Everyone thinks they know Manchester, but the popular perception of the city – Tony Wilson quotations, decades-old Oasis songs, endless images of worker bees and all the rest – does a disservice to Manchester and erases the vast majority of its history and culture.
We think Manchester deserves better than that, so here are five of our favourite hidden gems which you might not be aware of…
Ancoats was the world’s first industrial suburb within the world’s first industrial city – Manchester. Originally a collection of fields on the edge of the city centre, the area was changed from idyllic sheep pastures into a grid of factories to take advantage of the new Bridgewater Canal which brought industry into the heart of Manchester.
Today, Ancoats is one of the city’s most in-demand neighbourhoods – but that doesn’t mean its industrial history has been lost. Aside from the repurposed factory buildings which now serve as offices and apartments, a public art display called Ancoats Peeps serves as a reminder of what Manchester once was.
Installed by artist Dan Dubowitz, the Peeps utilise up to 20 locations across Ancoats (the exact number is something of a mystery). At each display, a brass peephole in a wall lets you look through into a walled-up area containing a moment from the past suspended in time – for example, a tunnel, a bell tower or rows of sewing machines.
There are no maps or guides to where all the Peeps are. Instead, passers-by are encouraged to walk around Ancoats and discover the artwork themselves. The work is always changing, with new additions contributing to the overall collection. Good luck finding them all.
Manchester’s Victoria Baths offer a masterclass in how to preserve a city’s heritage and bring it back into use for the modern era. Described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” when it opened in 1906, Victoria Baths provided extensive facilities for swimming, leisure and bathing in surroundings adorned with stunning stained glass and terracotta designs.
The Baths were much-loved and open until 1993, after which they fell into disrepair. That is, until the idea of demolishing them sparked a public outcry and a £3m grant to renovate and reopen them in 2007.
Today, the Baths function as a heritage visitor attraction, event space and arts venue between April and October each year. The long-term aim is to restore the building as a public swimming pool and Turkish Baths, but in the meantime you can enjoy the building as it is and attend any of the dozens of events held there each year.
It is not widely known, but you can navigate a large stretch of the city centre by staying off the main roads and using an alternative set of passageways. St Ann’s Passage, Dalton Entry, Mulberry Passage and others are all decorated with art, with Boardman’s Entry perhaps being the most interesting of all.
Located just off Deansgate, this passageway greets you with four metal umbrellas, but it’s not immediately obvious why. Even when you find out it’s a tribute to John Dalton, it isn’t clear why umbrellas relate to him.
Dalton was an internationally celebrated Mancunian who is known as the ‘father of science’ thanks to his introduction of the atomic theory into chemistry among many other things – and it turns out he also had a keen interest in meteorology.
For more than half a century Dalton kept daily weather records of Manchester, measuring humidity, temperature and atmospheric pressure. It is said that Dalton was never without an umbrella (always wise in Manchester!), and his last recorded words were a weather report for the Manchester Guardian in 1844: “60, 71, 30.18, SW 1, Little Rain.”
Manchester has a radical history that has shaped not just the country, but the world. Through raves, riots and revolutions, Manchester has been at the centre of revolutionary politics for hundreds of years.
Perhaps the greatest radical legacy was left by Friedrich Engels, a Prussian philosopher, writer and social scientist. Engels lived in Manchester for two decades and married a local woman, Mary Burns, who guided his experiences of the industrial working conditions endured by the poorest in society.
This led Engels to write a series of books which changed the world – including The Condition of the Working Class in England, and later The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. The latter was written in Chetham’s Library, the first free public library in Manchester and the English-speaking world as a whole.
Today, you can visit a permanent statue of Engels in the square outside HOME at First Street. The statue was brought back from Ukraine by artist Phil Collins (not that one), who undertook the long journey home with the statue in 2017.
Mr Smith’s Dream
Built into the wall of the Manchester Craft & Design Centre in the Northern Quarter is a curious piece of artwork. Located on Copperas Street, it takes the form of a tiny ceramic staircase spiralling off out of site, and is sure to raise a smile on the face of everyone who sees it.
Designed by ceramicist Liz Scrine, Mr Smith’s Dream pays tribute to a man named Mr Smith who ran a famous pet shop in the area for many years, and dreamt of the strangest things. According to Scrine, Mr Smith was often preoccupied with thoughts of what his animals saw when they slept, regularly dreaming of a parrot’s vision or a sardine’s nightmare.
Mr Smith’s Dream is a representation of those dreams made real, hinting at a captivating secret world up the stairs beyond what we see from day-to-day.