An Alternative Guide to Manchester - Part II St Ann's & Albert Square
All around this central part of town is more traditional sightseeing to be had but there's some nice seating and quite a lot of good gargoyle action. So don't discount it.
St Ann's Square
The top activities in any one social space are sitting down and people watching, and not only is The Royal Exchange a great place to do both of those things but it's probably home to the theatre most resembling a UFO. There's a cafe and a bar area, and seating scattered around the entrance to the theatre where you'll likely notice a slightly uneasy looking flow of people who come in here to sit down without buying drinks and wonder if they're actually allowed to be in there or not. If you've been unfortunate enough to get caught up in the slipstream along Market Street then you can find immediate relief in the giant, quiet hug that is the Royal Exchange. High up on one wall you can check out the frozen trade prices still on display from the last day of trading in what was once the largest trade room in the world. Although you probably should buy a drink you can choose instead to recreate some of the rush of urban exploration by not doing so, and joining the perpetually unsure non-patrons who come here to have a nice sit down, or to shelter from the elements, and in the past have included the likes of comedian Frank Sidebottom who once said that the Royal Exchange was his "favourite umbrella".
St Ann's Square is littered with obstacles in the form of street furniture. Either they're to prevent you pulling handbrake turns outside McDonalds in your stolen car, or they're encouraging impromptu hurdling but whichever, you'll probably want to stand still when checking out the sights around here or you'll be tripped up by countless concrete booby traps. Ignoring the cotton bud fountain in the centre of the square, unless you're big on rubbish public art or celebrating riches made from slavery, look for the most garish building in Manchester - the pink and gold facade of Barclay's Bank. It's gross. It will give your migraine a migraine. It's like a period drama set - peer inside and you'll probably spot the staff adjusting their powdered wigs and reapplying their beauty spots. Now look at the white building this joins on to and for the carving of an evil ram looking down on you from above the entrance.
The company who originally used the offices were a shipping firm operating between between here and New Orleans at pretty much the height of vampiric rule (according to Interview with a Vampire) so don't try and tell me he's not the devil incarnate, or that Interview with a Vampire isn't a documentary. You could try and tell me it symbolises the cattle that they traded in but I'd just assume you were one of his minions. The sculptor having perhaps looked at a fish once also included two 'dolphins' at the base of the boat upon which the ram's head acts as a mast. A critic once called this sculpture 'an elegant lady-like strip'. Nope. No comment.
Now if you walk past the evil ram you'll pass Half Moon Street which is second only in great moon related street names of Manchester to Moon Grove in Rusholme. (Which is like the time my Spanish friend told me I was her best, and only, English friend. It still counts. I'm still the best one.) Continue over Cross Street and you'll find yourself in a meandering alleyway. There's not much to see on Back Pool Fold, except a load of bins and chefs sitting on the stoop smoking, however walk down it anyway.
This ginnel/alley/entry/bap/barmcake/roll is the same drunken route it always was since it was a little road around a pond that appeared on maps over 300 years ago. Le Corbusier calls these winding old layouts "the way of the pack-donkey" as man would never purposefully plan a road so convoluted. A tour guide once told me that Back Pool Fold was prime devil-spotting territory back when the devil used to spend his weekends off pranking Victorians by appearing in the guise of a goat that could walk vertically up walls (and that's close enough to a ram for me, thank you).
Now back in St Ann's Square there's some more Manchester bees, some of the biggest you'll find, and next to them is Barton Arcade. The arcade's front is on Deansgate yet it's this view where you really get to appreciate it - the first and only remaining glass arcade in the city. It's mega. Important History Lesson: In 1871 when it first opened there used to be a shop unit that exclusively sold Bakewell tarts.
St Ann's Church
Whilst doing the ordinary tourist stuff like checking out the (De) Quincey family grave - you can pop inside the church and ask to see what's in the safe. They might not show you. You might not find anyone to ask. If you're in luck though they'll bring out the little wooden box that houses an unexploded bomb found on the roof in the 60s. Outside on a corner stone there's a geographical marker showing height above sea level, and you're actually now stood at the geographical heart of the city. At least it used to be. From here you can get as far as Peter Street using a series of alleyways, the warp to the city's weft, this is a fine way to get from A to B without encountering other people.
