Your travel guide to Manchester Oxford Road
Oh, Oxford Road how we love you: your universities and museums, your galleries and art house flicks, your art school and the genteel whiff of academia that permeates your air – along with the choking smell of vehicle emissions. You see, Manchester’s self-styled “cultural corridor” also happens to be the busiest bus route in Europe. Its thundering traffic is the stuff of legend.
But don’t let that put you off. Oxford Road stretches from the edge of the Curry Mile in Rusholme right up to Central Library, and along its length you’ll find such artistic gems as the Whitworth, Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester campus (Hogwarts eat your heart out), atmospheric live music venue Deaf Institute, Cornerhouse, and indie bars Big Hands, Kro and Black Dog Ballroom. There are also two parks: Whitworth Park, which dates back to 1890, and Grosvenor Square, a small patch of green that was once a church and where now, on sunny days, the locals come out to bask in bookish style.
Let’s start at the bottom. To the south of the city centre is the Whitworth, a red-brick gallery whose staid Victorian frontage belies the revolution taking place behind its doors. In late 2013, the Whitworth closes. A £12m redevelopment will extend the gallery out into the park that is its neighbour; this dramatic extension should be finished by 2014. In the meantime, enjoy its contemporary exhibitions with an historic twist: the curatorial policy here combines an international collection of watercolours, artwork, textiles and wallpapers with recent work by the world’s leading artists.
Heading down Oxford Road you’ll find yourself deep in undergraduate territory, but hidden away behind the takeaways and stationery shops is Contact. With a building that resembles a child’s drawing of a turreted castle, Contact is the city’s home of emerging theatre and spoken word, with an emphasis on nurturing young talent. Musos flock to neighbouring Big Hands, a miniscule dive popular with those attending (and performing) gigs at the nearby Manchester Academies. Further on, the concert hall at Royal Northern College of Music is home to Manchester Camerata and attracts big-name players in every genre from jazz to electronica. For a pre-concert meal slurp up noodles at Umami, or head to Kro, a good bet for Danish-inspired grub and beers housed – ironically – in a former Temperance Society building.
The University of Manchester’s Alfred Waterhouse campus is worth a wander around: the Old Quadrangle, just off Oxford Road, includes the neo-Gothic masterpiece that is the Whitworth Hall, while Christie’s Bistro has a wood-panelled, bookish interior that turns lunch into an event. But the University’s cultural contribution isn’t limited to its architecture. Star lecturers – including Jeanette Winterson and Brian Cox – regularly pack them in for sell-out public events. And then there’s Manchester Museum. Since 1890 it’s been one of the UK’s leading university museums (and a godsend for families). The natural history museum’s archive numbers a staggering six million pieces including Stan, the fossilised T-Rex skeleton. Don’t miss Ancient Worlds, the spectacular new Archaeology and Egyptology galleries, and the Living Worlds gallery, the sleek reinvention of the museum’s animal life displays by art and fashion producers Villa Eugénie.
Head further north and you enter MMU territory, where the grand lines of the University are replaced by the rag-tag collection of aging polytechnic buildings that make up MMU’s All Saints campus. It might not look like much but MMU has over a thousand well-subscribed courses, runs high-profile annual awards for fiction and poetry, and is home to the Manchester School of Art – its Holden Gallery hosts interesting exhibitions and events open to all.
Clustered around Grosvenor Park are Oxford Road’s few retail scraps – this is not a place to get a shopping fix – including veggie cooperative Eighth Day which sells fantastic marinated olives, organic cider and artisan bread, and serves up tasty meals downstairs. But despite the proximity of the universities, Oxford Road is no student ghetto; we all love arty Sandbar and The Deaf Institute, which proves that grade II-listed buildings and giant glitterballs can be a winning combo. Unpretentious yet edgy, this bar/club/restaurant is a place where whole days (and nights) can easily be lost.
Wedged in a small corner close to Oxford Road Station and the former site of Industrial Revolution slum, Little Ireland, street art adorns the walls of New Wakefield Street; it’s the legacy of Eurocultured, the spring festival that turns the place into a street-long party. Black Dog Ballroom, on the same short street, is a three-level bar, club and restaurant with a roof terrace covered to provide protection during Manchester’s, ahem, rainy season. Nearby is Zouk Tea Bar and Grill, an Indian restaurant rather than a curry house, where meat and seafood are delicately spiced and roasted on a charcoal grill. All are a stone’s throw from Cornerhouse, an independent cinema, gallery and restaurant. Easily as much a part of the cultural landscape as the Haçienda ever was, it’s a great place to see art or watch a film and then discuss it all over tapas. Enjoy it while you can, though: Cornerhouse moves to a new purpose-built art centre in 2014, leaving its former home empty, though probably not for long.
And that brings us to the end of Oxford Road. For years there has been much discussion of re-routing all those grimy buses. There has been almost as much moaning about the 70,000 or so students who make Oxford Road their academic home every year – but without whom Manchester would be much the poorer. Who knows, those buses may yet get shifted, giving this clever little road a bit of breathing room. Until then, take a deep breath and dive in: along Oxford Road, there are rich cultural pickings.