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Sleeping with Friendly Ghosts in Manchester, England
Stop all the clocks and watches. Cut off the wake up alarms and early morning radio stations. They aren’t needed on the tenth floor of the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, where we slept with a friendly giant peering in through the picture windows. You can almost reach out and touch it, the beaming face of the great clock on the bell tower of Manchester’s Town Hall, stretching nearly 300 feet skyward. It dominates the skyline, which is exactly what the Victorian city fathers wanted when they sanctioned a couple of million dollars or so to build this neo-gothic, cathedral-like building in 1887. Inside, it is awash with superb mosaic floors decorated with industrious honey bees – a symbol of Manchester’s hard working past. It was just after Christmas when we were there and we soon spotted another giant. Santa Claus himself had somehow got himself stuck on the roof of and he was waving to everyone who looked up – all part of Manchester’s Christmas celebrations.
The remains of another, perhaps more important, Victorian building acts as a fascinating cocoon for the Radisson Hotel. Called the Free Trade Hall, it has played a hugely important role in the life of Manchester people, for it was here that great speeches were made by the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde spoke here, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Dylan sang here and great orchestras performed here. It was also the venue for public meetings, women’s suffrage, banquets, fashion shows – you name it, the Free Trade Hall has hosted it.
Our daughter is at Manchester Metropolitan University on a three year course so we are slowly getting to know the city. In search of a hotel for the night, after taking her back for a new term, we had liked the look of the Radisson, boldly sitting as it does right in the centre of town. So, Kevin Healey, Director of Sales, asked us to join him in the bar to find out more about its history.
The original building was destroyed during the Second World War when it took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb which caused a huge fire and gutted the whole place. Manchester, important as a manufacturing and engineering centre, had become a target for the Germans and the loss of the hall was a massive body blow to the city. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured by the nightly bombings.
By 1943 there was a plan afoot to restore the Free Trade Hall and it circulated round the great conductor Sir John Barbirolli. He began putting together a remarkable orchestra which was later to be known as the Hallé and it went on to be one of the city’s greatest assets thanks to the driving force of Barbirolli himself.
Getting the money together to begin the restoration was far from easy. War-torn Britain was hard-up and it took a few years before the go ahead to build was given in 1949. By this time the cost of rebuilding the hall had jumped to £380,000 – more than three times the original estimate. Money had been raised from concert performances, donations from Manchester Corporation and help from the War Damage Commission but it needed government approval to release essential building materials to kick start the whole project.
Cleverly, the original Peter Street and South Street facades were kept. It wasn’t until 1951 that the hall was completed and opened by the Queen, mother of the present Queen. The concert that followed almost blew the roof off again! Barbirolli was conducting his beloved orchestra, and the whole performance culminated with Kathleen Ferrier and the Hallé Choir singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’ It was also an occasion for the whole country to listen to because the BBC made an historic broadcast of it.
So there we were sipping our martinis listening for the ghosts of Barbirolli and his orchestra all around us. “But the story isn’t finished yet,” Kevin went on. “There’s more to come. The hall went on more or less basking in glory until things began to go wrong in the eighties. Money became very tight, Manchester was changing, and the orchestra ran up a huge £1 million debt. The hall itself also came in for criticism. The acoustics were below par and something more modern was required.” In short the once proud Free Trade Hall had become something of a dinosaur and it went rapidly downhill. By 1996 the final public event was performed by the Dalai Lama and only a month before the Hallé had performed its farewell concert.
In the next few years no one quite knew what would happen to the old building. “Naturally feelings ran very high to save it but that was never going to happen,” Kevin told us. “Eventually, after a great deal of wrangling, a proposal was accepted to build a hotel which would keep the original Peter Street façade and connect it to a fourteen storey building by a glass atrium and that’s where we came in.” The Radisson Edwardian was born.
So, in 2004, with 263 rooms, it became the city’s first five-star hotel and against all the odds the spirit of the Free Trade Hall was saved.
Over a very pleasant dinner in the dining room we tucked into delicious steaks and couldn’t help recalling another horrific time for Manchester. Just over ten years ago, on Saturday 15th June 1996, at the very time that the Free Trade Hall was bowing out of the lives of the citizens of Manchester, the IRA exploded a 3,000lb bomb. It ripped the heart out of the city’s main shopping centre at a peak time on Father’s Day. Miraculously no one was killed but 200 people were injured. Manchester was brought to its knees again.
Ten years later Manchester is on the crest of a wave. The rebuilding programme, following the bomb, has transformed the city and the people of Manchester are experiencing a boom time. It is, of course, the home of soccer. Manchester United, the most famous club in the world, can boast veteran players like Sir Bobby Charlton, who played such a key role in winning the World Cup in 1966, and whiz kids like David Beckham, now on his way to California to perk up American soccer. As it happens the club uses the Radisson to accommodate their players for home matches and the hotel attracts a host of personalities from around the world. As we were leaving Kylie Minogue was about to check in. This Grammy award winning Australian singer-songwriter had reserved the penthouse suite and the city was in Kylie mode for her concert. Unfortunately we couldn’t wait around but Kevin has promised to let us know the next time she visits!
Radisson Edwardian have ten hotels in London, one at Heathrow and one in Manchester. www.radissonedwardian.com
Radisson Edwardian Manchester
Free Trade Hall
Manchester M2 5GP
Toll free numbers:
UK 0800 374411
UIFN 00800 3333 3333
US and Canada 1 800 333 3333
Australia 1 800 333 333
For further information on visiting Manchester contact the Tourist Board for Greater Manchester:
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.