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Posts Tagged ‘Manchester’

There was ice on our windows this morning. Nothing strange about that, you might think: it’s been bloody cold of late and there’s ice everywhere. Except there was ice on the inside of our windows this morning. And that’s why, despite having got up around 7.30am, Milo and I both stayed in bed until gone 9am, and attempted to get dressed under the duvet (we were surprisingly successful).

This week we have been in the grip of the worst winter in 30 years. Newspaper headlines scream of ‘ice land’ (i.e. the whole of the UK covered in snow), ‘snow storm’ (council bosses narked that teachers have been off, and schools closed, all week) and ‘the big freeze’ (motorways jammed by jack-knifed lorries).

But the big news for us this week centres on snowmen. Tuesday morning arrives and it soon transpires that no one is going anywhere. Our car is snowed in, the buses aren’t running and we can’t push the pushchair through the drifts, so Simon, Milo and I decide to stay at home, as does half our street.

Out front, our neighbours build a snow family: a mum and dad, two kids and then, in a final flourish, a dog and a cat. They sit proudly on the pavement, the sunlight glinting on their icy forms. I take a snap on the way back from the pub that evening (schools and offices may have been shut but it’s amazing how pubs and shops manage to stay open for business).

Something terrible occurs that evening, some time between getting home and getting up in the morning: the snow family are attacked, their hats and scarves stolen. Even the dog and cat get it: all six shapes have had their heads knocked off during the night.

Thing is, it’s not a one-off. We built a snowman in our front garden just before Christmas, sticking him on our garden wall. We woke up the next day and he’d gone. Not just his head or his scarf but the whole shebang: someone had stolen our snowman.

Milo took the news surprisingly well. Simon just shrugged and said, ‘People will nick anything,’ but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. I mean, who on earth would steal a snowman?

And other snowmen on other roads don’t appear to suffer the same fate: I’ve had plenty of time, as I’ve hefted and dragged the pushchair back from the childminder’s, to look at other people’s snowmen, and they’ve remained unmolested. No, what’s appears to be happening on our road is far more sinister. Our road, it seems, is in the midst of some sort of snow war.

Snowmen, snow families and snow animals: if you go down to our road today, you’d better go in disguise.

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The day doesn’t begin well. It’s 9am and I am lying on the floor of Manchester Art Gallery, wrestling Milo into a bear suit.

‘Can’t you bribe him?’ says a rather unimpressed photographer. ‘I have some sweets in my bag.’

I try to explain that Milo doesn’t do bribes and doesn’t yet know what sweets are (I’m not being mean, I’m just trying to save him from a lifetime of dental torture). The photographer shoots me a disbelieving look.

I take a deep breath, shove a bottle into Milo’s mouth and begin to tell him a story about a dog, a ball and how the ball got broken (I’ll leave you to fill in the gaps). Miraculously, as the words leave my mouth and flutter around the empty gallery, and as Milo begins to pay attention to the grand old pictures lining the walls, something sinks in: the child in the bear suit decides to play ball. Milo gets the giggles, the photographer gets his shots, and I vow never again to offer up my child as a model.

Later, Milo is tucked up in bed, with a ball on one side and his tractor on the other. But I’m not at home: I’m sitting with Simon on one side and Eliza on the other, looking and listening as Elbow plays with the Hallé, as Guy Garvey’s vocals swoop and soar, as violins and strings, brass and drums, children with angelic voices and audience members with less than perfect pitch: as it all comes together in a beautiful, melodious whole.

When I first came to Manchester, in a job in a design studio I can’t say I really enjoyed much, one of my colleagues played Cast of Thousands pretty much on rotation. As I found my way around the city I was learning to call home, Guy Garvey et al provided the soundtrack. Later, when I was travelling alone in Laos, heading up North through forested mountains and looking down on ribbons of rivers in valleys far below, I had Leaders of the Free World playing on a loop. And later still, when I was back in Manchester, pregnant and scared and, sometimes, feeling quite alone, I found solace in Asleep in the Back.

