The Circle and The Square

On Saturday I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery to catch the end of an exhibition I’d only recently found out about but which I was very keen to experience on its final weekend.

Normally, I would avoid travelling into Manchester on a Saturday, battling through the shopping and pub crowds, and facing the prospect of train chaos, but there’s a fast bus I can use that goes from Leigh, my neighbouring town, down Oxford Road and stopping opposite the gallery, so ideal for my purpose.

The Circle and The Square is the creation of public performance artist Suzanne Lacy. Between 2015 and 2017, Suzanne brought together diverse communities from the East Lancashire town of Brierfield, to take part in a unique musical performance incorporating traditional shape note singing and Sufi chanting. According to Suzanne Lacy’s website, the object of The Circle and The Square is to explore: ‘the demise of the textile industry as an economic and social driver in the North West of England and the resulting separation of South Asian-heritage and white communities who used to work together in the vast mills there.’

Brierfield is a place I’m familiar with, having visited quite a lot when a close friend lived there for a few years. It’s typical of similar towns in that part of Lancashire: streets of stone terraced houses, running parallel and very steep; high unemployment and social deprivation and with a large percentage of its population being of South Asian heritage. Brierfield Mill overlooks the train station, an imposing building, closed since 2007. The Brierfield connection is what initially piqued my curiosity about a project that would bring together diverse communities through the medium of traditional folk song and spiritual chanting. Many of the participants would be former Smith & Son employees, possibly even former co-workers.

A former worker talks about her long working life at the mill, now abandoned and disintegrating

The performances and interviews were filmed over three days in the empty mill, voices made all the more rousing and powerful in the cavernous space which once housed deafening looms and where lip-reading helped workers to communicate through the mechanical din.

The installation consists of a split screen film and approximately 25 short interviews with members of the Nelson and Colne communities, accessed through eight monitors with headphones. Those interviewed include former workers at the mill and members of their families. Together, the interviews and the film (which lasts about 20 minutes) tell a story of work, place and productivity connecting people from the same locality whilst at the same time very far apart in background, culture and religion. It also explores what happens when that connection ceases.

This short video by producers, Superslowway, gives a short insight to the background of the project and its production.

The Circle

Sufi chanting is a form of Islamic devotion involving repetition of sacred words and phrases, practised throughout the Islamic world, including South Asia. Joining in a circle expresses the idea of unity and eternity, no leader, no breaks in the connection, all equal. the participants are mainly Asian, some in traditional Sufi dress. Focusing on repetition the same words – usually the attributes of God – helps devotees to achieve a mindful state.

The Square

Shape note singing, a form of traditional 18th century folk song, harks back to an England of yore, often narrating the life experiences of the poor and disempowered. It was also popular in the southern states of America in the 19th century. In this installation, the singers include professionals, brought in to give instruction and to lead the performance. On the music sheets, notes are represented as shapes, making them easier to recognise for those not formally trained in reading music. Projected into the huge, bare space of the empty mill, the song – narrating the story of a working life that started at the age of six – is very powerful.

The Circle and the Square

The split screen creates an impression of both groups performing simultaneously, separate yet together. On closer observation, it is clear that both performances have been filmed separately and then juxtaposed on screen, and it appears that a few people are taking part in both.

The interviews

The performances are impressive and moving, audibly and visually, but are only one half of this installation. For me, it was the insightful interviews that provided most food-for-thought. Made up of former workers from across the communities, family members of some who are no longer around and local people who, whilst not having worked in the mills, are affected by its legacy and its loss as the main local employer, the interviewees speak candidly about life, work and inter-community relations. I probably got to listen to about half of the 25 – 30 short recordings, and was struck by the vastly different – in some cases quite polarised – views, some quite surprising, such as the middle-aged Pakistani chap who blamed local high unemployment on eastern European immigrants and by extension the EU, for there being too many “foreigners” in the area: “We shouldn’t have joined the common market in 1973. We shouldn’t let them in.” The Circle and The Square was completed before Brexit, so perhaps he is happier now, though possibly not, as many of those Europeans will now have settled status in the UK. He seemed unaware of the irony of his position.

Some interviews were about factory life; older men and women spoke of days of high employment and having the pick of work in an abundance of local mills and factories, literally walking out of one and into another on the same day. Work was hard, but skills were shared and passed on, there was camaraderie but also sexism: one lady described the intense antipathy towards her from male workers who she had been put in charge of, thus enabling her to earn more than them. She related an incident in the rest room where one of the disgruntled chaps pulled out a chair from under her, causing her to fall onto the floor and injure herself. He got a telling off from the boss, didn’t speak to her for the next three months but eventually became a friend.

A couple of the contributors spoke in their Asian mother tongues, presumably interviewed through an interpreter. No subtitles or voice-over translations were provided, the artist allowing the audience to draw its own inferences and to experience that language barrier, not knowing if the speaker prefers not to speak English, or is unable to, though he has presumably lived and worked in the locality for decades. It also made me think about us, the audience, and if that barrier was there for all, or most? Who would the audience be? Who would be engaging with this art?

