Manchester, UK: City of Change

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

Manchester Corn Exchange

Manchester, in the United Kingdom, was the first industrialized city in the world, born of cotton. It was here that the Industrial Revolution took hold, and Manchester was the most productive center for cotton processing in the world. Later it was the world’s largest marketplace for cotton. During the Victorian era it was dubbed “Cottonopolis.”

Times have changed. Now this metropolitan area of nearly half a million people, one of the largest urban areas in the United Kingdom outside of London and Edinburgh, is associated with its interesting architecture, culture, music scene, and scientific and engineering endeavors. And its sports teams such as the Manchester United Football Club, the world’s most famous soccer team, is a constant reminder that Manchester is a highly diversified city, and is looking to the future.

Over the years, the city has reinvented itself from a technological standpoint, but remaining are many of the old historic buildings that attract thousands of tourists each year.

An example is the iconic four-star Midland Hotel on Peter Street, overlooking St. Peter’s Square. This impressive building, built in 1903 by the Midland Railway to serve Manchester Central railway station, stands right in the heart of Manchester city center. Over the course of its 100-year-old history, the hotel has played host to kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and rock stars, including Winston Churchill, Princess Margaret, the Duchess of York, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and Jeremy Brett (who played Sherlock Holmes), as well as the Sultan of Zanzibar, who arrived with an entourage of 60 people.

It’s in this 312-room hotel that Charles Rolls met Henry Royce in 1904 to form Rolls Royce. The French Restaurant in the hotel is one of the most important restaurants in the city, and also where a number of films have been shot.

Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, located at the site of the oldest surviving railway station in the world, is a family-friendly museum with lots to offer. The museum features everything from the first steam-powered mill and to the microcomputer, with lots of hands-on exhibits. There’s a large collection of vintage vehicles and historic working machinery, especially since the Industrial Revolution started in Manchester. You can even take a train ride behind a replica steam locomotive.

The John Rylands Library is less a library in the usual sense and more of a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture: it looks more like a castle or cathedral. Rylands, who died in 1888, was one of Manchester’s most successful industrialists and had a large fortune. This world class collection includes the oldest known piece of the New Testament, the St. John Fragment. Other treasures here include illuminated medieval manuscripts and a 1476 William Caxton edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley Street has one of the country’s finest art collections in spectacular Victorian and contemporary surroundings. The gallery’s recent $53 million transformation has enabled the collection to be presented to visitors in new ways. Highlights include outstanding pre-Raphaelite paintings, craft and design, and early 20th century British art. Exhibits are always changing, but I saw a display of French and British Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, along with some splendid Victorian paintings.

The Gothic-style Manchester Cathedral, in the center of the city and built between 1441-1882, is a medieval church occupied by the Bishop of Manchester. Its official name is the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George in Manchester. It was extensively refaced, restored and extended in the Victorian period, and then again following severe bomb damage in the 20th century; it contains many precious artifacts.

A guided tour of Manchester Town Hall is an activity worth doing while here. The hall was designed in Victorian Gothic style by Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1877. Among its treasures are the Ford Maddox Brown murals which are a monument to the ideas of Victorian Manchester, portraying the science, invention, education, trade and textile industry. Among the impressive rooms is the Sculpture Hall, containing statues of notable Manchester figures from the past, and the Great Hall, featuring a glazed skylight inscribed with the names of every mayor, lord mayor and chair of the town council since 1838. Be sure you see the mosaic pattern of bees on the floor outside the Great Hall. The bee symbolizes Manchester’s industry and is featured on the city’s coat of arms.

After dark, try out one of Manchester’s “real ale” pubs, or check out Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club, a nightclub where you can hear great jazz from some of the best performers, including Wynton Marsalis. Other clubs include Band on the Wall and Night and Day.

For food, try the Damson, a neighborhood restaurant in Heaton Moor, the relaxed San Carlo Cicchetti’s with delicious small dishes, and the French brasserie called Aubaine, on the top floor of Selfridges, which also offers a great view of Manchester.

Selfridges Department Store, Manchester

The Romans were known to inhabit the area around Manchester as early as 79 A.D., and the 19th century cotton trade brought great change to this city. Now with new glass buildings and a new development in the northern downtown core where the Industrial Revolution first took root, Manchester keeps re-inventing itself. Visitors will enjoy the mixing of old and new into a masterful blend.

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