One such alleyway is Boardman's Entry and is lined with metal umbrellas. I'm not sure if anyone's ever told you guys but sometimes it rains in Manchester. I wonder do the eight other rainier UK cities mention their rain as much as we do? Is the use of rain in a conversation exponential to the amount of rainfall? I wonder how the eight other rainier cities get through a coherent sentence if that's the case.
(That's eight other rainier cities, not sure if you caught that. Eight other.)
Before you hit Boardman's Entry you'll briefly emerge, from the passageway behind St Ann's Church, on to King Street. King Street's great, especially the part of the street rising up to your left. Look at all those bloody great buildings. Don't look at that black one on the left there, ignore that one, we made a mistake, we're sorry. (We really did. The architect designed the permanently black building to blend in with its smoggy neighbours, not imagining that they would ever be cleaned up and restored to their shiny white selves. Of course, they were. I mean come on now, OF COURSE THEY WERE!). Look specifically for the gold beehive above the doorway near Diesel and the wolf climbing the reform club. There's some really nice sculptures and gargoyles all along this street. On the roof of Ship Canal House there used to be a little house where the caretaker lived with his wife.
Albert Square and Brazennose
If you're sticking with the alleyways then you'll pass through Boardman's and Dalton before emerging onto a lovely quirk of a street called Tasle Alley. Now you're directly behind a beautifully curved building that looks like a turret, if you approach it from the right direction - the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Building. No one really seems to talk about this flatiron-styled building, but from directly opposite it you'll see how much of a babe he is (it has to be a he; it's kind of phallic), and aside from the former Martin's Banks dotted around the city this is one of the few buildings to sport a Liver bird. Like the Bat Signal to Batman this Liver bird draws visiting Scousers mindlessly towards it; many's the time staff working in the building have been Scoused In - unable to leave their offices due to the build up of Liverpudlians crowding the entrance and climbing the walls eager to rub the bird's beak and level up. You can't see the building or the bird from Tasle Alley so you'll have to take a detour to Albert Square to be able to get the best viewpoint.
You'll know when you hit Albert Square because of the great gothic Town Hall - jeepers, that's a bit of alright, isn't it? Outside on Albert Square you'll mostly find people sitting down and looking at the statues thinking "Who the fuck are all these guys?", and the questionable statues don't stop here. But we'll get to that shortly.
Head back down Tasle Alley and take a look at the iron curbs. These were to bear the load of the cotton carts that made ordinary curbs collapse. I'm under the impression we're the only city to have them, or at least to still have them. The curbs aren't the only anomaly on Tasle Alley, oh no. There's some kind of sub station to your left, half way down, and the roof of it is jam packed with reeds. No one seems to know if they were planted or appeared naturally but high and dry on the little rooftop are some very confused plants. There's an old ghost sign opposite, and then you can take a left down Mulberry Passage. When you emerge the 'Hidden Gem' church is on your right, inside are a series of paintings of the stations of the cross by Norman Adams - former professor of painting at the Royal Academy Schools.
Now you're almost on Brazennose Street. Here you'll likely emerge opposite the Lincoln statue which is in fact on Lincoln Square, which is in fact on Brazennose Street, which is in fact on Lincoln Square...you get the idea. It's seemingly both places at once. The statue is rumoured to have been stolen in transit to London, although officially we have him because of our links with slavery abolition.
You might have noticed this pedestrianised street-cum-square has a total absence of joy, it's really brown and foreboding and there's a tiny car park jutting out onto the pedestrianised area. I don't think you're grasping how brown it is though. It's 80s brown. It's a bit like Brookside Close without any of the green grassy bits, or black tarmac bits, or mostly beige human bits. Look at the Chinese restaurant - there's a covered over area running alongside it that's clearly built in tribute to Brookside Parade. I think there's probably a statue of Sinbad somewhere around here too. As much as this square gives me bad nostalgia vibes there's trees and there's seating which is an achievement greater than many others in the city.
Now you're here take a look at that Princess Diana memorial...that's ok, I'll give you half an hour to find it. Basically, Brazennose Street is where bad plaques and sculptures line up to enter purgatory, if you don't believe me walk as far as Chopin at the Deansgate end. Hmm, let me just take a look at that figure there....oh that's...it's...I don't....WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING? WHAT'S WRONG WITH HIS FINGERS?! MY EYES!