A young woman, certainly just a small child when the mill closed, expressed her hopes for better integration in the future and her enthusiasm for diversity. In contrast, other contributors felt that there was greater polarisation now than ever. The hub of work where diverse lives intersected daily had gone, and nothing had replaced it; links were broken, the divide had widened, comfort zones inhabited and positions entrenched.

Another young woman, London-based, recalled her grandparents’ lives in the mill. Indian Muslims originally, they were relocated when partition came in 1948, suddenly finding themselves part of the new Pakistan, whether they liked it or not. An opportunity presented itself to bring their skills and dexterity to Lancashire; a new life, initially lived in shared, cramped houses with extended family, until they could establish themselves and make their own way. They embraced life here, retaining aspects of their heritage and culture, having the best of both. The third generation interviewee is and feels English; the fabled old country a place resigned to family history, and she is understandably frustrated when asked – not infrequently – where she is from. Conversely, within the performance spaces, others of the same age as her, and younger, choose to wear the traditional clothing of their elders, though they may never themselves have set foot in their ancestral lands.

Some residents speak of a bleak future in a rundown town, where shops have closed (‘Morrisons has killed off the food market’) and drugs are rife, whilst others remain optimistic: the good times will return and community spirit is as strong as ever.

The mill stands empty: shabby, crumbling, useless. There’s an interesting and somewhat ironic tale about the looms. Becoming obsolete in the defunct mills of Lancashire, they were found new lives in the emerging and growing economies of India and Pakistan, shipped overseas to where the work is.

Below are a few of those interviewed

Former workers describe their lives and work at the mill

So, what did I take from the installation? Integration is perhaps an ideal that cannot be realised, at least not in the lifetimes of those first generation immigrants. Over time, that may change as their descendants choose their own identities, holding onto those aspects of culture and tradition that they still cherish, and leaving behind what they no longer feel connected to. But in the same way that the circle and the square cannot merge to form an inseparable whole, they can co-exist, side by side, mutually complementary and allowing for movement between the two. Is tolerance, acceptance and coexistence a more authentic ideal than a determination to force homogeny? I was left feeling quite saddened in one sense, but with a lot to ponder. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the exhibition immensely and would certainly have returned to watch the rest of the interviews if there had been time. That all of these people desired to take part in the project, playing their part, telling their stories and bringing something to the mix is perhaps the most positive message of all.

Manchester Cathedral: stained glass and gargoyles:

This post was first published in 2017, but as Manchester Cathedral appears on Lonely Planet’s guide of suggested places to visit in 2023, I have decided to post it again. Cathedrals, by definition, stand the test of time, so I doubt there has been much change since the post was originally written, except that perhaps those gargoyles have a few more stories to tell.


Two of my favourite things are stained glass windows and gargoyles. I decided to spend a quiet hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a spot where there are some splendid examples of both.

Manchester Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George to give it its full title, stands at the north eastern edge of the city, near to Victoria Station and to the border with the city of Salford. Cathedrals are mostly grand imposing buildings, designed to command attention, to make their presence felt; Manchester’s feels like it’s tucked away behind a screen of shops and a mock Tudor pub, its grounds a haven for lunching office workers and, at the weekends, huddles of teenaged goths. World renowned Chetham’s Music School -home of the Cathedral choir -is adjacent.

Ask anybody to tell you what they associate with Manchester and their replies will probably include some of the following: Oasis; New Order; The Hacienda ; premier league football; the Peterloo Massacre; The Smiths; a certain coconut-covered custard tart; ‘Madchester’; ‘The Village’ and, more recently, the northern quarter. The cotton trade, early trades union movements and political activism might also feature……………..and rain. The city is synonymous with it. It’s unlikely that anybody will mention the Cathedral.

Visitors rarely arrive here by accident –  unless they take a wrong turn when visiting the Christmas Markets or heading towards Harvey Nicholls . Most would have sought out this almost hidden gem, perhaps pulled by the promise of the gorgeous windows which are – in my opinion – the big attraction. The Cathedral is not a crowd puller and this is to its credit. A trickle of sightseers drifts in and out, leaflets and maps in hand. Admission is free, where the same, sadly, cannot be said for most other British cathedral churches, perhaps an admission – or exploitation – of their change of status from spiritual centres of the community to local visitor attractions.

From the outside it is not possible to appreciate the aesthetic impact of the stained glass windows. Yes, most churches have at least one or two, usually depicting biblical scenes whose subjects have been attributed suitably anglicised features: haloed blond martyrs fail to fend off marauding beasts, and blue-eyed virgins gaze longingly into the distance, hoping to be swept up into the sky by a heavenly wind. We’ve all seen lots of examples, and one is usually much the same as another. Not so in this case.



