Manchester is not the rainiest city in Britain. This myth-shattering observation came to me on a sunny morning at the top of the city’s Big Wheel. A weekend of clement weather seemed to be undermining the Mancunian reputation for precipitation.
The Big Wheel is just one of the innovations I encountered while returning to Manchester after a ten-year gap. Suspended 180 feet above the ground, I spotted plenty of additions to the landscape. Among them was Urbis, a 21st century crystal palace. Urbis celebrates all things metropolitan, with über-cool exhibitions on fashion, photography, and graphic art. At the same time, the building makes an exhibition of itself. The sleek curves and angles of this vision in peppermint clearly trumpet the city’s cutting edge credentials.
But while Manchester might be proclaiming its faith in the future, the city hasn’t been neglecting its past. Funded by a 19th century cotton king, the John Rylands Library is an uplifting homage to the written word. Its world class collection includes the oldest known fragment of the New Testament, a Gutenberg bible, and the personal papers of John Wesley and Elizabeth Gaskell. Equally absorbing is the exhibition tracing the Library’s history. Rylands’ widow, a formidable Cuban, took the entire project into her own hands, ensuring that both his memory and Manchester’s citizens would be well served. The newly restored reading room is gloriously gothic, a literary cathedral bathed in the dappled light of heavenly stained glass.
Nearby, St Mary’s Catholic Church has art and soul of its own. Norman Adams’ modernistic Stations of the Cross are in striking contrast to the classical altar carvings. Not for nothing is St Mary’s known as Manchester’s hidden gem.
A short tram ride from the city centre, on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North is impressive outside and engrossing inside. The museum doesn’t shrink from addressing the awkward aspects of history, such as a ludicrous promotional film from the 1980s on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The visitors’ book testifies to this museum’s appeal for all ages. As one youngster put it: “This place is rad.”
Across the dock, the steel-clad Lowry Centre is a shrine to local hero, artist Laurence Stephen Lowry. His famous matchstick men are here, of course, but the galleries show the full breadth of his versatility. One especially nice touch is the inclusion of comments about the paintings by celebrities and local schoolchildren.