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Motionless Manchester: peace on a par with the Peak National Park

October 10, 2011

Motionless Manchester: peace on a par with the Peak National Park

Since my childhood days in the Peak District I have found great relief in strolling upon its rolling hills, down its silent valleys, along its leafy riverbanks, across its barren moors and through its eerie woods. All tribulations are torn asunder as the relaxing rhythm of one’s footfall causes vibrations in the body as if transforming into a vehicle atop of which the senses can separate to peacefully survey the picturesque scenery. There is a patchwork of fields with a plenitude of pigmentation; the green and yellow of the dandelion, the gorse bush, the buttercup and the multitude of grasses. Meanwhile the purple foxglove stands proud with bizarre protruding bells akin to the skyscrapers of some extraterrestrial metropolis. Even more enchanting are the barren heather moors which bloom bright from August to September into a sea of vibrant purple. Similarly the protected common Bluebell sumptuously carpets quiet corners of the hillsides whilst daisies dot the fields with flashes of white.

Easy on the eye, Britain’s first ever national park is also very easy on the ear with the gurgle of fresh water flowing around rocks in the small streams, where still and silent herons stand sentinel, stalking sticklebacks and bullhead fish. More clamorous is the squawking of cackling crows, whose cleverness is a sight to behold. A farmer with a walking stick provokes no panic amongst the beady eyed jet-black little bastards, however if that same farmer walks up the field with a shotgun, the skipping scoundrels scarper. Arrogant cocks and their panicky consorts also punctuate the silence, nervously prodding and nodding about their dull cliquey coup whilst crooning softly or gabbling uncontrollably like a load of gossiping pensioners with Victor Meldrew as the resident warden of their retirement home. With four feet and far less flare for flying are lugubrious cattle who gently low whilst dopily chewing grass with tongues lolling. One can also hear the hoarse bleat of shaggy sheep whose indignant malicious stare at being disturbed is almost as hilarious as a bothered bearded billy-goat who spits in anger whilst seemingly shouting the word “what!?” Pigs meanwhile are far friendlier, chortling whilst they amble over for a pat and some incomprehensible prattle. This leads us neatly onto the pleasant smells of the Peaks. Pig shit is not kind on the conk. Thankfully however, the Peaks don’t have many pigs. Conversely, cows are in abundance, producing a shit far sweeter than that of Napoleon or Old Major (it must be noted that appreciation of eau de manure is an acquired taste). More acclaimed aromas are of course the flowers and smell of fresh cut grass.

The only imposition of industry and all its commotion on this quaint countryside is limited to tiny bridges, aged walls, rusty gates, quiet roads and the odd hum of a distant tractor. Such intrusions cause no disruption; they simply strengthen the sedate spectacle. This is especially so with the tractor, heard and seen from afar by its colourful periphery and palpitating engine that shifts in pitch through heavy exertion. At a distance the tractor is delightfully disarmed of its usually diabolical level of decibels.  Paradoxically, when in close proximity to a fiery Massey Ferguson the peaceful bliss is totally trashed as this great earth churning red beast flows over the contours of rough country, gutturally growling as it often drags a body in tow flaying excrement forcibly upon the fields. Surrounding such fields are far less offensive fences which serve to flummox one’s freedom. A wall can be climbed whereas a fence is often barbed or worse electrified, giving pause or worse, pain to a pleasant walk.

Such trifling issues pale into insignificance when one moves to the city and all its cesspits with the sirens and the swoosh of timeless traffic or the jabbering of the masses living so tightly together in sin. Despite thus, there was still a sense of stillness to be found whilst living in Fallowfield in south Manchester where there were several parks and a cycling route shielded from the main roads. Nonetheless in Manchester as a whole one was undeniably hemmed in by hewn brick, stone and crude ugly concrete. In such an environment respite can nevertheless be found. Whilst writing my undergraduate dissertation I would abscond, to walk the quieter older streets of Manchester where the red brick architecture is amongst the most attractive in Britain. Inevitably one is drawn to the canals of Manchester, once the arteries of “Cottonopolis” which fed its Dark Satanic Mills. The closest to the University Library was the Rochdale Canal, next to which stands the Percy Brothers Ltd Hotspur press, a half-ruined red factory with modern piping pricking through walls and smashed windows. Just below is a foetid offshoot of the canal, festooned with human waste. Not a stone’s throw from the Hotspur and differing markedly are the Macintosh Mills, and the Rubber Works, fancy flats in redeveloped factories which still bear the marks of a former working life. Fittingly, Dunlop Ltd still has a goods division in part of the Rubber Works.

