Day out (continued):Manchester(part 2)
As well as attraction hopping, I also took two journeys to see more of the 'real' Manchester. A walk along an inner-city canal, and a tramride to the suburbs.
Rochdale Canal: Castlefield → Piccadilly [14 photos]
The industrialisation of Manchester played a key role in the development of canals in Britain. The Bridgewater Canal was arguably the country's first, opened in 1761 to transport coal into the town, but I'd not be walking that. The Manchester Ship Canal was once the world's widest, opened in 1893 to serve a thriving inland port, but I'd not be walking that either. Instead I chose to walk the first mile of a canal that threads through the centre of town, in some places a key real estate asset, in others almost entirely overlooked.
The Rochdale Canal starts at CastlefieldBasin, a once-bustling hub from which the Bridgewater Canal heads off in the opposite direction. Less pivotal today, it's surrounded by brick warehouses and brick trying-to-look-a-bit-like-warehouses, inside which Manchester's metrosexual dimension holds court. There are a lot of modern housing developments around here, because post-industrial land was available and because heritage sells, including one patch with the seemingly undesirable name of Potato Wharf. In London you'd find this sort of semi-highrise glass-panel stuff up the Regent's Canal or down the Lower Lea Valley, but in Manchester it's a lot more central.
Having tracked east beneath the railway, and through an opened-out tunnel, at Deansgate the canal provides the bottom slice of an entertainment sandwich. On top is the main tram route out of town, high on a viaduct in the shadow of the slablikeBeetham Tower, at 47 storeys the tallest building in the UK outside London. This being Manchester the architect gets to live in the penthouse, over 500 feet up, rather than some absentee overseas landlord, which is nice. And squeezed into the railway arches below is a sequence of trendy food and bar spaces, each with double decker terrace looking down across the water, where the smart casual set come for a lager, cocktail and chinwag on a Saturday evening. I felt quite underdressed, and also very much out on a limb being the one walking the towpath rather than reflecting above it.
The nature of the canal changes as it slips away from the main road between two banks of flats. Those on the right might look unremarkable, and architecturally they are, but a glance at the vandalproof panels facing the towpath confirms a much more exciting past as the fabled Haçienda nightclub. An annual tally of talent is punched into each grey metal sheet, from Bernard Manning's opening night jibe in 1982, via the Smiths, New Order and Happy Mondays, to the final DJ night in 1997. Nothing of the pill-popping paradise remains (other than the name), it was all demolished by a housing company a few years later to create the Haçienda Apartments, the party very much over.
What follows is a deep canyon, first between flats then unconverted warehouses. At first I passed knots of aspirational youth, but as the balconies died out round the bend I was surprised to find myself almost alone. The stretch of canal either side of Oxford Street is only rarely walked or jogged, it seems, and my only company was a pair of lads drinking cheap beer on a metal barge who seemed surprised I'd disturbed their bacchanal. I'd passed five locks already, with a sixth and seventh imminent and an eighth and ninth to come, which may explain the paucity of boats passing through. The Rochdale Canal is scenic but demanding in terms of effort, and we're not yet anywhere near the scenic bit.
Before long the towpath heads into private territory, then gives out altogether, forcing a return to street level to continue. What follows are three of the most famous blocks in the city, namely Canal Street, the heart of Manchester's gay village. A series of pubs and bars face the open water across a strip of cobbles, some frontages festooned with rainbow flags, others advertising drag-hosted evenings with cheap booze. I was expecting the street to be busier on a Saturday evening, but maybe seven o'clock is still too early, or maybe everyone was rammed inside The Rembrandt blaring out Girls Just Want To Have Fun at the tops of their voices.
Beyond the last pink door the towpath returns, at quite low level, then vanishes inside a low-arched tunnel. It looked a bit dark ahead, but it was the official signed towpath so I assumed it couldn't be that scary and marched inside. All seemed empty, until I came upon a dishevelled man drinking by the water's edge, and another man pissing up against the wall, and two more in the recessed gloom where the canal opened out into a low basin. No I don't have a light, I said, and sped up to exit the chamber unscathed, then dashed up some steps back to the main road. I doubt that many people walking away from Manchester Piccadilly station realise there's a canal and fully working lock beneath their feet, let alone a cavern where drunkards swig and Canal Street regulars cruise... well, not unless they read thepapers.
A quick trip on a yellow tram takes you from Piccadilly to almost the edge of the city. Or at least the last bit's quick, streaking through the suburbs past not-quite looked-after houses and prim semis, past sportscapped boys monkeying on the platforms, to a concrete halt. Emerging with the locals and crossing the street past the Prestwich Balti, the entrance to Heaton Park lies immediately ahead. It's huge, at 600 acres the largest municipal park in the country, and almost a neighbourhood in itself (if you're a donkey, alpaca or squirrel). Part is fenced off for livestock, part is woodland, part is a golf course, and the main central section rises to a low grassy peak. Up here on the highest point in town is Heaton Hall, a neo-classical pile built for Lord Wilton in 1789, and whose estate escaped being paved over to create parkland instead. The hall is undergoing renovation but will now occasionally be open for booked tours, from this month onwards. Also not open on my visit was the heritage tramway round the boating lake, which is Sundays only, which was a shame because I'm told it's great fun. But then I'd turned up in a hailstorm, proper stereotypical Manchester weather, and the park was barely occupied. The fairground by the Papal Field struggled on with maybe four punters, an ice cream van near the summit gave up hope and drove away, and when I looked to the horizon I could see snow on a hump of moorland to the northeast. It's got a bit of everything, Heaton Park, including the crumbling remains of the front of Manchester's old Town Hall, and even a tunnel underneath because the Lord didn't want new-fangled railways despoiling his land. He was right too, it's a highly agreeable amenity.