In the year 79 AD, a regiment of Roman soldiers, miserable from days of galloping through the northern English countryside, arrived at a clearing, whereupon they spotted a plateau in the distance that resembled a breast. From that encounter came the Roman settlement’s first name—Mamucian—which is apparently the Celtic word for a breast-shaped hill (the Celts having had a word for such a thing). Courtesy a Roman soldier with a notoriously bad Celtic accent, Mamucian became Mamechester, a name which, owing perhaps to a disdain for Jerry Herman musicals, swiftly morphed into Manchester.
Or something like that. I should tell you that I saw no evidence of bosomy terrain during a recent whirlwind trip to England’s third-largest city, Houston’s newest nonstop international destination (via Singapore Airlines). Indeed, after surveying the ancient and demonstrably flat Manchester landscape, I conclude that its moniker is less illustrative of the city than the mental state of Roman soldiers on long deployment.
Be that as it may, there is an unmistakable, well, lustiness to the place, especially these days. From its lively theater and music scenes to its gastronomic pleasantness, Manchester would seem to have elevated small-city living to the level of art. Not surprisingly, its livability is the envy of much bigger places, or ought to be, as Manchester is quite the surprising treat.
“I wouldn’t call it a treat, exactly,” said a man one table over from me at the Teacup Kitchen on Thomas St. in the city’s Northern Quarter, a neighborhood perpetually branded as funky by the guidebooks (e.g., warehouses-turned-lofts, record stores, clothing boutiques, etc.) “But it’s a quite fine place to live,” he added. Not wanting to provoke an international incident—the city was gearing up for a massive anti-Trump protest later that week, after all—I decided not to reply that a fine place was also, ipso facto, a treat. After all, the ensuing contretemps might have spoiled the Teacup’s delightful vibe, itself the product of a fine pot of Chinese tea, the late-winter afternoon, and a life-altering plank of caramel shortbread.
That delightful is not a word one expects to find in sentences about Manchester is perhaps inevitable, given its, well, complicated history. While the city would have been impossible without the Industrial Revolution, the reverse is truer still. Roused from a millennium-long drowsiness, the town was utterly transformed by the 19th-century cotton industry, quickly making a name for itself as the workshop of the world, its streets teeming with thousands of newly-arrived mill workers. Manufacturing begat wealth, which begat a vibrant civic life, which begat an exciting intellectual and cultural scene.
You can still catch a glimpse of that old energy inside what remains of the Royal Exchange, where cotton magnates once traded shares in what may well have been the largest room in the world. (The building took a direct hit during the Blitz, and the rebuilt structure is smaller.) The magisterial John Rylands Library in the town’s center, a rust-hued gothic masterpiece of Cumbrian sandstone, is no less a reminder of past glories, as is the splendid Midland Hotel, in whose lobby Charles Stewart Rolls first met Frederick Henry Royce before the pair rode off into automotive history.
But Manchester’s highs were eclipsed by its lows, at least in history’s recollection. Among the casualties of its success were the city’s children, 8- and 10-year-olds who worked 14-hour days in fetid, airless cotton mills and factories belching smoke so thick it obscured the sun. Small wonder that Dickens used Manchester as the model for his own Coketown, in Hard Times:
It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
Small wonder too that Manchester inspired Friedrich Engels—who came from a family in the cotton trade—to write The Condition of the Working Class in England, the tome which, as you’ll recall from 11th-grade history class, led him to Karl Marx, with whom he coauthored The Communist Manifesto. “Hell upon Earth”—that’s how Engels described Manchester, a place of “debris, refuse, and offal…and a stench which alone would make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilized to live in such a district.”
So why would anyone want to travel so far to see such a place, you ask? Well, for one thing, to discover that Manchester has traveled even further than you.
“We had the first passenger service railway, and also the first fatality,” chuckled John Ryan, a plump, 48-year-old sometime radio announcer who on this day was leading walking tours of the city. “A Liverpool MP ran into the path of an oncoming train.”
The morning was cloudy but bright—Manchester’s grime, soot and pestilential fogs are a distant memory—and Ryan was indulging in the city’s favorite pastime, making fun of its neighbor 30 miles to the west. (Later, while quaffing a pint at Peveril of the Peak, perhaps the most charming Victorian-era pub left on earth, an ambulance could be heard streaking by. “Ah, the Liverpool lullaby,” cracked one of the patrons.)
Actually, Manchester’s favorite favorite pastime, if you want to know, is football. As such, matches between Liverpool and Manchester teams would seem to be the city’s favorite favorite favorite pastime, and so they are, which is to say that venturing anywhere near one of the stadiums on game days is strictly an AYOR affair.
