“What brings you to Manchester?” our waitress asked.
It was the sixth time in two days that we’d been asked this very question. Clearly we didn’t look like we lived nearby; maybe my funky hat that looks fresh out of the Australian Outback confirmed to the natives that we were not from around here. Or maybe our American accents were as confusing to the Mancunians as their accents were to us. Seriously, sometimes I think I can understand spoken French better than some of the regional British accents we’ve come upon. (That notion is always quickly corrected by a trip to France.)
For the Manchester residents it seemed that there must be a reason for our stopover. Were we here on business? Or maybe we came to visit friends? People don’t come to Manchester this time of year just to tour the town. Didn’t we read the Almanac? Manchester is cold and wet at the beginning of March.
Perhaps visiting Manchester isn’t typical this time of year. But maybe it should be. If the weather is good, like it was (mostly) during our visit, March is a fine time to see Manchester.
Recent rounds of urban redevelopment have advanced Manchester’s claim as the United Kingdom’s “second city.” Now distant from its time as a soot-choked star of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester is clean, young, and easy to navigate. Modern glass and steel buildings co-occupy the city’s blocks with the older red brick buildings. The core of Manchester is easy enough to navigate on foot. If you tire, there are plenty of modern public transportation options available.
The truth is that there was as purpose to our visit. In Manchester as we’d done in ten other cities around the world we’d hunt for the tile mosaics left in 2004 by the French street artist Invader. It helped to have a map as we found more intact Space Invaders, a total of 35, than we’ve found in any other city we’ve searched. We also located two spots where Invaders had been scraped off. And as usual some of Invader’s mosaics were in sad shape; the tiles were painted over or partially chipped off. Not a surprising response to the uninvited guests, I suppose. We also saw places where Space Invaders were well maintained. Benefactors had carefully painted around the mosaics and kept the tiles clean. We like that.
Good things happen when we go searching for the tile mosaic Invaders. Exploring the Space Invader’s host neighborhoods we find interesting things we weren’t looking for. We walk up alleyways and down streets, often repeatedly, scanning in all directions for the tiles left in not so apparent obvious places. We study fire escape ladders, pasted bills, stenciled street art, curbside bollards, and more trying to find the place that matches a picture in Invader’s book. There are so many details in urban environments that are passed each day unnoticed.
In Manchester our Space Invader search extended the city’s narrow barge canals. Today the canals in Manchester are used less for boat transport and more as a somewhat dodgy below street level walking path. Or for Invader, the canal sides are useful as a place to install artwork. As it often does, the search for Space Invaders took us through the less-visited bowels of the city. This is not the tour of Manchester that Tourist Office promotes.
The search for Space Invaders invariably leads us to other examples of street art. It is never clear what came first. Were the Space Invaders pasted to the buildings before the art was there or did the guerilla artworks come after the invasion? Not that the order matters. Hunting for Space Invaders in Manchester provides a template for a tour of the backstreets and an open viewing of the alternative art scene. The tile invaders are breadcrumbs that lead us through the path of urban discovery.
There is one less fortunate thing that happens when we hunt for Space Invaders; we miss the standard tourist sites. Though at one point we dodged out of a hard windy-cold sleet storm (I did say that the weather was mostly good) for an extended look inside Manchester’s grand Cathedral, we didn’t bother finding the other must see places listed in our guidebooks. We’ll have to save the Tourist Office-style visit for a return trip.
Manchester makes for a pleasant city break. The brick-old interspersed with shiny-glass and steel-metal new combine in an incongruously cohesive package. Add in the people, a modern mix of young and vibrant, and Manchester is filled with urban energy. And, at least this time of year, tourists were a rare and well-treated species. The absence of visitors makes Manchester feel overlooked and off the tour route. It is a good reason to visit, at least in March.
The full Manchester street art picture set has been uploaded to Google+.
We captured images of 35 Space Invaders in Manchester. See the pictures here.