Back at the Bridgewater Hall, I bump into someone I know and he says, ‘It was always going to be pretty special tonight, wasn’t it? It’s not just about Elbow, it’s about Manchester: you can feel the love in the room.’ And you can. I cry from the opening bars of Station Approach to the end of the gig, when we all stand and sing One Day Like This.

And when Guy Garvey sings Scattered Black & Whites, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. This is a song about childhood, about climbing trees, the lingering smell of a sister’s perfume, listening to grandparents tell tales. There’s a line in it about coming back to those memories – ‘I come back here from time to time/I shelter here some days’ – and it gets me every time I hear it, because if there’s one thing I want to achieve in my life, it’s this: to create a place of safety and love, of sunny days and laughter, a time of innocence that my boy, no matter how old he gets, can return to.

As I listen to Scattered Black & Whites, I realise it is both exquisite and excruciating. It is like the love I have for my little furry-suited boy: the most beautiful thing in my life and also the hardest to bear. It may be punctuated by comedy costumes and toddler tantrums, but it is a fierce love, one that I can only ever hope to live up to.

Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Yes. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Well, the next Elbow gig (tonight) is sold out but you can watch it for free at Castlefield. Worth it? Oh yes.

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‘Aren’t your legs cold?’ says my Mum.

We’re at Quarry Bank Mill and it is very, very cold. I am togged up in duffle coat and fleece, thermal vest, two pairs of tights and long boots with extra socks. But I also have a mini skirt on.

‘Nope.’

We’ve arrived late and everything bar the shop is shut. Dad decides to break into a small section of garden that says ‘CLOSED’ and we all follow him, telling him off as we walk down a little path that leads to the river.

‘Daaaad,’ I say, sounding like my teenage self, ‘we’ll get told off.’

A National Trust man walks over to us. He doesn’t tell us off. Dad bounds triumphantly along towards a crashing weir and a river swollen by winter rain.

‘I’d almost forgotten you’d got legs,’ says my Mum.

She has a point. For many, many years, my legs have remained swathed in fabric, on show to no one. You see, I have fat knees. I also have solid little legs (I’d like to say stolid but I’m not sure that’s actually a word) but I can live with that: they’re good for running and walking and pushing the buggy. And if all else fails I can slip on a pair of heels and, bang, instantly have longer legs.

But there’s little that can be done about fat knees. You can’t buy an uplift bra for them, nor wear knee slimming pants. And I shouldn’t even joke: both my Mum and my Grandma had knee replacements and I know that the same fate awaits me.

The most wonderful thing happened, though, after Milo was born. After seeing what my body was capable of, after the swelling and stretching of pregnancy and the hard work of birth, I was and am in awe of my body. I am woman, hear me roar etc. So when the baby weight finally disappeared, sometime around Milo’s first birthday, I threw caution to the wind, dug out a miniskirt and wore it in public.

Toddlers didn’t toddle off screaming. School kids didn’t taunt and laugh. Bright young things didn’t recoil and sneer.

So here I am, in the middle of winter*, wearing a mini skirt and riding boots.

Milo runs across a very muddy field and falls over. I pick him up and, together with Mum, Dad and Simon, we all stare at the ferocious tumult of water in front of us. It pummels the rocks below, hurls itself against the trees on the bank and churns up great spumes of roaring, angry water. It’s mesmerising.

The light is beginning to drain away into dark; Dad’s already halfway across the field by the time I decide to turn back. As the light fails, the cold creeps in and, by the time we make it back to the car, it’s nibbling at my bones. My legs are like slabs of frozen meat: dead and heavy. I imagine the flesh beneath the thin fabric of my tights turning a bruised purple. I rub them but feel nothing except a slight tingle.

My knees, however, are nice and toasty and, for once, I’m glad of the extra layer of cushioning.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Yes. Buggy-friendly? Partly – lots of cobbles and rough ground outside, and some steps into and around the buildings. Cost: £12.50 family ticket to the garden only, or £4 to access the estate – it’s a National Trust place. Worth it? Yes, the play area for older kids has just been renovated, and the grounds and gardens are beautiful. As with all NT places, take a picnic as the food ain’t cheap.

* In case you’re confused, I wrote this back in March and never published it. It’s not because the weather is so crap in Manchester that we’re all walking around in thermals in June. Honest.

