You won’t find it on the tourist map. Urban explorers Dan Feeney and Sam Bail discover the back street heroes of the unseen and unofficial Piccadilly
Piccadilly has long been the centre of Manchester, with Piccadilly Gardens acting as a welcome to the city centre from most transport termini. L.S. Lowry captured the Gardens back when, well, they were still actual gardens, with overflowing flowerbeds and whatnot. CityCo would now have us believe that this central hub is Manchester’s ‘village green’, an area where families can meet for picnics, where creative types can watch bands across the festival season, and where Christmas revellers can enjoy a big slide, or whatever it is that joins the festive parade this year.
In many ways, the recent proclamation by The Academy of Urbanism that the Northern Quarter is the best ‘neighbourhood’ in Europe only goes to further this communal view of Piccadilly and neighbouring areas. From the cosy heart of the creative district, so the official story goes, you can saunter down to Piccadilly to join shoppers and commuters enjoying Manchester.
Yet betwixt these two wholesome views of the city is the very real boundary that is Back Piccadilly. In one sense it is a physical parting of the ways, whilst on another this back street area represents an unseen Manchester. The lives lived out on Back Piccadilly don’t form part of the rubber-stamped rhetoric of Piccadilly or the Northern Quarter. Which is exactly why we want to go and hang out with them…
Diving off Oldham Street we encounter a nondescript backdoor, offering a ‘Snack Bar’ within but festooned with public health warnings about the dangers of gambling, and more security cameras than is strictly necessary. We enter to find a faux-wood clad corridor leading towards a portal of flashing lights, falling change and garish noises. The world of the amusement arcade is a thing of seaside trips and motorways services for most people, yet inside Nobles Piccadilly Amusements, the unseen lives of Piccadilly stake all or nothing on the roll of a fruit machine. While the young spend their money at high street shops on Saturday afternoons, a more senior part of society can be found here, fighting a seemingly never-ending battle against their coin-swallowing opponents.
Leaving Nobles with inevitably emptier pockets, we move down the narrow alley that is Back Piccadilly. The tall buildings surrounding us throw up questions as to why this area hasn’t been redeveloped yet. In fact, the strange mixture of empty warehouses and half-finished building sites clad in scaffolding so close to the lively city centre hub is as charming as it is dreary. Like many places in Manchester, it even has something of an air of New York.
Walking through the door of Mother Macs on a cold winter afternoon, there is no welcome as warming as this hidden gem, tucked away behind the Piccadilly Gardens Hotel. Mancunian history hangs from the walls, regulars proffer advice about the merits of this hostelry over brand pubs around the corner, and most importantly the open fire-place spreads its warmth through the whole pub. Admittedly, the selection of ales isn’t the best you’ll see, but Mother Macs is a welcome stop-off away from the stifling throng of Piccadilly.
A special position on the list of unusual places in the Piccadilly area is occupied by Empire Exchange, an establishment best known for blasting out painfully loud music to passers-by on the way between Piccadilly Gardens and the train station. Descending into the belly of the blaring beast, past movie posters and super hero mannequins, we find what can only be described as a treasure trove of books, records, DVDs, novelty items and the sort of knick-knacks that some might classify as “memorabilia”. Given the vast selection of goods and occasional rock-bottom prices, as well as the, ahem, “interesting” clientele, it is easy to spend hours in Empire Exchange, digging for the find of the day and eavesdropping on conversations between the shopkeeper and customers. You won’t overhear exclamations like “Mate, if you sell that watch, you’re selling me out!” at the Arndale.
Hungry shoppers should not fear seeking satisfaction off of the beaten tracks, either. Hunger is easily sated with a greasy fry-up at one of the sandwich shops on Newton Street or a warm meal at Cafe Marhaba, possibly the shadiest looking back alley curry place in the city. The interior takes you straight back to the 1960s and the oversized bubbling pans on the cooker resemble witches’ cauldrons. The food, however, is surprisingly tasty. Served in small bowls with delicious home made chapati breads, Marhaba offers the perenrial “rice and three” for less than a fiver.
While the recession has probably shielded this city centre blind spot from the prying eyes of building firms, it surely won’t be long before Back Piccadilly’s empty buildings and dark back alleys get the makeover they deserve. For now, then, take a chance to discover a side of Manchester that remains firmly off the tourist trail – while it still exists.
Images: all Sam Bail.
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