The Northern Quarter wasn’t called the Northern Quarter when I was at university in Manchester in the late 1980s. It wasn’t called anything. Bits of it were known as Back of Piccadilly or Towards Ancoats but it wasn’t one neighbourhood and from memory it was ‘right skanky’. I only braved its rainy streets to attend gigs at the fabulous and famous Band On The Wall venue, which I’m delighted to say is still full of life.
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Clever planning, innovative urban design, a canny rebranding exercise and goodness knows how many millions of pounds later, the Northern Quarter is Manchester’s hippest ’hood.
Those behind the NQ movement have worked wonders, creating a bustling, creative city within a city, which has – crucially – maintained Manchester’s unique gritty-but-friendly identity. It’s full of great pubs, top bistros and cafes, independent record shops, fashion boutiques, art galleries, design stores, recording studios, and an incredible collection of street art.
It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny Friday evening in May when I arrived, and the after-work drinkers were embracing the balminess with gusto. The bars were packed and people were spilling out onto the pavements. Couples were dancing to the tunes of an impressive busking string quartet. There was a good-natured hum all around.
The much-recommended Bay Horse Tavern and The Blue Pig were both fully booked so I wandered in the sunlight down the back alleys until I stumbled on Pie & Ale. For those not familiar with this great northern city, it’s very much a pie ’n’ ale town. Since I was here last this passion for pies has matured into an obsession. Numerous venues serve them filled with anything from plain old steak and ale to lentil curry, goat’s cheese and even spiced duck served on a banana leaf. Pie & Ale’s venison and stilton version was excellent.
As I tucked into it and downed a delicious pint of local beer, a kid with mop-top hair furtively handed me a flyer advertising a nearby underground club. Back in 1988 I’d have jumped at the offer but on a warm May evening in 2018 I favoured something more leisurely: pints in a couple of old city centre haunts – Mr Thomas’s Chop House on Cross Street, which still does fantastic fish and chips, and the City Arms on Kennedy Street, which still has one of the best selections of local real ales in town.
If you’re after something more romantic, the cosiest and most intimate spot in town is back in the Northern Quarter, in the lobby bar of the cute, new 16-room Cow Hollow Hotel on Newton Street. It’s small and very laid-back, the music’s great and the barman makes a wicked salted caramel espresso martini. If you’re staying here, they’ll serve you free Prosecco every evening, which is a nice touch.
Next morning, bright and early – about 11-ish – I strolled through the back streets to seek out some of the Northern Quarter’s stunning street art. This has largely been the work of the Cities Of Hope project which invites leading street artists to create pieces to raise awareness of social issues. As the district still has some undeveloped corners, there are quite a few brick wall canvases crying out for some spray paint. My favourite was an eye-catching piece of street art on Faraday Street by excellent Norwegian stencil artist Martin Whatson (feature image).
These murals change – as do most things in the ever-evolving NQ – but hopefully the bright yellow bees will still be on the wall of the old public loo in Stevenson Square when you visit. The worker bee symbol is a frequently occurring Manchester motif that represents the city’s world-famous industrial heritage.
For a late lunch I dropped in to the diner-style Koffee Pot café on Oldham Street, consuming a northern fry-up and a vast pot of tea – perfect fuel for a shopping blitz. Down at the southern edge of the Northern Quarter is Afflecks, a labyrinthine indoor market with more than 70 independent stores wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder over several floors. Whatever your style you will find clothes, records, haircuts and even tarot readings to match. The Joy Division t-shirt I bought is getting favourable comments back here in Australia but in retrospect I probably didn’t need the Mexican leather ammunition belt or the top hat.
That evening I retraced my 1989 student steps to Band On The Wall where I swapped stories with people I didn’t know and saw a group I had never heard of play songs I didn’t recognise. But that’s Manchester, then and now – edgy and gritty but indefatigably friendly and always tremendous fun. The Northern Quarter has studied its city’s secrets and, amazingly, improved on them.
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