From the Quays of Cottonopolis to Media City
Dozens of ships unload their cargo onto the docks, some of it bound for nearby warehouses, some straight for the local mills and factories. Passengers board liners to cross the Atlantic, chattering excitedly ahead of the long journey. A hundred years ago, it’s a sight that would have been familiar in many of Britain’s famous ports: Portsmouth, Liverpool, Dover or Grangemouth.
But this was Manchester. Yes, Manchester.
Despite lying nearly 40 miles from the Irish Sea, Manchester was once a bustling seaport. The population of the city grew six-fold during the 19th century, becoming so wealthy from the textile trade that it was known as Cottonopolis. Cotton was imported from the US and India, woven into fabric in the many mills around the city, then sold on or exported to the Empire and North America. It was a profitable trade and Manchester’s businessmen were used to making money—lots of it.
But the Mancunians didn’t have everything their own way. Dues owed to the Port of Liverpool and high fees charged by the Liverpool-Manchester Railway ate into their profits. The response of the Manchester businessmen was bold: They decided to build a canal. Not one of the narrow, quaint canals built for barges that became obsolete with the coming of the steam train, this was a canal that post-dated the railways, capable of carrying ocean-going ships directly from the Mersey Estuary to Manchester, bypassing Liverpool Docks and the railway completely.
Opened in 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal carried millions of tons of cargo to the newly created Port of Manchester. Nine docks at the far end of the canal helped Manchester become the third-busiest port in Britain, reaching peak activity in 1958 with some 18 million tons of freight being loaded and unloaded.
The businessmen of Manchester may have dreamed big when they built the canal, but they did not dream big enough. Come the 1960s and the containerization of sea trade, which allowed vast cargo ships to voyage across the globe, the Manchester Ship Canal found itself not big enough to carry the new container ships. So began a steady decline until Manchester’s docks closed in 1982.
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True, the Port of Manchester is no longer as busy with ships as it once was, but it is still thriving. The redundant land was purchased by the council in 1983, and the next few years were spent preparing for major redevelopment: tidying, landscaping, building roads and bridges to link the various docks. A new generation of Manchester business owners had their own vision for the area, now known as The Quays.
The first landmark building to rise from the industrial ashes was The Lowry theater, named for L.S. Lowry, Manchester’s most famous artist, who was born just a mile from the building that now bears his name. First opening its doors to patrons in 2000, The Lowry was the project that escorted The Quays into the 21st century.
The Lowry has an impressive calendar of events. The main stage, the biggest outside London, hosts touring West End shows and the best theater groups in the North, while two smaller arenas house other shows and performances. Theatergoers can step outside the door and straight into the Lowry Mall, conveniently close and stuffed with places to eat and drink before the show.
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Even if you aren’t able to catch a performance, The Lowry is still worth a visit. A permanent exhibition of L.S. Lowry’s work is displayed in the galleries in the theater building. Time your visit for one of the two daily talks to hear more about Lowry’s famous mill and industrial paintings, his limited palette (he used only five colors) and his life in Greater Manchester.
Lowry’s Manchester was that of the Ship Canal and the docks, and his paintings capture the urban scenes he would have seen as he tramped the streets as a rent collector during the interwar years. How different his paintings might look if he were to walk The Quays now.
Cross the old railway swing bridge outside the theater to be whisked into MediaCityUK, the flash new complex that is making Manchester a hub of British broadcasting. Lowry would not have recognized this modern cityscape of tall, glass-fronted offices and studios.
The BBC moved to Manchester in 2011, sparking a new phase of redevelopment in The Quays. The television and radio studios produce many programs, including staples of the British day such as BBC Breakfast and Match of the Day. Journalists can be seen through the glass, hard at work, but to get the best glimpse behind the camera, take one of the BBC tours: not only can you visit the studios, you can also have a go at presenting your own news and weather reports. Other broadcasters have joined the BBC at MediaCityUK; the studios of perennial British favorite Coronation Street are housed on the opposite side of the water to the BBC.
From the BBC studios, cross another bridge to the opposite side of The Quays and a spectacular building with imposing metal shards giving the impression that the structure has been shattered. The stunning building houses the Imperial War Museum North—built on a bomb site, where grain silos were targeted and destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II.
Unlike the Imperial War Museum in London, which has objects and displays in a number of different galleries, IWM North concentrates on 20th-century warfare in a single exhibition space. It’s an approach that works wonders. The layout of the gallery takes you through the troubled century chronologically, from World War I to modern conflict in the Middle East, while every hour a sound and light show casts the room into darkness and themed presentations are projected onto the walls. It brings the whole gallery to a halt as visitors take a seat to watch the effects unfold around them.
Before leaving, be sure to take the elevator up to the 100-foot high viewing platform at the top of the museum. Here you’ll see the best view of The Quays, and one that you’ll not get anywhere else. Directly in front is The Lowry, and to the left is Media-CityUK, both surrounded by the water that once allowed this place to become a busy port.
