Hidden Place: Towers & tunnels in Manchester

As I happily announced a few weeks ago, I had booked a place for one of Manchester Confidential’s “Tunnel Tours” to explore Manchester’s damp and dark underground. And since I’m German, i.e.  efficient to the point of stubbornness*, I decided to plan something else before the tour to go with the “underground” theme. Yes, I went for high tea at Cloud 23, the bar on the 23rd floor of Manchester’s tallest building, the Beetham tower (better known as the Hilton Hotel, or Playstation 2 as I call it).

After a scarily fast ride on the lift, we were greeted by an incredibly friendly waitress and lead to our table – right-by-the-floor to ceiling windows, looking out over the city centre and Salford. The views were amazing, and after two years in this city it was fascinating to finally see it from above. The tea was served in mismatched vintage tea cups and pots, which seemed surprisingly twee and quirky in this place, and the sandwiches (they even took note of the “Attention! Vegetarian! Handle with care!” warning we issued when booking), scones and cake were lovely. I’m quite looking forward to taking any potential visitors there again (so I can eat cake while they’re distracted by the panorama. Ha!)

Swapping the heels for trainers, we moved on to the second part of our “Towers & Tunnels 2010” tour. A fairly large group of adventurous Mancunians had already gathered outside the Bridgewater Hall when we arrived, sporting wellies and carrying torches. Our tour guide gave us a quick introduction to the use of canals in Manchester and the importance of the Great Northern railway station: it used to be one of the largest goods exchange places in the country, with access to the underground canal and the railway to transport goods by water and land.

We descended into the old canal system via a… uhm… secret door at the back of the information room (who knew that room even existed!) in the Great Northern, climbing down a stair case into a corridor that lead into a large hall. This was the beginning of a walk through damp, muddy and very dark tunnels, at times only lit by our torches, while the guide stopped the group at some points to talk about the use of the tunnel for trade, and as an air-raid shelter in the second world war. I had a great time down there while learning something exciting about a part of the city I won’t see again any time soon – and walking around in the dark with torches felt like being on a school trip! Dan (who went on the tour just after us!) has written a little more about the tour, including all the details that I was too lazy to remember.

In the light of its history, it’s a shame the Great Northern is now almost completely useless (apart from the AMC cinema), and I really hope the tunnel tours help putting it into the focus of both people in Manchester and businesses again. At least the tours seem to be a huge success – almost all of them are fully booked months in advance.

* And by “efficient” I mean I can carry a mug with steaming hot tea, a laptop with an open lid, a heavy bag, two books, my phone, a pencil case, a packet of biscuits and a plate with toast downstairs from the lounge into my bedroom just so I don’t have to walk twice. Never mind the burns on my hands.