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Everyone is entitled to an off day, right? Even Milo, usually the star of the show thanks to his tendency to make like a giddy kipper. And the day starts well: we throw ourselves around a bouncy castle for a bit before Milo slips into a blissful snooze.

He wakes to find himself being trundled along Upper Brook Street.

‘Dar!’ he shouts.

When I don’t reply, he shouts louder, ‘Dar! DAR!’

Milo is pointing to the cars. This being the middle of Manchester, there are lots. When I don’t give praise for each utterance, he gets cross. By the time we reach our destination, which takes a while as I manage to get lost, Milo is practically exploding with unappreciated ‘dars’.

‘DAR! DAR!’ he says as I bounce the buggy in through the doors of Gabriel’s Kitchen.

‘Dar. DAR DAR DAR!’ he shouts as I attempt to release him from both coat and harness.

Everyone turns to stare. I try not to turn red and sweaty. As Milo races up and down the formerly peaceful café-cum-restaurant, my cheeks prickle with pinky-purple shame. I used to be terribly, terribly shy and sometimes I get flashbacks, a physical reminder of what it was like to be a ruddy and round-faced teenager growing up in the Midlands. It’s made all the worse by the fact that the man who runs the place, Peter Booth, recognises me. I’m writing a review and thought it might be fun to bring Milo.

And Milo is having fun. He refuses to get in his high chair, so I let him sit on my lap. He smashes a glass. We read a book while the nice lady clears up the splintered shards. Milo throws the book on the floor, wriggles off my lap and makes a run for it. When his food arrives, he throws that all over the floor, too, followed shortly afterwards by his spoon and, then, my fork.

Peter Booth ambles over. I read somewhere that his Scouse accent is so thick it could peel potatoes but I disagree: having spent 10 years in Liverpool, it’s wonderfully reassuring. And the fact that the café is named after his young son, and the fact that he really doesn’t seem to mind Milo’s complete lack of interest in his lovingly crafted food, is also quite comforting.

‘Would he like some fruit?’

Peter brings over a baby-sized portion of fruit salad. Milo throws it on the floor, grape by apple slice. And then rubs the sticky juice in his hair. And then, finally, eats something: half a grape.

It’s at this point I decide to leave. Milo and I head down Hathersage Road, leg it around Whitworth Park and then head for the art gallery. Inside, Milo becomes inconsolable, which may have something to do with the fact that he’s had no lunch, and I find myself becoming pink and sweaty again as disapproving glances are cast my way. Blushing, I reason, is like the Number 86. You can stand about for ages, all pale-cheeked and calm, and then, all of a sudden, several blushes bear down on you, one after the other in quick succession.

Just before we head home, I spot Milo and me in a mirror. There we are, a mother and son double act, and both of us with bright pink cheeks.

‘At least I don’t dribble like you,’ I say to Milo as he reaches up and smacks me heartily in the face. ‘Come on, time to go home.’

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Not yet but they should have within weeks. Cafe: It’s a restaurant with a very good kids’ menu, plus the chefs will adapt the adult’s menu if your little one fancies anything specific. All local, organic and sustainable produce where possible. Buggy-friendly? Yes, though a little small. Cost: Mid-price menu, £5 for a main, dessert and drink for kiddies. Worth it? Yes, excellent food and nice, friendly staff, plus colouring-in kits for older kiddies.

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I like to talk about Milo. I can’t help it; I have become one of those dreadfully dull parents, the ones who, in a former life, would make me want to sandpaper my eyeballs just to relieve the boredom.

Here’s Alyson and I in her restaurant. It’s just before Christmas. Outside, the rain pelts down. The pavement reflects, black and glossy, as car headlights dip and shine.

‘It’s Black Friday,’ she says. I look puzzled, so she elaborates: ‘The last Friday before Christmas – it’s always mental in town. It took me an hour just to park the car, with D in the back screaming his head off. I wouldn’t mind, but I’m going to have to take him home again in 15 minutes.’

