I took my first breath of Manchester air at Piccadilly Station at 1311. To my amazement I didn’t get a lungful of smog and soot. Instead, it was fresh and quite clean. I supposed I’m used to railway stations which smell of diesel fumes, but electrification makes all the difference to the atmosphere.
I rummaged in my bag for my ticket, but there were no barriers or conductors at the end of the platform. I was able to stroll out onto the concourse and into the lunchtime throngs of passengers. There was the obligatory branch of Tie Rack, a burger bar, a coffee shop, and all the usual shops one finds at busy termini these days. I had a look in WH Smith for an updated A-Z, but they only had ones which covered the entire county. I was just going out as far as Salford Quays. It seemed a bit pointless spending a fiver on the big book when I had one at home. I wouldn’t have to worry about any huge changes which might have affected Eccles or Bury in the past 25 years, after all. There were pocket-sized maps of the city centre, but they didn’t cover that far out as Salford. I decided to make it up as I went along, and left the station to look for a bus map.
I didn’t have to go far – just outside the main entrance there’s a little bay of bus stops, and shuttle buses stop there on their strange figure-of-8 route through the centre. I found one that went to the Arndale Centre, and got on board.
Imagine my surprise when the driver told me it was free! I know I’m looking old these days, but I didn’t even need to show my pass.
‘Aye, we look after our visitors up here,’ he laughed when I told him I wasn’t expecting that. He was a cheery soul, laughing and joking with the passengers as they boarded and alighted. ‘Do you want to come up here and drive, and I’ll go to the pub for the afternoon?’ he teased one woman, who’d told a fellow newcomer where to get off for Marks & Spencer.
1320 FREE shuttle buses around city centre! Bonkers idea! #itllnevercatchon
Apart from Ashleigh in Waterstone’s he was the first Mancunian I’d encountered on his home turf, so to speak. He was a great guy, and what an ambassador for the city as a whole! If I’d had time, I’d have stayed on the bus for the full circle, just to hear his lively banter with the other passengers.
When we arrived at the Arndale Centre, I strolled nonchalantly in, expecting something like St David’s Centre in Cardiff. Not a bit of it – I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place. C— texted me while I was trying to find my way around, to see if I’d arrived safely. I told her where I was, that I was already having a great time, and that I wished she’d been able to come as well.
Immediately I followed that up with a second text saying that, on the other hand, I was glad she hadn’t – I would never have been able to drag her away from all the clothes shops and shoe shops!
Ashleigh had told me that Waterstone’s was next to New Look and opposite Nando’s, but she’d neglected to tell me that they were all on the first floor. I searched vainly on the ground floor for ages before taking the escalator upwards. Downstairs, in the atrium, some sort of fashion show was taking place, and people were crowding round the balcony to see what was happening. I spotted a little terminal, about the size of a cashpoint, which was apparently an electronic store directory. A girl got to it a few moments before I did and started playing with it.
Without prompting, a middle-aged chap walked up to her and said, ‘Don’t bother with that thing, it’s bloody rubbish – where are you heading for?’
So that was three amazingly helpful Mancunians out of three so far! Surely it couldn’t last…
Eventually I spotted the New Look logo on a sign, and found Waterstone’s next door. It was bigger than I expected, but nicely laid out with stack after stack of books around the perimeter, a few island stacks dotted about, and my main target – the counter – right in the middle. But it was lunchtime, there was a big queue, and I needed some refreshment. There was a coffee shop at the back of Waterstone’s, and I’d picked up a copy of the Manchester Evening News on the way through the centre. I decided to have a cup of hot chocolate, look at the paper, and wait for the queue to abate.
The infectious Manchester friendliness struck again when I was ordering my drink. One of the women was in her early fifties, the other in her mid-twenties, and by time I’d paid for my order we were chatting like old friends. Mind you, the prices in these coffee chains don’t seem to change across the country; I’m not naming names, but a medium-sized hot chocolate costa (geddit?) massive £2.95! I’m not sure it was worth it, but it was all part of the experience.