All having been added during the last 50 years to replace originals destroyed by war time explosions, the stained glass windows of Manchester Cathedral form an intensely colourful folk-art collage. Non- traditional designs, vibrant and engaging, are apt in a city which prides itself on modernity, openness and progression, not to mention diversity.

Remembrance goes hand-in-hand with reconciliation within the design of my favourite ‘fire window’. Situated in the chapel dedicated to the Manchester Regiment, the window designed by Margaret Traherne pays tribute to lives lost. The orange flames represent the blitz, but as fire destroys it also clears the way for new beginnings. The glass used in this window, significantly, was created in Germany. On a sunny day the flames come alive as the light pours through the glass. Today the rain patters against the panes.


The spirit of inclusion and the celebration of the colourful spectrum we find in nature and in all life is evident in this building. Art work depicts the community which the Cathedral serves and welcomes into its fold. This space feels unpretentious and welcoming.



Back outside, look up and you will see the marvellous array of gargoyles and grotesques which adorn the stonework and guttering. The word gargoyle originates from an old French word meaning throat, hence the verb ‘to gargle’. Technically, to qualify as a gargoyle there must be a spout for the purpose of channelling water away from the building. The non-gargling varieties are more accurately described as grotesques or chimeras and were added to places of worship for decorative effect and to ward off evil spirits from the buildings, evil spirits being prevalent in the mediaeval mind-set.



I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles for many years and enjoy photographing them, though I don’t do that as much as I used to. Fantastical in appearance, comical, terrifying, grimacing and gurning, the rows of stony faces tell stories of a world long past. This is the post- industrial north and some are exceptionally grimy and grim. Each one seems to have its own personality and it amuses me to imagine their discussions about the passage of time:

Dragon: “It’s a bit glum for the time of year.”

Beast: ” Yep! Where’s all this rain come from? It’s more like November!”

Dragon: “It reminds me of that washout of a summer we had in 1546. My spout got blocked with moss. It played havoc with my waterworks and no amount of gargling would clear it. I flooded in the end”

Beast: “I remember it well. We all suffered. That rising damp really gets into the mortar! The serpent on the east wall took such a battering by the storms that his forked tongue dropped off. “

Dragon: ” I know, poor sod. You can’t make out his features now. ‘Erosion’, I’ve heard those surveyors call it. We’re all losing our looks. Mine started to go downhill in the 1700s.”

Beast: “I sometimes feel like we’ve been forgotten about. Even the evil spirits don’t come up like they used to back in the day. Health and safety regulations……”

Now we have new cathedrals made of glass and steel, temples to the gods of commerce and celebrity. The nearby football museum rises like a glass obelisk. Across the city, Manchester Hilton looms on the distant grey skyline. The Cathedral will witness other grand designs have their moment and will still look on, sagely, as, in time, they too disappear.  



Manchester Jewish Museum

Yesterday, I read that the Lonely Planet travel guide has proclaimed Manchester to be the cool city to visit in 2023. The nearest city to my home (very slightly closer than Liverpool), I don’t think of Manchester as being particularly exciting or attractive – the city centre at least – though there are locations beyond the bustling centre that are well worth a visit.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but perhaps I should try looking at Manchester through fresh eyes. Inspired by some of the Lonely Planet recommendations for Manchester day trips and short breaks, I plan to explore more of the city throughout 2023, highlighting some of my favourite places and discovering others, including some lesser-known gems. For once, it seems I am ahead of the trend, having already made my first trip to Manchester in this first week of the year.

There has been an established Jewish community in Manchester since the 1770s, based at first in the commercial district on the northern edge of the city centre, and later expanding further northward, towards Salford and Bury, as the community grew. It continues to grow, being the largest Jewish community outside London, its numbers increasing year-on-year as the cost of living in London makes Manchester a more affordable option. I was surprised to learn that the only other British Jewish community which is still growing is in Gateshead.

Cheetham Hill is a relatively short walk out of the city centre though, as the name suggests, it is actually a hill, so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I did not walk, opting instead to take a five minute bus ride. The Jewish Museum is on the site of the former Sephardi synagogue, established in 1874 and designed by Jewish architect Edward Salomons to serve the thriving community. The stunning interior design reflects the Moorish architecture and aesthetics of Spain and Portugal where Sephardi Judaism has its roots.

By the 1970s, the Cheetham Hill Jewish community started to move further towards the suburbs and numbers attending the synagogue started to fall. In 1982, planning began to turn the synagogue into the Jewish Museum, a place to capture the history and heritage of Manchester Jewry and to tell the stories of its people. Opening its doors to visitors in 1984, the museum is now a grade 2 listed building. In 2019 the museum temporarily closed to undergo a £6 million capital development including full renovation and restoration. Conservation experts, historic painters and stained glass specialists were all involved in painstakingly researching and restoring the synagogue to its original condition. An extension in a modern Moorish style wonderfully complements the 19th century building.

