In early August 2022 I decided that, as a 50th birthday present to myself, I was going to walk across the whole of England, from the Cumbrian Village of St. Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, following the path of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. I began a journal of the preparation and, hopefully, completion of that trip at around the same time. As it’s getting very long I decided to start posting individual entries, but all entires will still be available in the massive, original post as well.
September 14, 2023: For someone who is generally thought of as a cranky-ass socialist I enjoyed my upper class flight from JFK to Manchester far more than I should have. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes because my head bobs around and wakes me up the moment I fall asleep but when you have a seat that converts into a totally flat bed it’s not a problem. Now all I need to do is to become rich so I can do that all the time and not just on a special occasion solo trip in which the entire purpose is to go a bit crazy. It’s probably tough to thread that socialist/rich dickhead needle, but I’m willing to give it a go. I’ll pay my taxes and everything.
I landed in Manchester just before 8am. My hotel room wasn’t ready until 2pm so I dumped my bag and wandered around for a few hours. This is my third time in Manchester and I like it more each time I come. London is great but Manchester is more human-scale. Just as I have always felt more at ease in Chicago than New York I feel more at home in Manchester than London. It’s just my speed.
Since I had no room to go to yet I spent some time in the People’s History Museum and then went to the John Rylands Research Library. I’d been to the former five years ago. This is what I wrote about it then:
[The People’s History Museum is] dedicated to chronicling the advancement of worker’s rights, women’s rights, voting rights and social and political justice in the United Kingdom over the past 200 years. Many people — most Americans, I presume — would call the museum’s mission “radical” or “socialist” but the Museum refers to itself as “the national museum of democracy,” which seems far more apt, given that any society which does not grant workers, women, minorities and the marginalized an equal voice is not truly a democracy . . . it’s shameful and telling about the state of current American politics that so much of my time there was spent marveling at the museum’s very existence and thinking about how impossible it is to picture such a place in the United States.
The same feelings held for my second visit. It’s a sad goddamn statement how unabashed advocacy for workers’ rights, women’s rights, Black rights, gay rights, and disabled persons’ rights seems transgressive, but it’s important to remember that there are a hell of a lot more people who need and want those things than modern American and modern British society would have you believe. It’s really damn nice that there’s a space that acknowledges that, both in an historic and a modern context.
I had walked by the Rylands Library in both 2018 and 2022 but it was closed both times I was here. This time it was open and I went and checked it out. Architecturally speaking it’s stunning:
It looks like a church but it always was and always will be a library. It opened in 1900 and became part of the University of Manchester in the early 1970s. It’s still an active research library and reading room. You can go in, find a table, sit down with your books or your laptop or whatever and work. Or you can take out some 200 or 500 year-old book or manuscript for (on-site) perusal. Or, like me yesterday, you can just walk around and admire the whole Neo-Gothic vibe. A vibe, by the way, which was very much in style in late 19th century England, when Rylands was built. The Industrial Revolution had alienated and dehumanized society in a lot of important ways by then so there was a push on to go back and build Gothic-style buildings because they were thought to evoke a time when, unlike socially-stratified Victorian England, entire communities revolved around the same institutions and buildings and routines. So, yeah, it was a lie designed to comfort people, but I suppose that explains a lot of history and architecture.
After the Rylands I walked across town — it’s super easy to walk across central Manchester, which is wonderfully compact — to the Northern Quarter, which is the hipper part of town. It’s not quite as hip as it was a few years ago because gentrification stops for no one, but it’s still cool by my lame standards. I had lunch at Smithfield Social, which Allison ordered me to visit because Liam Fray, the lead singer of the band Courteeners owns it and Allison is justifiably in love with both Liam and Courteeners. It was after 1PM by then but my body clock was so messed up from a transatlantic flight and a relatively small amount of weird sleep that I had breakfast. Not a full English — that’s for Friday, at a full English mecca — but it was damn good all the same.
My hotel room was ready by the time I got done so I went there and crashed for a couple of hours. I wrote back on August 8 how the Airbnb I had stayed at the two times I was here before went away. That’s probably fine because (a) Airbnb is not a business I should be supporting; and (b) the hotel I booked is lovely. The only weird thing: it’s located in the heart of Manchester’s Gay Village, and it’s quite clearly a gay-friendly place, but its website constantly refers to it as being in “Manchester’s Village” and as far as I can tell no one refers to it as the “Village” or “Manchester’s Village.” It’s “Gay Village.” The street signs say so and everything. Maybe I’m just missing an extant malleability of the moniker but part of me wonders if the hotel is afraid of alienating conservative types. I suppose one purpose of this trip is to get me to stop overthinking everything with my blogger brain so I should probably just let that go but it’s only been a day and I’ve yet to be able to turn it off.
Dinner was at Higher Ground, a farm-to-table kind of place that, because it’s not 2010, does not call itself a farm-to-table place but it is. Its founders, chef, and workers have serious culinary pedigrees and the food was out of this world. I sat at the bar directly in front of the open kitchen. The chef, Joe Otway, ran an operation that put me in mind of “The Bear” — lots of “yes chefs” and crazy choreography that caused even a low-anxiety guy like me no small degree of anxiety — but it was orders of magnitude more chill than that. Joe was in total control of everything going on but still took the time to come over and talk to me and the others sitting at the kitchen-view seats. Upon realizing I was an American he wanted to know if I was enjoying Manchester so far and he asked me questions about my hike and stuff while simultaneously tasting sauces, directing line cooks and dish traffic, and finishing plates himself before sending them out. I have no idea how anyone can do that kind of thing. I can’t even do a basic Thanksgiving dinner without a bottle or two of champagne and a lot of stress.
Here was what I had. Not pictured: a custard tart and cup of coffee I had for dessert:
Clockwise from left: “Atomic grape tomato and Pitchfork Cheddar tart,” “Pea and Quickie’s Cheddar Fritters,” and “Ice queen lettuce, Garstrang blue cheese, burnt leek and toasted yeast.” Every bite was exquisite. And for as amazing as that food was, all three plates, plus dessert, plus two glasses of wine, plus coffee, was only 65 pounds, tip included. I suppose the fact that I got all vegetarian dishes helped but while there is a lot of meat on the menu here you can tell they’re more about vegetables and cheeses and those all seemed way better anyway. Can’t complain at all. One of the better meals I’ve had over the past several years. People who slag on British food are simply not eating the right British food.
As I write this I’m back in my hotel, trying to stay up late enough to where I can be back on a human schedule tomorrow. I’ll still probably wake up at 4am, but I’m hoping for better.