I always fancied a flat in this part of Manchester and I always wanted to tour more of the canals during my degree, but never found the time. On starting my PhD, I moved not to Macintosh but to near another group of mills, in Ancoats, heart of the city’s cotton industry. Indeed my new fangled abode is called the McConnell Building after the late 18th century industrialist who was instrumental in constructing the mills in Ancoats now collectively called the Royal Mills which still tower above the Rochdale Canal just down the road. The area breathes industrial power; impressive and oddly elegant red brick mills inlaid with sandstone dot the surrounding streets, many converted into trendy apartments. Ironically the area is remarkably quiet, save for the efficient acceleration of Audis and other such voguish vehicles, the wheels of which patter on the cobbles that have replaced tarmac to increase authenticity. All around are placards propounding the vibrancy of Ancoats, an area of Manchester destined for extensive regeneration. And yet, the pace is slow. During the day you open the window and the thwack of powers tools is present, a new flat block being knocked up. Yet aside from this, much stays the same. There are few if any shops, not even a newsagent, and old squalid small-scale businesses still inhabit and adapt buildings of the past whose industries have died since the end of the Second World War. Many buildings are still in a dilapidated and neglected state, some with quirky ‘peeps’ which give you a view into the interior of the building, and the remnants of its machinery.

Despite the painful pace of development in Ancoats which may never become part of the hustle and bustle on the other side of Great Ancoats Street, the city still interrupts ones thoughts. Shirtless men in high-vis vests and hard hats at a jaunty angle hammer away at some a pointless piece of concrete or whistle at office-working young women. Even more irritating is the slow whine of police sirens making Manchester feel like Manhattan. A siren which may herald someone’s tragic demise, or the acclaimed arrest of some callous criminal becomes nought but a nuisance, disassociated from the good deeds done by our men and women in uniform; recently I took especial enjoyment in Greater Manchester Police hit squads attacking rioters.

In search of solace on a bad day I decided to walk north on the Rochdale Canal. Here one can find peace on a par with the Peak District. On leaving the modernised apartments of Ancoats where the canals are being spruced up to compliment the redeveloped mills, one enters a rather lifeless area toward Miles Platting. The vista is punctuated by empty lifeless flat blocks reminiscent of the Communist East, surrounded by the wilderness of brownfield, or the weariness of modern-built terraced housing, horrific in style with tortuous prisonlike windows. As the city centre seeps into the distance one heads towards Victoria Mill which forms a sheer cliff face on the right hand side of the canal. Too far out to be new homes for hotshots the once fine factory has been functionalised by the NHS which ironically has a ‘Stop Smoking Service’, housed right next to the ruddy great red chimney. Moving on and one gets a true sense of serenity as the murky water trickles nonchalantly along the canal’s old brown stone channel and its rusty locks flanked by grassy green banks and drooping trees. Ducks cruise about cackling whilst Canadian Geese swagger about like mobsters. The scene then clashes violently with urban life as one observes the piles of rubbish choking the stagnating water with trolleys, bins and silt. Surprisingly, life still flourishes, evinced by two intrepid trout swimming upstream through the storm of human debris. Such trout struggle in scum only to become the favoured tipple of scum on the canal bank. By this I humorously refer to the tracksuit wearing inhabitants of Manchester who love nothing more than to sit on their camp stools, Stella in one hand, rod in the other, teasing the trout to take a maggot. Maggots also inhabit the canal, little urchins running along the top of walls above you where once a factory or industrial complex stood. They lob stones in to try and splash you, frequently shattering the silence with “Oi! Oi! Wanker!” The next load of loveable louts are already present too, mothers having a natter whilst pushing their prams containing impending pricks (the allurement of alliteration has provoked politically incorrect generalisation here – not all prams are occupied by “impending pricks”, but potential entrepreneurs and politicians who can break the power of patronage and the persistently perceived class system in Britain).

