An Alternative Guide to Manchester - Part 1 Oxford Road
An alternative guide to Manchester's street art, unusual sights, old street signs, places to sit, and things to do off the tourist trail.
No bars. No venues. Just places to sit. Things to see. Facts you'll want to share with others.
This guide is aimed at those who like to explore, take photos, learn a little, and for visitors who want to see places not on the tourist trail. This is about the real city and some of that might be dirty; it might sound disparaging in parts; it might make you wonder what the hell kind of awful person would write a guide to the 'dirtiest bits of the canals', but be assured this is all because I love the city and encourage you to explore beyond the shopping districts and bars - maybe then some of those areas will improve, in time. Maybe not. But along the way you'll see things that might interest you - an old gas lamp post, an old fire alarm bell, a plug socket on a bridge. If, that is, you find weird useless crap interesting.
As W H Whyte said "the human backside is a dimension architects seem to have forgotten", and you won't find many social spaces along this end of Oxford Road until you get to All Saints Park, aside from the steps outside the railway station which are adequate enough although you are effectively sitting on a roundabout ringed in by taxi drivers that are dropping people off at the station. A plus point of sitting here is that the station employs cats to keep the rats under control; only one of them is still alive and he's seldom seen but sit here long enough and you might spot him. If you're looking for somewhere sheltered from the rain, or a bit more secluded then head to the third floor of the Palace Hotel to your own private picnic area - a balcony area for patrons that's woefully underused. I normally bring some wine and my headphones and sit here of an evening staring at the weird band stand/observatory-looking structure on the roof. I mean really, what is that thing? Please go and check this place out so you can at least tell me what it is and why there's a door in the roof of it.
The balcony itself doesn't capture the sun as is under an awning but you can sit directly beneath the clock tower, and if you visit at dusk you'll see tiny bats looping circles around the central atrium catching bugs. Look for the bees on the clock face above you - the symbol of Manchester. If you want to go all meta on your bad self then watch the end scenes of the 1959 film noir Hell is a City whilst you're up there, in which Stanley Baker is pursued along the rooftops as Oxford Road station and its glorious wooden sail roof is in the process of being built below him. You're lucky I've shared this place with you. It's my oasis. (My own private idle home..? Tenuous, I know.)
Whilst you're in the area take a look at the street art on New Wakefield Street, a rotating selection of paintings curated by Eurocultured and some of the largest scale street art in the city. There's also the chance here to see the River Medlock - don't get too excited mind you, but the impenetrable bridge on the Palace Hotel side has had two sheets of metal replaced with perspex as part of an arts project from the 90s attempting to uncover the river we've hidden for over a century.
There's a great doorway along here too - the former entrance of the J&J Shaw furniture warehouse from 1924 - blue and green ceramic tiles and bunches of fruit on each corner. Also in the area is a Space Invader mosaic on the bridge, and one of the few remaining streets on this side of the railway tracks of the Victorian slum area known as Little Ireland. The street has some interesting features - you'll find an old subway sign and staircase that leads you down this cobbled street that seems a lovely relic of a subway passage to the station; but it's actually a sign for a nightclub that no longer exists; it's pointless now but it's a good sign.
At the back of rockers pub Grand Central there's an old rotting windowsill which protrudes from a brick wall despite there no longer being a window above it: "So you want us to rip out the whole window mate?", "Nah, leave the windowsill sticking out will you?". There's some iron rings attached to the floor outside; some kind of horse vs coal trap docking device I assume (the building dates from at least 1849 and was briefly housing), as well as a wonderful 'No Loitering' sign where I encourage you to loiter to your hearts content, especially since this part of town is in danger of being redeveloped within the next five years. When David Bowie sang "We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot. We've got five years, that's all we got", well that sadness you can hear in his voice? That's because he's gutted he's only got five years left of loitering around the back of the Grand Central. Engels said something about this part of town too; it's not as important. Lingering on in Little Ireland for a moment, can we just take a minute to think about what the neighbouring Salisbury pub was known as back then...Tulloghgorum Vaults. Has there ever been a better pub name? Although the renaming of the Grand Central over the years has had its highlights too, from The Shady Lady to the Beef & Barley: A Schooner Inn. I ask you, what other pub has a name formatted like a modern horror movie sequel? If you want to see a really old relic of Little Ireland then hunt out Frank Street a few minutes from here, an original wooden street sign remains and is just about still readable. You can come back via the glorious technicolour Hotspur House where you'll not only be treated to another view of the Medlock, a particularly ugly part of it, and pass the Macintosh Mills (home of the rain mac) but you will be in ye old street sign heaven as you'll pass one denoting the 'Border of the towneship of Manchester'.