To the right you can see another bridge, that crosses back to The Lowry theater and completes a short circular walk—the Lowry, MediaCityUK and IWM North are all set within the same square mile. But first it is worth detouring along the waterfront for 10 minutes or so, passing over the Bridgewater Canal to Old Trafford, one of Britain’s most famous soccer grounds.
The stadium hosted its first Manchester United match in 1910; the sight of fans making their way to Old Trafford would have been familiar to L.S. Lowry and the weekly pilgrimage to the ground continues today. However, like The Quays, Old Trafford has undergone huge renovation in recent decades and would now be barely recognized by the artist.
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The best way to experience Old Trafford—outside match day, at least—is to book one of the regular behind-the-scenes tours. United fans go weak at the knees at the prospect of seeing their team’s dressing room, walking out of the tunnel or sitting in the dugout, but even for those with little interest in soccer, the tour is fascinating. Manchester United is one of the biggest sports clubs in the world, and the tour helps you understand how it became so.
Re-cross the water outside the Imperial War Museum to complete your circuit of The Quays. The Ship Canal and Port of Manchester are now relics of history, no longer valuable arteries of trade and Manchester’s economic lifeblood. But the 19th-century businessmen of Cottonopolis would look around the rejuvenated Quays, with its pleasant mix of tourism and modern broadcasting, and approve. They once built a canal and port to rejuvenate Manchester, and they would be proud that The Quays is doing it once again more than 100 years later.
Ferry ’Cross the Canal
For an added sense of history, trace the path of the Manchester Ship Canal on board one of the famous Mersey ferries. Board in Liverpool and enjoy the six-hour cruise with its informative commentary on the history of the Manchester Ship Canal before docking outside the Lowry Mall. You can stay at The Quays for two and a half hours before journeying back by coach, but be warned that you’ll need longer to enjoy all that The Quays has to offer.
If you want your first sight of The Quays to be from the Ship Canal, visit Mersey Ferries.
To The Quays
The Quays is well served by public transport. The easiest way to get there is to arrive in Manchester by train and jump on a tram, alighting at the MediaCityUK stop. By road, The Quays is well signed from the M60, Manchester’s ring road, and parking is available at the Lowry Mall or Imperial War Museum.
All the information you need to make the most of your trip to the Quays, including links to The Lowry theater, MediaCityUK, IWM North and Old Trafford, can be found at The Quays website.
Staying overnight? The Copthorne Hotel is the best option for a reasonably priced bed. If you’re into soccer, try Hotel Football or the Old Trafford Lodge for a football-themed break.
Online Extra: Restaurants
Move over London; Manchester has the fastest growth rate of food businesses of any U.K. city over the past decade. This translates into a sophisticated high-quality restaurant scene. Here are just a few top-rated spots to check out:
The Lime Tree: Farm to fork is an ethos not just espoused but practiced at the 29-year-old Lime Tree. With an award-winning team at the helm, produce and protein from their nearby Hardingland Farm, and fresh modern British fare paired with wines from small wineries makes this a breed apart from most Manchester eateries. 8 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester; 001-44-161-445- 1217.
Michael Caines Restaurant at ABode Manchester: Located in the basement of one of the city’s top boutique hotels, Michael Caines (no, not that Michael Caine) is renowned for its very modern mix of British dishes with Mediterranean ingredients. The menu here is as current as any top-rated restaurant in New York or London. 107 Piccadilly, Manchester; 011-44-161 247-7744.
Greens: Opening a vegetarian restaurant was a big risk back in 1990 when Simon Rimmer and Simon Connolly decided to take a chance, even though neither was a professional chef. The gamble was a success and for more than two decades they’ve served up bold and inventive vegetarian offerings, something that has helped launch the television career of Rimmer, who’s become a household name for food lovers across the UK. 41-43 Lapwing Lane, West Didsbury, Manchester.
Teacup Kitchen: As Prince Charles once lamented, “I never see home cooking-- all I get is fancy stuff,” and if you, too, crave more casual café-type cuisine then Teacup is, well, your cup of tea. From cream teas to pork and fig wraps to spinach and cheese pie, Teacup is the perfect spot to come in day or night during your Manchester walkabouts. If you’re at the Manchester Museum, be sure to check out their little café stocked with their freshly-baked treats. 55 Thomas Street, Manchester; 011-44-161-832-3233.
Red Lion: For visitors of the spectacular 16th century Lyme Park, a National Trust property, a stopover for a pint and a tuck-in at the revamped gastropub Red Lion is a must. But this isn’t your father’s type of Red Lion pub, as it serves upscale classics like grilled scallops and black pudding with curried cauliflower puree and slow cooked pork belly with creamy apple mash and winter cabbage. 112 Buxton Road, High Lane, Stockport; 011-44-1663-765-227.