10 Dec 2010

Chorlton vs. Didsbury (Part 2)

The Castlefield area of Manchester was once upon a time the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. With the industrial times now firmly behind us, what puts 21st century Manchester on the map? What is its coolest hotspot contender: is it Chorlton or is it Didsbury? In our previous post we covered Chorlton, whose adepts praise its 'boho-chic' appeal, and describe the place as hip, trendy, happening. So where does that leave Didsbury then? La Baguette investigates.

Castlefield, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Picture by Ed O'Keeffe
This is subject to debate, yet in my humble opinion Didsbury Village offers a more polished appearance than Chorlton. And of the whole of Didsbury, it is also the trendiest (although closely followed by West Didsbury's Lapwing Lane/ Burton Road), maybe even a tad over-rated, as I'd be inclined to admit. As for East Didsbury, the vast majority of its housing stock (private and council mix) dating back to the 1930s, and sprawling uniform arrangement, make it lack the lustre and depth of character of its neighbouring sisters. West Didsbury is reminiscent in places of Chorlton with those semi-neglected multi-storey Victorian properties broken down into rentals. However the area is sprucing up slowly; and it has certainly improved over the time I have lived in Manchester.

A walk around Didsbury reveals beautiful residential properties of Victorian and Edwardian splendour set within leafy grounds, the former homes to textile merchants, traders, bankers, lawyers and managerial executives who worked in Manchester city centre at the peak of its industrialisation. And by contrast, if you head from Didsbury Village towards Parrs Wood and Fletcher Moss Gardens (Stenner Lane), you will pick up clues of Didsbury's farming heritage (former farm buildings and cottages, remnants of fields) as the Cheshire village it once was (as opposed to the buzzing Manchester ward it has since become).

A green oasis: the rock garden at Fletcher Moss. Source: Wikipedia
With the quaint village life of yesteryear gone, today's local residents and visitors find solace and respite at the beautiful Fletcher Moss Gardens and their not-to-be-missed alpine rockery garden (dogs not allowed), the nearby walled Parsonage Gardens (where we would half-expect to stumble across Hercule Poirot!), or Didsbury Park. Heading for the River Mersey embankments from Fletcher Moss, they can enjoy long family walks past Sale, Urmston, Northenden, Wythenshawe and further afield.

There are places in Didsbury where indeed you would be forgiven for believing you are not in Manchester. The quaint and the charming come at a price and Didsbury is admittedly the priciest quarter within the Manchester ward boundaries, with properties fetching similar price ranges to those in neighbouring Cheadle (Stockport constituency) or Hale (Trafford).

Didsbury Park, interpretation design by Mike Pendry Design Countryside
Sadly in recent years, the vibrant Disbury Village centre has lost some of its independent shops. With the stronger presence of chains (Boots, Pizza Hut, Café Rouge, Hogshead, Pitcher & Piano etc.) and more recent branded additions aimed at young professional residents, and University students to an extent (M&S, Varsity, Costa Coffee, Slug & Lettuce, burger joints etc.), it is feared that the Village may soon become no more than an aseptised miniature version of the typical British high-street identikit, and lose its individual character in the process.

The threat from corporate retail affects the local public houses too, however these local institutions hold their value in the hearts of the locals. I'll just name 3 off the top of my head: first the tucked-off-the-high-street Fletcher Moss, then Wilmslow Road's The Royal Oak (Robinson brewery) - to visit more for its atmosphere than for its faded décor or the quality of its draught beer and cider, and finally the blink-and-you-miss-it corner pub The Railway (Marston's), just across from the hub of chain bars and restaurants that were erected at the turn of this millennium.

Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, approx. 1955 (photo: Peter Ward via Geograph)
Other pubs like The Dog & Partridge deserve a mention too, or further up the road on the right-hand side the stand-alone Didsbury, a popular Sunday lunch destination! Meanwhile in West Didsbury (Barlow Moor Road), let us mention The Woodstock, an oppulent listed mansion converted into a stylish lofty bar with period features retained, complemented by amazing vintage rococo crystal chandeliers (in 2009).