Alyson and I trade tales of parental torture, me going on (and on) about the 12 months of night wakings we endured. I have told everyone I know about this, several times. I don’t care if they’ve heard it before. I want them to experience my pain.

Here’s Imogen and I, on the phone, me lying on my bed, talking in a low voice so I don’t wake Milo. I am surrounded by piles of washing and I pick up pants and tops as I talk, idly wondering what’s clean and what’s not.

‘He was banging on an old tin, screaming at the top of his voice and then jumping on the sofa,’ I say. ‘There was this woman was looking at me like children should be seen and definitely not heard.’

‘You don’t think he’s got, you know, a problem?’ I continue.

Imogen, herself the mother of a boisterous 4 year-old, patiently explains that all little boys are loud, noisy and a little bit violent. It’s normal, she says.

‘Really?’

Part of me is disappointed. Imogen changes tack, and we explore the possibility of setting up a café on Thomas Street, next to the Mr. Scruff-owned Cup. We’re going to call it Owt On Toast, and it’ll serve very British food, with a twist. The twist being that everything will be served on toast.

Here’s me on the phone again, this time to Claire. I am in my office, surrounded by piles of paper, and I flick through them as I talk, idly wondering what I can bin or not.

‘But he doesn’t bloody sleep,’ I say. ‘He was fine for a bit and now he’s gone back and I’m just so fed up.’

Claire tells me, with her usual Geordie candour, to have a word with myself. And then to see what happens if I leave Milo for five minutes. I take her advice. When Milo starts mumbling and grumbling that night, I wait. Three minutes in and he’s back asleep.

These are the things that occupy my mind. Is Milo normal? Is he better than normal – is he special? Am I walking the tightrope between indulgence and discipline, or have I fallen off: am I plummeting towards the ground, the words ‘bad parent’ looming closer and closer, about to smack me full in the face?

‘Have a glass of wine and chill out,’ says Alyson, back in her restaurant, after I complete my rant about sleep deprivation.

She pushes a glass towards me. She’s right, of course.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: It’s a restaurant! With a good kids’ menu. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Good value, drop-in pizzeria. Worth it? Yes, a child-friendly haven in the midst of the Northern Quarter. Friendly staff, though I would say that…

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‘If you say one more word I’m going to turn the car around, and then me and Milo will spend the day without you.’

We’re on the motorway, heading to Bolton. A red mist hangs low over the dashboard.

‘I’d like to see you do a u-turn on the motorway,’ I say, not a little petulantly.

‘Susie, I mean it.’

‘And anyway, you’d still be spending the day with me even if we did go home. I’d still be there, wouldn’t I? You can’t magic me into thin air.’

To his credit, Simon carries on, although I notice his knuckles turning white as he grips the steering wheel. We continue in silence, the windows steaming up, an industrial landscape hurtling by. Eventually, as we enter the outskirts of Bolton, I decide to lighten the atmosphere.

‘I’m looking forward to seeing the fish.’

Nothing.

‘This is a very well ordered car park, isn’t it? It’s very…’

I search for the right word.

‘… Spacious.’

Simon remains mute. He throws the car into one of the spacious spaces, yanks the pushchair out of the boot and waits.

‘At least I’m trying,’ I whine.

He still says nothing and we stomp silently through Bolton’s freezing town centre. It had seemed like such a good plan: spending the day exploring the northern reaches of Greater Manchester, stopping off at the grandly titled Bolton Aquarium to gawp at the fish, and maybe finding a nice café to shovel down tea and cake for afters. Except on the way I had managed to construct an elaborate argument out of one flimsy throwaway comment, and here we were, lost, cold and just not the ruddy cheeked, laughing family-of-three-on-a-day-trip I had envisaged.

We wheel Milo round the neo-Classic grandeur of the Town Hall. There is something peculiarly impressive about the towns that stud the Greater Manchester map: something to do with the fact that, back in the Industrial Revolution, they had ideas way above their station. The evidence of this lofty ambition is still here in the shape of halls, museums and libraries that wouldn’t look out of place in a sprawling, global metropolis: each one a neo-Classic two fingered salute to London or, even, Manchester.

Simon spots a sign for the museum and aquarium; we’re soon gratefully inside, warming ourselves by a lift that, when it opens, smells of fish.

