Just as many people of a certain age can remember where they were when they heard about the assassination of America’s President Kennedy back in 1963, the IRA bombing of Manchester city centre will be forever etched in the minds and memories of the many people and their families who were affected by it. In one of the darkest and most defining moments in Manchester’s history the huge explosion on Saturday June 15th 1996 ripped through the heart of the city centre, tearing buildings apart and hurling glass and rubble a mile into the air before it rained down on hundreds of terrified shoppers and workers.
Later referred to as ‘the bomb that went round corners’ the blast hit people well out of its sight-line with a brute force that sent them flying. Windows were momentarily sucked inwards before being blown outwards a split second later, glass rained down from the high-rise Arndale tower and the bottom fell out of the escalators on Market Street, while outside Kendals people sheltering under the store’s canopy were showered with shards of broken glass when the windows blew out. Alarms shrieked from every street and hundreds of people on the edge of the inner cordon were terrified into a stampede down Deansgate, while others wandered round dazed and confused or lay on the ground in pools of blood, injured by flying glass and debris.
However, where there was great terror there was also great heroism. An incredible operation by emergency services staff who put their own lives at risk to clear 80,000 people away from the immediate bomb area, treated many of the wounded afterwards and went in search of others who may be trapped in damaged buildings made sure that in spite of the devastation caused by the explosion no-one died.
Immediately after the blast the fire crews kicked into action; reinforcements raced into the city from across the Greater Manchester region and the initial 5 fire engines and 30 firefighters turned into 20 fire engines, 11 special appliances, 115 firefighters and 26 supervisory officers. With 60 calls in the first five minutes to the ambulance control centre just over three miles away 81 ambulances and their crews from across Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire, Merseyside and Yorkshire were drafted in to tend to injuries and take casualties to hospital, while an off-duty doctor on the outskirts of the city rushed to assist staff at Manchester Royal Infirmary. He was later issued with a speeding ticket but was let off because of the circumstances.
Firefighters wearing heavy breathing apparatus sprinted up shattered stairways and down into cellars, searching for anyone trapped or injured inside abandoned shops and offices; the bomb had set off the sprinkler systems in many buildings and water was trickling down through the floors. A man suffering from severe cuts was led to safety from the Corn Exchange while an aerial platform was used to rescue an injured security guard from the third floor of the Arndale Centre. In the Royal Insurance building 100 yards from the blast cries for help were heard coming from the second floor where firefighters found 15 people suffering from shock, cuts and blast injuries, while on the third floor they found a woman lying among the debris with horrific facial injuries.
That woman was Barbara Welch, the most seriously injured of all the bomb’s victims. In the split second following the blast she took the full force of a blown out window – her face was shredded by thousands of shards of glass, most of her teeth were lost and she also suffered a damaged retina and ligament damage to her hand. Unconscious for three days, she woke in hospital with more than 250 stitches in her face and her head swollen to three times its normal size. She was allowed home after two weeks but needed more than 50 further hospital appointments, extensive surgery to repair damage to her jaw and to reconstruct her face, and months of physiotherapy.
A Kendal’s security guard and his colleague, on duty in the store, were knocked off their feet by the force of the blast. Despite having been hit by flying glass he went to the aid of a shopper crying hysterically and covered in blood from injuries to her neck and hand; he got her to the safety of one of the ambulances then went back to help as many more people as he could. A while afterwards that lady wrote to thank him.
On the edge of the inner cordon fifty staff working in the Co-op building had been told to stay inside and away from the windows but that didn’t stop them from feeling the force of the bomb. Part of the explosive-laden van landed on the second floor roof garden, its impact sending ceiling tiles showering down onto the workers, however following a couple of previous bomb attacks in the city all but two of the windows had been covered with protective film so they stayed intact. Thankfully none of the workers were injured and they were allowed out of the building an hour and a half after the bomb exploded.
By 3pm the heart of the city centre was desolate. Buses had stopped at the beginning of the evacuation and the streets were littered with stranded and destroyed cars, while dazed shoppers and workers made their way to the edge of the city to try to find phone boxes or transport home. The streets closest to the bomb site were just a sea of rubble and broken glass while added to the continual wailing of alarms music still played in some of the abandoned shops. Mannequins hung eerily out of shop windows where glass had once been and for hours afterwards pieces of masonry continued to fall from damaged buildings.
It took three years to rebuild and redevelop the damaged parts of the city centre and looking at the modern buildings today it’s hard to believe what happened there in 1996. Sadly though, for many people the sight of those new buildings will never erase the memories, evidenced by words from a couple of Manchester Evening News readers in a feature published twenty years later –
”As one of the 212 people injured that day, the physical injuries healed a long time ago. The mental torment I’ve had ever since will never leave me”
”The following day I went into Manchester and stood at the top of Market Street looking down towards the devastation. Tears were rolling down my face and I heard the woman next to me draw a ragged breath so I held her hand – complete strangers silently holding hands and weeping for our city. I will never forget that moment or that woman.”