Sooner or later the noisy crowded bar scene novelty wears off and younger locals are keen to venture into/ return to more sedate surroundings where they can hold a conversation without losing their voice and draining their wallet... Some of the pubs have tried to modernise in order to increase their captive audience, as seen at the Fletcher Moss, and some will dispute whether this has brought any actual benefits to the trade, or the punters for that matter...

For a lovely dinner in modern surroundings right at the heart of the Village, there is no better place than Felicini's. Back in 2002, I used to go to the adjacent wine bar with my friend Susan on a Saturday night for a spot of chit-chat over a glass of wine, before the place merged with the small restaurant next door into a bigger food-oriented venue. Since the refurb, I have been there once with Andy, my partner, for a special occasion dinner and we were both impressed with the quality of the food, its presentation and the personable service. We always vowed to return some day, but must have got distracted by South Manchester's many other food offerings!

Source: The Metropolitan
If you'd missed the boat a decade ago and were still wondering what a gastropub was, then I would advise you to traipse down to nearby West Didsbury's Lapwing Lane. This is a slice of leafy suburb running across Palatine Road, just feet away from Didsbury Job Centre (no less!) and Pizza Express, with a splattering of little shops (inc. delis, bespoke picture framer, interior design consultancy, beauty parlour, fashion boutique etc.), small bars and restaurants (inc. the popular Green's, serving vegetarian fayre, and the handkerchief-sized Railway pub). The area is dominated by the fabulously refurbished Midland Hotel into The Metropolitan bar and restaurant (at the corner of Lapwing Lane and Burton Road), a success story that has now spanned over a decade.

There, architects and interior designers have refreshingly been restrained and sympathetic to the building's character and most of its original features have thankfully been preserved and enhanced, when temptation would have been to outrageously rip them up and reinterpret the build as witnessed elsewhere through town. The restaurant side of the pub has a classic décor warmed up by its beautiful vintage oak furniture, and we'll note the clever use of antique book shelving in order to partition the dining area from the bar. The spacious conservatory, decorated with hanging plant baskets, overlooks a terrace (popular in the balmy Summer evenings!). Over the years, I have enjoyed a few spur-of-the-moment comfort food dinners there (within close range of the fireplace in winter), and without the guilt trip. A one-course meal is generous enough and will not break the bank. In the depths of winter, their simple yet well turned-out bangers and mash were a pick-me-up! The only restaurant I have ever had on speed-dial was that one. And yes, it is highly recommended that you book your table beforehand in order to avoid disappointment or long waits.

Detail of a Hazle wall plaque I purchased from Harriet & Dee years ago
Now for a spot of Didsbury Village shopping... For the best fish in town, I recommend Evans of Didsbury, a reputed institution that caters fish (+ meat and fruit & veg) to local restaurants and the general public alike. I cannot fault their professionalism, friendly service, cleanliness and quality/ freshness of produce. I still remember those plump scallops I bought, I was really impressed. Amateurs of cheese will have spotted The Cheese Hamlet from the get go, right next door to Evans. Further up Wilmslow Road, heading Stockport-way and next to Felicini's is a local florist that has also established a solid reputation, with a good choice of flowers too! Because they have become so rare, haberdashers deserve a mention. This one is near the florist and while it is still (amazingly!) open, pay them a visit: if you are not already a seamstress, you might surprise yourself and start developing a couture addiction. A gorgeous giftware boutique called Harriet & Dee (relocated some years ago from Manchester city centre's Kings Street area to a cobbled alleyway off the side of the Dog & Partridge) will no doubt satisfy your special occasions requirements.

As a conclusion, I will not dispel the local myth about the fact that you are either a Chorlton person or a Didsbury person, not both. There is an undisputed rivalry between Chorlton and Didsbury over which one is the coolest, and even my random Twitter poll turned passion into a debate. You may have guessed that my personal preference, based on gut feelings and general observations, has always guided me towards Didsbury Village, from that very first encounter. Although I have tried to give Chorlton time, fairness and reflection and I am not disputing its good points and qualities - chemistry just happened with Didsbury. Just like Carrie Bradshaw is unequivocally a NYC girl - I am unashamedly, most definitely... a Didsbury girl!

Didsbury Flavour:

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