Thursday, April 23, 2009


For some reason, I had expected Manchester to be a totally amazing place. I’m not really sure where that came from—surely a mixture of libraried guide books, the internet, and a creative imagination. The actual effect of Manchester was... underwhelming. It wasn’t a bad place; it just had nothing really going for it. Regardless, I had loads of fun while I was there, and the rest of my trip (which I’ll put into several posts, to avoid rambling for too long) was great. (Beware, however, that this post is quite wordy. I’ll intersperse some random images of Manchester out of context to keep things interesting.)

The flights

Whatever it was that had built up Manchester in my head, the undermining factors were a bit too strong. First, consider the time it took to get there. I was travelling for about 30 hours total, and this travel didn’t actually start until late afternoon on easter Sunday. I have a really hard time sleeping on planes, so I was awake for something like 40 hours when I got into Manchester.

But it wasn’t just a long trip this time... for some reason, I was sick for most of it. As I waited in the Townsville airport to fly to Brisbane, I started shivering and couldn’t stop. The 14 hour flight between Brisbane and Dubai was miserable. At least I had an aisle seat (in the very back row of the plane...), which was handy since I was ill from post-dinner till landing. I couldn’t get warm, and I couldn’t stomach most of the food they gave me. It was a shame, too—Emirates hooked me up with some kick-ass looking vegan meals, but I barely got down a few pieces of fruit. I felt a bit better on the 8 hour flight between Dubai and Manchester, but I was still feeling quite unsettled when I got to my final destination.

The Accommodation

In Manchester, I chose Hatters Hostel for my accommodation. It was the closest backpackers to the conference venue, so it was the easy choice. I booked into a four-person dorm, and the room was never full while I was there. The place had a great vibe, and offered free tea and toast 24-hours a day, plus gave Morrissey tours around Manchester. The places where it let me down... undoubtedly the shower. A large room with several glass-doored showers was shared between all the females on two or three storeys of the building. And rather than giving the user control over the heat and pressure and length of the shower, the water came in one temperature via a push button (like the most annoying of public toilet sinks). The temperature was just on the side of too hot. The rooms, though, were too cold. I was on the 5th floor, and the building was old and draughty. And the other thing about any hostels is the noise. This one can’t really be faulted for that, but I didn’t get a single good night of sleep while I was in Manchester.

The city itself

After a very short nap on my first afternoon, I set out to wander around the city a bit before I was set to meet my friend, Nick (from Brisbane) for dinner. On the maps, the city seemed really large and spread out. But I found that everything was much more compact than it looked. It didn’t take us long to see everything. On that first evening, I saw the cool old buildings you’re meant to see in Manchester. We wandered through the Northern Quarter where we found a bar called The Bay Horse that had vegan Bombay Potato Pies coming straight from the oven (they were only okay, which was a bit of a let down, but their normal menu was superseded by the public holiday).

The next day we met up again in the mid-morning with a set goal—to find this Engels exhibition. We went to the museum where it was meant to be and found nothing. We wandered through another museum’s display in the same compound and likewise found nothing. The closest we got was a display about the textile industry (which Engels worked in for a bit in Manchester) and a puppet depicting some other friend of Marx. Google, you let me down on this one! After the disappointing museum trip, we went to the free art gallery which was showing a few sketches by Da Vinci. That took about ten minutes, and by then we’d exhausted basically all of the attractions in Manchester. We did a lot of walking around that day looking for something exciting, and followed almost all of the black signs pointing out things to see. And in Manchester’s defence, we could have opted to look around inside some of these historic buildings, or even paid for a proper tour. But we didn’t. We even went out to Old Trafford, where Manchester United play football. Nick is a fan of football, but not Man U, so neither of us wanted to pay for the tour there, either.

The thing that really struck me about Manchester was how ugly it is. It felt more like an industrial park than a city. There were a fair few cool looking old buildings. But there were even more plain brown brick buildings. I could see three distinct smoke stacks from my hostel window. Aside from the Hilton Tower, none of the new buildings were even very innovative. In fact, we saw new buildings being constructed in the bland old style of the 80s, and in more brown brick. This is why I didn’t really take more photos.

But let’s be honest, the thing that really affects me the most (now that I live in the tropics and have acclimatised to 34 degree days) is the weather. Manchester was flipping cold. And gray. And occasionally even rainy. But rarely ever sunny. During the days it hovered around the 10 to 12 degree mark. And at night, of course, it was colder. And it was windy. The wind was cold and biting, and even the Mancunians we met at the conference said it was uncharacteristically bad weather. Lucky me.