Whole families too, often fish on the canal side, an after school event with fish and chips, and chats with neighbours about one particular big trout or other. They live in grotty terraces with balconies over the canal, a relief considering the box windows and awful architecture; dirty brown brick or characterless concrete topped with vile curved European-like roof tiles.  Some chaps are walking dogs; you can hear the rasping breath and see the rhythmic yank on the tattooed arm which glitters with gleaming gold bracelets. A Staffie Bull no less, the talisman of titheads who prance about posturing power in their parochial pointless world.  Surprisingly a Staffie is a very good natured dog originating from a county which touches the southern tip of the Peak District where I was raised as a child. Its fighting days long gone, Staffies may look vicious, but in reality they are gentle, loyal and pleasing to the eye, especially the characteristic ridge down the forehead.

In the oddly comforting world of the canal, new industry has not in actual fact died. One passes foreboding hybrids of Victorian and modern factories; brick sides topped with zigzag dirty white roofing. There are also the new concrete slab walls, the sort that plonka off YouTube kicked through and looked to have lost his Lacoste footed leg. Sometimes triple layers of razor sharp barbed wire are pinioned to the wall and I almost feel like John Connor on patrol, surrounded by the hum and drum of malicious machines. Emanating from the walls are also reams of piping, pumping unseen liquids hither and thither for unknown and mysterious means. The smells are intense, hot metal, rubber and strange chemicals. There are also blasts of acrid invisible vapours from powerful vents in the old brick walls sometimes stained a lurid green which contrasts with the floras that are bent double and stained black with soot from the foetid fumes.

One reaches the “urban area” of Newton Heath which isn’t too fine a spectacle, aside from the actual heath on the left bank which is a rather unkempt patch of countryside interspersed with clumps of trees. More prominent are the battered grimy houses and a pub or two, including the New Crown Inn, new as in a poor approximation of a traditional pub painted in sickly Ambrosia rice pudding and protected in part by razor barbed wire. Monstrous magnolia. The library is even worse, a squat one-storey, glorified portacabin decorated with murals; Blackpool Tower and the Lancaster Bomber, behind which is a basecoat of beastly bright yellow. Still seemingly in use its puny panes of glass are dirty, shielded by wire and tucked back amidst a once ornamental but now overgrown perimeter of plants. A distinct smell of weed is in the air probably emanating from some youths on BMXs. Down the road is one of those elegant red brick and stone corner buildings, with Dutch-like frontal facades and a small tower. Surprisingly the building purportedly dates only to the 1950’s, built as a Co-Op department store. Now it is occupied by a furniture store which leaves the arched windows boarded up with red wood, attempting (unsuccessfully) to blend in with the brickwork. No doubt the building is used for storage but it seems a travesty that it is denied the more fitting purpose of housing the local public library. Further on toward Failsworth and the houses are of a more palatable persuasion, older Edwardian or even Victorian terraces set back from the canal. The comforting smell of a roast dinner wafts in the air. Failsworth itself is a tidy town with new a development on the wharf including a Tesco and a Morrisons, housed in rather unimaginative brick and glass which nevertheless sit easily with Failworth’s predictable yet pleasing industrial architecture. Here my ramble on the Rochdale Canal ends. I decided to walk back on Oldham Road which ruins the relaxed mood accrued on the manmade waterway. A main modern artery into Manchester, the road is constantly covered in cars and lorries shuttling past at shocking speeds. New lifeless industrial estates dominate the scene, having largely replaced older housing. The few that remain are blackened with soot and mostly deserted of inhabitants, so insufferable is the sound of traffic. Other modern impositions include petrol stations, hotels and an empty Ladbrokes bookie, where a fat cow courts cancer on the doorstep. I found an old newsagent and bought a giant multi-coloured crocodile chewy sweet like Haribo. Quality fare for fuelling the walk home.

