Friday, 19 December 2008

a walk through brunswick, heart of the city...

…being a geographical and metaphorical ramble into the life and times of Miss Niblock, tracing her emergence from the bowels of the Manchester Museum to her new life in Apartment, unearthing along the way the forgotten histories and topographies that connect brunswick to the cultural and academic institutions dominating this invisible moated kingdom...

last thursday was the second part of the activities planned to mark the end of my tenure as writer in residence at Apartment, an informal at home with afternoon tea and tour of the gallery, followed by a shortish spot of twilight flaneurie from brunswick to the manchester museum, ending with a well earned hot chocolate and chat in the cafe. thank you to sarah, morag, gavin, julie, aaran, maureen and hilary for being patient and honoured guests and for making it happen. i had a lot of fun showing you around apartment and the neighbourhood of brunswick that its a part of, and i hope that you did too. impromptu conversation and encounter is at the heart of apartment's curatorial remit and once again this proved to be the most fruitful element of the afternoon, and something that is hard to recreate here. i shall be watching the new plans for the proposed MMU supercampus with great interest and some trepidation, as its effects ripple into adjoining neighbourhoods. let's keep each other updated!

for those of you who missed it and might wish to relive the experience from the cosiness of your screens, here are some images from the tea and tour and a transcript of the route we took. as we discovered on our walk, appearances can be deceptive, and there's more to our forgotten kingdom than some patchy looking houses on the way to piccadilly or oxford road. life in brunswick is thriving and full of surprises! just sorry it was so cold...

brunswick: here be dragons - an introduction:

Sometimes referred to as Chorlton on Medlock, it is the bottom end of the larger district of Ardwick, a distinct and physically separate neighbourhood nestled in between the Mancunian Way, Ardwick Green’s faded Georgian grandeur and Upper Brook St’s campus redevelopments, a veritable Bermuda Triangle. Historically infamous for its slum housing, it was also home to numerous theatres, cinemas and even an ice rink. (taken from the Ardwick Local History Project 2006) The Ardwick community and history is one bound up with the changing fortunes of the city, its ambitious plans in the post war era, namely the 1945 City of Manchester Plan, and the economic decline endemic across the country from the 1970’s onwards. Much of the original community has been dispersed during successive regeneration schemes with many local shops, factories and recreational facilities lost over the last 30 years and piecemeal improvements hacked on haphazardly ever since. Whilst other large scale regeneration schemes have been dominating the headlines for the last few years Ardwick has lagged behind with Brunswick becoming virtually forgotten in the latest vision of the city's future.

At the heart of Brunswick is the Mancunian Way – constructed in the early 60’s – proud winner of the concrete awards in 1968! This elevated superhighway was to be the first of a new inner city network that would solve the city’s traffic problems. Typically the money ran out and one of the slip roads literally ‘runs out’ in mid air, a frozen testament to a failed utopian moment. The University Precinct centre is another example of this attempt to create an elevated city in the sky resulting in a similar abrupt end at the RNCM, where the super street in the sky should have continued across Oxford Rd. Sadly the new extensions to the Music school have erased all evidence of this and to my mind we are a little the poorer for having this quirk, this imperfection removed.

Crucially these failed utopian experiments are at the very heart of this little kingdom. The Mancunian way, a brutalist ‘60’s concrete flyover fundamental to the flow of the city, its urban ebb and tide, is a incessant / protective presence in Brunswick life; built on the ruins of old Chorlton on Medlock, it destroyed the neighbourhood that was, and created the present incarnation – a hinterland and quiet backwater that’s home to a largely settled community, in the main the first residents of the brand new 70's estate of maisonettes and its towering trio of Silkin, Lockton, and Lamport Court, now a network of extended families, friends and neighbours spread around the streets, squares and maisonettes, from the flyover up to the Ardwick Apollo.

Like most social housing the council long ago deemed this little enclave ‘hard to let’ territory, and over the last decade it has welcomed a small community of writers, musicians and artists moved around by the regenerations of nearby Hulme and Moss Side, the ever diminishing Northern Quarter estate, as well as the rise of the over priced private sector. Brunswick has lately become something of a creative hot-spot bursting with lo-fly magazines, micro recording companies, djs, a rash of new music and a gaggle of artists from the nearby Art school fermenting and incubating in the towers tiny flats. All this plus the thriving skater community who gather most evenings and weekends under the Mancunian Way itself, seemingly oblivious to the roar of the traffic rocketing above and around them 24/7.