Booking is recommended, as the museum hosts school parties and other large groups of visitors, but I turned up on a wet Wednesday afternoon when it was quiet. The £6 admission fee includes as many return visits as I like within one year, which is excellent value and which I will be taking advantage of, in order to view the beautiful stained glass in the better light of a sunny day.

The outside wall of the former synagogue meets the sleek clean lines of the new annexe.
One of the synagogue windows illuminated by the soft light within
Moorish-style fretwork metal window screen cleverly hides the car park outside

As it was quiet, I was very fortunate to have the volunteer guides almost to myself at certain points in the tour. An informative and enthusiastic lady allowed me time to take photographs (I had thought I might not be allowed, but there was no problem at all) and led me through the exhibition areas of the new building, where there is a lift for any who need it and toilet facilities. My guide explained that the museum had been successful in its bid for National Lottery capital investment because of its unique pitch: to tell the story of Manchester Jews. Where many Jewish museums focus on the holocaust, the diaspora and Zionism and the state of Israel, this space was to be about the narratives, experiences and contributions of Jewish people and communities in this city.

Along one corridor were several display cases housing artefacts of Jewish life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Photographs showed families and individuals who came to live in Manchester in those years, some of them having recorded their stories for posterity. It was quite moving, listening to voices from the past, relating their experiences of arriving and settling in their new country and in Manchester specifically. The term ‘Landsleit’ refers to when Jews from the same towns and cities in Europe emigrate and set up new communities. Manchester immigrants sought the familiarity and support of those with a common background and language who could help them settle into their new lives. It was bittersweet listening to one old lady describing her efforts to learn English as quickly as possible because she didn’t want to speak German any more. Mancunian voices with hints of accents told tales of arriving by boat in Liverpool, or by train, and making their way to Manchester, grateful to be welcomed by family or friends already here. Another spoke of starting work in a sewing factory, already with some experience of using a machine and eager to become an accomplished seamstress. She refused to make the brews and sweep the floor, insisting that she had come to learn how to “make a coat,” a goal she achieved.

Map showing the synagogues of Greater Manchester, orange still active and green, no longer, though some of the buildings still exist and have been repurposed.
Abraham’s Ark: a portable cupboard or ‘ark’, last owned by Abraham Duinkerk, born in London in 1907, his family of Dutch origin. Abraham’s family would have used the ark to store their religious items, such as prayer books and shawls.
Jewish Manchester bee

I had never been inside a synagogue before, so was quite excited to enter the older part of the museum. My next volunteer guide, David, took over. Another visitor joined us, coming to the museum as part of a trip to Manchester, possibly or possibly not inspired by Lonely Planet. David explained how the synagogue had come into being, the role it played in the Sephardi community throughout the century it was in use and told us about its layout and design. He was happy to answer our questions and, being a member of the Manchester Jewish community himself, had first hand knowledge to share.

Looking down from the former women’s gallery
The women’s gallery, which covers three sides, would originally have been screened
Torah scrolls in the Ark: there are five, because more than one might have been required for the readings at some special services. I love the Moroccan-style metal cover of the one on the left, though apparently this less ‘breathable’ type of receptacle is not necessarily the best for preserving old parchment.
Commandments in Hebrew above the ark; the ornate glass window shows the seven stick menorah and commemorates former Synagogue President, Ezra Altaras, who died in 1913.
Another of the 40 stained glass windows that depict biblical scenes
Congregants would each have a numbered seat with space underneath to store their prayer books and religious accoutrements, which they wouldn’t have been permitted to carry to the services under Sabbath laws
Memorial to Manchester Jewish soldiers who died in the Great War.
The rabbi would have led the service from the lectern, the seats in front set aside for other officials.
Design inspired by the Sephardi region

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit and feeling much better informed about a faith group and culture which has played an important part in Manchester’s history – especially its commerce – I left the museum to a visual treat. Darkness had descended and the building illuminated the streetscape beautifully, a very definite upside to visiting on a short, winter day.

After dark at Chetam’s Library

Chetam’s: the oldest surviving public library in Britain

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to look around one of Manchester’s most historic buildings, Chetam’s Library. The 15th century building, attached to the prestigious Chetam’s School of a Music, offers pre-booked guided tours on most days of the year, but this was a bit different. Chetam’s Unscripted was promoted as a chance for visitors to wander unaccompanied and at liberty around the Library after closing time, aided only by torches and fairy lights to guide the way. This is the second year of Unscripted, and as last year’s event sold out very quickly, my cousin and I made sure we secured our places this time around. We were looking forward to the extraordinary opportunity and the promise of ‘surprises’.

The building is next to Manchester Cathedral and dates back to 1421 when it served as home to the clergy of the then collegiate church.  Humphrey Chetam (1580-1653), a successful and very prosperous Manchester textiles merchant, banker and landowner made provision in his will for five parish libraries in Manchester and Bolton which would be accessible to all who wished to use them. There was no equivalent at that time, with formal education being only for the privileged classes. In addition to the church libraries, Humphrey Chetam established the building we stood in front of as a boarding school for 22 boys. Despite his material success, Chetam retained some more humble qualities and was fined for refusing a knighthood.