While researching something for a future blog post I recently came across something else of interest which I thought deserved a photo or two at the next opportunity. It was something which most people take for granted and will use or walk past without thinking twice about it, in fact without realising its significance I’ve walked past it myself many times over the last few years – a humble Royal Mail post box in Manchester city centre.
Back in 1996 Saturday June 15th in Manchester started in blazing summer sunshine. It was the day before Father’s Day, the televised Euro 96 match between England and Scotland was to be played at Wembley that afternoon, tv crews from across Europe were in the city for the following day’s match between Russia and Germany at Old Trafford, and by 9.20am the streets had already started to fill up with football fans and crowds of shoppers, none of whom had any idea of the disaster which would happen just two hours later.
Also at 9.20 two men in cagoules and sunglasses left a heavily loaded red and white Ford Cargo box van outside Marks and Spencer on Corporation Street – it was parked on double yellow lines with its hazard lights flashing and three minutes after it was abandoned a traffic warden slapped a parking ticket on it. Inside were 3,300 lbs of homemade explosive – a mixture of semtex and ammonium nitrate fertiliser – and as the men walked away they called an IRA chief in Ireland to tell him the bomb was in place before being picked up in nearby Cathedral Street by a third man in a burgundy-coloured Ford Granada which was later found abandoned in Preston.
Around 9.40am a man with an Irish accent called Granada TV to warn that a bomb would go off an hour later; similar calls were also made to Sky News, Salford University, North Manchester General Hospital and the Garda police in Dublin, with the man giving the location and using a special code word so police would know that the threat was genuine.
By 10am an estimated 80,000 people were shopping and working in the vicinity of the bomb and an immediate evacuation of the area was undertaken by officers from a police station half a mile away. It was a mammoth task though it was helped by having extra police on duty drafted in to control the football crowds, and while one group worked to move people away from the bomb area another group, assisted by firefighters and security guards from local stores, established a continuously expanding cordon around the area.
In previous years Mancunians had become used to bomb scares which invariably came to nothing so initially many people were reluctant to go – one hairdresser refused to let his clients leave his salon as they still had chemicals in their hair and a group of workmen wanted to stay put as they were on weekend rates, while a female police officer had to tell customers in Pizza Hut ”I don’t want to die because somebody won’t finish their pizza”.
By 11.10am the cordon had extended out to a quarter of a mile radius from the truck and 1.5 miles in circumference until there were no more officers to take it any further, and the heart of the city centre was completely deserted. An army bomb disposal squad, scrambled from Liverpool, set up a base 200 yards down the road and prepared to defuse the bomb by using a remote controlled robot to blow a hole in the side of the truck followed by a controlled blast to disable it – the first smaller blast went off at 11.16 but at 11.17 they ran out of time.
When the bomb exploded the blast issued a force so powerful it travelled round 90 degree corners, knocking people off their feet and blowing out almost every window within half a mile. It was the largest bomb ever detonated within the UK since WW2 and the blast, which could be heard from 15 miles away, created a mushroom cloud which rose 1,000 feet from the ground. Immediately after the blast there was a sudden and eerie silence then a wall of noise as every alarm in the vicinity started wailing.
Dust and shards of glass rained down from the sky along with a torrent of masonry, and even people behind the police cordon and as far as half a mile away were showered with falling debris. The cctv screens at the police station went black and within five minutes the ambulance control centre received 60 calls to every street in the area. Several people as far away as Kendal’s department store on Deansgate – now House of Fraser – had wrongly believed they would be safe under the store’s canopy but were injured when the windows blew out.
Five fire engines and 30 firefighters had initially attended the scene with that number growing to 20 fire engines, 11 special appliances, 115 firefighters and 26 supervisory officers, and under a controlled and co-ordinated operation ambulance crews toured the city centre to pick up the more badly injured victims and take them to hospital while firefighters searched buildings for anyone who could be injured or trapped. While police commandeered a Metrolink tram to take 50 walking wounded to North Manchester General Hospital many others were treated in the streets by paramedics assisted by a few off-duty doctors and nurses who happened to be in the area at the time.
Around 212 people were injured in the blast that day, many quite seriously, but incredibly, due to the police’s remarkable evacuation, nobody had been killed. Nevertheless, much of the city centre lay in ruins and along with many homes some 700 businesses were damaged in some way, disrupting or ruining thousands of livelihoods. The historic landmarks of Manchester Cathedral, Chetham’s School of Music, the Corn Exchange and the Royal Exchange theatre were all damaged and would take several years and millions of pounds to restore, while Longridge House, the office block next to Marks and Spencer, would be demolished and the bus station under the Arndale centre would never reopen.
Amazingly, in the midst of all the chaos and carnage, one of the few things left standing was the Royal Mail post box. Situated outside Marks and Spencer and only a few yards from where the bomb exploded it survived almost unscathed by the blast – the mail it contained was untouched and was eventually delivered as if nothing had happened. The box was removed for minor repairs while the destroyed parts of the area were rebuilt then three years later it was returned to its original position with the addition of a plaque marking the event.
