The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: Gaskell’s Manchester Walking Tour
Festival blogger Abi Hynes takes to the city streets for a crash course in Mrs. Gaskell’s Manchester…
Confession time: I have never been on a walking tour before. I am an Elizabeth Gaskell fan, but usually more of the – you know – sitting down kind. So you’ll have to forgive a few obvious observations of the uninitiated (‘It’s like talking about books, except you do it whilst walking around’, etc.)
We met at St Ann’s Church, where we were given a very good abbreviated introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s personal history and the appearance of industrial Manchester, then the heart of the cotton industry, in its multiple guises in her novels. (My personal favourite, if you’re interested, is ‘Milton’ in North and South. Mill – Town. Geddit?)
Ed Glinert made for an engaging and knowledgeable tour guide, who took us swiftly through our stops around the city centre. They included the Royal Exchange Theatre (formerly the Cotton Exchange, of course), Manchester’s Town Hall (a highlight – where we heard about the Gaskells’ radical lefty politics and their connection to the Chartist movement), and the always wonderful Portico Library, where we were shown the collection’s first editions of Mary Barton and Cranford.
Unfortunately, many of the outdoor sites we visited in the city centre now have little to show for themselves, thanks to the destruction of most of the old mill buildings. But the newly re-opened Elizabeth Gaskell’s House – the final stop on our tour – is lovely. The unscheduled tea and cake stop in their tearoom was a bit unwieldy with our huge group, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming – a little oasis of calm in an otherwise hectic and unremarkable area of the city. (And such pretty teacups. Seriously.)
A beautiful job has been done of restoring the house to its original state, and the staff are ridiculously friendly and helpful. The tour, at this point – taken over at by a guide from the house itself – was a bit slow to get going, but the rooms can also be freely explored, and they have a brilliant ‘no red rope’ policy. Within seconds of entering the drawing room, I was invited to leaf through the sheet music on the piano, and take a seat on the furniture.
Personally, I would have enjoyed a bit more literature with my local history. The tour focused primarily on the Gaskells’ lives in and relationship to Manchester, but it was an interesting and gently paced way to spend an afternoon in a city that I had thought – wrongly – was completely familiar to me by now. If Manchester’s literature and architectural history is your thing – it’s well worth checking out the rest of the programme from New Manchester Walks.