Mancunian Way walk with Manchester Modernist Society. Guides Maureen Ward and Steve Millington.
Sunday 6th March 2012
The tour started at the Cube Gallery on Portland Street. I made sure I arrived early to give myself the chance to have a look around the Infra_MANC exhibition which was on display. What a delight. Focusing on major infrastructural projects from Manchester’s post-war period Infra_MANC was heavy on archival materials (maps, plans, promotional booklets, newspaper articles, photographs, film) and light on educational blurb and over-explaination. I commend the exhibition curators for their selection of materials: from the FutuRoute rail planner of the never to be realised Picc-Vic railway route (more like a transport jukebox), fabulous hand drawn regional planning maps (letraset envy), to the utopian visions of heliport (1950s integrated transport dreams).
At 2pm walk participants gathered in the cafe for an informal introduction to the Mancunian Way. Coffee and hot chocolate optional. Steve gave us a brief history of Manchester’s short and ideosyncratic motorway, placing it within the context of post-war ideas of mobility and engineering prowess, and truncated visions for an elevated modernist Manchester. Things to note about the Mancunian Way: it doesn’t have any junction numbers; the speed limit is 50mph; it was designed to improve flow of traffic but simultaneously impedes pedestrian access; and most bizarre of all – it’s built on a fault line – resulting in serious consequences for the rigidly engineered structure should there be an earthquake in Manchester. (It’s constantly monitored to ensure that no cracks are developing…)
After our historical and geographical orientation we set out around 2.30pm down Princess Street towards our first encounter with the A57(M). This took the form of the ‘sliproad to nowhere’ – a remnant of a road project that never materialised. A quick stop next to the UMIST Faraday Building led us on to a carefully maintained and closely monitored stretch of footpath leading underneath the motorway. Coming out the otherside found us the edge of the Brunswick Estate, where a very different attitude to maintanance is evident. It was good to stop and marvel at the 1968 Concrete Society Award that still remains intact and proudly on display. It reminded me of the time I spent sifting through editions of Concrete Quarterly when I was doing my Masters research on Nottingham Playhouse – an early indicator that even the most dull sounding trade magazines can, in fact, be really quite absorbing.
At this point we crossed under the motorway again and headed to the back of the old-BBC buildings (the not-so-New Broadcasting House). These now lie empty and have an uncertain future. From there we crossed over Oxford Road, pleased that the burst of sleet that had unexpectedly arrived had stopped. At this point I started to lag behind – as I became distracted by a failed attempt to take a photo of the motorway flanked on one side by a great (1970s?) building with an almost crenellated roof all set in front of the dramatic and imposing glass wall of the new addition to MMU.
The next stop was to look back at the Cambridge Mill and reflect on Manchester’s industrial past and it’s relationship to more recent redevelopment/regeneration schemes. In particular it was flagged up how the Mancunian Way acts as a physical and mental barrier, effectively cutting off access to and from the city centre from nearby housing estates. Skirting on the edge of Hulme we stopped to bathe in some sunshine in the Princess Road underpass, and reflected on alternative uses for the space – creative, performance, greenspace? And what it might take to make it feel part of the city, rather than an anonymous, badly lit area devoid of any sesne of place.
A quick pause to take in the aesthetically pleasing, but functionally useless sweeping curve in the motorway spurred us on to our final stop. This took us away from the Mancunian Way and into Castlefield. Instead of the drone of passing cars, we listened to the overhead rumble of passing trains to/from Oxford Road Station. Sheltering from the rain under the 19th century version of the twentieth century elevated motorway we took in some recent regeneration schemes. I realise I didn’t take photos at this point – probably a subconcious reaction to the carefully manicured but actually rather dull and lifeless public space. Not to mention the down right odd co-opting of the Hacienda legend into city living flats.
These were topics that were continued over a much needed pint and warm up in the Briton’s Protection Pub where we met up with the LRM who had been on a psychogeographical walk dousing for Manchester’s lost rivers. And also saw Lloyd Cole, though the latter gets classed as a happy incidental! But thanks to Steve and Maureen for a great afternoon’s city motorway walking.