“Manchester is the nucleus of the largest metropolitan area in the north of England,” reads the city’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry, “and it remains an important regional city, but it has lost the extraordinary vitality and unique influence that put it at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.”
Normally, the EB is a publication of unimpeachable authority, especially when it comes to all things Britannica. Alas, in this case, the pronouncement is as outdated as encyclopedias themselves, ignoring as it does how ingeniously the city presents itself: a winning combination of sane urban policy, dynamic cultural opportunities, sensible transportation systems, and affordability. It’s this last bit of intel, by the way, that has particularly caught the attention of rat-race-exhausted Londoners, who are only too happy to trade astronomical costs-of-living for a metropolis with adventurous culinary offerings and a lively cultural scene.
Everywhere, second lives abound: shops, cafes and a spectacular theater-in-the-round now fill the Royal Exchange’s Great Hall; Manchester’s aging central railway station was reborn as a convention center; the city’s wonderful Museum of Science and Industry sprang from a retrofitted 1830 depot (which happens to be the first train station in the world). And the city’s devotion to reincarnation is only growing. On the grounds of a former TV studio, a vast arts and entertainment complex known as The Factory is under construction. The project, with an expected completion date of 2020, will also provide a permanent home for the Manchester International Festival, one of the most lauded cultural events in the entire country.
So, yes, Manchester is a city that has traveled a vast distance, and one with a unique mission: preserving its greatness without the horrific bargains that greatness once required. On that score, there is much reason to hope. Mancunians’ embrace of progressive politics, innovation and fierce independence is as stirring as their 1905 Free Trade Hall on Peter St, birthplace of the suffragette movement. (“It’s the most beautiful building ever named for a political idea,” observed tour guide Ryan.) And if that same building is now a five-star hotel, the Radisson Blu Edwardian, at least its re-imagination—handsome guest rooms and a vast swimming pool in the basement—was handled with taste and full recognition of the structure’s historic importance.
Healthy crowds gather for tours of the newish northern outpost of the BBC, a three-building compound built near a river that’s neither smelly nor purple-dyed any longer. Americans won’t exactly squeal at the sight of soundstages for Match of the Day or BBC Breakfast, a.k.a. Good Morning Manchester. Still, I took pleasure in watching a motley crowd line up for the Jeremy Kyle Show (“think Jerry Springer,” whispered our guide). For reasons I can’t quite articulate, there’s something perversely comforting in discovering that the land of Masterpiece Theater isn’t above a bit of trash TV.
Manchester’s long climb back to formidability hasn’t been without a few odd missteps. The 47-story Beetham Tower, Britain’s tallest building outside London, easily dominates the skyline but inspires none of the awe of sore thumbs elsewhere. On the sort-of plus side, however, the tower has been known to act as a giant tuning fork when the wind hits it right, producing a hum that can be heard all over the city.
But Manchester would probably be humming anyway. Building projects abound, with hard-hatted descendants of mill and factory workers chiseling and drilling their way to a new city, even as they stubbornly take their lunches at Portland Plaice and other ancient eateries, barebones establishments whose menus are holdovers from the days when a chip butty—basically a sandwich filled with fries, and not much else—was actually considered a healthy meal.
Of the many symbols of Manchester’s change through constancy, none is quite as moving as a little red structure that locals like to call the luckiest postbox in the world. It sits in the center of town, mere feet from the spot where, on a June morning in 1996, an IRA bomb was planted in a van. Thankfully, the blast from its detonation, the largest ever felt in Manchester outside of wartime, killed no one, perhaps because of the early hour. Still, as the explosion worked its way through the city’s narrow streets, over 200 people were injured and property damage was massive. Photos from the day show extensive devastation and debris in the blast’s immediate vicinity. But they also show something else, a little red postbox standing sentinel over the area, unfazed by the surrounding destruction.
Then as now, it seems, tragedy was no barrier to triumph, as the bomb jumpstarted a campaign for urban renewal that eventually transformed the site into a vibrant shopping district. And as Mancunians proudly point out, every letter in the little red postbox was eventually delivered.
Singapore Airlines flies nonstop from Houston to Manchester five times weekly from IAH. Roundtrip prices for the 8-hour, 50-minute flight range from around $650 for economy to $1,700 for premium economy, to $3,800 for business class. This story was produced with the assistance of Visit Manchester, the city’s official tourism bureau and a terrific resource for further information.