Well done, Manchester. You top our list. Londoner Sam Rowe goes to see what all the fuss is about
The locals have been telling us for years, but now it’s official. Forget London, Leeds, Liverpool or Leamington Spa – Manchester is Britain’s foremost destination for the modern male, trumping the capitals of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland alike in its quest to become ‘Man City’ (sorry United fans).
The stats don’t lie. The United Kingdom’s ninth largest location, Manchester is somehow its seventh cheapest place to live. Sporting the highest percentage of single people in the UK, Tinder swipers on a budget can enjoy £3 (on average) pints, their pick of 42 local breweries and a gamut of worldly cuisine – with Manchester boasting more international restaurants than anywhere else. There’s also the small matter of two of the biggest football clubs on Earth, with an international cricket ground and two top tier rugby teams besides, along with the world’s largest five-a-side football centre in Trafford Soccerdome.
As a born and bred Southerner, one who’s lived in ‘that London’ all my adult life, I was intent on finding out why Manchester is our prize destination. If you really can leave your doors unlocked, make friends with strangers and mortgage a house without pawning a lung.
I start in Heaven. That’s the name of the pitch atop Hotel Football; a four-star shrine to the beautiful game, an idea conceived by Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and other Class Of ’92 luminaries. The roof offers wraparound views of this burgeoning metropolis, with MediaCityUK in clear sight and Old Trafford stadium less than a stone’s throw-in away. In terms of a ‘man’ scenario, it’s hard to beat. Here I meet XFM Manchester breakfast show host, Tim Cocker.
“Manchester was the birth place of the industrial revolution, and then, with the Haçienda, invented all-nighters,” says Cocker – my Mancunian sherpa – rifling a strike against the crossbar. “So we work hard here, and we play hard. It’s in the blood of Manchester.”
Manchester has managed to pair a unique blend of avuncular northernness with creativity. The Northern Quarter retains its roots with no shortage of old pubs or greasy spoons. Breakfast host Cocker, staying true to his title, takes me to the city’s most legendary morning eatery, The Koffee Pot. A Manc institution, it has offered up hangover cures for weary ravers for a generation. Elbow’s Guy Garvey proclaimed: “If you’ve never had a bacon sandwich from there, you’ve never had a bacon sandwich."
CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE
The tide has begun to turn from London. With astronomical house prices and a lack of disposable income, an increasing number are turning their back on the capital. More than 68,000 left between August 2013 and June 2014 alone, 10,000 more than the previous year. A property boom saw prices rise in Manchester faster than London last year, but the average house still only costs £211,000.
“I love London,” admits Cocker, sipping a cocktail in Mexican restaurant El Capo, “but sometimes I’ll go on the Tube and feel like a little ant going in a nest. The history of London is amazing, but it’s a playground for rich folk.”
Individuals aren’t the only ones heading north, either. The BBC partially upping sticks from London to Salford was big news back in 2011, whereas you’ll find Adidas’ and Umbro’s UK HQs in Stockport, with Google, Barclays and Kellogg’s all sporting office space in Greater Manchester.
A hub for bright ideas, the city is speedily becoming a tech cluster for start-ups. These companies are often big on ideas but low on funds, and Manchester offers the chance to live and work at a fraction of what it’d cost in Old Street. What’s more, for e-commerce ventures (such as AO and BooHoo), the location means you’ll clock fewer miles shipping goods round the United Kingdom.
HOME OF FUN
It’s not all work, work, work. After guiding us to Pancho’s Burritos, a food stall so good you’d expect it to be in Guadalajara, not Greater Manchester, Cocker departs (for a nap, presumably). Replacing him is local publisher Chris Greenhalgh. He meets me at Redbank, a photography studio, café and bar. His magazine, I Love Manchester (ilovemcr.com), was born in the ashes of the 2011 UK riots, as “an incorruptible symbol of the city’s resilience”. As such, born and bred Manc Greenhalgh is a staunch loyalist of the city (“the centre of the universe”) and wastes no time singing its praises.
“On my way here, I asked a fella in the street if he knew where Redbank was,” he says. “He decided to walk me here and said he might see me later. That’s Manchester for you. It might be a bit gritty, but you could go into the gents’ and have a chat to someone at the urinal. People are always so proud to say they’re from Manchester – they’re happy to say, ‘I love Manchester, it’s my city."
After coffee and pizza at Redbank, we’re back in the Northern Quarter to take in its throbbing fashion scene. Though the stock image of a Mancunian probably consists of a Paul Weller haircut and Liam Gallagher-ish parka, independent boutiques such as Note and Oi Polloi feature bespoke clothing you’d struggle to find anywhere else. “Our supplier only makes 50 of those,” a shopkeeper informs me of a cap, “and they’ll be split between 12 shops around the world."
There are other ways to spend that extra cash. You can’t mention Manchester without mentioning music and the Madchester heart still beats loudly, with five major venues – including The Deaf Institute and Albert Hall – supplemented by countless bars proffering the would-be Morrisseys and Gallaghers of today. Later, I’ll witness a gang of middle-aged dudes turn out some Stone Roses-esque tunes in the Northern Quarter’s Night & Day Café, for the princely sum of £3 a head.
BANG FOR BUCK
With the cost of living so low compared to your average big city, it figures that Manchester’s bar and restaurant openings are up 57 per cent on the past decade – a number that comfortably outstrips London. It allows budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to pursue even the most specific of businesses, such as Liquor Store, an “indie rock’n’roll cocktail bar”; The Oasthouse, a craft beer haven with a United Nations of ales; champagne bar Epernay; and Tattu, a swish pan-Asian restaurant that serves up extraordinary food, and also doubles up as a burlesque bar.
After that cosmopolitan variety, Greenhalgh insists I sample a northern staple: the gravy-soaked pies at Beef & Pudding. Oh, and the owners reopened the kitchen just for us, despite it having closed half an hour before. But then that’s northern hospitality for you.
It seems the proof really is in the (suet) pudding, as in less than a day in Britain’s newly crowned capital of manhood, this writer can honestly admit he’d seriously consider swapping the extortionately priced sardine can flat in east London for a new life up north. Yes, for the wallet, but also the (Northern) soul.
BUT DON'T TAKE OUR WORD FOR IT:
Nicky Butt, Manchester legend
“It doesn’t surprise me at all [that Manchester won]. I think it’s a fantastic place for anyone to live. It’s come on leaps and bounds since I was a kid. In the Nineties, I was playing for Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, and you’d go out and bump into lads from Oasis, the biggest band around. I was at the Haçienda one night midweek, and the entire United team turned up. You wouldn’t get that nowadays…
“It’s the diversity I love most now; so many different kinds of people, and everyone’s so friendly. It’s very grounded, no nonsense. Even at the height of my United days, I’d still have to get my round in at the pub, and put my marker down for the pool table. I like that.
“When I was young, you’d have to go to London for cool restaurants or shops, but these days there’s a new shop or funky bar opening every week here. Spinningfields is a great place to be at the moment, and I still love the Curry Mile in Rusholme.
“That’s why it’s such a great city – it’s changing all the time. Just getting better and better."
[Images: Andrew Shaylor]