…
I suspect that many of Skyliner’s readers will also be familiar with the architectural sage that is Eddy Rhead. Eddy is on my dream line-up in my imaginary quiz team, admittedly the quiz that we’re playing is Strike It Lucky but my imagination is too full up with concrete and Portland stone to make room for anything more taxing.
Eddy’s latest venture is the beautiful Mancograph, we previously gave away a print of Mancograph V1 and now the second version is available to buy - but it’s of very limited stock so grab one quickly.
Recent news that Zhuzhou, China had built villas on the roof of a shopping mall sparked excitement across the world with the concept being labelled as the future of urban planning, however, this future had already been realised, in 1981, on top of Manchester’s Arndale Centre.
The Arndale Centre from above, circa 1980
Cromford Court, known to tenants as ‘the podium’, was a housing association venture by Manchester City Council. In all there were 60 flats on the rooftops of the Arndale Centre
Despite the obvious dereliction, beneath the surface Chapel Street is bustling. What it lacks in most everything you’d except from a city’s main throughfare, it makes up for with the vibrancy of its residents and visitors. On the face of things the street is barren but for the bricked up pubs and a constant stream of traffic; always passing through, and never stopping.
During the late 50s, to make way for redevelopment of the area, the facades of the independent businesses that stood here were saved and preserved as a sort of toy town. Named Lark Hill Place this ghost street
Last week I was asked to curate the Northern Spirit theatre company’s new project A Wondrous Place. The project is a collaborative piece from some of the best writers in the north of England and I am over the moon to have been chosen to be part of that. In the build up to a new show by Northern Spirit a collective of writers, whose own blogs and projects are fundamentally based upon a love for where they live, have come together to celebrate the north.
The theme for my week was Cottonopolis: A Skyline Reimagined, a journey through the skyline of Manchester with architect Joseph Sunlight as head of the city’s planning department. I cover proposals that the city denied and buildings we demolished, but with Sunlight at the helm approving these visions and denying demolitions. It’s a fictional account of actual plans and buildings and it’s Manchester as Cottonopolis - a Chicago-inspired, noir novel of a city.
From Lemn Sissay’s series of poems adorning the walls and pavements through to the classical Ford Madox Brown murals at the Town Hall, but what other artworks lie in wait of discovery throughout the city? What about off the streets and into the everyday; the negative spaces where you spend so much time? There is almost always art in these functional buildings, only it’s not usually very good. Offices and art seem to exist in parallel universes to each other, with the best attempts often as depressing as a faded, mass-produced watercolour in a crass gold frame, strip lit for added nausea.
In The Midland Hotel, in the Wyvern Room, the walls are lined with Eadweard Muybridge photographs. Muybridge was fascinated with the locomotion of animals and was a pioneer in his field, capturing what the human eye could not perceive as separate motions. British born, but working mainly in California, Muybridge killed his wife’s lover and Phillip Glass produced an opera based on the story.
The Castle Hotel was once home to a mural of the former landlady; Kath Smethurst. The mural was created by Mark Kennedy, a prolific mosaic artist in Manchester but aside from the artistic merit of the piece it was the material used that really set this apart – the grouting was made from Kath’s ashes. Kennedy has used the same method for his mosaic of Bernard Manning on the wall of Manning’s Embassy Club in Harpuhey.
(You can hear me talk to Documentally about The Castle’s macabre mosaic, and other Manchester curiosities, for Northern Quarter Stories here)
The Albert Hall and Aston Institute, built in 1910 by W J Morley, was home to the Manchester and Salford Wesleyan Mission, though today it stands empty awaiting renovation.
The ground floor was occupied as Brannigan’s bar for several years and many people have passed through these doors but did they realise just how ornate the building is, did they know about the organ one floor above that’s big enough for a dozen people to climb inside?
The building is vast, spread over four huge floors with the basement