I rather enjoy the blur of street names around here. Oxford Street and Oxford Road - where does one start and the other begin? Does Oxford Road station ACTUALLY lie entirely on Oxford Street? Yes, yes it does. Oxford Street Station is how I'll refer to it henceforth, or maybe even 'Drive' - Oxford Drive Cul-de-Sac No Through Road Station. I might even put up a new sign, why not - everyone else around here has.
It's around this part of the city where you can visit the dirtiest least desirable part of the canal, for a good while at least. Whilst there might not seem any reason to want to do such a thing you may just be treated to a chance encounter with the meanest looking heron you've ever seen - sometimes he strolls around back of The Ritz with a kind of James Dean swagger about him, other times he sits in the grimiest corner he can find and acts as Guardian of the Underworld. If he's not in residence when you visit then it's still worthwhile checking out this part of the canal anyway - take a look at the facade of St James's Building on Oxford Street before you do, then head beneath it. The canal will lead you right under the road and St James's where it becomes clear that the rear of the structure is the no knickers equivalent to the fur coat facade. This is the case with many Manchester structures from a time when we not only needed to flood the buildings with natural light to help factory workers see what they were doing but from when we collectively decided to con people into thinking we were richer than we were - much like modern day Dubai.
The back of St James's is still great though and it's clear from this position that it's built on a steel frame - one of the first in the country to do so. It was built the same year as Liverpool's Royal Liver Building and I'm not definitely saying the architect peeked at his mate's designs but he probably did. When it opened a great hoo-hah was made about the fact it had 1,000 rooms and a mile of corridors. In the 60s people who worked here who didn't want to bother queuing to get into Jimmy Saville's lunch time disco at the Plaza used to roller skate on the roof instead. If you find yourself in the area and in urgent need of stashing a stolen work of art or sending your amnesiac future self a secure message there's an old safety deposit box secure room still operating on the ground floor.
"But what about all the bits of broken pipes?" Ah yes. There's a couple of relics on this stretch of the canal that hark back to Victorian Manchester - there's the lagging which held in place the pipes used to carry steam across the city to the venues using hydraulic power to power lifts; early forms of air conditioning; and to raise theatre curtains. On the opposite tow path, standing proud against the backdrop of St James's, there's a faded old post painted in seaside blue and green. The pipe could well be a lamp post, but the top's missing and I've convinced myself over the years that it is in fact a Victorian Stink Pipe. The pipes vented the sewers to burn off the smell and they were often overly ornate, with some other examples I've found painted the same blue and green. The stink pipe of Lock 98: it's not mentioned in many guides; we don't like to brag.
It's the Mancunian Way
If you head out of town towards the universities you can check out the Mancunian Way slip road to nowhere - it's some 20 feet in the air where this unfinished part of the city centre motorway abruptly comes to a halt. If they had finished the route it would have connected the wrong way on a one way street; it was confusingly constructed at the same time and at the same height as a network of pedestrian highways in the sky aimed to keep people and traffic on different levels from each other; its series of subways on the edge of town have a total lack of signs or directions, and it sits almost perfectly on top of a fault line (spot the rulers high up on the pillars that measure any movement) - but let's not judge the road because the road never judges us, and after all it DID win the 1968 Concrete Society Award.
If you've made it this far then you'd be literally bonkers, LITERALLY, to not go and check out the most dystopian looking Christ you'll ever see. St Augustine's church has the same kind of vibe going on as that stark futuristic crematorium from Scrooged. The 1968 'Christ in Glory' ceramic relief is by Robert Brumby and there's some modernist stained glass by Pierre Fourmaintraux - both of whom are kind of a big deal. There's also some art that's made from the melted chalices of the former church when it was destroyed by a bomb in 1941. This church is rarely busy so is a great place to come to privately rehearse the Scrooged scene where Bill Murray batters his fists and kicks and screams for help as he's wheeled into the furnace, or just to sit down and admire one of the coolest bits of art in the city.