Leave Lockton Close and cross over Grosvenor St down the little alleyway past the Salvation Army and Wai Yin elderly centre which on sunny afternoons is usually chock a block with people happily weeding and planting in their community garden, or simply sitting around in deck chairs taking tea and enjoying a chat.

Enter Gartside Gardens, filled with unexpected delights – first light sees the park busy with dads and sons starting the day with tai chi, alongside joggers, dog walkers and assorted martial artists as the day progresses; afternoon sees mums and toddlers dawdling in the mini playground before ambling home for tea; for nature lovers there's always the random sightings of the local flock of brightly plumed parrots to look forward to, as well as for the eagle eyed a fierce and imperious falcon swooping and circling for likely prey! evenings see the local basketball teams come out for practice and whilst night time can seem less salubrious, as is true of much of the city, the lucky few are often rewarded with a close encounter of the urban fox kind! Point out my favourite guerrilla garden at the edge of the park and the newish solar lamplights, which i haven’t yet seen elsewhere.

Walk along Kincardine Rd passing our own urban ruin, protracted demolition exposing the fragile skeleton of this former church and mosque, its shattered rose window still casting shards of multi-coloured light across the park. Opposite are newish halls of residence on the left, a continuation of the long relationship with the so-called knowledge quarter or university district. Manchester has the largest urban higher education precinct in Europe and Chorlton on Medlock is the see of the majority of the institutions, bounded by Manchester University, MMU and the former UMIST. The City of Manchester Plan of 1945 envisaged expanding the educational centre from the site of the University on Oxford Rd and integrating it into a new road system. Existing poor quality housing was to be cleared and academic, cultural and residential areas promoted. In the event clearances didn’t happen until the 60’s and 70’s and the idea of giving the site cohesion by closing off Oxford Rd never came off. A plan for a student village was commissioned in 1962 but by the next year that had already been superseded by another joint venture to create a development plan for a whole education precinct, incorporating the RNCM and the hospital. Produced in 1967 it proposed a campus on the scale of Berkeley in California and several buildings constructed in the next few years incorporated the vertical segregating of pedestrians and traffic by including linking upper walkways.

Carry on and cross Brunswick Street. Here we are walking deep into the social and radical heart of Manchester; a mere stones throw from the grandiose City Centre and its endless self publicising to the rear and the bustling university district to the right. Cross the road and straight ahead to the upper edge of the estate, exposing layer upon layer of regeneration, from the city of Manchester 1945 plan, through fort Ardwick of 70’s to new houses of 80’s and the current PPI scheme bordering Plymouth Grove at the top. Notice the echo of a church and its forlorn overgrown cemetery fronting Upper Brook St, a significant address for Manchester’s radical history and HQ for chartists, Peterloo Massacre, the Suffrage Movement: eg, the original committee for the promotion of women’s suffrage met in 1865 in Rev Stendhal’s home on Upper Brook St.

Pass the open ground that divides Brunswick to the edge of Plymouth Grove – the new Grove Village. The latest incarnation for the way forward for Brunswick, will it see similar transformation or will it be doomed to be forgotten or abandoned like so many schemes before it? Notice the boarded up Plymouth pub, a silent sentinel to the faded architectural history of the area and its lovely turret and clock tower. Let’s hope it survives…

Cross over to Elizabeth Gaskell House, open 1st Sunday of every month to the public, the home of Elizabeth Gaskell, born 29 September 1810 – 12 November 1865. Whilst she is best known for her biography of Charlotte Bronte, her novels including Cranford and North and South are the stuff of BBC drama, offering a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor. Her father was a Unitarian minister in Failsworth but resigned his orders on conscientious grounds and moved to London, leaving Elizabeth with an aunt in Cheshire. She married William Gaskell, a minister at Cross St chapel and set up home in Plymouth Grove in 1850, living there until her death 15 years later, becoming open house to assorted literary greats, religious dissenters and social reformers such as Dickens, Ruskin, Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Halle, who lived close by.