‘We must be nearly there then,’ I say, as the doors open and a warm marine gust envelops us.

I think Simon smiles but I can’t be sure. We descend to the basement. The smell comes with us. As the doors open, I start to have my doubts about Bolton Aquarium. We appear to be in a small, cramped municipal dungeon. Fluorescent strips flicker overhead; there’s no natural light and not much in the way of signage. We wheel the buggy around a long, lino-covered corridor, heft it up a set of stairs and then, in the next corridor, find a few sad tanks lining the walls.

‘Do you think this is it?’

‘Can’t be,’ I say, forging ahead. ‘Look, there’s another room here.’

In the other room, we find some bigger, sad tanks lining the walls. I walk around, looking in vain for a door that leads to the Aquarium. Years ago, my ex worked at the Blue Planet. In my mind’s eye, I have visions of floor-to-ceiling tanks populated by sharks and enormous puffer fish, of Milo banging on the glass walls with a fat fist, giggling. Instead, I am faced with some rather unhappy looking fish swimming gloomily from one end of their tank to the other.

I catch Simon’s eye. He smiles and then, as Milo runs across the room, oblivious to the fish that swim above his line of sight but still with a giant grin plastered across his face, he laughs.

‘Cake?’ says Simon.

‘Cake,’ says I.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: No. Buggy-friendly? Yes, although there is an awkward flight of steps right in front of the Aquarium. The museum and art gallery are fully accessible. Cost: Free. Worth it? Actually, yes. The museum and gallery are small but very good, with lots of hands-on stuff for kids (and dinosaurs!). I wouldn’t recommend a trip here solely on the basis of seeing the Aquarium, though.

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I’ve timed things perfectly. As we arrived at Manchester Museum, Milo dropped off, taking full advantage of his swanky new pushchair to drift into a long sleep. I peer down at him and smile: his nap means I have a precious hour or so to have a coffee, read and eat. Heck, I might even have a moment to contemplate life.

Sitting in the empty Play & Learn Centre, I bask in the peaceful quiet. I do love Milo, but, god, it’s great when he’s asleep.

Just then, I hear a clattering of feet. The floor protests at the unexpected weight of several dozen pairs of school shoes, creaking and squeaking as they jumble along. I look up and sigh. I’d forgotten it was term time. Draining my coffee, I pack up and wheel Milo away.

I’m not having a bunch of noisy bag swinging kids wake him up, I think.

I breathe a sigh of relief as the lift doors shut, sealing out the chattering children, and then wince as a ‘BING BONG’ is followed by a very loud ‘LEVEL 2. DOORS OPENING.’

‘Why does everything have to be so bloody loud?’ I grumble to myself.

I peer out of the lift and, spotting a crocodile of primary school pupils by the Egyptian mummies, head instead towards the Mammals Gallery. I’m stopped in my tracks when I hear the unmistakable squeals of a party of toddlers. None so noisy as the under threes, I reason, and instead wheel Milo straight ahead.

We find ourselves in a tiny, dark gallery that’s partitioned off from the main space by paper-thin walls. I wedge us into a corner. A woman wanders in, gives me a strained smile, and walks quickly away. I realise I’m standing in the dark, looking at the wall and scowling. It’s not a good look.

‘OK, nothing for it but the dinosaurs,’ I mutter, braving the BING BONG of the lift to get downstairs.

And there, amongst the metriorhynchids and Triassic coal forests, I find the blissful quiet I’ve been searching for. Milo slumbers on as I wander to the window. There, in the quadrangle beyond, I spot a gothic tower, shuttered and silent. I remember reading about the Museum advertising for a hermit, someone to occupy a tower just like the one I’m looking at. No contact with the outside world, just hours and days stretching ahead, filled only by… well, nothing.

‘Do you think there’s still time to apply?’ I whisper to my sleeping babe.

Just then, a terrible toddler runs the full length of the dinosaur hall, screaming. Milo winces in his sleep, and flicks his head from side to side. Time to move on.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Yes, with a decent kids’ menu. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes, lots of activities at the weekends for older kids, too.

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