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Travel Review: Mantastic Manchester

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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.

There’s also a biographical film showing Lowry at work in the 1960s. He was often perceived as a gifted amateur, and during the film he grumbles that it was often forgotten that he went to art school. “If I’m a Sunday painter, then I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week.”

During my visit, the Lowry Centre was also showcasing the work of other artists, including Dame Laura Knight’s theatre and ballet paintings, and the video art of John Wood and Paul Harrison. These were especially distracting. One showed a single sheet of paper being kept upright by a desk fan either side of it, while another had a photocopier churning out page after page, each showing a toy boat slowly making its way across the horizon.

Back in the city, I de-trammed at St Peter’s Square. It might lack the Michelangelo touch, but the Roman influence is clear from the Pantheon-inspired Central Library. After admiring the lovely round reading room, I headed downstairs to the Library Theatre for an enjoyable Alan Ayckbourn comedy.

Later, I joined drama queens of a different stripe who were strutting their stuff on Canal Street. Manchester’s gay village is an all-inclusive and lively quarter with a Continental flavour. And if you miss a hen party careering down the street, don’t worry. There’ll be another one along in a minute.

This part of town is also chow central, with everything from fast food to posh nosh. For truly delicious Punjabi cuisine, I can strongly recommend EastZEast. And for the best Cantonese this side of Beijing, it has to be the Yang Sing.

After a late night on the town, I blessed the central location of my hotel. My home away from home in Manchester was the Britannia Hotel. This grand old lady's elegant facade belies its former existence as a 19th century textiles warehouse. But as industrial Manchester was trying to give off an air of refinement, the architect designed the building in three styles – French Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Italian Renaissance, a technique better known as "showing off". Inside, the foyer is dominated by the grandest of staircases and a chandelier straight out of Phantom of the Opera.

The Britannia’s rooms are comfortable enough, but the big office block overlooking the Britannia really appears a bit too close for comfort. At breakfast, I heard one man say that when he opened his bedroom curtains, the woman at the computer got a nice surprise. His co-worker responded: "Yes, but was she smiling or laughing?"

Of course, if money were no object, I'd have stayed at The Midland Hotel, residence of choice for the great and the good. And the bad too, it seems. Apparently, Hitler excused The Midland from bombing raids because he planned to make it his North of England Reich Headquarters.

He never made it, of course, but one famous name who did was Laurence Olivier, who stayed there while making Brideshead Revisited. One night, the fire alarm went off, and after Sir Larry had failed to appear, a hapless hotel functionary was despatched to his room. "Sir Laurence, I'm afraid there appears to be a fire", he gasped, after climbing seven flights of stairs. Olivier, still in his dressing gown, responded with aplomb: "Oh really? Well, do let me know if there's anything I can do." And shut the door in the flustered flunky's face.

Just when I thought I had Manchester all sewn up, who should I stumble across but Abraham Lincoln. And in Lincoln Square, if you please. To be honest, I think he was more surprised to see me, but he maintained a dignified silence on the matter. His petrified presence is all thanks to the Lancashire cotton workers who, at great sacrifice to themselves, supported his fight against slavery. On the plinth, a letter from Lincoln, written in 1863, is reproduced:

… I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom. I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.

They just don't write them like that any more.

It seems that I’d hardly arrived before I had to head back to Piccadilly railway station for the train home. Manchester more than exceeded my expectations, and I’ve no hesitation in recommending it for an enjoyable city break.

As for the notion that Manchester suffers more downpours than anywhere else does? From my experience, it just doesn’t hold water.

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