Paisley and pin-ups in a Bulgarian military ruin.
Wednesday 11 March 2015
Despite having spent most of my life there, it’s embarrassing how little I’ve seen of England. I guess I always took it for granted – I’d barely even set foot in the northern half of the country (rushing through once, on my way to Scotland), overlooking it completely in my eagerness to get out to more ‘exotic’ destinations. In the last four years I’ve spent much more time in China, for example, than I have in the British Isles.
Besides, I knew that England wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t like Cuba or North Korea, pariah states clinging to outmoded ideologies, and whose political realities sometimes feel so fragile, so isolationist, that at any moment you wonder if they might disappear into war zones or UN protectorates before you can get there.
Nevertheless, I always felt a strange kind of guilt at not knowing my own country better; and so when I had a chance to visit Manchester last November – the “Capital of the North” – along with the invitation of meeting some local urban explorers, naturally I jumped at the opportunity.
From the first moment I arrived in Manchester, I could sense there was something special about the place. It was all glass and red bricks, old stone warehouses, and canals that weaved this way and that through mossy trenches. The air tasted damp and smokey, and now, approaching the run-up to Christmas, the streets were decorated with German-style wooden markets that added their own aromas of bratwurst and glühwein to the general atmosphere.
It’s always funny when you meet other people who are into this stuff. Identities might be blurred, but in this world a person’s worth is often measured in the quality of their anecdotes… and usually, you’ll have more in common than you expect.
Besides the mutual friend who’d introduced us, we found we’d been on some of the same rooftops in London – and with the same people. It turned out that we even had a mutual friend in Ukraine, where we had visited the same system of storm drains beneath Kiev. I told them some of my stories, and Fishbrain told me about the time he’d scaled the Great Pyramid of Giza. It felt like catching up with old friends.
Sooner than I knew it, we’d reached the first stop on this evening’s tour of lesser-known Manchester hang-outs: and it was going to be a high one.
Rooftop: Green Quarter
The building itself was nothing extraordinary, just your average residential block nestled in the Green Quarter north of Manchester’s city centre. We found our way inside easily enough, walking and talking with all the confidence of life-long tenants before making our way to the lift and thumbing a button for the top floor.
The stairwell to the roof was locked, but my guides knew a ladder that would get us there. The one minor caveat – it was attached to the outside of the building.
Here things got a little more interesting… as we popped open a corridor window, reversing ourselves out through the gap, one after another, to get a footing on a metal frame screwed to the exterior brickwork. We were somewhere around a dozen floors up by this point, and while an adjacent rooftop served to block a direct fall all the way to street level, it didn’t incline me to hang on any less securely.
The metal alloy felt flimsy, hollow, but it held firm. Climbing up a floor I pulled myself over the ledge and onto the first level of rooftop. There was another step to go though, and by the time I’d made another ladder climb from this empty rooftop to the next one up, it was beginning to rain on us.
From up here however, the views made everything worthwhile. I’d been in Manchester for a grand total of around an hour so far, and already I was looking down on the city from above. It took on a new characteristic from this angle – the Victorian red bricks faded away into the inky darkness beneath us, while the city’s modern architecture, its glass towers and floodlit domes, grew up like crystal fungi.
Fishbrain and Tweek pointed out the local landmarks, giving me a crash course in Manchester’s urban iconography; as I set up a tripod, sliding around on the wet rooftop moss and battling the persistent raindrops that smeared their way across my camera lens.
Just south of us sat the curious, rounded bulk of the new office building at One Angel Square, glowing like an electric egg against the red-black sky. Beyond that, south and east, the City of Manchester Stadium: home to Manchester City FC.
North, meanwhile, lay a building that I recognised immediately – HM Prison Manchester, or to use the site’s catchier former name, Strangeways Prison. The black star and its grim ventilation tower smouldered with a smoky aura, a dead shadow against the urban night-lights.
Strangeways Prison is one of England’s more notorious high-security facilities, and made headlines with a riot back in 1990. Built in the late 19th century, the prison follows the classic panopticon design featuring ten wings arranged around a central core. It was once claimed that the 16-foot thick walls were unbreachable – though numerous breakouts over the years have served to put that particular theory to rest.
