Lest we forget, it’s not all about the city centre either. In easy striking distance by tram and train are interesting towns and villages making up the Greater Manchester region and adding to its distinctiveness and diversity.
Housed in the same building as the city’s library and a shiny new Sculpture Centre, the lovely Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre really punches above its weight as far as council-run art museums go. The programme here is provocative and interesting, and it complements a thoughtfully-presented permanent collection strong in 19th Century British painters and local artifacts. If there’s time, take a walk along the Irwell Sculpture Trail, a 33-mile long public art experience that is run by the museum.
Happening over a single weekend every September at what must be one of the most scenic cricket grounds in the country, the small, charming Ramsbottom Festival signals the proper end to the summer festival season in Greater Manchester. The weather can be a bit iffy in the Pennines, but whatever the weather the friendly spirit is well in evidence, the real ale is flowing and the whole family is welcome. Recent big name acts have included The Waterboys, British Sea Power, The Futureheads and Sinead O’Connor.
In nearby Bolton, The Octagon believes in world-class theatre. Described by the Guardian as the most revitalised regional theatre in the country, over 150,000 people enjoy its excellent performances each year. It presents annual seasons with a wide range of entertaining and thought-provoking productions that include Shakespeare, American drama, great European plays and contemporary classics, alongside brand new work, musicals, theatre for families and plays that are rooted in the culture of Bolton and the North West.
Down the road in Oldham is The Coliseum, one of the oldest theatres in Britain still operating today, and reimagined as a new kind of people’s theatre ‘owned’ by its audiences, its artists and its participants. The Coliseum stage has seen countless performers over the years from comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel to fledgling movie stars such as Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver. Many of the stars of Manchester staple Coronation Street have also cut their teeth treading the boards at the Coliseum.
In Rochdale stands a piece of Greater Manchester’s radical past, just behind the Shopping Centre, near to the back of B&M Bargains. It’s a modest, red-bricked building, with the world’s first all-in-one lamppost-postbox just outside. This, then, is the museum of the Rochdale Pioneers, founders of the modern co-operative movement. Born from a crisis of low wages and high food prices, the philosophy with which the Rochdale Pioneers first set up shop in 1844 has now spread to around 1.4 million co-operative societies around the world. Number 31 Toad Lane opened as a museum in 1931, and now hosts exhibitions and events. There’s a large mural advertising “co-op tea” painted on the on the exterior, and a lovely traditional frontage. A place to get that lovely feeling of being in touch with history.
The North West is awash with markets, new kid on the block is also one of the oldest. Altrincham’s market charter traces back to the 1200s but it has been given a new lease of life in recent months with the opening of Altrincham Market House and revitalised weekend markets selling the some of the best artisanal produce from across the North West. The Market House is the star of the show and well worth a tram ride out of the city centre. Inside, five specialist food outlets cluster around communal tables that seat 180. Artisan coffee using Lancaster-blended beans, Honest Crust’s wood-fired pizza, salads, bagels, chocolate and wine served by the glass are all on offer; the existence of a small play area for small, playful people (complete with cushions, chalkboards and picture books) explains why the place is packed out with families.
Stockport is another town famous for its markets. We like Staircase House and the Plaza, a delightfully old fashioned theatre venue that does scrumptious afternoon teas.
Not too far from Altrincham Market is Dunham Massey. National Trust owned this is a really lovely property – all the best features of a NT site but in microcosm, making it feel very personal and accessible. It’s said that Dunham Massey is more visited and supported by its local population than any other National Trust property. Visit on a crisp Autumn afternoon and see why. Lovely parkland walks, perfect formal gardens planted to have interest all year round, a relatively modest moated house, a deer-park, and a brand new visitor centre and café serving the standard of food and drink that we have all come to expect.