Monday, 1 December 2008

How to extend a holiday!

There are a number of ways in which one could extend a holiday. Recently we have seen a few options
a) go to Mumbai and stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
b) go to Bangkok
Both of these events occurred in the week leading up to our weekend away in Manchester and were quite distressing. We did not follow either of these paths, but our weekend was extended nonetheless in a way which was also not particularly pleasant.

None of this was on our mind as we left school at 3pm on the Friday afternoon. Brock and Quinn had been given permission to finish early and had come home and completed their packing. Wayne and Meg were permitted to leave without attending the usual Friday afternoon staff meeting and so were able to get away in good time to, hopefully, miss most of the Friday afternoon peak traffic. Initially, this is what happened. We sailed across to the M1 just south of Luton (making use of the M10 on the way) and despite the road works we were making good time. There was some delay as we turned on to the M6 and drew closer to Coventry and then Birmingham at a time not long after 5pm but this did not cause us huge delays.

What was interesting was how quickly it got dark. Those of you who have only ever lived in Australia may not realise that, at the height of winter here in England, it starts getting dark at around 3pm. By 4:30pm on our trip north it was already pitch black and it was noticeable that there were areas in which fog was starting to develop, making it harder to see the view around us. We had travelled along much of this road on our trip to Ireland, so we knew some of the things we were passing, but it still would have been nice to see some of the sights along the way.

Another fascinating development was the appearance of a gravely dirt on the motorway, particularly as we started to ascend some of the hills north of Stoke-on-Trent. The origin of this soon became clear as we came up behind a truck with the illuminated sign ‘Spreading’ travelling in the middle lane. As we passed alongside, Kylie was showered with grit which was being spread on the road to counter the ice which can build up on nights (like this one) where it is very, very cold. This was one of the areas where fog was at its worst, so to come up on this truck with very little visibility was something to set the heart pounding slightly.

As we approached Manchester we were once again given cause to curse the inaccuracies of Google Maps and their travel advice. The hotel we were booked into (for which we had got a phenomenally cheap deal, precipitating our journey to Manchester in the first place) was at the Birch Service Area beside the M62 Motorway just north of the M60 which forms a ring around Manchester. However, rather than simply directing us to get off the Motorway at that services, Google Maps had instructed us to leave the Motorway at the previous Junction and travel some back streets looking (in vain) for the hotel which we were told would be there. Fortunately, we found some generous locals in a pub and they directed us to where we needed to be.

The previous week at Hailey Hall had been exceptionally busy, as a flu virus had gone through the school. At its bleakest we were down to 13 students (out of 67) and 8 staff with even some of those attending feeling unwell and sniffling. Wayne had experienced a gastro bug the previous week which seems to have increased his immunity to the flu, and Meg tends not to get sick anyway, so they both worked through the week but were very tired. As we were all sharing a room (and it was very cold and there was not very much to do at the services) we put the television on for Quinn to watch and Brock then Meg quickly dropped off to sleep.

When we woke Saturday morning we were disappointed to discover that the fog from the previous evening was still present. Not only that, but the temperature was down in the low single digits and there was intermittent rain. Meg, however, had been drawn to Manchester on the basis of stories she had been told of brilliant shopping and was not to be deterred. After a hot chocolate next door, she and Wayne returned to wake the boys so that we could make the journey into the city centre. One of the big advantages of our position on the north side on Manchester beside the motorway was that this was relatively easily accomplished. While dining we had chatted with other travellers who were off to watch football teams playing down south in Plymouth (an 8 hour round trip) and north east in Newcastle (approximately 4.5 hours all up) and had commiserated with them.

It was just a short trip down the road to the A56 which we used to get into town. This took us through the suburb of Prestwich. It roughly follows the line of a Roman road which was built between Manchester and Longridge. As we were driving along through this leafy and very scholastic part of Manchester it was obvious (being a Saturday morning) that there were lots of Jewish people in the area. In fact this part of Manchester is the second largest Jewish community in the UK and has numerous synagogues as well as a number of Jewish schools. Given the severity of the bombing that took place in Manchester during World War II it seems appropriate that the two communities have united in this way.

