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Urban Exploring A Bit Of Manchester 2012 - By Ren Withnell

When you ride a lot, you see a lot.  When you've lived in the same area for most of your life there's fewer and fewer places left to explore.  Or so you'd think.  Faced with a vacant Saturday afternoon with a forecast that is at best...acceptable...where could I go and explore today?  I could go up to the Trough of Bowland, but I've covered that area recently several times.  There's the Lake District and North Wales, but I just don't have quite enough time to get there and back without rushing.  I need somewhere local...ish, but I want to go somewhere new, somewhere different.

Of course every biker dreams of the open road.  Endless stretches of beautiful countryside, empty roads, lonesome hillsides, corners and bends to sweep around and quiet little villages with cute tea shops serving hot tea and sweet cakes.  In reality nearly all of us live in some kind of urban sprawl complete with traffic lights, speed cameras and queues of shoppers trying to get into enormous retail parks.  I'm sure there's some hidden gems left somewhere, but I've been to all the nice places nearby, so today I think I'll venture into the city. 

a steel fronted high rise building in manchester
When I think of the city this is what I think of...big grey building towering over me and feeling squished.

I could of course just jump onto the motorway and the East Lancs A580, but I've done that so many times I can almost name the potholes.  Today I'm going via the back way as much as possible.  The best machine ever for urban exploration, as that's what I'm pretending to do today, was my Honda CLR 125 City Fly, the off road styling on a street bike made short work of potholes and dodgy surfaces.  The CBF 125 I'm currently using is not quite as adept but it is up to the job, so lets go.

I ride through Bolton first as that is my home town.  I duck into, through and out of the endless back lanes between the endless terraced houses.  The back street are far more interesting than the front, you see so much more.  There's DIY shelters much like my own at home, Asian men ducking under bonnets of cars with dirty hands, kids trying to do tricks on scooters and skateboards and potholes the size of bomb craters.  I bounce along, slowly, taking it all in and try to imagine what life is like for the characters that reside within.  Among the imposing mills and speed bumps, the shops and factory units and the schools and playgrounds it seems all life is here.

a back street behind terraced houses
Behind the terraces in the back streets is where the interesting things happen.  Of course the only picture I have is of a quiet tranquil back street.  

Like any town Bolton has it's upmarket areas too.  Tall fences and automated gates protect large houses with manicured lawns and black off road cars that have never seen dirt.  I know this is the life we all aspire to, but there are no signs of life here.  I imagine the children are at horse riding lessons while the parents quaff wine for posers and eat little nick-nacks from silver platters.  I know the reality is not quite like that but in my head it is when I see these places.  I enviously eye the 4 bay garages and dream of my own workshop complete with heaters and a wall full of shiny tools.

I find myself heading to Walkden, or Worsley, dependent on if you wish to be posh or not.  There's a long queue to get into the large retail complex so I duck into another estate in search of a shortcut.  I ride through a modern estate of new crisp houses which is very much in contrast to the crumbling Victorian terraces nearby.  Everything is so new and straight it looks very smart but characterless.  In a few years time when the owners have stamped their individuality it will look better but even the tarmac looks freshly ironed.  It's a dead end like all modern estates.  This is deliberate to reduce traffic and make the road safer for kids which I understand and agree with, but it sure spoils my fun when I have to back track.

I cross the main road and semi detached suburbia leads me towards Tyldesley and past a scruffy manky scrap metal recyclers.  I realise I'm not far from where Cath is buried so I decide I'll visit her grave, I've not been for quite some time.  Cath was my gf 8 years ago now and also a keen pillion, she features in a couple of the early stories on this website.  I park the bike up and walk to the grave.  I immediately remember why I don't come that often, there's nothing here but mortal remains and signs of sadness, mourning and tearful memories.  That wasn't Cath, she was all about life, living and getting out there.  I stand and shudder at the horrors of her grave then curse myself.  I walk back to the bike with a mind to make the most of this day.

a graveyard
I don't like it here.  I should never have come.  Stupid boy...

I ride into Worsley, or Walkden if you want to be down with it or not.  It's a strange little area, Worsley.  Ancient timber framed buildings sit next to a picturesque canal that wistfully passes by...in the shadow of an incredibly busy motorway.  Mansion houses line roads that lead to council estates, wasteland and worn out industrial units.  It truly is an area of contrasts, ancient and new, rural and industrial and smart and scruffy.  I stop a moment to take some pictures, a father and 2 children cycle past on the canal towpath in a family scene, whilst a be-hooded man rolls what looks like a joint as he sits on a bench.

a canal next to smart houses and plenty of trees in worsley
The canal at Worsley.  It looks so peaceful yet behind the trees lies the M60.  

Eccles is a confusing place for the unfamiliar traveler.  One way systems, confusing lane layouts and threatening no entry signs bewilder me as I try to navigate my way to anywhere.  I spot a tower block and an odd thought crosses my mind, I've never been in a tower block!  I ride for what seems like 20 minutes trying to find a way to reach this block and after several turn arounds and being peeped at for being in the wrong lane I find a disheveled car park at the base of the tower.  I take the time to ensure the bike is securely chained to a sturdy looking railing before I leave it alone, I wonder if I'll ever see it again. 