Finally, I was given the impression that Manchester is some sort of cosmopolitan city. But we had trouble finding chai lattes. There was more than one person who gave us a blank stare and said “What’s that???” when we asked if they had chai latte. It was only the bigger coffee chains that carried them. Also, Manchester lacked the things that make cities charming, in my opinion—street musicians, good graffiti, and even state-sanctioned artwork, or cafes that were open after dinner. It did have the normal urban unpleasantries, like trash and lots of homeless people asking for money.

The Conference

I was surprised at how small the conference was. I could tell by the schedule that it would be small, but compared with the major international conferences I went to in December, this was tiny. Probably 50 or so attendees. Less than a quarter of these were visibly students—most were men with grey beards in their 50s and above, and many were staunch Marxists. Now I’m obviously not opposed to the arguments of Karl Marx. I think his critique of capitalism and of the state is a fantastic starting point for understanding complex power relationships. But people who believe so strongly in one single doctrine without ever considering the other options kind of put me off. That said, I met a few really interesting people. And my paper went pretty well—the other presenter in my panel couldn’t make it, so I had 90 minutes for myself. I expected to finish after about 45—50 tops—but my 20 minute paper generated enough questions and discussion to take up an hour and 15 minutes. And more importantly, people seemed to think it was good.

The food

I don’t actually have any photos of food from my trip, even though I ate a fair bit of it. Blame Nick—we ate together and I felt awkward pulling out a camera to snap food when I was with him. Breakfast was free in the hostel (tea and toast), though after a few days I crashed Nick’s accommodation for brekky because they at least had fruit and soy milk for the tea.

Dinner our first night was, as I said, at the Bay Horse Inn where we had two vegan pies. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Nick had gone vegetarian at the beginning of the year, so I didn’t have to feel like such an inconvenience when it took a while on the first night to find a restaurant with vegan meals. After the first day, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find non-vegan restaurants with a significant amount of cruelty-free choices on their menus. We didn’t actually get to any vegetarian places (Manchester has a few, but thanks to my terrible sense of direction and the short opening hours we never made it) but I was still spoilt for choice.

There was a Thai place that had nearly half of its menu dedicated to vegan choices like Mock Chicken with Cashews or Aubergine and Tofu with Basil and Chilli, like we got. We also found a pizza place with a vegan mozzarella, aubergine, olive and sun dried tomato pie, which was really yummy. There was the Chinese place where we got Asian Vegetables in Black Bean Sauce and some yummy Sweet and Sour Tofu. And for dinner one night we visited the Curry Mile where we had veggie versions of Rogan Josh and Bhuta curries.

In conclusion

Manchester was all right. I actually had loads of fun there, because I was travelling with my friend Nick. We met in December at the sociology conference in Melbourne and since then have mostly conversed (and commiserated, on PhD related matters) over emails and facebook. So it was fun to actually hang out again in person. Plus, having someone to travel with is way better than travelling alone. If I were given the opportunity of another free trip to Manchester, I would probably take it. I would just try to time it for a warmer season, and also do some better research beforehand about what there is to do in the place.

Manchester let me down a bit, but the rest of my trip was the opposite. Here’s a teaser picture from my next destination, which I’ll tell you about in another post.


VeggieGirl said...

Ahh, sorry that it was a letdown!! Can't wait to read about the GOOD parts of your trip though ;-)

Mandee said...

It's a shame your trip wasn't as good as you'd hoped it would be :( The cold over there can take some getting used to!

The Vegan Snorkeler said...

Glad you found some good vegan food in Manchester! I manage to find Thai food almost everywhere I go. It comes in handy when you need a tofu fix. Looking forward to hearing about your next destination!

Bianca said...

Sorry your trip kinda sucked! All those old buildings look pretty cool though...I'm easily impressed though!

Vegan_Noodle said...

I too remember being disappointed with Manchester.... kind of a blah city, huh? At least you had lots of fun while you were there!!

DJ said...

Well, I'm disappointed you didn't like it more but then I'm a born and bred Mancunian and we're all somehow inextricably wedded to 'Our City'! It is smaller than you expect - I used to live in the burbs and walk into the centre regularly - but there are other areas surrounding like Fallowfield, Didsbury and Chorlton - that are a bit more fun than the centre itself. Remember, next time you're coming over let me know, I'll take you round...

Vaala said...

Great to hear that your presentation went really well. A paper that generates heaps of questions sounds like a pretty good paper as it gets people thinking.

Anyway, you may not have thought much of Manchester but I like your photo of the red telephone boxes!

the little one said...

Sounds like a fair review to me! So glad you're paper went over so well. That's fantastic!