Epilogue – to town

Having never fully walked the canal to the city centre, a few days later I decided to turn south and stroll hence. Passing underneath the bridge at Aldi daubed in some comical insults to lads and lasses from Accrington Stanley, one enters a redeveloped area in which the Vantage Quay apartments are situated. The canal is clean, both in terms of its water and works; the stonemasonry and the black and white locks and footbridges. A trendy bar called Moon is also on the edge of the Piccadilly Basin here, spilling out onto the waterside from the old red brick arches of yet another of Manchester’s industrial landmarks, the Jackson Warehouse. One then enters a strange subterranean section of the canal in which a suspended footbridge extends from the piss-stinking edges of the canal side under Dale Street. Murals decorate the walls but the scene is forever tarnished by the piss, produced by proponents of super strength lager, Skol, Carlsberg and Kestrel (evidential empty cans are in abundance). Heading underneath Ducie Street and the bustling city above, one reaches a short stretch of widened canal aside of the plot earmarked for the magnificent Albany Crown Tower, a gleaming glass sister to the Hilton. As of yet construction has not commenced. On the right bank are familiar features; the absence of walkways owing to the presence of red cliff-like factories, their chimneys no longer chuffing murderous smoke, but charming the scene with a sense of reassuring longevity. One certainly feels more hemmed in than when heading north on the canal but the walk is still an enjoyable escape. In the sunset light dances on the surface of the water or on the cobbles which become emblazoned like the Yellow Brick Road. Meanwhile couples canoodle in quiet nooks and crannies. Perhaps the most surprising and touching of such rendezvous was a young Muslim woman tenderly pecking her boyfriend on the lips whilst still attired in a royal purple hijab.

Up from Aubern Street and you emerge onto Canal Street as the walkway becomes disjointed and inaccessible, forcing you into civilisation. One wonders how many times people subconsciously remove the ‘C’ in this street. Of course this is a most crude and indeed sexist jest (it is still fanny funny however). Despite the slightly excessive display of gay pride (evinced by bars called GAY and QUEER with huge glitzy signs) the pedestrianised street and the wider Gay Village is a fantastic asset for Manchester. An assortment of clubs, cafes, bars and restaurants inhabit the right bank with chairs and tables covering the canal side like some Parisian or Amsterdam street. Suspended on the other side is the Eden bar and restaurant which is accessed by a green bridge over the water leading to a private terrace and a barge. Beyond Canal Street one encounters much of the same; old factories, new flats and even some low level offices where white collars tap away on keyboards with the water flowing past their windows. More terrace eateries and bars and interspersed as one gets to Oxford Street where my stroll stops.

In summary I feel my undeniably dramatised representation of rambling the Peaks and the Rochdale Canal has demonstrated that peace can be found in an urban environment on a par with the rural. It is of a different sort however, the rural being somewhat purer than the adulterated urban. In the countryside one can undoubtedly find more space to stop and survey the scene which often looks as if in perpetual stillness. You can sit for hours in a cosy spot with an impressive view. Meanwhile on the canals in the city the senses are constantly assaulted with the violent clash of town and country. The smells, the sights and the inescapable speed of the city of Manchester always prevails, nonetheless one can still find some respite and when a  return to a racy lifestyle is longed for, everything is on your doorstep in this diverse metropolis which undoubtedly contains much more than meets the eye. As a student I failed to perceive of this panoply promptly, and I would advise any new student or indeed any budding Mancunian, if in need of peace or exploration, take a walk on the canals of Cottonopolis.

Images:

Courtesy of Google and more importantly http://www.penninewaterways.co.uk/rochdale where enthusiasts have lovingly pictured their journey along the canal.  One can see the purple of Moorland in the Peaks, the Royal Mills next to the footbridge in Ancoats, the Eastern Bloc that is Miles Platting, the Victoria Mill with her ruddy red chimney, the Victoria Mill again with hybrid factories in the foreground, horrid housing on the way to Failsworth and finally the Piccadilly Basin with Moon at Jackson Warehouse, next the Vantage Quay.

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