Many people went on to say that the bomb was ”the best thing to happen to Manchester” as the aftermath kick-started a huge regeneration scheme but those whose lives and businesses were directly affected obviously thought otherwise, while Manchester City Council insisted that a redevelopment scheme had already been in the pipeline.
One significant legacy of the bomb attack though is that up until September 2022 no-one was ever arrested in connection with it, apart from the Manchester Evening News journalist who revealed the name of the prime suspect and a man wrongly accused of being his source – but that’s a story for another time.
Well where do I start? On a personal level there was nothing remotely interesting or exciting about day-to-day life in the Mouse House in 2022 and other than catching a cold in June I’ve been happy and healthy all year so this post is just a look back at some of the places I went to on my travels during the year.
Most of January was grey, wet and miserable but towards the end of the month some lovely sunshine and blue sky appeared so I took Snowy and Poppie for the first long walk of the year through local countryside and round by Turton Tower and the Last Drop Village.
February was another very wet month with three named storms almost one after the other so dog walking was kept to the avenues around home, however I still managed to get to a few places. The first Sunday of the month saw me walking round a blustery and very wet Manchester to capture some aspects of the Chinese New Year celebrations, a few days later I was on the snowdrop trail around Lytham Hall, the middle of the month I went to the Michaelangelo exhibiton at the Trafford Centre’s Event City, then the last few days of the month I had a mini break down in North Wales where the weather was mostly very good.
For some reason March was a bit of a ‘nothing’ month with no opportunities for days out though I did make up for it in April with a long Easter weekend camping break back in North Wales during which I visited Colwyn Bay Zoo, climbed a very steep hill up to the remains of Deganwy Castle, walked across Conwy Suspension Bridge and wandered round a lovely part of Conwy Mountain.
In May, thanks to some excellent prices on ebay and lots of visits by Royal Mail and Hermes, I completed my meerkat collection with the ones I didn’t have, making a full total of nineteen. I also visited, for the first time, Bazil Point on the Lune estuary and followed that with a walk round the tiny village of Sunderland Point across the river and a visit to Sambo’s grave.
The beginning of June saw the advent of my birthday and thanks to my ever-generous son I got what must be the best birthday present ever. With a top speed of 16 kph it came with a free floor mat, has all the features I’ll ever need and more besides, and folds up when not in use. I haven’t yet got round to photographing it in situ so I’ve pinched a pic from the retailer’s website though it’s actually bigger than it looks.
The day of my birthday also saw me wandering round the Manchester Flower Show which coincided with Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, then the following weekend started a 10-day holiday back in North Wales where I went to many places including Conwy Castle, Gwrych Castle and the very beautiful Bodnant Gardens.
The highlight of July was an overnight weekend stay in the van and completely off-grid on the edge of Glasson Dock village. The weather and views across the Lune estuary were great, I had a couple of lovely walks around the village and nearby countryside, and though going off-grid isn’t something I would do too often the experience had been a good one.
August saw me visiting several different gardens on their open days, from small private gardens to larger gardens of several acres, none of which I’d been to before, and the particular highlights were the RHS Bridgewater Garden and Gresgarth Hall. I also went to the newly opened Castlefield Viaduct garden, and following my visit to Gresgarth Hall I had a lovely walk along a section of the River Lune.
During a week’s leave from work in mid September a gloriously sunny day saw me walking from Hest Bank northwards along the Lancaster Canal for a couple of miles then heading down to the coast at Bolton-le-Sands and walking back to Hest Bank via the foreshore, where I eventually found the Praying Shell sculpture overlooking Morecambe Bay near Red Bank Farm.
October was quite a busy time for getting out and about. At the beginning of the month I made my first ever visit to Southport’s Botanical Gardens then a week later made my second visit to Gresgarth Hall. This was followed by a mid-month second visit to Bridgewater Gardens and a few days later a tour of the Winter Gardens theatre at Morecambe and a walk southwards along the canal from Hest Bank, although disappointingly the earlier blue sky had changed to dull grey.
November was mostly a very wet month, it had rained almost every day since before Halloween but on one of the very few fine days I managed to get out for a walk along a section of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal not too far from home. Also that month I discovered a large old water wheel and a packhorse bridge, both fairly local to me but which I’d previously known nothing about.
As for December, the highlight of the month occurred just yesterday on the day of New Year’s Eve but I’ve not had the chance to sort out all the photos yet, so I’ll just say it was an experience and it was ‘different’ and all will be revealed in my next post. Thanks to all my readers for checking out my various posts over the last twelve months and here’s to a great 2023 for everyone.
Earlier this month I visited a couple of local garden centres for a mooch around their Christmas displays. Both places usually have some nice ones and they didn’t disappoint so here are some of the photos I took while I was wandering round – I think Santa must have had too much sherry in the first one!
And to round off this very short post, last week I found Santa in Manchester city centre, sitting happily on top of a huge present outside the Central Library in St. Peter’s Square. He does actually light up at night but the detail of his face isn’t easy to see when he’s illuminated.