The cloister court or ‘fox court’ around which the Library’s three main corridors are arranged

Once all the visitors had assembled at the security barrier we were escorted inside by a volunteer and greeted by a member of staff whose immense enthusiasm seemed slightly  patronising, as if we were schoolchildren, perhaps her usual audience. It was then explained that we were not in fact allowed to wander around at will and explore every ancient nook and cranny, and that any closed doors were ‘closed for a reason’; there were a lot of closed doors. The event was programmed to run from 6 pm to 8 pm to be followed by wine, mince pies and an opportunity to ask questions. Before we were let loose, we were told that wine would actually be served from 6:45 pm.

Fairy lights lit the old stone corridors where the occasional lantern lent a little extra illumination

Torches guiding the way, we set off excitedly down a stone passageway towards the light emanating from an open door at the end. Clues had been left to suggest the possibility of unworldly encounters to come.


The darkness and magical lights were very atmospheric. Up ahead, shadows moved unexpectedly, the dim lights from other torches revealing the presence of fellow corporeal explorers. In truth, it really was too dark to see much detail, even with the aid of torches, but we were able to pick out some interesting architecture.

In one of the large rooms we could just about make out the details of some period furniture and spied some old books laid out on a large central table. Due to their age and delicacy it was not possible to touch them, though one of the curators did offer to tell us more about the books if we were interested.


John Dee, a famous character from the court of Queen Elizabeth I, is associated with that very room, but I won’t elaborate here, as I plan to revisit in daylight when I hope to be able to see the exhibits properly.

A flight of creaky oak stairs took us to the library itself, a long gallery with reading areas behind locked iron gates to the left and glass-fronted shelves to the right.  Another volunteer was seated at the top of the staircase in the pitch blackness, her presence only detectable through the torch beam which she shone in our direction. I later heard her telling some other visitors that she sometimes dressed in period costume, which was what we had been expecting really, and would have added to the atmosphere. Nevertheless, this part of the building was the most interesting. Again, we were not allowed to touch any of the books, many of which were clearly very fragile, but it was fascinating to read some of the titles on the battered spines which included volumes on science, natural history and the geography of Lancashire.

Manchester’s modern buildings through the window


I spotted a pale face inside a cabinet, all the more disturbing in the darkness. I assumed it to be a death mask and this was confirmed by the volunteer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell me any more about the owner of the original head, but suggested that Google might be able to help.

At the end of the corridor we found an area which looked to be in use as an office. What a marvellous place to spend your working day!


Retracing our steps, we almost literally bumped into some other people from our party and spent a few moments chatting about what we’d seen – or not seen – so far. We all shared the view that the day time tour would probably be better and that we would definitely be interested in returning in the light.

A very old and elaborately carved door led into another room.


This housed a chained library, a collection of books dating back to the 17th century and one of the original libraries which Humphrey Chetam had planned for five parish churches in the region. As you see in the photographs, each book is attached by a metal chain to the cabinet or library. There were originally four of these libraries (the fifth was never printed) and members of the public could sit at the cabinet, which was usually attached to their church’s pulpit. Whilst not as convenient as the modern lending libraries we enjoy, this provided a great opportunity for individuals to access the written word. In addition to the one below which it already owns, Chetam’s is hoping to purchase a second from a private owner in the near future. Very sadly, the two others are believed to have been destroyed years ago, some of the precious books having been found in second-hand book shops in Manchester. Understandably, we were not allowed to touch those books either, but the curator opened one for us so that we could read a little of the ‘Old English’. In fact, it was not ‘Old English’ at all but the language was of its period and therefore is old-fashioned to the 21st century reader. Perhaps it was presumed we would not understand the difference.

The chained library was, for me, the most interesting exhibit. From there, we took a look inside a tiny room where the school master would have been able to look through a slot in a wooden panel down into the baronial hall to listen in on the school boys gathered below. Today, it houses the visitors’ book and an assortment of pens, some designed to look like quills.

Within an hour we had looked around all the permitted areas and at as much as we were allowed to touch and able to see in the darkness, so it was time for wine in the baronial hall. Mince pies were available but they were not included in the ticket price (£22) and there were no alternative beverages for any tee-teetotallers. None of the staff or volunteers mingled or asked for feedback or if we had any questions, and long before the advertised finish time of 8 pm, all visitors had departed.

Our verdict (shared by those participants we spoke to, though others may have had a different opinion) was that Chetam’s Library is undoubtedly a fascinating place and well worth a visit, but in the day time for the guided tour which costs less than a third of the price of the Unscripted event, and at 45 minutes lasts about as long as it took us to go round, but with the benefit of a person to explain the exhibits. We were expecting much more, as suggested by the advertising, and there were none of the ‘surprises’ we were promised, ghostly or otherwise. Chetam’s is a Manchester gem but it needs the light to bring out the sparkle.