Walk to end of the street emerging at Upper Brook St, opposite the hospital and proceed to The Pankhurst Centre, Nelson Street, open Mon to Thursdays as a drop in and resource centre for women and as a historical centre. Men are welcome to the exhibition and library and on 1st Sunday Open Days. This was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia, Christabel and Adela who founded the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) in Manchester in October 1903. At this time Manchester already had an established women’s suffrage movement, the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee, but the Pankhurst's group had more political and militant ambitions, causing regular disturbances in Manchester and disrupting speeches made by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey. After the uproar this created, the campaign moved to London to concentrate on lobbying parliament directly, burning down churches and MPs homes, smashing all the windows in Oxford Street and even bombing Birmingham Station. By 1914 over 1,000 suffragettes were either in prison or in very poor health but the start of the First World War was a turning point with an unlikely truce between the government and movement. By 1918 women over 30 gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections, though it was to be another 10 years before women in Britain were granted complete equality with men and were allowed to vote at the age of 21.

Walk to the end of Nelson St, emerging at Oxford Rd, an unlikely umbilical chord to Brunswick, the fortunes of one always dependent on the city’s plans for the other. This is the flip side to Brunswick, a temple to orthodoxy, classification and taxonomy, stuffed to bursting with architectural landmarks, historic buildings, grand ideas and inventions past and present. It could be said that Oxford Rd marks the symbolic division between the histories of radical, social Manchester from civic, institutional Manchester. But in truth that's too simplistic a version - radicalism and conservatism exist hand in hand, and no-where is this more clearly demonstrated than Brunswick and the university. Like Brunswick, this is home to a transient community, its streets and buildings a palimpsest of civic and individual aspirations. It is a complicated place, at once the stern face of Victorian ambition and pride, home to the liberal and radicalising ideas of the city's history of social reform, and a symbolic container and producer of knowledge, culture and economic success, but it's a district which cannot be separated from the little known and forgotten sibling on the other side of the road.

For us, this is the home stretch, the path leading us from what might be seen as the dark heart of the cultural quarter to its dreaming spires of the Owens campus, a mix of grand Victorian quadrangle and 1960's planning, its holy grail that magnificent Waterhouse temple to learning, classification and order, the Manchester Museum. En route we pass a host of fascinating buildings including the grade 1 listed Holy Name Church, founded by Jesuits between 1869 and 1871 and designed by Joseph Aloysius Hanson, with its tower added in 1928, in memory of its famous rector, Father Bernard Vaughan. Kro bar nestles regally in one half of 325 Oxford Rd, a grade 11 listed regency survival from 1813, somewhat ironically occupying the former home of the Manchester Temperance Society, and still owned by them until 1997. Curiously it then became an Okasional Cafe, a typically 90's phenomena which squatted empty buildings and reopened them as makeshift, illegal cafes for tea and friendly subversion. The appeal and the concept was simple - take a disused space somewhere with a fair number of passers-by and open it to the public, offering them tea and anarchy. Where are they now? Answers welcome....

Continue along road to the Manchester museum, Brunswick just visible at the junction of the imposing Waterhouse buildings. The origins of the Manchester Museum lie in the collection of the Manchester manufacturer and collector John Leigh Philips (1761-1814). After his death, a small group of wealthy men banded together to buy his 'cabinet', and in 1821 they set up the Manchester Natural History Society, with grand premises on Peter St, where it continued to attract the bequests and collections of various cotton kings and the vast collections of the Manchester Geological Society in 1850. The museum was transferred in 1868 to Owens College, which later became the University of Manchester. The College asked famous architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a museum building, which was opened to the public in 1890. Waterhouse also designed Manchester's Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London. Now known as the 'Manchester Museum', the collections were used by many people, from Owens College professors to schoolchildren. Many more objects were donated and the Museum was extended in 1912-1913 and again in 1927. These new buildings, designed by Waterhouse's son and grandson, displayed new ethnographic and Egyptology collections. They were funded largely by Jesse Haworth, a local textile merchant and keen Egyptologist. During the First World War, many local schools were used as military hospitals. In cooperation with the local education authorities, the Manchester Museum gave classes to the displaced school children. This system, which continued for 80 years, was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Today, the Museum is open virtually 365 days of the year, and is still updating and refurbishing – the latest plans include revamped Egyptian galleries and the Manchester Gallery, due to open next year, which aims to explore the connections between the people of Manchester, the city's history and the Museum's collection.

EP Niblock's links to the museum are by now well told, but suffice to say, the cafe is the perfect place to end our little walk through both her and the city's history.


No comments: