Sublime Symmetry exhibition: celebrating the ceramics of William De Morgan

Last Saturday, I went to London to see the Sublime Symmetry exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

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A collaboration between the London Mathematical Society and the De Morgan Foundation, the exhibition celebrates the influence of symmetry in the designs of the Victorian designer, potter and later novelist, William De Morgan.

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William De Morgan

Born in London in 1839, William was the son of distinguished mathematician and founder of the London Mathematical society, Augustus De Morgan and his wife, Sophia, who were liberal and encouraging parents, supporting William in his desire to become an artist. Although he entered the Royal Academy, William left soon after to better find his own creative style. Out of a life-long friendship with textiles designer William Morris, the two went into business together between 1863 and 1872 with De Morgan designing stained-glass and furniture for Morris & Co.

Overall, De Morgan was best known for his fiction, but his most celebrated ceramics work emerged between 1872 and 1881 when he set up his own pottery works in Chelsea, experimenting with and perfecting innovative firing and glazing techniques which led to several noteworthy commissions from the rich and famous such as the painter Alfred, Lord Leighton and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham.

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I fell in love with William De Morgan’s tiles ten years ago. A friend, knowing of my passion for Islamic architecture and art, recommended that on my next London trip I should visit Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, the former residence of Lord Leighton.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lord Leighton was part of the Orientalism movement, where western artists, writers, academics and philosophical sorts imitated aspects of middle-eastern and north-African art, design and literature and developed an interest in Islamic spirituality.  This is illustrated in the design of the magnificent Arab Hall at Leighton House. The wood and metal work were imported, mainly from Egypt, but the lustrous ceramic tiles in their peacock hues of cobalt and verdigris were created by William de Morgan. It was love at first sight and I have returned five or six times since my first visit. As photography is not permitted, the images below are from the internet.

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Debenham House (also known as Peacock House) is just a few streets away and was built in 1905 for the department store owner Ernest Ridley Debenham with De Morgan being commissioned to design some of the interior tiles. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to enter the property which has occasionally been used as a film set and, in the past, has held open days. I discovered that the property is currently being renovated and tried to persuade a work man to let me inside for 5 minutes, but to no avail. These images from the internet show more examples of De Morgan’s tiles inside Peacock House.

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The unique blue and green glazed bricks on the exterior mimic the feathers of the gorgeous peacocks I was lucky enough to see whilst eating my lunch in nearby Holland Park.

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After the Debenham House commission, the fashion for Moresque design started to decline and De Morgan left ceramics behind, turning his multi-talented hand to writing.

Apart from Arab and Persian influences, de Morgan also depicted mediaeval themes, mythical creatures and animals as can be seen in some of the Sublime Symmetry exhibits.

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As well as his artistic talents, De Morgan had great mathematical aptitude, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his father’s eminence in that field. Geometry and symmetry were central to the Islamic designs which inspired much of De Morgan’s work. Here are some examples.

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The exhibition is both visually stunning and informative and runs until 28th October.

Sunderland Point, Lancasire: Sambo’s grave where the river Lune meets the sea

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I have a new location to add to my list of favourite places: Sunderland Point. Today, I had the chance to finally explore a unique Lancashire village which exceeded all my expectations in its beauty and serenity.

Sunderland Point is a peninsula between the Lune estuary and Morecambe Bay.

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It is unique in that although it is part of the mainland, it is cut off twice daily at high tide, making it impossible for about eight hours each day to cross the causeway which separates it from the village of Overton. Sunderland’s small population must to some extent organise their lives around tide timetables. Since early spring, I too had been consulting the tide times on those Saturdays when I was free, but my hopes were repeatedly thwarted either by tides and trains not matching up, or by inclement weather. As my travel is not restricted just to weekends at present, I found that today the Fates had smiled, and everything came together.