As you get much closer to the city you can just see the walls of another Manchester landmark, H.M. Prison Manchester (better known as Strangeways after the parks and gardens on which it was built). Strangeways was built in 1869 and is still able to hold around 1200 prisoners. We have mentioned before the movie ‘Pierrepoint’ and it was at Strangeways that the title character from that movie conducted the ‘fastest ever hanging’ of James Inglis in 7 seconds. More recently the Premier League footballer Joey Barton was kept at Strangeways, as was the serial killer Harold Shipman who was there on remand while awaiting trial. There were a series of riots at the prison in 1990 which saw 147 staff and 47 prisoners injured between April 1st and April 25th. For those of you who grew up in the 1980’s you might also remember the album by The Smith’s called ‘Strangeways Here We Come’.

Just before the city centre itself we also passed the Manchester Evening News Arena which was built as part of Manchester’s bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. It is the largest indoor arena in the United Kingdom and was the first one built with 360 degree seating. The opening performance was part of the farewell tour for Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean and nowadays it regularly hosts basketball and ice hockey games with the Manchester teams from the national competition playing there. As well, it is the world’s busiest arena for concerts (outselling Madison Square Garden in New York) and was the site of the last Spice Girls concert in the UK. It was built on top of Victoria Railway Station, which makes travel to and from the arena much easier.

Despite the clouds and the fog we were able to see an impressive array of architecture as we entered the city in search of a suitable shopping centre for Meg. Again, because of the extensive bombing of Manchester during the war years lots of rebuilding has taken place and there are some very impressive structures. A detonation by the IRA of the largest bomb exploded by them on English soil in 1996 The Commonwealth Games of 2002 also saw lots of building take place and some of that was quite obvious also. We pulled into the carpark at the Arndale Centre, which is the UK’s biggest city centre shopping mall, (after witnessing some amazing pieces of driving) and drove up a fabulous spiral entry ramp. This gave us the opportunity to get a viewing of the Manchester Eye (like the London Eye, a giant sightseeing ferris wheel) although not enough time to take a photo.

Once we were inside Meg was in shopper’s heaven (or so she thought until Sunday) with an enormous array of shops all beginning their pre-Christmas sales. Our first port of call was the BHS (British Home Store, sort of a cross between Woolworths and David Jones for those of you in Australia) which served a very cheap full English breakfast. The boys were able to load up on sausages, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, hash browns (Wayne also had black pudding) and a good sized drink. From there we were able to venture out, breaking into small groups at various points and do some Christmas shopping of our own. The only major drawback to the Arndale Centre came when it was time for us to leave (a few hours after we arrived) when we discovered that there was only one elevator working and that this was the only way to access the part of the car park in which we had parked. After a little wait to actually get on to the elevator itself we were quickly up to Kylie and on our way.

For our next trick we decided to drive around the inner ring road that circles inner city Manchester. Even at 2pm it was still foggy and wet with limited visibility but there was a lot to see. The oddly shaped Beetham Tower (Manchester’s tallest building at 169 metres) was clearly visible as was the CIS Center which, as well as being an office block, is also the UK’s largest solar power project. As well as the newer buildings, the Manchester Town Hall Clock Tower (87 metres) also stands out. The road takes you up and down, with some raised parts and some which take you down to street level so we actually did two laps to make sure that we saw as much as we could before we journeyed to our next stop.

Before we even got to the City of Manchester Stadium (the centrepiece of the 2002 Commonwealth Games) the boys were impressed by an enormous sculpture, called ‘B of the Bang’, built in 2004. It was designed to look like an exploding firework and named for a quotation from the British sprinter Linford Christie. Rather than attempting to start at the ‘bang’ of the starter’s gun, Christie apparently said that he tried to begin at the ‘b of the bang’. Let us say that this is not immediately obvious when you are looking at it, but at 56 metres tall, and made of weathering steel so that it has become a rust colour it is an imposing sight. It is, apparently, taller and leans at a greater angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

