Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Welcome to Manchester

Since quite a high percentage of the readers of this blog will be decamping to Manchester this coming week for work purposes, it seemed the ideal opportunity to offer up an entirely personal guide to that city.

Anyone coming will, when they get their conference guide, have details of more political outings and events in the city this coming week – so they're not getting repeated here.

First, let's clarify that Coronation Street is a fantasy. And you don’t have to go around saying ‘Ee by gum’ all the time – but if people – male or female – do call you 'love', don't worry: it's a regional term of endearment and not some sort of insult.

What must be stressed – and this is essential for first-time visitors – is that football is pretty much a religion in the city.

And there is only one football team that comes from Manchester: despite misleading names, the 'other' one comes from the Borough of Trafford in the city of Salford.

Now it's only a short time since the end of the season, so don’t be surprised if you find a few conference goers and staff getting together to party, in celebration of City’s FA Cup win. Indeed, after a bit of a drought on the football success front, please excuse us if we're still a bit giddy.

There are two sensible reasons to visit Salford: one is to go to the real Old Trafford, which is the home of Lancashire County Cricket Club, and the other is to visit the Lowry Centre, where you can enjoy its wonderful collection of works by LS Lowry.

If you get the chance, I heartily recommend the latter.

In terms of the former, it’ll probably be raining, so you won’t have the chance. There exists a general view that the reason that Lancs haven’t won cricket’s County Championship for many, many years is because of the rain levels in Salford. Which is also why a certain football ground in the vicinity is sometimes referred to as ‘The Swamp’.

In fact, the region doesn’t actually have the kind of high rainfall that it is notorious for. It has less precipitation, indeed, than Porto in Portugal (1,253.5mm per annum as opposed to Manchester’s 806.6mm), but of course you never hear things like that.

The rainfall was also one of the reasons for the thriving cotton industry, which was the source of the area's industrial wealth. And in spite of the regeneration – some of which is brilliant and some of which is less so – you can still find the architectural signs of that industrial heritage.

Stadium tours at the City of Manchester Stadium will be restarting this weekend after the Take That concerts. More details here.

If you have any spare time, then the Manchester Gallery is just a short stroll from the conference centre on Mosley Street. Entry is free and the works by Adolphe Valette, a French Impressionist who painted Manchester – and also tutored Lowry – are well worth a look, even if the Pre-Raphelites are worth dodging by anyone who dislikes the idea of utterly passive (and even dead) women being some artists' idea of beauty.

The wonderful Central Library is unfortunately closed for refurbishment until 2013. But behind it is Albert Square and Manchester’s town hall – a Victorian mock Gothic affair.

But don't let the picture of Mr Gladstone deceive you – it's not all 'grim up North'!

Manchester is also a party town that has a big reputation for producing bands. These have included the likes of the Fall, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Verve, The Chemical Brothers, Oasis and Take That.

Brian and Michael do not count.

If, after a few days, you find yourself automatically adopting a Gallagher brothers swagger, do not worry. There is nothing wrong with this. Although it’s not recommended in high heels.

If you want big time party/clubbing information, then I’m afraid I'm not your woman. You’d be better to rely on the After Dark guide.

Although I will point out that Canal Street – the heart of the city's gay village – can be great fun. Churchills is gloriously loud and brash, pumping out retro disco sounds and staging such quality events as drag karaoke.

Just off Canal Street itself, on Richmond Street, Vanilla is run by the delightful Mary.

There’s music of course, but also absinthe – which may be welcome by the end of a week of political debate and grandstanding.

And I’m delighted to report that, even though the pool table is dinky, this is not a lesbian bar that believes in ‘non-competitive pool’. I was irrevocably scarred by finding such a thing in Amsterdam. How do you try to not pot the bleedin’ balls?

Just off Canal Street is Sackville Gardens, where there's the memorial to Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who, after contributing massively to the WWII effort, with his work on the Enigma code, was hounded to his death for his sexuality.

There are no shortage of shopping opportunities in Manchester, from the Arndale Centre – resurrected as a modern cathedral to consumerism after the IRA bombed the previous incarnation – to the likes of Harvey Nicks (they do a nice ploughman's, I'll say that).

Manchester has plenty of cinemas and theatres, with a varied fare.

The Royal Exchange is a great spot, not just for good theatre, but also because it’s an architecturally stunning old building, with a theatre in the round built inside. Currently on is Arthur Miller’s wonderful A View from the Bridge.

And now – because it would hardly be The Voluptuous Manifesto if we didn’t do this – there’s the small matter of food.

Tragically, the fish ‘n’ chippy that used to stand next to the bus station at Piccadilly is no more. And I don’t know of a good chippy in the central area. Which just seems so wrong to me.

But here are the few recommendations that I can make:

The Pizza Express in Piccadilly Gardens is a good one. I have a certain fondness for the ‘American Hot’, with pepperoni and jalapeno peppers, and a much-needed Peroni on the side.

China Buffet on Nicholas Street in Chinatown is a bargain, offering a cracking selection of dishes with an eat-as-much-as-you-can approach.

From Monday to Thursday, it’s £5.50 from 12am-5pm £5.50 and £8.95 from 5pm-11pm.

On Friday and Saturday, it’s £6.95 from 12am-5pm and £8.95 from 5pm-11pm. Sunday is £7.95 from 12am-11pm.

Booking isn't needed.

At the other end of the eating spectrum is Michael Caines @ Abode, which is just a few metres stroll down from Piccadilly Station.

It ain’t cheap, but it’s excellent and inventive food, as you’d expect of something linked to a Michelin-starred chef who’s worked with Raymond Blanc. The grazing menu is super.

Booking is pretty much essential. The number is 0161 247 7744.

Just as cheap doesn’t always mean poor, so expensive doesn’t always recommend something.

Personally, I’m not intending to eat at the Midland Hotel’s main restaurant, The French. It may have two rosettes, but the menu looks clich├ęd, while the prices – judging on the basis of a Chateaubriand for two being a whopping £69.95 – are OTT, in my opinion. I’ve paid considerably less than £35 for excellent Chateaubriand in Paris (and sitting in the shadow of Napoleon's tomb), so I hope you’ll understand my scepticism.

On the other hand, the hotel’s Wyvern restaurant and bar, which is much more of a brasserie style, looks like it has a decent, modern menu and is far better priced. I'm likely to give it a whirl myself this trip.

For more details on both restaurants at the hotel, click here.

Now I haven't been yet, but the Manchester link in the Gaucho Argentinian steakhouse chain has been recommended. It’s apparently an excellent place to go with a few friends.

The staff are really knowledgeable about the meat and the restaurant does a special platter where a group can have a selection of different cuts cooked in the way that’s appropriate to the cut. Now that sounds like the very best sort of education.

It’s at 2a St Mary Street. Telephone 0161 833 4333 and booking is recommended.

Welcome to our city. Have a great conference and safe journeys to and from Manchester.

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