Cake and contemplation


Today I went into Manchester to have lunch with a dear friend. Such is the pace of life and its many demands that we don’t get together as often as we would like. With both of us being off work this week it was an ideal opportunity for a catch up.

I arrived in the city with a couple of hours to spare so I decided to head to one my favourite food places, Earth Cafe at the Buddhist Centre. It’s run as a separate business nowadays but still serves a delicious and healthy vegan menu.



It’s an informal cafe where the staff are always polite and accommodating if not exactly gregarious  – though that can vary from one visit to the next. For me, it’s just so refreshing to not to have to enquire about any ingredients, and everything is fresh and tasty.


Manchester Buddhist Centre is within a repurposed former industrial building whose design legacy still remains, incorporated into the very different 21st century space.



In near solitude I quietly enjoyed my food for thought: coffee and walnut cake….


…..with only the laughing Buddha for company.


I pondered the changing face of this city where industry had been replaced by commerce and hospitality, including the very spot where I sat. What would the Mancunian industrial giants of  a century ago make of all of this? Of how we can choose to live now. Of our choices about what we consume. About what we revere and how we find spiritual expression in the 21st century.

Manchester, one-time exporter of textiles to the world, now weaves philosophies from the east into the fabric of city life. No wonder the Buddha is laughing!

I still had nearly an hour until I was due to meet my friend so I decided to have a look around the Buddhist Centre ethical shop where there was a selection of statues, books and meditation accoutrements…



….and a comfortable and peaceful place to sit and read…


I chatted with one of the staff who told me that yesterday had been an important date: the anniversary of Buddha’s death. For the community, this commemoration had been the focus of a special meditation ceremony which took place at the main shrine. I was asked if I would like to take a look, and of course I happily accepted.


The larger of the Centre’s two shrines is a peaceful and airy space painted in an uplifting shade of sunflower yellow. Its focal point is a beautiful and unusual representation of the Buddha, of somewhat European appearance, including blue eyes.


Placed around the shrine were some photographs of loved ones who had died within the last 12 months, along with floral tributes, trinkets and treasured possessions. I haven’t included any photographs close up for obvious reasons.

A special reminder of a loved one




A bowl of white flowers, still fresh and slightly fragrant, will remain in place until they fade and finally decay, at which point they will be removed; a reminder of the natural cycle of life and death.


Left to look around on my own, I sat for a while enjoying the peace before bidding the dead farewell and returning to rejoin the living and life in all its colour.










Out on the tiles


Readers of some of my other posts may know that I am very fond of ceramics, in particular the high-glazed pottery tiles synonymous with the Victorian arts and crafts movement. I love the lustrous decadence of the rich intense colours from the period, and  the opulent crackle of the glaze.

Some of the best examples can be found beneath our feet gracing the ticket halls and the platforms of subterranean train stations or even the humble relics of gentlemen’s public conveniences. I have been known to visit places ( not men’s toilets!)  just for the tiles, whilst on other occasions I have made unexpected discoveries, sometimes in unlikely places. Here are three of my favourites in the city of Manchester.

1. The Principal Hotel ( formerly the Palace Hotel). This grade 2 listed building on The corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street was built between 1891 and 1895 by the architect Alfred Waterhouse for the Refuge Assurance Company, a very successful insurance business. The outside of the building is nothing extraordinary….


…but the inside is glorious!


I love the glamour and the sense of the exotic conjured by the pillars and foliage. The design is of glazed brick and Burmantofts faience, a decorative style of architectural terracotta and glazed pottery which used warm cream, buff, rich orange and rusty tones. The Burmantofts company emerged in Leeds in the late 1850s with Waterhouse being one of their patrons.



An overseas-based friend and I meet in Manchester once a year when she visits family in the city. Our venue of choice is almost always the Palace where for a couple of hours we can escape the Manchester rain and the hustle and bustle of the world outside and marvel at the sparkling chandeliers’ reflections on the glossy surfaces of the walls around us as we indulge in afternoon tea.



2. Peveril of the Peak. This iconic Manchester public house has stood near the Bridgewater Hall since the 1820s and is named after the novel of the same title written by Sir Walter Scott (better known as the author of Ivanhoe) in 1823, but set in the 17th century.



Peveril is brilliant. It’s actually nothing special inside, but wonderfully incongruous in its modern and muted surroundings this Victorian pottery pub is also grade II listed. Some of the outer tiles were added in the 1920s but have remained unaltered since – happily for those of us who like its style.




3. J&J Shaw Ltd. This is my favourite doorway in Manchester.


J & J Shaw established the furniture warehouse in 1924. This place is a hidden gem, tucked away close to Oxford Road train station.  I love the colours and the detail and can never resist tracing the shapes of the smooth leaves and fruits when I pass by. Its gorgeous art-deco entrance hints at the possibility of stylish furnishings that customers might have perused once they had stepped through the pottery portal. How exciting! They don’t make doors like they used to, do they?












