Preserving the heritage of the once mighty metropolis of Manchester
© 2005-2012 Look and Learn
As its name suggests, like Rochester and Cirencester, Dorchester, Lancaster and Chester, the great city we know today as Manchester, capital of the north, was a Roman castra, or crossing place. It was established where a number of their major through-routes, to Hadrian’s Wall at Carlisle, to York, to the Dee estuary and to London, crossed.
Set the point of a pair of compasses at that crossing-place, marked by the 15th-century cathedral, and draw a circle five miles in radius, and you enclose a million people. Double that radius, and your circle encloses a population of 2,500,000, the largest concentration of human beings in one area, apart from that of London, anywhere in Britain. This is Greater Manchester.
Yet, and here is a strange thought, in the Middle Ages, Manchester was only a village, with a market, two water-mills and a communal oven. Even as late as the mid-18th century it was referred to as “the very image of a radiant little garden city”. It had a grammar school, a river abundant with trout, and a small population, most of whom, women and men alike, worked as weavers.
Then came James Brindley, and the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal. As a result, Manchester almost literally exploded. Coal became available in huge quantities and low cost. Textile machines took over, invented by men like Arkwright and Crompton. The Industrial Revolution, with all that it implied, was born, right here, in the Romans’ Manucium, the once “radiant little garden city”. Never was a change more swift, more complete. So many textile mills were established that a small town soon won for itself the title, “Cottonopolis”.
For two centuries it has continued to expand. More mills, more and more workers and more and more major industries. Towns encircling it expanded, too, until their boundaries tended to merge with one another. Bolton and Bury, Wigan, Altrincham, Oldham, Stockport and Rochdale, among others, became embraced. Problems arose, many of which were easily solved. Others with some difficulty. “Boom towns”, whether in Alaska or in Lancashire, can grow too fast and run into trouble. There is, too, always the risk of their forgetting what made them, what treasures they are in danger of losing through overgrowth.
Happily, the Greater Manchester Council woke up to the danger before it was too late, and set about a major salvaging operation in good time. Proud of a city that had started as a halting place at the crossing of Roman roads and, eighteen centuries later, had been the setting for the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the council has resolved to show us all what this great area has to offer historically, architecturally, and in many other respects.
It was fitting that a start should be made at Worsley. Where Brindley’s canal leaves the coal mines, at the all-important boat-steps, in front of the Packet House, the site has been restored to its original condition. But in one sense Worsley remains a village, and its civic society has worked out a history trail that enables people to trace the many points of interest, mostly associated with the Duke of Bridgewater himself.
In the heart of Manchester, on the edge of the old market, or “Shambles”, now being developed into a shopping precinct, there is the early 14th-century Wellington Inn. With its adjoining half-timbered buildings, it has been raised five feet – no mean achievement in itself – so that a centuries-old merchant’s house is preserved amid the great new buildings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
City trails have been prepared here, too, with leaflets to tell you what you can see for yourself if you care to raise your eyes above shopfront level and look for the many plaques and other records of builders’ names and dates of construction left by men who had taken pride in building a great city. You may have walked past these a hundred times without realising what you were missing. Such trails have been worked out in other neighbouring towns, Wigan, for instance.
With the swift growth of Manchester during two hundred years, many of the buildings came to look grimed and shabby. Many of them have been given a face-lift, or been replaced recently by buildings in a more modern idiom. Pall Mall Court, in King Street, is a good example. Another is the education precinct, with its upper-level walk-ways and, topping all else, the Mathematical Tower. Elsewhere in the city is the complex of magistrates’ courts, Crown Court has a beautiful example of the use of white ceramic tiles and contrasting bronze glass.
It is work such as this, whether in the City of Manchester itself or in the towns circling about it which constitute Greater Manchester, that reveals how very conscious the authorities are today of the great heritage which is theirs and of the necessity for preserving and maintaining and developing it too.
- Last Link To Manchester’s Past Demolished (www.historyme.wordpress.com)
- The Once Green Oasis of Manchester (www.historyme.wordpress.com)
- Look and Learn (http://en.wikipedia.org)
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