A Christmas Adventure!

Right… I’ve got an idea for a video… No wait, hang on… What’s this thing? That’s a much better idea… Where’s my Patrick Troughton puppet? In the drawer with the others… Cool. Now which DVDs do I want to use for this? Those? Brilliant! Let’s get started… And just when I want to begin some workmen show up in a big lorry and start making as much noise as possible. And from the looks of things they might around for a couple of days so fuck it… Let’s go on an adventure instead. Hey! There’s the christmas markets in Manchester… That could be fun right? Lets go!

Ok… We all know how much I love wandering around markets whenever I come across em so to have something like the Manchester Christmas Markets virtually on my doorstep is an opportunity not to be missed. And after a couple of months hard work on various projects/selling my soul for a reason I have yet to fathom I think I deserve a day out… The markets are always good for a nose around so why not? I can just hop on a train and I’m there!

But blimey has the weather suddenly turned cold. Not cold enough for snow but it never snows where I am anyway- I could go to Lapland in the middle of winter and knowing my luck it would be the one year it didn’t snow! I’m wrapped up warm but I can still feel the chill and when I reach Manchester its more like New York than ever before… Its like the New York of the movies with great vents of steam coming up from the pavements and to see the sight and the people ambling by, huddling into themselves for warmth is a marvelous thing. Ok… So everyone is still freezing their tits off but there is a sort of buzz in the air, a sense of building anticipation… It’s called Christmas and its like the usual array of businessmen and people in too much of a rush to care for anything (which you unfortunately find a lot of in Manchester) have been visited by the three ghosts of Christmas and changed their ways as a result… All the scrooginess has gone and has been replaced by seasonal cheer. And that can only be a good thing, even if it is just for the shorter term.

This year the market extends as far down into the city as Piccadilly Gardens but saying that there isn’t a lot in Piccadilly gardens… Just a single row of stalls showcasing ‘young enterprise’ initiatives and a few others that are selling personalised plaques and mugs and Christmas decorations. I’ll admit that I’m tempted to go and buy some personalised christmas decorations but I then decide that as the only person I would be buying them for would be myself it would be a bit selfish. So I leave Piccadilly gardens behind and move onto Market Street where the market properly begins.

Market SoldierAll the sights and smells of this place are so wonderous and so numerous it would be impossible to describe them all. There are the food stalls, some packed with enticing flavoured sausages… At one stall I spy a selection of tempting duck flavoured ones alongside garlic and herb flavoured and chicken ones… More than just the usual pork type you find in the supermarkets. There are the Chorizos and the Salamis as well- Proper charcouterie fare, on display for all to see and not wrapped up in any awful suffocating plastic. Each one looks as mouth wateringly delicious as the last. Some stalls sell cheeses and I find one at the end of the King Street offering free samples. I should confess at this point that I am something of a sample whore… If I see sampling going on I’m in there, usually sneaking like I’m not supposed to be sampling.  The stall is very busy though so I only get to try two out of about five- A Jamaican Jerk flavoured one, which is nice, and a sticky toffee flavoured one which is… err… Not as nice as the Jamaican jerk. And there are other stalls selling nuts, dried olives, tomatoes, sweets of the tantalisingly familiar variety lined up amongst those that are a bit more exotic and rare. The list of foods you can find at this market is just incredible.

‘The chef spreads his batter over a hot, giant griddle and then dribbles bits of tomato and meat and olives on top.’But the best of the food stalls are those selling things you can eat right then and there… The street food stalls. There are an awful lot of dutch pancake sellers and creperies about but there are also chips and burgers and one selling topped Garlic breads (with a sign saying don’t call them pizzas). The smell coming from these places is divine and in most cases you can see them actually making the crepes or the pancakes or whatever. Its very cool and very fascinating to watch, especially in the case of one that sells something which I think might be some kind paella or omelettes (could be wrong). The chef spreads his batter over a hot, giant griddle and then dribbles bits of tomato and meat and olives on top. You sometimes see the same kind of thing on TV cookery-travel shows… Rick Stein going round Spain for example. I could stand and watch the chefs work all day… But it’s cold so I don’t.

Eventually, wandering around the markets and down the various streets, I find myself up in cathedral gardens near the Chethams music school and URBIS and seeing as I haven’t been around the cathedral for a while I decide to take a break from the markets and go for a wander. Compared to most other cathedrals Manchester doesn’t really have a big one… Which is partially down to the fact that the building is nothing more than a converted Parish church. It’s bigger than Bangor Cathedral but only by a small margin. But for a city as bold and as brash and as showy as Manchester you would expect it to want an equally bold and brash cathedral like its rival, Liverpool… Both of which are a statement in themselves. You would expect it to have some amazing building but, rather surprisingly, it doesn’t. You would expect someone to have come along and built an actual cathedral deserving of a city like Manchester… But no.

