Manchester: Music and Memories


By Hilarie Larson


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Enjoy this lively and memorable conversation between travel/wine writer Hilarie Larson and Suzy & Simon founders of the Starlite Campbell Band, who also share two new singles from their new album “The Language of Curiosity.” Watch here in YouTube or listen/download the podcast on Podbean or SoundCloud.

It should come as no great surprise to anyone who’s read my articles that I will gladly travel for wine. Throw in some innovative restaurants, a bit of history, and a few exciting people, and I’m packing my laptop before you can say “Rosé.” But sometimes, another temptation initiates the travel plans and takes you on a journey you never expected.

The original vacation plans were to embed ourselves in the ancient wine region of Taurasi, Italy. That was until we received a message from our friends Simon and Suzy of the Starlite Campbell Band. They had just booked a show in Simon’s hometown of Bury, so perhaps we could make a stop in the UK and get together? How could we say ‘No’? The wines of Campania could wait while we met our friends, enjoyed the rock-infused blues of their bass and guitar, and braved the November chill of Manchester.

We knew a bit about the area and that Greater Manchester was the second-largest city in the United Kingdom. It’s home to a lengthy list of great musicians (The Hollies & Graham Nash, Herman’s Hermits, Joy Division, Oasis, The Smiths), the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and rain. But we were about to discover a whole lot more.

The Romans, naturally, made their presence known around 79AD. Eventually, this primarily rural area became renowned as the center for the textile industry. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester became known as the ‘First Industrial City,’ and many a fortune was made.

In 1894, the completion of the Manchester Ship Canal connected the city’s main rivers to the estuary of the River Mersey, making it the largest river navigation canal in the world. Now, cotton shipped from the remote reaches of the British Empire could be easily moved to Manchester. Once woven into cloth at the local mills, the goods would return to Liverpool for distribution around the globe.

The Blitz of World War II, de-industrialization, and the IRA bombing of 1996 may have slowed the city and region down but never out. As host for the 2002 Commonwealth games, Manchester rose to the occasion, and this revitalized city hasn’t looked back since.

Manchester is a city of ‘firsts,’ and ‘Mancunians’ are more than pleased to fill you in on the achievements of their forebears.

The Manchester Liverpool Railway was the world’s first intercity passenger railway. It was also the first to carry mail, be fully timetabled, have a signaling system, and be steam only.

This is where the modern computer was invented, the atom was split, and thermodynamics was discovered.

It’s home to modern vegetarianism, famed mathematician Alan Turing, the first stored-program computer, painter L.S. Lowry, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the author of ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ Anthony Burgess.

We arrived armed with a lengthy, well-researched list of things to see and do, knowing that we’d be lucky if we checked a few ‘must see’ items off the list. But, after all, this was to be a brief visit with a musical purpose, so we decided to relax and let the flow of the city take us. From the moment we stepped off the train at Picadilly Station, we were hooked.

Luckily for us, Manchester is eminently walkable. The city is divided into various neighborhoods, which helped formulate plans for our quick visit.

From our hotel located in the Picadilly area, we wandered up the main London Road, through Picadilly Gardens and the Christmas Market food stalls. Parched, we ventured into the Picadilly Tavern, which had been recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. Her ‘after work’ local was a busy introduction to some tasty Midland brews and friendly patrons.

The next stop was the Northern Quarter, home to a myriad of independent pubs, restaurants, clubs, and record stores! Our friends had recommended we check out the Castle Hotel on Oldham Street. Dating back to 1776, this deceptively small pub also houses an 80 seat music venue featuring many up-and-coming artists. With a pint in hand, we moved to the cozy back room, where it didn’t take long before lively conversation ensued. Mancunians, as we discovered, are terribly welcoming!

If museums and galleries find their way into your vacation plans, then Manchester will have your happy head spinning. Among the myriad options, The Manchester Art Gallery’s collection spans 6 centuries with over 25,000 objects – fine arts, costumes, craft, design, and a famous library of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The Manchester Museum boasts a fabulous Egyptian collection, and the Science & Industry Museum showcases innovations that helped create the city.

We could only pick one from the lengthy list. Due to our love of everything Victorian Gothic, the winner was the John Ryland’s Library. Our journey took us through several neighborhoods, so we could enjoy a snippet of Manchester’s diversity. Crossing over one of the many Victorian-era canals, we entered the Gay Village, Britain’s largest and busiest LGBTQ area. It’s home to the annual Manchester Pride festival, an array of funky clubs and restaurants, and a charming statue of Alan Turing in quiet Sackville Gardens.