Waiting at Lancaster station for the connecting train to Morecambe, I felt a bit peckish and bought a packet of crisps for the exorbitant price of £1.10, a purchase I was later very glad I had made. From Morecambe, I boarded a bus to Overton, arriving there 35 minutes later. I was very disappointed to find that The Globe Inn – the closest building to the causeway and where I had planned a light lunch and visit to the loo before making the crossing – was closed for refurbishment.

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No longer resenting a single penny spent on those crisps but frustrated at not being able to spend a different penny, I set off on the 1.5 mile walk across the causeway

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The walk was peaceful and for the most part I had the road to myself, enjoying the sounds of sea birds and admiring the views over to Lancaster 5.5 miles away.

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Zooming in on Lancaster

The greyness of the sky only added to the atmosphere. A few cars passed me heading in both directions. The road beneath my feet and the salt marsh around it had earlier been submerged and would be again later in the day.

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Walking along the causeway

Boats grounded would later be liberated from the silt by the returning tide.

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The end of the causeway came into view and I saw other boats with their best days behind them and unlikely now to be seaworthy.

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To my relief – quite literally – the first building I came to was a toilet block, looked after, according to the sign outside, by the parish of Overton. Bless that parish! The toilet even has a twin in Afghanistan!

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I walked along First Terrace and Second Terrace, two rows of Georgian houses overlooking the old dock area. The houses look bright and some are really lovely with colourful gardens and some with quirky touches. Two or three are occupied as artists’ studios, part of a flourishing and creative community

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Sculpture by the late Ray Schofield

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On Second Terrace is the stump of a cotton tree, believed to have been brought back as a sapling on a ship in the early 19th century. The tree finally fell in 1998 after particularly strong storms and due to its old age. Cuttings were taken and are thriving in the area. Its fruits when it blossomed resembled cotton.

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The living cotton tree

In the 18th century, the terraces would have been occupied residentially and commercially by people who worked in the shipping trades. Vessels returning from the West Indies would dock at Sunderland if they were too large to enter St George’s Quay, Lancaster, or if they had to wait for high tide. Developed by George Lawson, a Quaker, in the early 1700s, Sunderland had ceased to operate by the end of the century as nearby Lancaster had expanded and opened a deep dock at Glasson.

Lancaster had been the third largest port in England after Liverpool and London and traded not only in goods such as cotton and sugar, but also in human beings. Sunderland Point is the burial place of Sambo, a slave who was ‘elevated’ to the position of servant to the Master of an unidentified ship which docked in 1736. He was sent to stay with other ship hands at the inn whilst the Master travelled on to Lancaster alone on business. The popular narrative is that Sambo thought he had been abandoned in this strange place. He became distraught and ill, refused to eat, and died. The ship’s mates buried him in unconsecrated ground near to the estuary due to him not being a Christian. Sixty years after Sambo’s death, his unmarked grave was given a headstone which was organised by James Watson, brother of Lancaster slave trader, William Watson, perhaps out of a sense of family guilt. Strong opposition to slavery was gaining momentum at that time.

The grave is reached along a sign-posted bridle path which leads to the beach.

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Lots of visitors now come to pay their respects at the grave and leave a message or memento. I added something of my own, and spent a few minutes trying to imagine what this man must have experienced being torn from his family, community and land and dying in this place.

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I luxuriated in an undisturbed half hour on a nearby bench with just the landscape, the sea birds and the flotsam and jetsam for company.

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Many years ago, I experienced a frightening incident when some friends and I were almost trapped on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne which is also separated from the mainland by a tidal causeway, only just making it back ahead of the returning water. Keen to ensure nothing like that happened again, I started my walk back in plenty time though the tide had already turned, and fishing boats bobbed around on the water.

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Back in Overton, I was looking forward to a cold soft drink at its other pub, The Ship. I had drained the last of my water hours earlier and was incredibly thirsty.

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Discovering that the pub only opened at 5pm and that there wasn’t  a shop in the village, I asked a lady pruning her roses if she would refill my water bottle; fortunately, she was happy to oblige. The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing.

Crosby Sands: Another Place

Blundell Sands, Crosby, sits along the estuary of the river Mersey to the north of Liverpool. It’s the site of Another Place, a brilliant art installation by sculptor Antony Gormley (now ‘Sir’ Antony). I’ve seen several of Gormley’s installations, including arguably his most famous, The Angel of the North, but Another Place is my favourite and is in the north west of England which is where I live. I recently went to see the iron men again.

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The installation consists of a hundred solid cast iron figures which stand at intervals along the beach. At low tide they can all be seen but my favourite view is at high tide when some are partially submerged. Some appear to be sunk into the sand whilst others are raised and stand proud. All of the figures look out to sea.

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Gormley cast the figures in 17 different moulds made from his own body, so he’s sharing more than just his artistic vision. I wonder how he feels whenever he returns to see a hundred iron selves, barnacled and briny as they stand stoic, tide after tide, year after year.

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Gormley’s idea was to “…test time and tide, stillness and movement, and somehow engage with the daily life of the beach” as well as a “meditation on emigration.” Looking   in the same direction, all of the figures could be pondering new horizons beyond the Irish sea, some wading out to their destinies with the turning tide .

Birkenhead docks doesn’t make for the most enchanting backdrop but for Gormley this was real life and not romantic escapism . Although Another Place will now remain at Blundell Sands, it didn’t come into being there. Its first home was in Cuxhaven, Germany where, as in Crosby, busy container ships would pass by along the river Elbe.

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A figure observes Burbo Bank offshore wind farm or maybe he’s more interested in the other figure who can just be seen to the left partially covered by the water.

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After Germany, the installation was sited in Norway and Belgium before it arrived in Crosby, and should have voyaged on to New York, but it had become so popular here that a decision was made to make the figures permanent features, something which Gormley approved of.

Not everybody is a fan of Another Place; some local people hate it. I think they are very lucky!

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Internet image shows Gormley with one of his iron man creations

 

 

 

 

 

Hebden Bridge

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Hebden Bridge is one of my favourite places and I’m not alone. I have never met any visitor who has not been absolutely charmed by this quirky, cool little market town in west Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge sits in the upper Calder valley, 8 miles to the west of Halifax. It grew up around the pack horse route from Burnley to Halifax where it passed through the valley and over the bridge that crossed Hebden Water. Fast flowing water, lots of Yorkshire rain and a plentiful supply of wool from ample local flocks meant that the region was ideal for weaving, first by hand loom workers in their cottages and later in the many water-powered mills which sprung up.

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For centuries, textiles and farming used to put the food on most people’s tables in this region, but times change and both industries have declined, completely in the case of weaving.  The area became very run down in the second part of the 20th century, with parts of it being bulldozed. Row upon row of houses stood derelict, but paradoxically it was this availability of housing in a beautiful part of the world which led to a second lease of life. In the 1960s and 70s, hippies, artists, writers and poets moved to Hebden Bridge in large numbers, giving it the label of the Shangri-la of the north, a paradise for creative types. Alternative lifestyles flourished, and the area was transformed and regenerated.

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Whilst the streets of Hebden don’t actually smell of Nag Champa, the aroma of liberality is definitely detected on the breeze, especially on Market Street, where the vendors of the accoutrements of alternative living have their abodes. Artisans are plentiful, and bespoke hand-crafted items of great beauty fill many of the shops.

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Organic dishes made from locally-sourced produce and colourful and healthy-sounding snacks and smoothies are served in stone courtyards or cosy corners of chic cafes. Tourism is important to the local economy, and there are a lot of pubs, restaurants and cafes for a town of Hebden’s size, many of them catering for diverse tastes and offering healthy and novel choices.

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It can be difficult to find a table at busy times (such as today and most Saturdays) and yet again my plan to feast at the Vegan Kitchen was thwarted by those who got there first. So popular is this newish funky eatery that I have not yet managed to get through the door. That can only be a good sign!

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My other regular spots were also full, and I was all but ready to pop into the Co-op for a sandwich when I decided to try the organic bakery which I had walked past dozens of times but never gone inside. I am so glad I did!

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As well as the bread I went in for, I came away with a supply of vegan cakes and croissants and a meat-free ‘Hebden Cornish’ pasty, which I devoured in the fresh air whilst listening to folk musicians giving it their all in a pub garden. Very tasty it was too! That’s the pasty, not the singers of sea shanties.

Such entertainments are not commonly available, but this weekend is special. Every year, the second weekend in May plays host to the Hebden Grass and Roots Folk Festival. Folk music takes over many of the town’s venues, and Morris dancers and musicians perform for the public.

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I particularly liked this troupe of local ladies in their colourful vintage-style attire.

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Those ’60s hippies and artists – now getting on in years if still youthful in spirit – have stayed on in Hebden Bridge and made their mark, but the demographic has evolved once again to include a more recent influx of professionals who can afford some fresh country air. Leeds and Manchester are both very accessible. They are looking for a place to live a different kind of life. It’s a near-perfect compromise for many: a rural location away from the hustle, bustle, grime and crime of urban sprawl, but a new rurality which embraces 21st century-thinking; an intellectual kind of country life:  organic, fair-trade, open-minded. This is the pull for the creative, artistic, ecologically-inclined, forward-thinking souls who have followed in the footsteps of the 60s pioneers and made the old weavers’ cottages their own.

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Old meets new – and new age. Tradition and innovation seem to meld into this 21st century concept: the happy blending of old place and new lifestyle. This is a very different country life to that which might be found in the more traditional settings of deepest Cumbria, where the land is still the living, where there is no place for sentiment, and ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ are still new-fangled concepts which meet with some derision.

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Hebden Arts Festival is at the end of June – I’ll be back for that! Two years ago, as part of that event the community launched its blue plaque project whereby locals were encouraged to find out who lived in their houses 100 years earlier in 1916. It is so interesting to see some of the ‘plaques’ in the windows of shops and houses, celebrating residents of yesteryear.

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I wonder what those folks would make of the town now….

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Grange-over -Sands, Cumbria.

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Grange-over-Sands, or just ‘Grange’ as it’s known locally, was always part and parcel of family holidays in the south Lake District in the 1970s and 80s. My memories include an expansive golden beach – popular for kite flying and long walks – and an art-deco lido, always full of happy swimmers, and rather impressive. The town is small and pretty and has an air of gentility.

Moving forward three decades there is little sign of the once sandy beach, now transformed into salt marsh with wild marine grasses criss-crossed by briny rivulets.

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Out beyond the Lune estuary the Irish sea meets the horizon. It’s the end of April but the day which started with sunshine now threatens a downpour as the grey sky becomes heavy with dark clouds. No matter, this is the north of England where weather can change in a moment and we carry on regardless.

Once off the train at the pretty, Victorian Grange station, a short walk under the subway leads to the beach and straight onto the promenade. It is lovely and well-kept, clearly very popular, especially with dog walkers, and has a nice little vintage-style café and children’s play area at the south end. Under such dark skies these photos don’t show just how lovely it is – in my opinion one of the nicest promenades in England.

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The promenade includes a ‘stumpery’ where there is a surprise in every hollow.

On the last Sunday of every month from April until November, the promenade plays host to ‘Prom Art’, an open-air arts and crafts market where dozens of independent artisans set up their stalls, show off their talents and display their work for sale. Today was the first Prom Art event of 2018 and I decided to enjoy a coastal stroll and perhaps treat myself too.

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There was a wide selection of art and craft work to look at from paintings, photographs, hand-made jewellery, textiles, ceramics, wood and metal work and hand made cards and toys. Everything on sale has been made by the artisans themselves and some, including one lady seated at a spinning wheel and another crafting something on her sewing machine, demonstrated their talents to fascinated browsers.

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I love to choose items for my home which have a story, and to have met the artist and talked with them about their work – particularly the piece I am taking home with me – is quite special. One of my treats to myself today was a print of ‘The Walk’ by textile artist Liliane Taylor. Liliane, originally a fashion designer, told me that the original textile work is exhibited at the Atkinson Gallery in Southport; I shall have to call in to see it.

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Some examples of Liliane’s work
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‘The Walk’, safely home, preserved from the downpour and awaiting its frame

I am very partial to wind chimes and already have several around my house and garden. My second treat to myself was a marvellous chime made from cutlery. I have seen some of similar design, but this one grabbed my attention as the vintage spoons had been skilfully beaten and polished. No two spoons are the same and they look like beautiful old tarnished silver. No gleaming chrome for me! I chatted with the artist, David Bubb, about how he sources and crafts his creations. He and his wife, Sue, trade as  Lovebubb and also work with wood and fabrics.

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The black clouds above finally burst and heavy April showers poured down on the the pop-up studio tents as artists secured their exhibits, some darting into the shelter of their cars. It was also my cue, not a moment too soon, to put my purse back into my bag and move away from further temptation.

Bursts of sunshine made occasional appearances through the dense storm clouds, reflecting on the surface of the water and revealing the fells of south Lake District National Park in the distance.

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The 1930s lido, where I had spent many hours of fun as a child, has fallen into dilapidation and is fenced off. I managed to take some photographs which still give an indication of what a vibrant and exciting place it once was. It has now been given ‘listed’ status as the only remaining art-deco lido in the north of England. It would be amazing to see it open again in all its glory at some point in the future, but for several years now its fate has been contested locally.

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The security fencing around the derelict lido has been there that long it has been turned into a feature. A poster shows the lido in its heyday. Note how in England at that time, regardless of the temperature the older gents would still wear shirts, ties and jackets on their special day out.

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On the other side of the rail track, station-front side, is Grange ornamental garden which had drawn in a few visitors despite the wet benches and the imminent threat of further downpours.

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Across the road and a little further on from the ornamental garden is the lovely community orchard. If the weather had permitted I would have spent some time exploring the budding fruit trees.

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A few heavy drops hit the pavement and then the deluge followed. I decided to head back to the shelter of the station to wait for my train.

 

Street Gallery – The art of Manchester’s northern quarter

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Like all cities, Manchester has its share of art galleries. They are the custodians of the city’s permanent treasures, including celebrated masterpieces in their gilded frames and exciting creations, through every conceivable medium, by both established and emerging artists, many of them from the north of England.

The ‘northern quarter’ of Manchester city centre has been transformed during the last two decades. What was once a run-down part of the city, neglected since the decline of industry in the 1970s and ‘80s, is now a bohemian hub of creativity. Home to a plethora of hip bars and restaurants, quirky vintage shops, unconventional cafes and social spaces, specialist art, music and book stores plus an impressive array of artists in residence, innovative designers and very colourful characters – this is the place to be in Manchester if you want to experience an alternative take on the usual urban city scene.

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This part of the city has proved to be popular with film makers due to it still having retained much of its original character and architecture. Some of the scenes in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 remake of Sherlock Holmes were filmed here, and due to an apparent resemblance to 1940s New York, the northern quarter was chosen to double as the ‘big apple’ for some of the filming of Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.

Here, also, was the birth place of the ‘Madchester’ music scene of the 1990s, growing out of the rebranding of the city as the home of independent music at the time. That spirit continues, with music production and specialist outlets strongly represented and thriving.

Meander around the northern quarter and you will discover another kind of art gallery, accessible to all and with no admission fee. This awesome collection of original expression changes and evolves, a contemporary commentary on life in the city of Manchester. Every time I walk around the northern quarter I find something new has been added. Some of the artists are well-known, whilst others are anonymous, making their marks in the side streets, challenging us, amusing us, surprising and inspiring us through their contributions. Turn a corner, take a look behind that security fence or crumbling wall; you never know what you might find.

Here are some of the wonderful exhibits from the northern quarter of the city of Manchester. Enjoy!

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I’ll leave the bee mural ’til last; a symbol of commemoration of the industrial heritage of this great city, of loyalty to the hive and continued work to build strength and hope in the future.