There’s a lot more to Manchester than football clubs, Corrie and Oasis, as we found out when we took the New VIVA to discover the city’s secrets.
You think you know Manchester, right? Perhaps the world-famous football teams spring to mind, or those opening notes to the Coronation Street theme. Maybe it’s the music, the culture, the swagger, or the fact that a significant chunk of the BBC is now based there. It may be any combination of these things, but they are just part of what makes Manchester one of the most historic, interesting and diverse cities in the world.
Our transport for this journey of discovery is Vauxhall’s all-new VIVA. Like Manchester, it’s a famous name that’s been reinvented for the modern world, and in its own way it holds some surprises. You might not associate interior space, high levels of specification and advanced features, not to mention an air of real quality, when you consider a small car that starts at just £7,995. But the New VIVA, like Manchester, is here to flout preconceptions on every level.
To get the most out of our time in a city with such a diverse history, we need an expert; someone with ‘the knowledge’, who lives and breathes the city, and whose wealth of information is matched only by their love for the place. That man is John Consterdine.
John runs Manchester Taxi Tours. A born and bred Mancunian, he’s been a black cab driver for decades in this city, but more recently started offering guided tours. He’s crafted it into a successful business, with appearances on local TV and radio, and these days it occupies the bulk of his time. We soon learn that around these streets, plenty of people know John’s cheery face, not least due to his extensive charity work.
Having motored up in the New VIVA to Manchester from Vauxhall’s UK headquarters in Luton, and been mightily impressed by its motorway manners, I meet John outside our hotel. He is instantly impressed as he drives the New VIVA. “I’m surprised at the amount of space in here,” he says. “I can sit behind the driver’s seat as set for me, and there’s still room: that’s impressive. I could even use this as a cab; it would certainly be easy for nipping around the city streets.”
We begin by contemplating some of the signs of Manchester’s industrial past: the Bridgewater Canal, which was the first industrial canal in the world to be built, in 1761, and the Liverpool Road Station, the terminus of the world’s first passenger railway station that opened in 1830, now a museum of science and industry, followed by the world’s first industrial suburb of Ancoats. John also threads the VIVA down the back streets to a bakery called the Crusty Cob on Beswick Street, between the suburbs of Ancoats and Bradford. It’s here that we tuck into one of the best meat and potato pies I can remember eating. Now there’s a secret tip-off if ever there was one.
Suitably replenished, we’re off to admire the converted apartments of Ancoats, where there are just a few reminders that this was only fairly recently a wasteland after the closure of the mills. Not far from here is Brownsfield Mill, the original home of A V Roe, one of the earliest builders of aircraft; Manchester has been at the forefront of science and engineering as well as heavy industry. We pause at a lovingly-restored row of terraced houses. The signpost says Anita Street, and with a nod of the head John remarks, “The first street in Manchester to get running water, there.” This landmark development was originally named Sanitation Street, but the residents were not fond of the name and hence the contraction.
John drives us through the Northern Quarter with its trendy, edgy record shops, street art and incongruous traditional drinking pubs and on to the other side of the city. Here we arrive on a quiet row of terraced, red-brick houses on the aptly-named Coronation Street. At the end of the road on a corner plot is the extraordinary Salford Lads Club, open since 1903.
This youth club has an amazing atmosphere: over 22,600 boys and girls from the city have passed through these doors, with the aim of getting them off the streets and involving them in sports, the arts and education. There’s a five-a-side football pitch, a billiards room and a boxing gym, and on the walls photographs from the club’s annual camp dating back to 1904.
But lurking inside this heart-warming building where the human spirit is so obvious is a ‘secret’ room. Fans of the famous Manchester band The Smiths will know that the group were snapped in front of the club for the inside sleeve of their album, The Queen is Dead. Today, the old weights room is literally a shrine to the band and the fans that come from all over the world.
“There are so many aspects that fit together. Manchester is greater than the sum of its parts. You couldn’t take the innovation or the football, or the music out: it wouldn’t be the same. It’s the Mancunian spirit.”
History is never far away in Manchester, but we end our tour of Manchester’s secrets back in Salford at the modern and awe-inspiring MediaCity, home to both sections of the BBC and ITV, amongst others, where we find our own secret bird’s-eye view of Manchester, with the city sprawling out before us, and the Pennines visible in the distance. I’m quickly learning that Manchester has many secrets to give up, and they all go into making this a very special place.
Unsurprisingly, John agrees: “There are so many aspects that fit together. Manchester is greater than the sum of its parts. You couldn’t take the innovation or the football, or the music out; it wouldn’t be the same. It’s the Mancunian spirit.” Having spent three hugely enjoyable days in this vibrant, historic but expanding city, I have to agree with him.
As for the all-new VIVA, it might be an old name returning but it’s a thoroughly-modern car that has proved ideal for touring the city. John may not be swapping his black cab for one just yet, but as he remarks, “If I took one of these home for my wife, she’d be thrilled.” That it has proved to be such a refined driving experience on our travels is a secret that deserves telling far and wide.