Skirting the border of Chinatown, we came to St. Peter’s Square – the heart of the Civic Center. This open crossroads features a mix of architecture highlighting the industrial-era grandeur of Manchester. As the gorgeous, Neo-Gothic Town Hall was, unfortunately, closed for restoration during our visit, we turned our attention to the Neo-Classic Central Library. Built between 1930 and 1934, it boasts a rotunda design based on the ancient Pantheon of Rome, and it’s the 2nd largest lending library in Britain. In addition, impressive stained glass windows in the Shakespeare entrance hall and the quiet oasis of the Wolfson Reading Room are definitely worth a look.

At the corner of Peter Street and Southmill, just off the square, is the site of an intriguing bit of Manchester’s storied history. A small red plaque identifies this as the site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 when “a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.” Now a hotel, the building’s previous incarnation was the Trade Hall – a renowned concert venue for artists such as Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd.

We wandered down small streets lined with red-stoned Victorian buildings into the Spinningfields neighborhood, where ultra-modern structures somehow blend with the old.

The John Ryland’s Library, part of the University of Manchester, stands out from the shiny newness of the steel and glass structures that embrace her. This public library was intended to enrich the city’s architecture, conceived around 1889 by Enriqueta Rylands, widow of Manchester’s first industrial multi-millionaire, John Rylands.

In 1892 she purchased the extensive collection of the 5th Earl Spencer, regarded as one of the finest private libraries of the time. The trove held more than 43,000 books, including many notable old bibles.

Today, the library contains more than 1.4 million items in over 50 languages that span 5 millennia.

The building itself was very modern when it opened in 1900. It was one of the first to be lit by electricity and a ‘new’ air filtration system. And don’t forget to check out the authentic, and still functioning, men’s and ladies ‘cloakrooms’ which were, in their day, the height of modernity.

We were amazed at the thoughtful preservation of original fittings and furniture. Everywhere your eyes wander, you’re apt to spy some incredible detail carved into the wood and stone. Neo-gothic heaven.

Manchester is surrounded by countryside and a variety of suburban and traditional, rural villages and market towns. Lucky for us, The Starlight Campbell Band was playing at ‘The Met’ in Bury, a 30-minute tram ride from Picadilly Station. Although part of Greater Manchester, Bury seemed a world away from the urban bustle. One of the old cotton mill towns, Bury, dates from the Roman era and is noted as the birthplace of Sir Robert Peel, twice British Prime Minister. (There’s a charming pub named after him just off the main square.) Bury makes a perfect day trip. Visit the Bury Market in the town center or take a vintage steam train on the East Lancashire Railway. This 12-mile line that connects the heritage mill towns of the Irwell Valley is also the Real Ale trail with ‘hop-on-hop-off tickets.

As we Ubered our way back to Manchester, our heads were bursting with great music, friendship, and a desire to return to this vibrant and exciting part of England. The next ‘must see’ list has already started.

How to get there:
Manchester Airport, the UK’s third-largest, welcomes travelers from over 210 destinations around the world. There are 3 terminals, all linked to a central transportation hub where you can connect to local trains or enjoy a quick, 15-minute ride by rail or tram to the heart of the city.

If you prefer to enjoy the scenery en-route, the train journey from London is just over an hour.

Getting around town:
|Manchester is a public transport dream! Free buses offer hop-on, hop-off services that link the main train stations, shopping districts, and central areas of interest. In addition, the Metrolink Tram offers a travel card allowing you to use the efficient yellow streetcars to explore the city and surrounding towns. Visit for more information.

Where we stayed:
Motel One, Picadilly
Chosen for price and location, our introduction to this German lodging chain was impressive. The room was small but thoughtfully appointed (the fireplace station of the TV was a welcoming touch!), quiet and comfortable. As with several other motel chains, the hotel offers a welcoming ‘living’ area instead of a traditional lobby.

Where we ate & drank:
The Waldorf – recommended by a passing stranger, this flower festooned pub offers cozy nooks and real ales. 12 Gore Street, Picadilly neighborhood.

Tapeo & Wine – this authentic Spanish Tapas Bar caught our attention as we walked to the Ryland Library. A super wine list and friendly service.  209 Deansgate, Spinningfields neighborhood.

Automatic Cafe – as we looked for a pre-show dinner spot in the village of Bury, this little place caught our eye. Little did we know it was adjacent to the Met! Delicious and fresh English fare in this trendy restaurant. Derby Hall, Market Street, Bury.

My Lahore – We met Suzy and Simon (aka The Starlite Campbell Band) at this self-titled British Asian Kitchen. This popular chain started in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 2002 and is now a well-known fixture in their community. The Manchester restaurant is an easy-to-spot riot of color (inside and out) on the famous ‘Curry Mile’ near the University district. A delicious meal, wonderful atmosphere, and don’t forget to indulge yourself with a Magic Mango Milkshake. 14-18 Wilmslow Road, Manchester.

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

About the Author:

Hilarie was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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