This Sensation of Flying

On 15th September 1830, actress Fanny Kemble was one of a group of lucky VIPs gathered in Liverpool to be part of a very spectacular event: the world’s first inter- city train journey.

The train – Rocket – set off from Liverpool on its historic journey to Manchester. Rocket’s coal-hungry furnace fired its powerful pistons, driving the steam engine to a mind-blowing top speed of 35 miles an hour; no great feat to the 21st century passenger, but Fanny Kemble and all those on board would surely have been awe-struck.


Fanny is reported to have said of the experience, “ I closed my eyes and this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”

This print from 1831 on display at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry shows an early journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Also on display at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, this sketch shows the variety of goods and passengers and the range of carriages in use

In 1830 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and Britain was renowned as the workshop of the world. A railway linking the port of Liverpool to the coal and textile centres of Manchester and the rest of Lancashire would make for speedy transportation of goods and raw materials and would offer fast passenger transport to those who could afford it.

There had been other steam locomotives before, but Rocket was the first of its typeinvented and built by father and son George and  Robert Stephenson at their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the Rainhill Trials in 1829. The Trials had been set up to choose the best locomotive for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway which would open the following year. Despite a tragic accident where Rocket struck and killed the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, near to what is now Newton-le-Willows station,  Rocket won the contest and became the design template for almost all steam locomotives that would follow.

Rocket continued to run on the Liverpool to Manchester line into the 1840s before becoming obsolete when better engines were developed. After 150 years at the London Science Museum and a short stint in Newcastle in early 2018, Rocket returned last September to the site of her maiden run at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.


A few weeks ago I travelled, by train, to nearby Manchester to see the world’s first inter-city loco, which will stay in Manchester until April before moving to the National Railway Museum in York.



I had been expecting Rocket to be bigger, but that apart I was fascinated and quite moved to be up close to this historical ‘game-changer’.





It was easy to imagine how those first passengers, having only been used to travelling by horse and carriage or possibly on a canal barge, must have felt as they moved at a fantastical speed.

Rocket arrived triumphant at Liverpool Road Station, which was built for the occasion in 1830 and is the oldest railway station in the world which is still in existence. It is within the Museum of S&I where it has been lovingly restored.





An 1830s view of Rocket as she zooms past

The original track

Inside the station, visitors can enjoy some of the original fixtures and fittings.





The booking clerk’s desk 

The spacious exhibition area provides a sense of the proportions, comfort and overall impressiveness of the station in its glory days. Anybody who was lucky enough to travel by train must have felt quite important.



The exhibition is interesting and tells the story of train travel from that first journey to the present day.

As with all new technology, railways were not welcomed by everybody, especially those whose commercial interests might suffer. This sketch of the time shows thin and redundant horses singing for their suppers because of the decline in canal traffic

Bust of George Stephenson

I would love a copy of this print

Within the Museum’s large engineering exhibition hall I found another of Stephenson’s locomotives, Planet, whose improved design later rendered Rocket obsolete.


My journey home on another Northern line was somewhat faster once the train eventually arrived, 40 minutes late and with two of its four carriages out of action. My carriage seemed considerably more congested than those depicted in the 1830s sketches looked to be, but at least I wasn’t open to the elements. Things have come a long way since Fanny Kemble’s delightful sensation of flying……… possibly 😉.

Manchester Canal Walk

At this time of year I love to spend cosy weekends at home with books and copious cups of tea, pottering about and conserving energy to keep those winter bugs at bay; but it’s good to get out sometimes, to blow away those cobwebs.

I decided on a Sunday afternoon visit Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Rather than push through the crowds of Christmas shoppers, I opted for a relaxing stroll along the Rochdale Canal.


The Rochdale Canal runs down into the city of Manchester from high in the Pennine hills. In the late 18th and early 19th century it was key to the city’s industrial growth, through the transportation of cotton and finished goods to and from the plethora of mills and canal-side warehouses.



Of course, the industrial buildings have all now been repurposed, some as swanky offices or apartments, or even trendy clubs and restaurants.


The Sun was shining and quite a few people were out cycling or running or, like me, finding a quieter path through the city clamour.




Locals of the feathered variety ventured out from their desirable residences.



An art installation celebrates the late famed Tony Wilson, Mr Manchester: journalist and broadcaster, founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub.



I walked by Deansgate in the direction of Castlefield, passing under dark low bridges and alongside swelling lock gates holding back walls of water



A couple of work men repaired railings on the towpath


A little further ahead, Castelfield hub offered light and space




The wharfs and basins around Castlefield, once a hive of commerce where boats were unloaded at the city warehouses, is now one of the most popular spots in the city, especially in summer where people gather on the towpath and at the bars and restaurants. A wedding party posed for photographs. I offered my congratulations as I passed.




A small cluster of boats is permanently moored ….


….where an attractive space is used for outdoor performances and recreation. A single practitioner of Tai Chi moved gracefully whilst a group of boys practised skateboard stunts on the steps a short distance away, where my canal walk reached its end.










Walking the Manchester Curry Mile


It’s said that variety is the spice of life, and a walk along Manchester’s spiciest street is nothing if not varied.

Rusholme is a district of Manchester just outside the city centre. It is term-time home to a large student population residing in local halls of residence. It’s also a  global village of different communities, mainly from south east Asia.

A hundred years ago, Rusholme was leafy and salubrious, and notable amongst its more illustrious residents were the Pankhursts, champions of women’s suffrage. Now, many of the larger Edwardian and Victorian houses have been turned into student flats.

The area is most famous for its curry mile which attracts fans of international cuisine from all over Manchester and beyond. Actually, the curry mile descriptor  probably needs to be updated, as there are now more eateries selling Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish and Afghani  food than there are Indian curry establishments.





It’s a bit run down, and daylight hours don’t show Rusholme at its best; it’s after dark that it comes alive and the bright lights illuminate the street scene with delicious oriental aromas enticing spice lovers through the many welcoming doors.



World-food stores sell a vast range of unusual ingredients with  lush fruits and vegetables displayed out front.




The start and end of the curry mile are marked by public parks. I started my walk at Platt Fields at the south end where Manchester Museum of Costume is located. I’ve visited the Museum previously but it is currently closed for cataloguing of exhibits and to deal with a moth problem.


Platt Fields is used a lot for community events, including festivals which always involve lots of delicious food. The local communities associated with Rusholme are represented in art on the outbuildings.





Within Platt Fields is the remains of a link to Manchester’s distant past. The Nico ditch is what is left of an ancient earthwork, the purpose of which is not known for certain, though there are some interesting theories. The section of the Nico ditch which skirts Platt Fields is now listed as a protected ancient monument. It isn’t easy to locate, as much of the signage around the park is weather-beaten and unclear. I have tried to highlight the ditch below.



The ditch runs across what was the old border between Manchester and Stockport. It isn’t known when it was constructed; some time during the 600 years or so between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving, it is thought. Possibly a defensive work to keep out Viking invaders from the Danelaw; possibly, and less dramatically, a simple boundary marker, Nico ditch’s purpose is subject to speculation. There are a lot of ‘maybes’. My favourite Nico folklore narrative tells how it was built in one night by the men of Manchester, each man building a section as tall as himself, to keep out the Norsemen.

Nearby, Platt Fields wildlife feasts on nature’s offerings, concerned only with the present.



Back on Wilmslow Road again, we find Hardy’s Well.


Once a popular watering hole, last orders were finally called in 2016 but the pub has become iconic because of the poem of the same name – a celebration of alliteration – which is composed upon its gable wall.

Hardy’s Well is the creation of Lemn Sissay MBE, Chancellor of the University of Manchester and poet of the 2012 London Olympics amongst his many accolades. Unfortunately, Lemn has neglected the addition of possessive apostrophes.


Lemn Sissay was born in Wigan, about 18 miles from Manchester, and brought up in the care system after his mother, an Ethiopian student, was initially unable to look after him. Lemn has described bitterly in print and in film his early life in care and has recently succeeded in claiming compensation from Wigan Council. As a young adult, Lemn reclaimed his Ethiopian heritage and the name given him at birth. His poetry is internationally renowned but Hardy’s Well is my favourite. Yesterday was National Poetry Day in the UK with the theme being ‘change’. I thought it very apt that Hardy’s Well graces a spot which had seen an incredible amount change over the last century.

The property developers who have bought the building have undertaken to preserve the iconic script but the vandals have already got to work making their own marks.

Negotiating the crowds gathering to share mouth-watering masalas and tantalising tikkas, I savoured the aromas and admired window displays of Bollywood fashions as I continued along the curry mile.



Whitworth Park is at the north end of the curry mile near to the University and the city’s main hospitals. Whitworth Gallery is alongside. It’s one of my favourite galleries: modern, unpretentious and always with a thought-provoking exhibition.


Manchester has become famous for its bees which represent the city’s resilience and industrial heritage. Bee sculptures  can be found all over the city and here are two at the Whitworth.



I do love a roll of wallpaper with a bold pattern, and I was not disappointed by the examples included in the exhibition, Bodies of Colour: breaking wallpaper stereotypes.




I wondered who would want a gallows scene on their wall, or even the rather unsettling ‘Sindy’ print from the mid 1970s. The character in the pink outfit and shades would surely keep any child awake at night!


Thread Bearing Witness, an exhibition by Alice Kettle, celebrates the lives and contributions of female refugees who have come to live in the Manchester area. Their traumas and aspirations are expressed through their contributions to the exhibition.





I finished my walk along the curry mile with a look around the Whitworth Art Garden where haute cuisine seemed to be the order of the changing day.


Street Gallery – The art of Manchester’s northern quarter


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.


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!



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.