7 Dec 2010

Chorlton vs. Didsbury (Part 1)

After living in South Manchester for 16 years, I would be inclined to believe that I do know the city centre and its outskirts reasonably well. Having said that, I am not familiar with every single ward although having visited them all (and been in employment or residence in some). Certain areas - not just confined to the inner-city geographics - are virtually off limits, certainly off the tourist trail for being pretty rough to say the least and on the edge; the Shameless TV drama shot on location in Gorton, Collyhurst and Wythenshawe suggests a glimpse of it.

Manchester, city of culture... Oxford Rd graffiti, captured by Ed O'Keeffe
However as soon as you know the places to visit and those to avoid, you will be able to get a more positive grasp of the city. Even so, some formerly 'dodgy' areas like Ardwick, Beswick or Benchill are looking up, thanks to private and public cash injections, including through residential property redevelopment schemes aiming to attract young professionals to the areas in order to break up the risk of a ghetto-like system.

All in all, the city of Manchester has improved in appearance over the time I have lived there, whether or not we agree with the land planning arrangements, the architectural merit of some of the residential or business schemes, or even the socio-economic shifts they bring to the natural fabric of the neighbourhoods, with property prices combined to forced relocations that are driving away poor families, hence displacing underlying issues rather than addressing them...

Another mill bites the dust in Ancoats... Picture by Aidan O'Rourke (2007)
But for now, let us concentrate on two areas, south of the city centre, that are equally popular with the locals, young professionals, students and visitors alike, yet each with its own personal character and upbeat vibe. One is Chorlton, the other Didsbury, and you might already be familiar with one or the other, or both.

If you are after the boho-leaning, arty-farty, Guardian-reading, unpolished (rough diamond, some might say), 'duster-shy' vibe, then head just south of the inner-city belt. Chorlton Green and pretty much most of Chorlton-cum-Hardy will be your destination of choice, despite the fact that the Mancunian answer to New York's Greenwich Village is over-rated in my book. Chorlton-cum-Hardy is a popular multi-cultural quarter with enough semi-neglected converted dwellings sporting windchimes, shelves of house plants, faded bric-à-brac finds and psychedelic fabric scarves hanging off curtain rails to give off that alternative mood (the old 1970s velvet sofa that was plonked on a residential street corner in an 'here-to-stay' sort of way sealed that image in my mind, back in Autumn 07...).

Postman Pat, a Cosgrove Hall animation feature (Source: BBC Manchester)
Shopping-wise, the Trafford end of Chorlton - nearby from where the Cosgrove Hall animation studio (Danger Mouse, Bill & Ben etc.) used to be - boasts a well-stocked independent co-operative organic grocery store, Unicorn, that should reconcile you with nature, despite standing at the heart of a two-million-inhabitant megalopolis. Virtually across from the organic store, you will find the Barbakan Delicatessen & Continental Bakery, the address in Chorlton and further afield for foodies in the know, therefore expect the queues as a side-effect of success! Caterers to local restaurants and bakeries as well as to their adoring public, Barbakan bake a collection of fancy breads, bagels and pastries (I used to get a Polish sweet bread similar to cholla, glazed with sticky icing and loaded with poppy seeds). They also sell traditional deli and dairy products (if you are a fan of olives, this is certainly the address too). Chorlton-cum-hardy also boasts a number of trendy bars and cafés.

Some of the cool little designer boutiques and bars along Beech Road, Chorlton Green, are worth a visit, and some of the houses within the conservation area do look equally charming. However with a fast turnover of boutiques closing, rebranding and re-opening, it is difficult for a non-local like I to keep tabs on their whereabouts; regardless of that, you should expect to find quirky home décor pieces and fashion design accessories (jewellery, woolly bags, fancy mirrors, or even ornaments similar to that cute little plaster heart I bought there a decade ago). I also remember a shop selling some Tom Dixon pieces, a small Italian deli place where I'd purchased some pasta, and also a flower shop, although sadly I couldn't say for sure whether those still operate today. In passing let's mention the trendy Lead Station (gastropub), where local resident songster Badly Drawn Boy has been spotted in the past. The Nose wine bar (now closed, I believe) I visited on occasions, and some others whose names escape me, but my personal favourite Chorlton Green fixture remained The Trevor Arms pub, if only to reconnect with the true values of quintessential Britishness.

Chorlton Green lych gate and tower, pictured by Aidan O'Rourke (2004)
Having said that, I have always wondered what the fuss was all about with Chorlton as a whole. Chorlton property is expensive (especially around the Green) and hotly coveted by Chorlton lovers, many of whom end up compromising on their budgets by moving to cheaper nearby Whalley Range, like my friend Séverine.

Now for a few controversial home truths: I have always found Chorlton-cum-Hardy on the tatty side, dirty (well, someone's gotta say it...), choking in traffic fumes, and many of the properties in urgent need of a refit (and that includes some of the shops on Barlow Moor Road, although the situation has improved in places). Chorlton is also a hop away from problem wards (Moss Side, Stretford, Hulme, etc.) and has its own share of it with the Nell Lane estate. Some of the unsavoury loitering characters I have come across on my way to visit friends have comforted this insecurity feeling in me.

Of course this is based on personal experience and opinion, and I respect the fact that Chorlton enthusiasts and defenders will beg to differ from my views. So next time you are in Manchester, do make sure to pay Chorlton a visit, for you may well find what you are looking for, after all. Chorlton might just be your scene. (to be continued)

Chorlton Flavour:

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