Well the shopping is all done, work has finished until January 3rd, and I just have a few presents to wrap tonight, after that I can relax and enjoy the Christmas and New Year break. So to everyone out there in blogland, Merry Christmas from the Mouse House and I’ll be back next week with some street art.
Now I’m not one for walking, cycling or driving round with my eyes metaphorically closed but just recently I became aware of something which I must have passed hundreds, if not thousands, of times during my life without knowing what it is – the town’s only remaining tram pole.
Prior to 1900 Bolton had a fleet of horse-drawn trams which had operated from 1880, owned by E Holden & Co and serving several of the town’s suburban areas, with a town centre depot housing 48 trams and 350 horses. In 1899 Holden’s sold out to Bolton Corporation and the local authority immediately began a major modernisation programme with a total of 70 electric tramcars being ordered from a company in Preston. It was the largest single order for tramcars ever made in Britain and in less than a year Bolton’s tram network was revolutionised.
The last horse-drawn tram service operated on January 2nd 1900 and on the same date electric trams began running to seven of the town’s suburbs, while a circular network was developed within the town centre itself. One feature of the new tram system was the use of letters to denote the route, among them ‘H’ for the Halliwell area, ‘R’ for Rumworth and ‘G’ for Great Lever. Within a few short years the tram network was extended to three other outlying areas and in 1908 a parcel delivery service began to operate around the borough, while a contract was signed with Tillotson’s, owners of the Bolton Evening News, for bundles of newspapers to be picked up from their town centre offices and delivered by early morning tram to various newsagents shops.
The Corporation’s Tramways Committee had adopted a policy of keeping fares low and this policy continued despite inflation during the years of the First World War. After the war the number of passengers carried increased steadily from 32 million to 56 million and in 1928 nearly 60 million passengers were carried on the 150-strong tram fleet. Sadly though, the advent of the Second World War signalled the beginning of the end for the town’s tram network.
Track maintenance and much-needed repairs were put on hold during the war years and by the end of the war some parts of the network were in need of major investment. The Tramways Committee had already decided in the 1930s that the future of the town’s transport system lay with motor buses as these were more flexible and required less infrastructure than trams, so several tram routes had actually been abandoned before the war.
During the war years more routes were closed, one of these being the route from the town centre heading south past the local football ground – it was officially closed in November 1944 but the track and overhead wiring remained in place, with the route occasionally used by Football Specials on Saturdays. It was on such an occasion in September 1946 that a tram driver was forced to stop his tram about half a mile from the football ground when the track suddenly disappeared – the Highways Department had apparently failed to notify the Tramways Department of their intention to lift a section of what they regarded as redundant track.
By the end of 1946 all but one of the town’s tram routes had been closed and abandoned. The last route to survive was the ‘T’ service to the north east suburb of Tonge Moor and Tram No. 440 was picked to operate the final there-and-back service on March 29th 1947. It was suitably decorated for the occasion and driven by the Mayor of Bolton, and for the only time in the town’s tramway history smoking was permitted on board.
Fast forward to the early 1960s and Alan Ralphs and Derek Shepherd, two tram enthusiasts who had met at school and helped out at the town centre Tram Shed as teenagers, decided to rescue the shell of an old Bolton tramcar and restore it to its former glory. Most cars had been scrapped or sold off for other uses after the tram service ended in 1947 but the bottom deck of Tram No. 66 was located on a local moorland farm where it was being used as a chicken coop. After it was transported to a barn at Derek’s house a growing band of fellow enthusiasts dedicated their Monday evenings to its repair and restoration and the Bolton 66 Tramcar Trust was born.
By 1978 work was progressing well but the tram still needed a top deck – being of wooden construction none of the original top decks had survived in good enough condition after the tram fleet was scrapped so a replica had to be built from scratch. After a very generous donation from one of its members the restoration group was able to commission a custom-made top deck produced in kit form by a local cabinet maker and once this had been assembled, sealed, canvassed and glazed the interior fittings were added.
In June 1981 the now complete tram, painted in its period maroon and cream livery, was moved to Blackpool. After successfully undergoing its initial test runs it was put into service on the promenade and the restoration group had the satisfaction of seeing 18 years of their work transformed into a working tramcar carrying fare-paying passengers for the first time since the 1940s – and 41 years later it’s still providing a traditional British tram ride for visitors and enthusiasts.
The extensive network of tram routes in and around Bolton needed around 3,000 support poles for the overhead electric system and the majority of these were a standard three-section weldless type, embedded six feet into the ground and almost 27 feet high from pavement level to the ball and spike finials at the top. All the older poles had fluted cast iron bases embossed with the town’s coat-of arms and from the 1920s onwards were painted dark green with red bases and finials, though the finials weren’t just ornamental – they also prevented rain from running down the inside of the poles as well as dissuading birds from perching on the tops and making a mess.
In the years following the closure of the town’s tram network some of the poles enjoyed a second life as lamp standards but gradually they were all removed until only this one remained in situ, although I have no idea why this particular one has been allowed to stay. Dating from 1901 it stands close to the junction of the A666 and A6099 about a mile from the town centre and in 1997 the Bolton 66 Tramcar Trust renovated it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tramway’s closure. Twenty five years on and for the 75th anniversary just a few months ago the pole was given a fresh coat of paint by Bolton Council – the work was funded by the Trust and a plaque was fixed to the pole to give it a bit of history.
Bolton’s tram system and its trams had disappeared long before I was born so I was quite surprised when I recently found out about the last tram pole. This in turn sent me down the rabbit hole of researching the town’s tram history which has proved to be extremely interesting, and though I’ll probably never get to ride on Tram No. 66 at Blackpool it’s great to see what has been achieved by the efforts of a small group of people so I hope the tram – and the pole – stay around for many more years to come.
The middle Sunday in October saw me heading to Morecambe for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Winter Gardens theatre situated on the Central Promenade. The late Victorian building became Grade ll listed in 1987 and since the formation of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust in 2006 the theatre has been undergoing the long slow process of major repair and restoration, and in September 2020, after being intrigued by some photos of the ornate interior, I booked myself onto one of the guided tours. I wasn’t disappointed, the theatre’s history was fascinating, and though I intended to go back in 2021 I decided to wait until this year to see what progress had been made with the various renovations.
The tour guide this time was a very friendly and knowledgeable volunteer named Lesley and with only three other people in the group I had plenty of opportunities to ask questions and discuss things. Although I’d already seen many areas of the theatre on the previous tour other areas were now accessible and it was interesting to see photos and things I hadn’t seen before and to learn some more fascinating and quirky facts about the place.
Unfortunately there is no knowledge of the various entertainers advertised in the photo above – I would love to know what the ‘monkey music hall’ was and if it featured actual monkeys – although I have managed to find out about Cullen & Carthy. Johnnie Cullen (1868–1929) was born in Liverpool while Arthur Carthy (1869-1943) was born in Birkenhead and they met while working together in the machinery room of the newspaper printers producing the Liverpool Echo. They were eventually fired for entertaining their co-workers with singing and dancing and soon afterwards went on to form a comedy double act, achieving popularity on the British and Irish music hall, circus and variety stages and with the Winter Gardens theatre being a venue where they regularly appeared. With a career spanning almost four decades their partnership lasted from 1890 until Cullen’s death in 1929.
Just as previously the tour went from the ground floor of the auditorium, along different rear corridors and up and down various staircases, with stops along the way to see different interesting features. In an as yet unrestored area behind the Grand Circle it was nice to see a few more of the original seats uncovered for the tour and intriguing to see that they are of two different designs, with the red seats and arm rests being deeper than the blue ones, although no-one knows why.
The upper level of the central staircase featured typical late Victorian flocked wallpaper, ornate marble columns and balustrades, and though it’s not really noticeable in the photos all the carved cherubs have slightly different features and a different shade of hair colour.
Above the Grand Circle stairs led up to the underside of The Gods, now undergoing restoration, and halfway up a door led to the void underneath the seating, something which I hadn’t previously seen. Apparently in the past some of the theatre cleaners, rather than removing any rubbish properly, would just throw it into the void where it lay undisturbed for many years and it was only discovered when volunteers cleared out the void prior to renovation – a few of the items found are on display in one of the foyer’s ticket booths.
Another new feature of the tour was the opportunity to go out onto the wide balcony overlooking the promenade to get a closer view of the carved medallions on the wall above a central door – the interlinked letters MWG (Morecambe Winter Gardens) on the left and the date on the right. Access to the balcony was temporarily through the old and very basic Victorian gents’ toilets (no, I didn’t take a photo) and there were good clear views over the promenade and across the bay to the South Lakeland hills.
On the way back down to stage level there was the opportunity to look inside one of the upper boxes, which I’d seen on my previous visit, then the basic general dressing room and the star’s dressing room which now had the added ‘luxury’ of a tv, kettle, and a couple of pictures on the walls, before ending on the stage itself.
One anecdote tells of the theatre having a door big enough for an elephant to go through; sometime in the past an elephant did feature in one of the shows and behind the rear backdrop there is indeed a huge sliding door in the outer wall. The theatre has played host to many famous faces over the years and the final scenes for the 1960 Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer were shot on the Winter Gardens stage.
Although I’d seen many parts of the theatre on my previous visit two years ago it was good to see other parts which have now been made available for the tour and standing on the stage had once again brought back memories of my own days in local theatre. It’s great to see that hard work and dedication are slowly returning the Winter Gardens to its former glory and I’m looking forward to doing another tour in the not-too-distant future.
On a visit to Morecambe in August 2021 I was very surprised to see that the long expanse of plain blue solid wooden fencing fronting the large area of derelict land once the promenade’s Frontierland amusement park, had undergone a makeover and most of the panels now sported a painting or a paste-up.
Frontierland wild west-style theme park started life at a different site in 1906 as the Figure Eight Park, named after the figure-of-eight miniature railway which operated there. The park operated successfully until the late 1920s when it suffered a downturn in fortunes due to various complaints from tourists and a mountain of bad press; in 1929 it was taken over by Blackpool-based Hitchens Ltd but in spite of much investment and a name change to Morecambe Pleasure Park the downturn in visitor numbers continued until the park was closed and the attractions dismantled in 1938.
Just months after being dismantled the amusement park was resurrected on the current site and was purchased in 1939 by Leonard Thompson, owner of Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Southport’s Pleasureland. An ice dome was built on the site and opened in 1949, the park underwent another name change to West End Amusement Park and new rides were added each year. Various shows appeared at the ice theatre until 1962 when the dome was made into a bingo hall and then an indoor amusement place called Fun City.
In spite of the regular addition of new rides over the years, by the 1980s visitor numbers were dwindling again so in an effort to save the park Leonard’s son, Geoffrey Thompson, set about giving the site a complete overhaul and Frontierland was born in 1986, though as a themed amusement park it didn’t have a good start. On November 14th that year a fire ripped through Fun City, burning it to the ground and creating £1m worth of damage, but the park recovered and rides like the Silver Mine, the Texas Tornado, and the Western Carousel saw visitors flocking back.
The Thompson family continued to introduce new rides and features to Frontierland throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and in 1993 the Space Tower was installed. Sponsored by the company behind Polo Mints and commonly referred to as the Polo Tower the 150ft gyro tower was transferred from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and although the ride resulted in a significant boost in visitor numbers it was to be the last major investment at the park. In July 1998 Frontierland hit the headlines when the old wooden Texas Tornado roller coaster set off while the safety bars were still up; several riders were put in danger and one man who was on the ride with his 6-year old daughter at the time later told the Daily Mirror ”we could have been killed”. Whether this incident was the final straw for the site or not that year signalled the beginning of the end for Frontierland and it began to downsize.
Three seasons of staged demolitions were planned across the site and while some rides were moved to Southport’s Pleasureland and rebranded other rides and attractions were sold on to various theme parks in the UK and other countries. The 62-year old Texas Tornado enjoyed its last outing in 1999 then remained dormant until being demolished in late 2000, leaving only the Polo Tower and Log Flume on site, along with a giant pile of rubble. The park’s entrance was sealed off using construction fences and the site remained in this state until Morrisons purchased the land in 2007. A supermarket was built on land adjacent to it and three retail outlets were built on the rear section of the park itself, opening in 2008, and though later plans were passed to develop the rest of the Frontierland site into an outlet village nothing came of them and planning permission eventually lapsed.
In 2009 the Log Flume, which had survived in situ for ten years after the park officially closed down, was finally removed, leaving the Polo Tower as the last element of the former theme park though its only purpose was to fulfil a 20-year contract, signed during its 1993 installation, for the positioning of a telephone mast at the top. The Polo Tower survived until 2017 when it was finally demolished in June that year.
With the former Frontierland site being left unused for so long the 600ft-long blue fence was branded an eyesore by residents and town politicians, with one local councillor calling on Morrisons to do something about it. The fence remained as it was though, that was until March 2021 when a local artist took it upon himself to paint a mural of Dame Thora Hird on one of the panels; this inspired other local artists to want to add their own creations to the fence and through an art-based outreach project around 40 of them have used their artwork to decorate the hoardings.
In August 2021 the Frontierland site was bought by Lancaster City Council with the hope that the land can once again be put to good use but until such time as it is then hopefully the blue fence now known as the Artists Wall will continue to brighten up that part of Morecambe’s promenade.
During my recent August bank holiday search for new street art in the city centre I took the opportunity to visit Castlefield Viaduct, the very new and recently opened ‘garden in the sky’, a project developed by the National Trust and four local partner organisations to transform the Grade II listed disused railway viaduct into an urban green space.
The history of the Castlefield area and the viaduct dates back to 79 AD when Roman soldiers led by General Agricola chose the area as the site of a timber fort which they called Mamucium, later known as Mancunium. Protected by the Rivers Irwell and Medlock it was in a strategic position and well-located to guard important roads leading towards other larger forts. Over time the fort was repaired, enlarged, and eventually rebuilt in stone and a village was established nearby but once the Romans left around 410AD both the fort and the village declined and were eventually abandoned.
In 1086 a village called ‘Mamcester’ was recorded in the Domesday book as lying less than a mile north-east of the old fort. The village grew steadily, incorporating the site of the fort now known as Castlefield (Castle-in-the-field) and by the early 13th century it had become a town, though it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the area really became a significant part of an ever-expanding city.
The industrial heritage of Manchester began around 1758 when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned James Brindley to construct one of Britain’s first canals, built to transport coal to the city from his mines at Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal proved to be a huge success, halving the price of coal and prompting a period of intensive canal-building across the country, and when the Rochdale Canal was completed in 1804 it joined the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, cutting through the site of the old Roman fort and making the area the hub of the city’s canal network.