All in all, not a bad introduction to the city. It was time to get closer though – to touch the stones of Manchester, and peer into the forgotten space beneath its red-brick streets.
Air-Raid Shelter: Victoria Arches
We picked up beers from a corner shop, and walked through the Christmas market – mingling amongst the crowds that jostled for sausages and chestnuts along the riverfront. At the end of the market we reached Manchester’s cathedral, where my guides began to tell me about one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the sealed-up tunnels that lay beneath our feet.
Known as the Victoria Arches, these subterranean spaces in the heart of Manchester were built inside the embankment on the River Irwell. The idea back then – in the first half of the 19th century – was to develop the expanding city into vertical dimensions, hollowing out spaces beneath the riverbank that could serve as industrial and storage space. Another 20 years later, and a small jetty had been built at water level to turn the arches into a landing stage for steamboats on the river.
These spaces were prone to flooding though, leading to the closure of the steam-packet service not long after. The arches reverted to storage space after that, until the outbreak of WWII.
As a focal point of British industry and commerce, Manchester would become a prime target for German air raids. In 1940 the Luftwaffe hit the city hard, and over two consecutive nights in December there were 684 casualties caused by falling bombs. As a result, the Victoria Arches were converted into shelters – with blankets and medical bays, all the facilities required to safely accommodate as many as 1,600 people overnight.
And that was the end of their story. The arches fell into disuse after the war, the access stairs were removed in the late 20th century, and despite ongoing talks to reopen the site as a tourist attraction the arches have been bricked up ever since.
“You want to see inside?” Fishbrain asked, and half an hour later I was strapping myself into a climbing harness, clipping on ropes, and getting ready to abseil down into an abandoned air-raid shelter. We’d been joined by two more Manchester explorers, as well… for a want of better pseudonyms, I’ll call them ‘A’ and ‘L’.
Three of us went down – Fish, A and myself. The room we landed in was small, musty, with antiquated switches set into one wall and the floors littered with an assorted debris of broken ceramic, pipes and old, shattered crates. I detached myself from the rope, and we set off deeper into the warren.
The history of the Victoria Arches was written clear upon these walls – painted signs pointing the way to arches numbered 1 through to 16, their stylised arrows belying a hint of 1940s art deco. It was difficult to judge the size of the place; this was not a purpose-built bunker, designed for safety and efficiency with a neat grid layout, but rather it felt more like an accidental space that had been reclaimed, repurposed in a hurry.
Some arches were linked to one another at both ends. Others had to be accessed via connecting corridors, which led us about through flights of steps and stairs. In the lavatories, a centre table was piled high with china cisterns and washbasin stands. Cubicle doors hung on loose hinges, dark, varnished wood giving way to rot in the damp river air.
Local rumour has it that tunnels connect the arches to several nearby shops. I didn’t see any evidence of that, but we did find the staircase that led up to a sealed entrance in front of the cathedral. We explored the inside of the bridge itself, as well – in place of a brick lining, the ceiling of the final arch extended up into a square hollow of modern concrete where electrical cables poked through into the arches to illustrate the interweaving of history and contemporary infrastructure.
Back on the surface, Tweek and L were still lurking near the cathedral, keeping a watchful eye on our ropes. Eventually we pulled ourselves back up to stand beside them: five men in dark clothes, stood on the steps of a Grade I listed building in the centre of a major city, within full view of the bustling Christmas-shopping crowds while clutching beer cans, torches, toolkits and a sack full of climbing gear. Had this been London, we’d likely be explaining ourselves to the Metropolitan Counter Terrorism Unit by this stage. But here? Not so much as a raised eyebrow.
Busted at the Brewery
It was during the third leg of our Manchester tour that luck ran dry. The target was an old brewery building whose tower had recently been scheduled for renovation. This meant scaffold – and scaffold generally leads to a decent view.
Our team of five approached the site, past Keep Out signs, right up to the perimeter wall. Here in a corner, hidden from streetlights, we began to climb up and over the barrier, one after another. Landing on the other side, the first of us ducked across an open lawn into the shadow of the brewery, before skirting around the corner and out of sight. I went last. The wall was a fair bit taller than me – 8 feet, perhaps – but with a jump I caught hold of the lintel with my fingertips, boots kicking against smooth brick as I pushed, pulled, then tumbled over the barrier into the fenced-off zone.
I hadn’t even caught my breath, before L came flying back around the corner of the brewery.
“Guard!” he hissed, dodging past and throwing himself back over the wall. I groaned, and for a moment wondered if I’d rather climb that thing again, or take the telling-off.
I climbed it.
Meanwhile, Tweek, A and Fishbrain had been caught red-handed as they tried to engage the scaffold. He wasn’t too bad, they told us later, as we regrouped around a bench beside the river; the security guard had shouted a bit, but in a well-mannered sort of way.
As Meatloaf sang, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. By this point L was heading home, but the rest of us weren’t ready to quit – and after a rooftop, a relic and a write-off, we all agreed that the only logical conclusion to the night would be a good, old-fashioned drain.
Storm Drain: The Works
Drains seem to be a major draw of urban exploration in Manchester; largely because, by all accounts, there are tons of them about. On this particular evening we were headed to a system known locally as ‘The Works.’
The Works is a 19th century brick pipe flowing into the River Irk, which serves as a combined sewer overflow – this basically means that while the drain gets regularly flushed through with stream- and storm-water, it’s probably best to avoid touching the walls if you can help it.
We parked up close to the river on the edge of a residential estate, pulling on gloves and waders, slinging camera bags over shoulders. We might have been mistaken for a gaggle of over-keen fly fishers, had it not been for our conspicuous lack of rods. Fishbrain assured us that the entrance to The Works lay close by; though as it turned out, traversing the steep river bank proved slightly less simple than expected.
Waders are fantastic when it comes to deep water… but when traversing any other kind of terrain, they’re just ridiculous. Pushing through long grass and brambles in the darkness, we made slow progress down the slope towards the water – trying a few different routes before Fishbrain eventually got us to the riverbank, where we plopped clumsily into the currents in single file like ducklings following their mother.
The water reached our waists as we waded along the edge of a brick embankment, coming finally upon the culvert set into its flank. Even before the opening popped into sight however, we could already smell the welcoming aroma of the drain.
The Works is a simple enough system – it’s certainly no Maze – but what the drains lacks in complexity it makes up for in character. Aside from a few spray-crete sections, the majority of the tunnels were formed from old, yellowed stone; rough, weathered bricks that exuded the miasma of century-old effluence.
Sploshing along in the dark, torch beams dancing across the stream while four pairs of waders marked time with a sound like rubber crickets chirping, we passed a handful of features along the journey: a child’s bicycle, rusted and festooned with scraps of tissue, set into an alcove; a bricked-up junction where a plastic doll smiled down on us from its slimy ledge – they called this one the ‘Drain Fairy.’
It wasn’t long before we reached the focal point of the drain. The tunnel stopped abruptly, our passage barred by a brick wall… but here a stairway opened up in the wall beside us, a dozen steep and slimy steps that pooled and ran over with the silty overflow from somewhere up above. We climbed against the trickling stream – hard work, in waders – until at last we emerged into the sluice chamber.
The space was vaguely reminiscent of the arches we’d explored earlier in the night; but here, split in two by a gully that ran down the centre, and dominated by a circular sluice gate hanging from chains over one end of the stream. We crossed the metal bridge beside the penstock, its rusted frame bending and bowing with each step. We took photos, chatted, joked around… even climbed down into the trench to get a look at the bisecting drain below us, a system that appeared fully deserving of its nickname: ‘Inhospitable.’ But that was a drain for another day.
It was sometime in the early hours of morning when we finally got back to the car. Before we’d had a chance to peel off our filthy layers of rubber however, we’d enjoy a brief encounter with Her Majesty’s Finest.
The police car pulled up alongside us, most likely called out on a tip-off from a worried resident. Stood there in the dark, sweaty, tired and dripping with slime, we must have looked even less like criminals than we did fishermen. Tweek muttered something to them about nature photography and the police moved on. They didn’t believe a word of it of course, but the four of us were sober, polite, and most likely perfumed with the discouraging aroma of sewage. Nobody wants that in the back of their car.
So this was Manchester. My first taste of the famous Northern Capital. As far as introductions go, it doesn’t get much better: in just one evening I’d seen a full cross-section of the city, above and below, from the rooftops to the sewers. I’m already looking forward to my second crack at it.
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