I've seen cop shows on TV where it seems policemen and bad guys come and go as they please through these residential towers.  I imagine myself walking in, going up in a lift that smells of wee and looking out over the city from some drab corridor whilst some dodgy looking youths eye me cautiously.  I get to the door, pull the handle and nothing happens!  The entrance is securely locked, I'd need the numerical code or a buzz from a resident to let me in.  I don't fancy calling a random flat with some excuse to get in, so I depart.  I still don't know what life is really like in an tower block, perhaps it's not all that bad.

a residential tower block poking over the top of terraced houses in eccles
I can see it...but I can't get to it.  And when I do I can't get into it...dagnammit!

Eccles leads me into Salford, and The Crescent.  This used to be a big 2 lane busy dual carriageway, now it's been "managed" into a slow single lane crawl into the city centre.  I can see what the planners are trying to achieve.  Salford's smart university buildings line the road and students mill around everywhere, making the once fast and busy road a danger.  Traffic is being encouraged to take more suitable routes into town but many, like myself, through force of habit still feel the need to come this way.  As I'm in no rush whatsoever I happily sit in the queue and take in the surroundings, but many are jostling and cursing as cars try to enter the queue from side roads. 

I can see the Beetham Tower.  It's the tallest building in Manchester and dominates the skyline on any route into the centre.  I want to stop and take a picture but bus lanes and lack of suitable parking deny me.  I finally pull off into a side road but here my view is blocked by the buildings, it seems that image was not meant to be today.  I find myself in a perfectly presentable housing association estate only 10 minutes walk from the town and wonder what life is like to live here.  If the city life complete with bars, cafes, shops and services is your thing then I imagine there's never an excuse to bored for one minute!  I think I'd like that, but not at the expense of space, peace, tranquility or birdsong.  I don't live in the countryside, but I can walk to a small part of it in 10 minutes.

smart red brick and sandstone building near the city centre
When you see city life like this it looks quite attractive.

The city is hustling, bustling, confusing and chaotic this Saturday afternoon.  Cars fight for space with buses, shoppers and taxis.  Everyone except myself is in a mad rush to be somewhere else as soon as possible.  If I'm not in the right lane I may as well be invisible, no-one's going to let me in or out or across to whichever lane I may choose.  As such I don't so much pick my route across town as have it picked for me.  Shiny shops sit next to stern looking buildings with no outward sign of what goes on inside.  A million signs invite me to eat, shop, spend and consume in a Utopia of western capitalist thinking.  I laugh as I imagine most of these people will have religious beliefs that contradict exactly what they are all trying to achieve.

tall city centre buildings tower over the street making it feel claustrophobic
The tall buildings tower over the narrow streets, it's quite intimidating.  

I don't so much ride out of the city as "pop" out on the Ancoats side, I only know this as I finally stop to rest by the Ancoats PCT headquarters, according to the sign.  Another odd curiosity fills my eyes.  A road not of tarmac but noisy brick sets is lined with large bent metal bars acting as modern art street lights.  Pieces of wood and concrete lie in patterns spread around as some form of decor.  There's modern buildings and apartments, a canal spur with live-a-board boats and wasteland looking wasteful and incomplete.  Is it the recession, they started but never quite finished it seems.  It could be nice, it almost is, I think.

brick sets and rusty odd lampoosts in an unusual street in ancoats
An odd street, with rusty girder lampposts, brick sets and modern but incomplete buildings...

By now I've been out and about for a few hours and I need to be home soon.  Rather than continue exploring I just hop onto the A56 and up to the motorway.  There's a few major points I've learned today.  Firstly, cities are a collection of contrasts.  There are magnificent buildings and architecture mixed in with the worst and most drab places.  One moment you can be impressed by design and human achievement, the next you're brought down by the mire that humans can create.  Luxurious homes, offices and trendy apartments lie but 5 minutes walk from crumbling mills and abandoned streets where the worst of society ply their trades.  It's here I can see the real disparity within our culture.

Wasteland is another thought.  While the government wish the builders to build more and are trying to use up precious green belt, vast spaces and empty buildings line our city streets unused by both nature and mankind.  Countryside is precious to bikers and all other people, as well as the environment, I'd like to think we could hold onto as much as possible.  When there's so much unused space in the city why build outwards?  Money I guess, it's cheaper and the houses sell for more out of town.  Shame.

large area of empty wasteland in the city
There's lots of places like this about, just waiting for something useful to be done to them.

I'm surprised at how I and many others look to travel to far flung places and yet we barely know our own back yard.  To be fair over the years and my travels I find most large cities are almost all the same.  If you fell out of a plane into a city you'd struggle to know which one it was unless you saw a sign.  I still hope to see more of this planet but in the meantime if I've an afternoon spare I know there's still much I don't know about the place that I call home.  Why not take a look around your place, venture down back streets, look around that industrial estate and see whats behind the facades.  There may be more than you think.

Finally, from a riding point of view, was it any fun?  Naaaaaaah....not really.  You can't ride fast, you're stuck in traffic and around every corner is danger so you can't rip the corner.  What you can learn is slow speed bike control, how to keep your eyes open and it makes you appreciate the countryside that much more.  If you do go Urban Exploring, approach it from the point of view of looking around at leisure, not an afternoon of tyre shredding fear filled fun, and you might just enjoy it.  I wouldn't think it would be much fun on a Gixer anyhow....ooooooh sore wrists!

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Reader's Comments

Tom McQ said :-
Love the way you find so much from so little. Everyone else just drives past it all, not paying a blind bit of notice to what surrounds them. It's funny, cos just today I was hurriedly trying to get home so I could go out on the bike and then with only 2 or 3 hours of the day left, I couldn't think of anywhere to go! So I stayed in!! Gonna ring you next time :-)
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