By this time Manchester was the fastest growing city in the world thanks to the ever-increasing number of cotton mills creating jobs and bringing in trade and eventually it became clear that the canals alone couldn’t move goods fast enough. This led to the dawning of the railway age and in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, with the Castlefield area becoming the site of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway station, Manchester Liverpool Road, now part of today’s Science and Industry Museum.
Over the next several decades the area became recognised as the central hub for Manchester’s goods transportation network. Warehouses sprang up all over Castlefield to support the network and three railway viaducts were built over the canal basin, with the first one being opened in 1849. The second viaduct opened in 1877 and in the same year an elevated railway was constructed alongside it. In 1885 construction began on the Great Northern Warehouse, designed to be a three-way warehouse served by canal, road and rail, and in 1891 construction started on a fourth viaduct which would carry the railway line above the canal basin to both the warehouse and the adjacent Central Station.
This fourth Castlefield viaduct is a steel latticed girder construction 370yds long and 38ft wide and is an early example of using carbon steel for the girders, replacing the usual cast and wrought iron. Designed by engineer William George Scott it was manufactured and constructed by Heenan and Froude, the engineers behind the construction of the iconic Blackpool Tower, with M W Walmsley & Co. being the masonry contractors.
Supported on fifteen cast iron columns each 10ft 6ins in diameter the viaduct stands approximately 55ft above the canal basin, while the columns themselves are embedded in Portland cement, rest on solid rock some 20ft below ground, and are filled with masonry and cement. The total weight of steel and iron in the viaduct is over 7,000 tons and more than 6 million forged steel rivets were used in the construction. It was completed at a cost of £250,000 (about £20.5 million today) and in a small ceremony held on completion day a special copper rivet was fixed in the one remaining slot, though no-one these days knows exactly where it is.
For 77 years the viaduct carried heavy rail traffic in and out of the Castlefield area but along with Central Station, now a large convention centre, it closed in 1969 and has been disused ever since. It became Grade II listed on February 14th 1988 and over the years essential periodic repairs and maintenance to keep it safe have been undertaken by what is now Highways England.
Plans to convert the disused viaduct into an urban ‘sky park’ inspired by New York’s High Line were first proposed in 2012 but unfortunately fell through, however in 2021 a planning application by the National Trust received approval from Manchester City Council to transform around half the viaduct’s length into a temporary ‘garden in the sky’. Funded by private donations and support from local businesses and the People’s Postcode Lottery work began in March 2022 and the viaduct opened to the public in late July as a year-long ‘test and learn’ pilot scheme where visitors and locals can share their feedback and ideas for the structure’s long-term future.
After the very pleasant Welcome Area at the start of the viaduct a wide central path leads through an experimental planting area where hessian sand bags filled with peat-free compost are being used to encourage plant growth through the viaduct’s ballast. Following on from there is the main part of the garden with long specially designed and constructed planters separating four small partner plots set back off the path. Several of the plant species used, such as cotton grass, have connections to the local area and herbaceous perennials provide pretty splashes of colour among the densely planted ferns and grasses.
At the end of the garden is the events space, a light and airy building where visitors can leave their feedback and any ideas for the future of the viaduct. In the far wall a glass door and large windows look out onto the ‘naked viaduct’, the undeveloped section left untouched to provide a sense of how nature has reclaimed the space since the site was closed in 1969.
Visiting the viaduct is currently only by guided tour and though it’s completely free visitor numbers are limited to 100 per day with tickets having to be booked online – it was only the day after it opened that I’d tried to book but disappointingly I found it was ‘sold out’ right through August and with no dates showing in September. I’d almost put it out of my mind but during my recent search for street art in the city I decided to go to the viaduct on the chance that I might be allowed in and I was lucky – there was just one place left on the next guided tour. Not having known what to expect I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I saw and I really enjoyed my visit so (hopefully) if I can ever manage to book a ticket I’ll certainly go back another time.
Day 3 arrived with glorious early morning sunshine and after spending the previous day on site I was looking forward to getting out and about but unfortunately the sunshine didn’t last. By the time I’d taken the dogs out and had breakfast grey clouds had rolled in from all sides and the blue sky had vanished, effectively putting paid to my plans. Okay, I could still go out but grey clouds wouldn’t show the planned location at its best so I had to have a rethink.
Eventually I decided on an alternative but actually going there was a different matter, in fact I couldn’t even get the van off my pitch – it was well and truly stuck there. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I’d got a flat battery – it was as if something had drained it overnight but that was impossible as the key hadn’t been left in the ignition and I had the site electric supply for lights and everything else so there was nothing in the van which could have been left on. So I called the RAC – and that’s when my troubles really began.
Trying to actually speak to a living human being was a nightmare – first the automated reporting system wouldn’t recognise my surname, then it wouldn’t recognise my home postcode, then it wouldn’t even recognise my reg number which it previously had recognised. I was getting more frustrated by the minute so in desperation and on the fourth attempt I rang the sales line, finally speaking to someone who took my details and said someone would come out to me. The guy who eventually arrived started the van no problem, checked everything over and said the battery was low on power so it might be advisable to get a new one or I could end up with the same problem in another day or two.