Mr Humphrey Chetham on his pedestal.

Mr Humphrey Chetham on his pedestal.

Whilst it is a more visible cathedral than some I could mention (CHESTER!), it is still tucked away in its own little niche behind the Arndale centre. Its barely even noticeable as a Cathedral. Don’t get me wrong… It’s impressive in its own right but looking at it you could be forgiven for thinking that it was still just another church. It lacks the grandeur and the whole wow factor given by other cathedrals like York Minster or Winchester. Even inside it still feels a bit like a church and not a cathedral… There’s none of the soaring majesty of Liverpool or York Minster… But still, its nice for what it is. When you compare it to other cathedrals it doesn’t stack up too well (because it was never built as a cathedral) but on its own merits its ok… Its worth the wander around and for all that it is lacking what it is is still quite good. Its a very dark space but shafts of light filter in from windows above the nave and the effect is really quite lovely. There are some good statues and tombs to look at as well, like Humphrey Chetham sitting on his pedestal, backlit by a window that looks out over the school he founded so long ago. A nearby placard mentions a door next to him but honestly… I saw no door. Overall Manchester Cathedral, definitely worth a look around, despite not being what you might expect from a cathedral.

Back on the street and back wandering around the markets I realize I’m starting to feel hungry. It isn’t long before I find myself staring at the menu outside a creperie… They have plain sugar and cinnamon flavour and maple syrup… I think of going for the maple syrup but in the end I go for strawbery jam and watch with fascination as the French lady manning the stall prepares my lunch. And being a proper French made crepe it tastes divine. Scooping my change up and giving my thanks to the French lady I fold my paper plate in two so that my crepe is safely sandwiched and slink back into the depths of the market. As I tear at my warm crepe through the gap in the plate, my fingers getting all sticky from the jam, I’m reminded of my first proper visit to Manchester some years ago… I bought a pizza from some place in the Arndale but ended up eating it as I walked around the streets because I couldn’t find anywhere to sit. I didn’t know the city so well back then and I really could have just wandered up to Cathedral gardens and sat there… Or sat in Exchange or Shambles Square. This time I don’t want to sit down. I want to keep walking through the markets and looking in the stalls and at all the wonderful things on offer.

There are, of course, stalls selling christmas decorations and fat reindeers seem to be in vogue this year but as I’m eating my crepe a stall selling carved wooden animals catches my eye. Some are big and some are small, some painted with intricate designs but all of them are good looking. They’re are a few of these types of stalls around but this looks to be one of the best. You can see how much work has gone into them and I would definitely perhaps buy an elephant or a giraffe if they weren’t a bit over my price range. So, sadly, I leave them be and carry on my wanderings with my crepe.

And then I get a little bit lost. My crepe is almost done and I cross a road which later turns out to be Deansgate… I think I was disorientated as at the time I for some reason thought I was headed south towards Albert Square but in actual fact I was going west, towards the river and Salford. It doesn’t take long before I realize I’m in unfamiliar territory and I find myself in a big square sort of area right by a main road. I deposit my paper plate in a bin and look around for a clue as to where Albert Sqaure might be. Unsure, I turn back the way I came, taking particular note of a place by the name of ‘Crazy Pedro’s’ which advertises itself as a part time Pizza Parlour… The rest of the time its a nightclub and cocktail bar. Its the sort of mad place you would expect in Manchester and were I here for a night on the razz I’d be tempted by the place… Pizza and Cocktails… Sounds good to me. Apparently it only opened a few weeks ago, according to what I found, but one of these days I will have to go and check it out… Which means a night on the razz in Manchester!

‘And it is a proper germanic bier-hall too, the sort of place where they serve frothing beer in massive overflowing tankards.’Wandering back the way I came from I spot the Beetham Tower not too far away and realize where I want wrong… I realize that I crossed Deansgate by mistake… Somehow. But at least now I know where I am I can make my way to the last, unvisited part of the market… Albert Square. Albert Square is dominated by the beer hall. There are many beer selling establishments across the market but Albert Square has the biggest of them. And it is a proper germanic bier-hall too, the sort of place where they serve frothing beer in massive overflowing tankards. I don’t go in for a drink today and instead I look around at the other stalls, seeing more food and more decorations and ornaments, including a stall selling musical carved animals and a small sign in front of them saying: BLOW MY BUM. It’s childish but it makes me laugh all the same.

Here there’s a small portion of the market inside the town hall, a part run by one of Manchester’s more permanent markets, Afflecks. Until this point I had thought that Afflecks was a night club (another place to go on the razz) and that isn’t surprising since it used to be called Afflecks Palace. In fairness that does sound more like a nightclub than a market. But anyway… Afflecks have set up a pop up market in the town hall. Most of what they’re selling is clothes and hats and general market goods and I find the actual market far less interesting than the surroundings. This is like a Harry Potter wizard’s market… It’s like Manchester’s version of Diagon Alley in here, thanks largely to the vaulted ceilings and the chandeliers and the marble columns and floors. In short, it looks fantastic. A lot of traditional markets in Britain are in decline… They’re a shadow of their former selves. Look at Chester Market… Just a few drab stalls at the back of a shopping centre. Lancaster, again, a few humble little stalls. They’ve been swallowed up by the might of the supermarkets and those that are left just aren’t exciting and are usually nothing more than some grizzled old sheds in a neglected corner of the town. They are nothing special. But this is what a market should be… It is spectacular and it looks good and as such I spend longer in here than I normally would at a similar sized market elsewhere. And I think that is the key to restoring Britain’s markets… They need to be made special again. They need to be an attraction in their own right. The Christmas markets are a big thing in Manchester because they’re special. They turn up for a few weeks of the year and then they’re gone again. Hundreds of people come to browse the stalls or have a good time and what not. If all markets were as special as these markets, if they were in a setting as stunning as Manchester town hall rather than some grizzled old shed they would thrive. They would become an attraction. But, alas, this isn’t going to happen. The bigwigs of Britain are too blinded by their own beliefs and opinions to consider these things. To them, nobody cares for the market. To them, the market is already dead. Which is a shame because the British market could be made great again, as they once were and as all this is.

Finally finishing my wander around the markets I head off to the Arndale in order to buy some essentials before catching my train back home. I’m winding my way through the streets when I come across The Royal Exchange arcade. It looks like a far too posh place for an urchin like me so I’ve never been in but after my wanders I’m still feeling curious. So I go in… And these shops are sooo posh. We’re talking expensive jewelers with windows that glisten with overpriced diamonds, beauty salons where they rub your face with extract of unicorn essence (or that kind of thing) and artists shops with lots of black and white photographs in frames. But as I’m walking through my eye is caught by a glass fronted shop with bottles in the window so I amble over to take a look… The place is called ‘Astons’ and the window is full of vodkas and whiskeys and brandys and rum… And there’s more inside so I slip the rucksack from my back, hold it meekly in my hands and go in. The shop is so light and so glittery and so sparkly that I feel really out of place but I’m amazed by the alcohols, hidden away in glass cabinets like they’re something sacred… And some of them must be considering the price… There are some brandy’s and whiskeys that cost upwards of five hundred pounds in here! At that price you know it must be good. This is the kind of stuff you savour, not try to shot and thus end up spitting across the room and up the window. Moving along I notice the place sells pipes and walking canes and cigars… This is a proper gentleman’s shop for the old fashoned type. The only thing missing is a rack of tweed against one wall. I know that with my legs I’ll probably need a cane someday and perhaps this is where I’ll come… It’s an intriguing store, but nevertheless I still feel very out of place in here.

Back outside with my bag back on my back I continue my way to the Arndale but I’m immediately stopped by a sign outside the Exchange theatre inviting people to come inside and take a look. So I do. And it’s another spectacle of a building. In days gone by they really knew how to build to impress (This building was started in 1867 and extended in 1914). The interior space is dominated by many great pink marble columns topped with gold Corinthian capitals and on the roof three enormous glass domes. But most impressive is the way in which modernity and modern features have been almost seamlessly integrated with all the old fashioned architecture. The theatre pod in the centre of the exchange, beneath the biggest dome, looks like it could almost have been here forever, like the building was designed around it. And there are some fantastic views from the mezzanine gallery above the main hall as well. Not all theatres are so happy to let you have a look around but this one is. That isn’t surprising considering how amazing the actual building is.

Inside the ExchangeOn the mezzanine level I spy a door to an office and there are people inside… I get an idea… My Kindle is in my bag and somewhere on there is the script for Malvolio. I could go bursting in there shouting ‘Look at me I’m a writer… Look at this… Isn’t it funny… HA HA HA…’ And then I could throw Malvolio at them. I don’t do this as I’m not that insane but I could have done… Every decision we make creates an alternative universe right? So somewhere in the multiverse I actually did just that… I suppose we’ll always wonder what happened to the version of me that did that. Chances are they called security and they dragged his arse from the building… It’s hard enough to get a play produced in this country as is but bursting into a room and crying ‘look at me’ is definitely not the way to go. As for the version of me in this world… I sensibly left the exchange without a word and carried on, back into the city… Back off to buy my essentials. And you know… It feels like Christmas!

But the sad thing is… The Patrick Troughton puppet? I mentioned at the start? Three quarters of his material got cut!

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