I collected my book from the counter (sadly, Ashleigh herself wasn’t around, as I’d have liked to have thanked her personally) and made my way out into the retail madness again.
1356 Knocked out by how friendly everyone is – glad I opted for Salford over London!
I walked around the city centre for a while, not aiming for anywhere in particular. I was waiting to cross at a pedestrian crossing when I heard an odd little hooting sound off to my right. It lasted less than a second, and sounded like something you’d hear in an American film, in a scene set at a railroad crossing. It was a tram. Of all the forms of public transport I’ve used in my life, this was one of the few which I hadn’t tried. I stood back and watched as it slid smoothly and almost silently past me.
I was heading back past the Arndale Centre when I spotted a covered market, and went for a nose around inside. It wasn’t anything special, but there were a couple of interesting stalls which caught my eye. When I got back outside I decided to make my way straight out to the hotel. It was raining quite heavily, and I wanted to drop my luggage off in good time before heading for the studio.
1500 Very small pub IN the market. This place is nuts, fair play!
I’d already bought a ticket from the machine before exploring the market. I’d expected to pay about a fiver to travel out to MediaCityUK, but a single ticket is only £2.40. That compensated for the price of the hot chocolate, anyway. While I was studying the network map and trying to work out where I’d need to change trams, I found arguably the best ever name for a station:
Then a chance meeting on the station proved that the world is in fact a whole lot stranger than I’d ever imagined. A middle-aged lady had somehow managed to get a spoke of her umbrella wedged into the seam between two metal panels on the ticket machine. While I was helping her extricate it, she noticed my accent and asked where in Wales where I was from. I told her and she said, ‘Come and meet my sister!’
1448 Waiting for a tram, got talking to a lady who was born in Trecynon #extremelysmallworld
I’m not making this up! They were in town visiting their son/nephew, who works for the BBC. They were making their way back to Piccadilly, and I was able to point them in the right direction before boarding my own tram to Cornbrook.
It felt like I’d waited ages at Cornbrook for the train to Salford. While I was there, I had the most tremendous view of the city. If I’d had my tripod (and if it hadn’t been raining so heavily) I’d have taken some photos. In the event I just watched the long freight trains running past on the main line below the tram stop. Without a map of the city centre I was completely adrift, and I began to wish I’d picked up that pocket guide at the station after all. The tram arrived and took me off towards Salford.
Once again, my preconceived ideas were shattered as we travelled out towards what used to be the docks area. As in London and Cardiff, the whole area has been transformed into a modern complex of brave and exciting architectural projects, large open spaces, leisure facilities, and (in the case of Salford Quays) the BBC’s brand-new hub in the north-west of England. Many people in the BBC (and outside) questioned the move north from London, but I can only say if they were sceptical beforehand, they won’t be once they’ve seen it for themselves. Even in the pouring rain and the gathering twilight it was a sight to behold:
The new development is spectacular, exhilarating, and so incredibly compact it defies belief. The tram stop is right in the middle of the place, less than a minute’s walk from the studio entrance, and only a short stroll from the Lowry Centre and the shopping mall adjacent to it. A number of years ago, Cardiff City Council toyed with (and discarded) a Light Rail Transit scheme to link the city centre to the bay. Personally, I think they missed out on a hell of an opportunity to invest in public transport and create a major tourist attraction in its own right.
I already had my confirmation of my hotel booking for the night – a single room on the eighth floor of the Holiday Inn – so I made my way straight there to check in. I’ve always been a bit wary of these international hotel chains, as they’ve got a reputation for anonymity and impersonality. Not a hope. All the corporate staff training couldn’t erase the Northern charm exuded by the people I met. Once again I was blown away by their friendly, welcoming and helpful hospitality. Once I had my room key (a plastic card, which I even needed to use to activate the electricity in the room) I made my way upstairs. I took a quick shot of the view from my window before sorting my stuff out and getting ready for the main event of the day.
1657 Checked into hotel, showered, waiting to go across to studio. #excitedmuch