17 October 2011

Man-fest-erama!, or Man-fest-ter, part 3.

On Sunday, Creative Tourist's Manchester Weekender organised five walking tours! More than a girl can take.

I decided on two of them, specifically, the Psychogeography Walk and the Ancoats Peeps Walk.

The Psychogeography Walk

Psychogeography is all about how spaces affect our mindsets without us even realising. It's about how the history of a place shapes how we think about a place, but also about how corporations and urban planners can affect how we behave and feel in a space, just by how it's laid out and lit and things like that.

While this particular psychogeography walk of Manchester didn't take in too much of the political side of psychogeography, I did learn a lot of history I didn't know about previously. It was run by a woman named Ann... she didn't give a surname or her affiliation w/ the walk... but I didn't ask, either.

We started at St. Ann's Square, a part of town I've always liked (even though it's quite commercial and posh) because it's leafy and old and full of history. The fascinating grave of Thomas Deacon is in St. Ann's Square, calling Mr. Deacon, "the greatest of Sinners and the most unworthy of primitive Bishops." 

Turns out St. Ann's Square is more full of history than I thought.
Originally, St. Ann's was a field, about the size of an acre, cleverly called "Acre's Field," and an annual market was held there starting in 1227. The market would be in September, at harvest time, always on a quarter day. Quarter days were the equinoxes and solstices, and on quarter days back then, a family would pay its bills and manage the affairs of the house. 

This history still affects British society. We pay our electricity bills on the quarter days.

The Manchester Cathedral was part of the Anglican church, and it conducted High services and were Jacobites. But the Lord of the Manor of Manchester (actually a woman named Lady Ann Bland), was a Hanoverian and more into Low church services.

Lady Ann fell out with the Cathedral and decided to build a Low Anglican church on St. Ann's Square; it was built in 1712. Surprisingly she named it St. Ann's. Supposedly because there was a Queen Anne on the throne, but you know... it is a wonderful coincidence.

The Cathedral was Anglican High church.
The Lord of the Manor, Lady Ann Bland (related to the Mosley family of Manchester) fell out with the cathedral as she appreciated the low church style. She was Hanoverian. Both churches were Anglican, just higher or lower. (Side note: Lady Ann Bland was related to the Mosley family of Manchester, who gave their name to a major street, who gave Manchester an outrageous fascist and who gave the city the parcel of land that Piccadilly Gardens now comprises. Influential family.)

After the church was built, the market was moved to Castlefield, and property speculators moved into St. Ann's Square. Houses built, first Georgian, then Victorian style, and they were built from the edge of the acre in. Amazingly, St. Ann's Square still demarcates that same acre... the structure of the city is connected to something from 1227!

The tourguide Ann also told us some interesting things abou the landscape of Manchester that I hadn't considered before:
1. I always think Manchester's very flat. Turns out, the whole Northwest of England is all rolling hills and valleys, and Manchester actually sits on the Irwell river valley. I suppose I knew that, because the Irwell splits Salford from Manchester, but I never thought of it as a valley, or as on a hillside.

2. Because the NW is on rolling land, it wasn't very good for agriculture, and it was sort of a pain in the arse to control. That's why it was rather left alone after the Romans left. Which meant that when there was an Industrial Revolution here, people here knew how to sort out their own industry.

3. The rolling hills were bad for agriculture and only really good for raising sheep. Elsewhere, good flat land was used for food, not wool. But the hills meant that the NW got really good at wool... and thus, at textiles.

4. Also good flat land doesn't have fast streams, but hilly land does. Fast streams meant watermill, which meant power, which meant that the Industrial Revolution in Manchester could power itself here. 

In a way, it had to happen here. It just needed people to work it... and eventually, they came, too.

That walk also took in some of the history of Piccadilly Gardens. It used to be owned by the Lord of the Manor (someone in the Mosley Family, basically), and eventually was given to the city under the condition that it had to be used only for the benefit of the people of Manchester. Meaning the city couldn't build on it or sell it.

Interestingly, Piccadilly Gardens is one of very very few open spaces in MCR that was not once a churchyard. The only reason it's still an open space is because of Mosley's condition. Back then (and now) it wasn't a very nice parcel of land, mostly just clay that people used to daub their houses. Eventually, the council built a free hospital on it – a FREE hospital! Back then! Can you imagine? – and then later, they moved the hospital and put in some sunken gardens.

When those got scuzzy, they broke Mosley's condition, sold part of the Gardens for
10 million pounds, and used that money to renovate the rest of the Gardens. And yet, even after all that money, it's still scuzzy. Unbelievable.

The Ancoats Peeps Walk

Ancoats is a neighbourhood in Greater Manchester, and it's where some of the first mills were. Think horrible working conditions, child labour, tiny streets, darkness, misery, cold, hunger, and early death. 

Steven O'Malley, an engineer on the regeneration project, and Mark Canning, from the NorthWest Development Agency, were our tour guides.

After the Industrial Revolution, Ancoats faced a slow, steady decline, to the point where a couple decades ago, it was a pretty dangerous part of town. These days, though, there's been a big change. Ancoats has a harsh, stark beauty.

It's undergone a major regeneration project, led by the now-defunct Northwest Development Agency, and while I will always find regeneration to be a politically contentious, debatable, double-edged sword that raises all kinds of questions about class, rights, and "authenticity," there are some things about the Ancoats regeneration project that are really interesting and exciting.

For one: 
Ancoats, as a neighbourhood, never had a public square. It wasn't somewhere people lived and communed, it was a place to come, drudge all day and into the night, and then eventually leave. As part of the regeneration, the NW Development Agency (NWDA) wanted to maintain the character of Ancoats, but also make it more livable, so they fought to knock down some derelict mills to build a new public square, called The Cutting Room Square.

Ok, the name's got an unnatural feeling. The Cutting Room Square? But I'm sure people will develop a better name for it eventually. And it's a nice public space, outside the former St. Peter's church, that still feels in keeping with the rest of Ancoats. Mostly concrete and brick. Not many trees. I like trees as much as anyone, but it would be weird to suddenly plonk a bunch down in the middle of an area as industrial-looking as Ancoats.

Here is another:
The Ancoats Peeps are an art project that was undertaken and installed during the renovation works in Ancoats. They are unmarked brass eye-pieces, fitted into walls and surfaces around Ancoats. This one is peeping out of the stone structure.

No one's saying exactly how many there are, only that there are about 18, or exactly where all of them are, only that there is a vague map. As the website says, 

"If it seems that there is no clear explanation as to what the Peeps are, or exactly how many there are, or where they are, that is because there is no explanation to be had. The Peeps are to be stumbled across. They may not all be found, and there is no single explanation as to what they are, or what they are about."

We saw some of the Peeps on this walk, but the guides made it clear that we wouldn't see all of them. The artist's vision, I suppose. I looked in one Peep that was on the outside wall of a former mill. Through it, I saw an illuminated picture of the inside of that mill, back when it was still in use.

Another Peep allows you to see deep underground, to a tunnel that connected several buildings of a mill complex. More on those nefarious, dark, damp tunnels later.

They all have something different to show you, relating to the history of Ancoats, the character of the neighbourhood. As our super-friendly tourguide Steven O'Malley said, the Peeps are about "acknowledging the history of Ancoats, and reinvesting that history into its regeneration." 

A lot of regeneration projects seem to just try to make up a false history for the neighbourhood. I like the Ancoats approach better. Let's not forget that people lived horrible horrible lives here, that the rich minted their money off the teeth and nails and bones and hair of the brutally poor. Let's pay attention to how these buildings were built, and why.

During the tour, we went into Murray's Mills, which was the oldest steam-powered mill complex in the world, built in 1797. They NWDA renovated and saved the fabric of the building, but right now, it serves no real function inside. 

In fact, there's even some leftover old mill junk still on the bottom floor! In the 1800s, you wouldn't have been able to see very far ahead of yourself, as the whole floor would have been filled with cotton dust. And children as young as 8 years old would be working there, 6 days/week.

It's waiting for someone to come along w/ some money to fix up the inside and use it well. I did see the Library Theatre production of Hard Times here. Since there's no proper stage or seating, they did it as a promenade-style play. Manchester's Central Library is undergoing renovation of its own, so its theatre company has no home. It's been doing some cool experimental stuff like that.

Murray's Mill actually has a man-made pond in the middle, which used to connect to the canal, so goods could come to the mill by boat!

Steven & Mark also showed us the brass studs in the roads, which show where there are underground tunnels linking mill buildings.

Back then, once workers were in the mill, they weren't let out, even to go to another building in the complex. The owners locked them in, and workers had to use tunnels and skywalks to get around. They couldn't physically leave the mills for the whole workday.

And yet, a third:
We also went inside the former St. Peter's church. The NWDA also saved just the fabric of this building, and it's occasionally let out for special occasions, like fashion shows. The night before our visit, there had been a wedding, which is why all the trees were in the building.

It's strange, but I kind of felt like maybe this is how a normal church should look. Bright, with a high ceiling, lots of white, lots of windows, some thin white columns, and a few potted trees. It felt like a good place to pray, if I knew how to pray.

Gorgeous stained glass windows over the alter, showing the reflection of the rose window opposite.

St. Peter's from the outside.

And St. Peter's will soon be serving a purpose, as well! The Hallé Orchestra have decided to move there, so they're going to fix it up and practice there regularly. I can't think of a better use of this space, especially since the Hallé don't yet have their own space.

I don't know what regeneration will mean for Ancoats. I hope it's good for the neighborhood, and I hope it helps. I know it'll probably have its downsides, too, as most regeneration does.

I'm glad, at the very least, that with the regeneration of Ancoats came the Peeps. It's a lovely art project, but it's history and politics, too, and it means something to the area. I think the Peeps make Ancoats a more exciting place. I like knowing that around any corner, there could be a little surprise awaiting me.

It's like a treasure hunt... which is kind of apt for a neighbourhood that once created so much wealth...


  1. The Psychogeography Walk sounds good. Is it a regular thing? Did she mention that the Jacobite army camped around St. Ann's in 1745? Some of my highland ancestors were there, a long way from home. Thomas Deacon's son was a captain and local recruiter for the army, and the Hanoverians executed him not far from the square.
    Also, the tower of St. Ann's and the cathedral used to mark the extent of the city. Until the late 18th century it was just a small town clustered around Market St.
    And the now obscured prominence of the river is reflected in a possible source for the name Deansgate. The Anglo-Saxon word for valley is denu, dene, or daen. Deansgate was the old Roman road, which approached the city along the Irwell valley.

  2. I don't think it's a regular thing, but the Loiterer's Resistance Movement do psychogeography walks pretty regularly. https://twitter.com/#!/thelrm

    She did mention the Jacobites gathering around St. Ann's. Lady Ann Bland must have turned in her grave, she said.

    Interesting stuff about Deansgate!

  3. Check out www.manchesterguidedtours.com for more guided walks with Anne Beswick, who is a professionally qualified Manchester Tour Guide.