Skyliner is on the look out for venues in Manchester city centre to take part in an installation in March next year. We are looking for buildings that fit in with the Skyliner ethos of unusual architecture or history and owners who’d be happy for us to write on one of their windows.
If you’d be interested in taking part in this event that will celebrate the history and architecture of the the city, or know someone who might, drop us an email for more details at: email@example.com
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.
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.
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
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.
Sorry for the quantity of updates to actual articles this last month but I promise to spoil you with some new articles in the coming weeks. In the meantime here’s another project I’ve been working on that I’d love you all to take part in.
After a while even the most awesome print can start to become, well, a part of the furniture so why not change it for something else.
So what’s the score? On October 13th, as part of the Spoon Inn’s art programme for the Barlow Moor Road Parade Festival, visit the arts room; take a look at the prints on offer; chose what you want; pay £1 and swap it with a print that you’re ready to part with. That’s it.
Remember to play fair, no trying to swap a doodle on the back of a beer mat for a work of art.
And a swap’s no good if there’s nothing there to swap it with so before all you cultured lot arrive we’ll kick the day off with a collection of donated prints from some really exciting artists…
There’s also going to be live window art from the amazing Amy Tidmarsh, art workshops for children and live music and DJs all day.
More details are over on the venue’s Facebook page, and the day is part of an ongoing arts programme that Skyliner will be curating along with the venue.
Skyliner has been interviewed for the In Residents section of Manhattanchester. This is my favourite regular read so I’m really happy to have been asked to take part - do take a look through the previous interviews too, they’re always a joy to read.
Exciting news - Skyliner’s astronomy Field Trip is on the line up for this year’s Manchester Science Festival, and it’s already selling quickly. Come and explore Godlee Observatory with us.
Explore the wonder of science at this year’s Manchester Science Festival with eleven days of events inviting you to come out and play, create and experiment with science.
Manchester Science Festival is proudly produced by MOSI
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