A battery of the size and power I needed wouldn’t be cheap, in fact it was darned expensive and an unforeseen amount I didn’t really want to pay but I didn’t want to risk being stuck again or having to go through the RAC’s stupid automated system a second time so I agreed to have a new one. The guy didn’t have one on his van though so he rang someone else and arranged for a re-attend the following morning to supply and fit a new one, stressing that it must be no later than 10am as I had said I had plans to go out and didn’t wanting to be waiting around on the camp site.
By the time the RAC guy had gone it was too late to really go anywhere and it was still cloudy anyway so I just drove the seven miles to Tesco in Abergele to get some supplies then stopped off at Asda for another couple of things. On the way back to the camp site I passed the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and noticed he was still wearing his Jubilee crown so of course I had to stop and take a couple of photos – regardless of what he’s wearing he makes me smile every time I see him.
With the cloud continuing through the late afternoon and into the evening I spent the rest of the day on the camp site and went to bed that night with fingers metaphorically crossed that once the RAC had fitted a new battery on the van the following morning I would finally be able to go out somewhere, however more unwanted aggravation was to come.
Continuing my quest to find more flower show displays my route took me along the last section of King Street and the first thing I came to made absolutely no sense whatsoever – there was no accompanying information board, no explanation, nothing. It was only after I got home and did a bit of googling that I figured out it was a reference to a fictional place featured in the 1990s Australian film Muriel’s Wedding but I really can’t see what connection, if any, it has with the Manchester flower show.
Across the road was the Ju-bee-lee Garden, a series of hexagonal pavement planters set up to attract our black and yellow friends, with flowers including rhododendron, alliums, salvias and lavender, and some silver birch trees which will later be permanently planted as part of the country-wide Jubilee Green Canopy scheme.
Along a side street and round a corner was the King Street Townhouse, and though I thought the front entrance might have been decorated for the occasion there were just two window boxes which may or may not have been part of the flower show. In complete contrast, and even though it wasn’t mentioned in the flower show information leaflet, the Belvedere modern office block just along the street had a lovely display created by CitiBlooms outside the main entrance.
From there I had quite a long walk to the next display on my list and as I zig-zagged along various roads and streets I found a display which I hadn’t expected to see, the Bruntwood Garden Office outside the premises of an office rental agency. Unfortunately I was destined to be disappointed with the next display, situated in the entrance to Refuge restaurant at the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. Far from getting the ”British Welcome” which the information leaflet promised I got nothing as the place was closed, though the large wrought iron gates did have some artificial flowers and greenery poking through the bars. So I went next door and photographed the inside of Giraffe Flowers instead.
From there it was just a short walk to the next display which featured an iconic London Routemaster bus, and unlike the previous display this was very much in evidence. Unfortunately the display wasn’t quite as it should be as some of the planters had been trashed overnight so the young couple from I Want Plants were in the process of clearing up and rearranging things but it was still a good display.
From there it was another good walk to First Street where I found the next three displays. The Punk Queen of First Street was inspired by the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and the controversial track God Save The Queen which was released during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The figure alone took around 160 hours to build and though I wasn’t too keen on the concept of the installation – I hated punk rock and thought Johnny Rotten was dreadful – the display itself was excellent and the colourful flowers round the base gave me a few good close-up shots.
From First Street my route took me down to Deansgate and in various places around the Great Northern Warehouse complex I found cycles decked out with different blooms and foliage, while round in Peter Street the entrance of Albert’s Schloss Bavarian bar and restaurant was surrounded by the Ukraine colours.
A trek of just over a mile from Peter Street got me to Angel Meadow park and Live the Wild Side, the last display on my list. This was the topiary baby elephant and giraffe from last year but to celebrate both the Jubilee and ten years of the Far East Consortium in Manchester they had been revamped with ‘royal jewels’ made from real flowers and plants.
From Angel Meadow it was only a short walk back to Victoria Station and I got there just in time for a train back home. I hadn’t found all the displays as many weren’t listed on the information leaflet and some I didn’t even bother photographing, but after six hours trekking round the city I was looking forward to spending the rest of my birthday in total relaxation.
Back home my opinions of the flower show displays have been somewhat mixed. On the whole, most of them were good and some were very informative; some were mediocre and lacking in colour with artificial flowers which looked like they had seen better days and a few, like the Arndale bee and the King Street telephone box, were just rehashes of last year’s exhibits so nothing new. In some cases it looked like the displays were just a token gesture and the Kimpton Clocktower being closed was a complete disappointment, while the Porpoise Spit thing was just totally pointless. There were, however, some really excellent colourful displays – the Changing of the Guard to name just one – and all credit must go to those involved in designing and creating them. As I write this I’m already wondering what sort of displays will feature in next year’s flower show.