Salford (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 30 March

When did Salford get sexy?

Helen Moat takes her German guests to Salford and is surprised by the transformation of this formerly bleak corner of England's north-west

In front of me houses rise out of a pale watery landscape, marooned in puddles of water. Rows of blackened terraced houses echo each other. Beyond that, a squat functional building towers over the terraces like an industrial cathedral.

Scores of people, hunched and stick-thin, hurry along the wide street that leads to the factory, like a tide of human flotsam. On the horizon great chimney stacks belch out dirty smoke that darkens the sky above.

Close up, the men are wearing brylcreem-slicked side-partings, bowler hats, raincoats, and sullen faces. Down dead-end terraced side streets, ragged, mean-faced children squabble or play, and women in woollen skirts with club feet gossip with half-starved dogs around their feet.

This is Lowry’s Salford and Manchester. It’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore – except in Lowry’s detailed and humorous paintings. I glance out the window of the Lowry Museum at the new, slick Salford. Gone are the terraced houses, the red-bricked factories, the chimney stacks and wharfs, and in their place are glass-fronted high-rise apartments, shiny metallic businesses and museums that are curved and twisted into irregular shapes. Between the buildings, Salford’s canals are lined with boulevards and globed streetlights and graceful bridges that cross the waterways. 

Marcella and Michi, my German visitors, who have flown over to England for the weekend, have never heard of Lowry, or his ‘matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs’. They love the humorous figures in the paintings and the childlike, almost surreal scenes of Manchester.

Next to the Lowry, the Imperial War Museum North, a great fragmented structure, has a disturbing beauty. The building alone is worth the trip to Salford. Architect, Daniel Libeskind, son of Polish Holocaust survivors, captures the shattering nature of war in three interlocking ‘shards’ of the globe-shaped building, representing conflict on land, water and in the air.

Inside, the immense concrete, irregular spaces are equally disorienting and disturbing. There are conventional ‘behind-the-case’ exhibits and large-scale artefacts: wreckage from the world trade centre, a bombed-out car from Baghdad and a Russian tank, for example. But it’s the massive screens simultaneously projecting the sights and sounds of victims around the darkened space that capture the madness, confusion and horror of war.

What I love about the Imperial War Museum North is that it focuses on the personal stories of war victims. There’s a section of floor-to-ceiling metal drawers, each representing the story of an individual, a picture inserted into the office-style handle, or artifacts displayed in a pulled out drawer.

Further on, Michi and Marcella pause to listen to a recording of Hitler in full flow, screaming like a hell-fire preacher. Marcella shudders and says, ‘it gives me the hebbie jebbies.” We wander on, looking at exhibits of the Cold War. We pause to take pictures beside an old Trabi (Trabant). It’s hard to believe that Michi and Marcella are too young to have experienced the fall of the Berlin wall, never mind its erection or the war that preceded it.

We walk outside again and take the lift up to the viewing point. At the top, all of Salford and Manchester is spread out at our feet. I look at this regenerated area and feel grateful for peacetime Europe and the prosperity that is surrounding me.

In some peoples’ minds, Salford may still be the depressed, industrial landscape of Lowry’s paintings, but they couldn’t be more wrong. I recommend you go and have a look for yourself. Salford’s a great place for a day out.