Number two in a series of urban explorations

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

Old Manchester, to a new Manchester; a walk through a haunted past, raised, levelled and raised again, even in the drizzle resonating with the lives of countless thousands who crowded into the area stretching from St Chad's on Cheetham Hill Road to St Michael's on the brow of the meadow that overlooked the medieval town with its markets and crosses, collegiate church and closes. An open space in the seventeenth century, common land for grazing, no good for grain or oats until the fateful year of the Beast 1666 when it was sown with a host of the dead, victims of the Plague, reputedly over forty thousand of them. So many dead children they said, in the plague pit the wraiths of lost infants haunted the fields and gave the place its name, Angel Meadows, though if there were angels there I knew them not.

And so in the nineteenth century it came to pass that the meadows became engulfed and consumed by the slaves of Moloch and Mammon and a Dickensian stew was created, of ginnels and hovels, a warren of tenements so foul and filthy, crowded with the damned that even today the name Angel Meadows causes a shudder to pass through those who had first-hand knowledge of its slums.

But what of our journey, fair stranger? What tales are there to tell now as we embark on our quest for the past that gave life to today? Dress yourself warmly for we near the Solstice and the rain that shed its tears on the dead weeps upon us now as we step from the Salford side unto the iron span that crosses the railway lines of Victoria's engineers and leads us into Manchester.

This is Ducie Bridge and it has stood there all my life and other lives before. Neither time nor the Condor Legions could blow away this lifeline that was erected in the 1840s to carry the populace of the two cities over the iron roads that bled the waterways dry. But where does our journey take us after crossing the bridge; how to invoke our communion with the past? Stand and gaze with awe at the first skyscraper this City spawned, the CIS Building, built with the untainted money of the Co-Operative Wholesale Society in 1962, every inch of its concrete and glass a testimonial to the power of the Common People. Savour that fact that Jimi Hendrix bewitched and bemused an audience on the threshold of change in early 1967 with a display of guitar pyrotechnics in the dance hall that nestles in its bowels and turn your eyes left to the continuation of Corporation St and start your walk on the left-hand side passing the architecture of municipal benevolence enshrouded in sanitary dwellings and storage emporiums that have now magically metamorphosed into hotels for weary business travellers, until you arrive at Red Bank. Turn left again underneath the railway arches until you reach the first left, overlooking where the River Irk curves south before plunging into tunnels under Victoria.

Let your gaze pan again. To your right, an old factory, and beyond that, rubble. You are gazing upon Scotland. Yes Scotland. On the border of Cheetham Hill and the Irwell. Stand and close your eyes and hear the tramp of marching feet, and crackling of fires and the sound of flint on metal as claymores are sharpened. The chattering of Gaelic as the clans of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite Army camped in Manchester on their ill-fated march south to regain the throne from the upstart German rabble who wallow in their own filth even now.

There on the banks of the Irk the Young Pretender's army rested and even now in the A to Z the area is marked Scotland. Not far by, in living memory, was McDonald's Fields, gone now, but not forgotten in song; it exists in the Penguin Book of English Folksong as 'At the Angel Inn in Manchester', a Jacobite song that takes us back on our journey, from the rebel Clansmens' halt to the thieves' kitchen of Angel Meadows. For this is where our journey will end, on Angel Street at the site of the Angel Inn, only a few minutes' walk from Scotland.

Turn your back on Scotland, fair pilgrim, turn your back and walk away from the stench and pollution that besmirch the air of a pathetic dream of freedom, turn your back on the ruins of Victorian commerce and retrace your steps to Aspin St. Walk up there, then stop for a minute and listen. Can you hear them? The doomed and the damned that filled the streets you are about to tread?

What lies before us now? Alas more space for the curse of the twentieth century, the car. Yes, there on your right, a clapboard Berlin Wall with writing on it, proclaiming the hidden space behind 'Reserved Parking for Employees of the CIS', but walk towards the gate at the end of Angel Street and squint through the chink in its padlocked and shuttered doors and you can make out the flagstones of St. Michael's Place, the home of the dead.

Yes, herein they lie buried, the 40,000 lost souls. Once it was flagged and revered. The church, St. Michael's, was adjacent. Steps lead down. Tales were told, ghosts were seen. Now there is nothing except a steadfast refusal to do anything with the site other than park cars on it. Ninety years ago it was different. A bear knuckle fight to the death took place here, when 'Stumpy' and 'Bacup Billy' fought and died, spurred on by nothing more than a purse of free beer and the promise of infamous glory. Barefoot children gathered here to greet the great and good who ventured here to open charitable missions. Reverend ministers were sent to St. Michael's because the locals were considered a greater challenge for conversion than the heathens of Africa or China. The police patrolled in pairs and concerned individuals travelled through the narrow, cramped streets disguised in old clothes and accompanied by guides.

You can stand now on the site of St. Michael's Church, and the council have even provided a seat, but apart from the remains of the gate and the name, you'd never know how many sought refuge there. Turn your back on the plague pit and look across the remains of Angel Meadow. In front of you the desolate industrial spaces and railyards that replaced the tenements in the 1950s. Over on your right the final remaining buildings. Go back through the gateway and trace your way towards Ranters' Hill, up there on the end of New Mount Street. The hill, no longer on the official map, was the site of Civil War non-conformist revolution. Manchester, for all its sins, was a parliamentary town and the Diggers and Levellers who preached there spoke of a wondrous new Jerusalem to come at Zion's Trumpet call when Babylon's walls had fallen.

A huddle of buildings, old and new, remain between Style Street and Angel Street: the bonded tobacco warehouse and Charter Street Ragged School, the Harp and Shamrock (quench your thirst there if the Corporation vandals haven't closed it down). Go left out of the pub door, along New Mount Street and there at the end of your journey is Angel Street with St. Michael's Square hidden from your view by the eyesore wall. Look left and swallow hard, if the plague don't get you the typhoid will, or the cholera, or any of the hundred symptoms of the disease of poverty, and imagine a time when the streets swarmed with people, ragamuffins and merchants, prostitutes and missionaries, Jacobites, Roundheads. This was the sink of the people forced to live on top of thousands of corpses. When it rained, so it is reported, bones came up from the earth, the only crop that would grow there.

And the Angel Inn, beloved of Charlie's tartan horde? It lives on, let us imagine, at the Rochdale Road end of Angel Street, in the form of the Beer House, the real ale establishment that stands there now. Finish your journey there dear stranger, shake the rain from your coat, for one journey ends and another begins.

First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 2, January 1996.

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