Trip to the UK – Chapter 2: Manchester through sandy eyes

We landed yawning and excited. How the two go together I can’t say. Our luggage came in quickly and everything went smoothly as it should. Until we hit a stop. At the border control our Italian paper IDs raised suspicion. A few questions followed: where do you come from? What’s the nature of your visit in the UK? We were surprised. For the first time in Europe our ID didn’t allow us a swift walk through. When both officers (one for each sister) took out a UV pocket lamp with magnifying glass, concern flashed in our eyes. I could already see them sending us back, our holiday plans going up in smoke (not to mention all the money already spent on festival tickets and accommodation). The officers must have seen us exchange a worried look because they felt obliged to explain that our IDs can be easily forged and it’s difficult for them to check that they are not. Since no other reassuring words followed this explanation, they didn’t comfort us in the least. Then both officers gave us a good scrutinizing look, stared once again at our IDs (back and front with their UV lights) then exchanged a glance and a small nod. We then knew we were safe, though we were left through with a reproachful: “Next time use a passport!”. Not the warmest welcome, dear Britain.

Near Deansgate Station – Castlefield

The cloudy weather that awaited us outside the airport did nothing to lift our spirits. The grumpy welcome at our hotel was yet another disappointment, but by 9 am we were walking the reasonably empty streets of Castlefield. A lucky choice because the area has a fascinating architecture and it’s perfect for a walk to get a first feel for the city. The neighbourhood develops around a small network of canals that were used in the past to transport the carbon inside the city.

Merchants Bridge area – Castlefield

The old brick constructions are beautiful and often converted from industrial buildings. Connecting the southern area is a number of small picturesque bridges. Mixed with the old architecture are some modern structures, some disturbing the landscape more than others. We quickly checked out the Museum of Science and Industry (free entrance) which you shouldn’t miss, especially if you ever visit Manchester with kids.

At the end of our Castlefield exploration we walked towards the Albert square and intrigued by the sight of a nearby building we ended up in the Central Library. A great example of well used technology and a great service to the citizenship. A big hall hosts a basic coffee shop with interactive tables: large tables with a touch screen surface, which allow you to drink your tea while checking out the best sightseeing spots in Manchester or the latest issue of your favorite newspaper. If all tables are taken, a number of totems offer the same content and much more: the history of Manchester through videos and archive documents, audio extracts etc. On the same floor, not far away from the main hall, there is a small cosy performance room, in this case used by some artists participating to the Manchester Jazz Festival. And this is just the reception area (free entrance). We were in awe of this example of British service and efficiency.

Come lunchtime we decided to feed our musical culture as well as our bellies and stopped at the Jazz Festival pavilion for a free concert by Cameron Vale. A young band that gives jazz a modern twist. We left refreshed and recharged, feeling a bit more reconciled with the country.

Chetham’s School of Music

We kept walking following the trail of the Dig the City Festival – a garden festival which was in all honesty, cute, but uneventful – to reach the oldest library in the UK, Chetham’s Library. It took us a little while to figure out where the entrance was since it is hidden inside the Chetham’s School of Music. But once we understood we had to go through the school entrance and be admitted by a grumpy guard, we crossed the arch into a Harry Potter movie. The school was a priest residence at first, then a charity school and from 1969 a specialist music school. Even from the outside it spreads its charm.

Chetham’s Library
Chetham’s Library – reading room

As for the library it looks taken straight from a Harry Potter scene of the forbidden library in Hogwarts. Rows of old leather bound books with partially erased titles neatly arranged in shelves that go from floor to ceiling and facing each other. The shelves create small alcoves with a high table between them to study the chosen books. These alcoves are closed by simply worked iron gates and aren’t accessible to the visitors. A small reading room at the end of the library is open to users and it is still furnished with the original interior.

By the time our eyes were satisfied it was time for tea and how could we not have some in the motherland of tea? So we picked our place and relaxed with a delicious tea and scones. The warmth and sugar made us fuzzy and had the undesired effect of letting our tiredness reemerge. After all, we had been up and about for 15 hours already. We decided a regrouping mission was necessary. A good hot shower would help to get ready to face the evening appointment.

Time for a shower and a change and we were back on our tram, direction the Ritz for the first punk concert of the week. Now, I’m not a punk fan, my sister is, but I don’t mind trying other music styles once in a while and observing the crowd is always fun. I didn’t want to be front stage though (what with the whole pogo dancing) so I was delighted to find out that the Ritz has a big comfy balcony equipped with cool couches and high seats from which you can observe the stage and the audience while being a few feet away from a bar. I elected it as my perfect spot, while my sister found a place just in front of the stage.

One can say much about the British people but you can’t say they don’t start their concerts on time. The first group, Snuff, was supposed to start at 7:55 pm, 7:55 sharp it did. Though this often means that the line up is so efficient and strict that the concert lacks flexibility and spontaneity, I particularly think of some long encores that you can get in other concerts. Anyway, I did quite enjoy Snuff, probably because they have a softer sound. I particularly appreciated the trombone that added a little melodic twist and a folky rhythm. Yes, the fact that one of the musicians was handsome probably did play a part in my enjoyment.

The audience didn’t go crazy, it was rather calm, just mostly keeping the rhythm with their heads and feet. A bit more pogo dancing did take place during the main band, Bad Religion, but I must admit I didn’t appreciate them as much. I found them often off key and too much into the screaming act, nevertheless I managed to sleep through the last couple of songs. The rest of the audience though enjoyed themselves and smiles were all around. They all looked chilled and relaxed without a problem in the whole world, blissed punks!