City of Manchester Stadium is another impressive structure and reminded Wayne of the Olympic Stadium in Sydney with a number of the features it possessed. Across the road from it is a very large store featuring material relevant to the Manchester City Football Club (for whom it is now their home ground). Having been into a large number of sports stores and seen which clubs are featured it surprised Meg and the boys to see so much Sky Blue, because Manchester City are not a club that are particularly well supported outside of Manchester (unlike their nearest neighbours). Wayne ducked across to the stadium to see if any tickets were available for the derby game the next day (there weren’t, but tickets were available for the League Cup game later that week) and then up to the museum to see if it would be possible to do a tour of the ground (which it was, leaving in about 5 minutes).

Touring a stadium is an impressive experience, particularly if, as we did last year when we were all season ticket holders at the Brisbane Lions, you have spent a bit of time in them, because you get to see lots of the areas and places of which you are otherwise ignorant. Meg’s favourite part of the tour was the visit to the private boxes and the restaurants because they were places to which she had not been before. Quite honestly, all of us would enjoy the experience if offered but might balk at the asking price (£180 per person just to have lunch at one of the restaurants on a match day). Getting down close to the pitch and seeing the areas where the managers and players sit during a game was also interesting. The comparison between the seats on which the average patron gets to sit and the much more comfortable and spacious seating was eye-opening, although Brock and Quinn had both commented before on the airline seats the managers had while watching highlights on television.

Another fascinating part of the tour around the City of Manchester Stadium was how totally it has become the football teams stadium, despite it’s origins as the stadium for the Commonwealth Games. We saw a model of changes that had been made to the actual structure, where extra seating had been added and the ground level was actually raised up above where the games had taken place, and were told of the cost to the team to make those changes. Otherwise the majority of the focus was on Manchester City Football Club and its history. Having said that, the tour guide that we had was wonderful; she was informative, able to answer questions, and generally personable. The other impressive thing was the tributes to various footballers and fans which the stadium now contains, some of which has been moved across from their previous stadium at Maine Road. That they care so much about their history was nice and also that the family of a player who dropped dead during a game was also talked about was very refreshing, rather than just focussing on the death itself.

Perhaps because of the presence of such competition from the Manchester Evening News Arena and the football stadium of the other team from Manchester, it wasn’t entirely surprising that concerts held at the stadium was the other minor area of focus during the tour. It was no surprise to Wayne, who knew already that the Gallagher brothers were Manchester City fans, that this is the stadium where Oasis prefer to play when in Manchester. That U2, Take That, and Bon Jovi had also appeared there was not so expected. Meg was most excited to see pictures on the wall of when Rod Stewart had performed at the stadium, however she did comment that perhaps he had aged somewhat (but in a very non judgemental way Rod, in case you are reading this).

Another favourite part of the tour was to visit the part of the stadium where press conferences are held. It is quite nice, and relatively comfortable for both journalists and interviewees (Wayne, Brock and Quinn sat up in the seats pretending that one was the manager and the other two were new signings to the team). Similarly, the places where managers and players are interviewed immediately after the game was also fascinating. It was right in the tunnel which they use to enter the ground and consisted of two boards printed with the teams sponsors logos. Obviously, when we have watched games and the post-match interviews the camera people have focussed in very tightly because we had not realised how small the actual panels were.

By the time the tour finished it was 4:30pm and very cold and dark. The plan was to quickly drop Meg back at the hotel and then for Wayne and the boys to head out to Preston where there was going to be a 5:20pm football match between Preston North End and Bristol City. Unfortunately, even with a street directory, getting back to our hotel proved to be harder than we had anticipated. This was partially because of the fog which had settled heavily, partially because of the traffic which was the heaviest we had experienced all day, and partially just from a lack of familiarity with the area. By the time we arrived at the hotel it was 5:27, cold and wet. The sensible decision to stay in that night was made and we missed a 2-0 win to the home team in front of 11 161 people. However, the match report the next day and the highlights on the television made it clear that many of the people at the ground missed much of the match because the fog was so heavy, so no one was really upset. Instead, after a great day, we all collapsed into bed for a relatively early night.

No comments: