Where’s the oldest part of Manchester?

A tram passes Manchester Central convention centre, 2010. Image: Getty.

One of the questions I often find myself pondering when wandering around a city is: where did this whole thing start?

Cities, you see, are big, pretty much by definition. What we today call Greater London is far bigger than the area that connoisseurs consider to really count. But even within the bounds of proper London, there are plenty of places – like Hackney, or Westminster – that were once separate settlements, later swallowed by the metropolis. The reason we call the financial district the City of London is because, once upon a time, that’s literally what it was.

London is an easy one though, precisely because the answer is still there in contemporary nomenclature. But what about other cities that aren’t so helpfully labelled?

I’ve decided to find out. And I’m starting with England’s rightful capital, the great city of Manchester.

Today what outsiders would think of as Manchester is probably the area Andy Burnham is mayor of: Greater Manchester. The City of Manchester itself is technically just one borough among 10; but since chunks of the city’s central business district are across the Irwell in Salford, and some of the most Mancunian sights of all are in a third borough, Trafford, it seems reasonable to count all 10.

The city centre is a rough circle of about a mile in diameter, stretching from the Manchester Arena in the north to the convention centre in the south, and from Piccadilly station to the fringes of Salford.

Central Manchester. Image: Google.

That, though, is quite obviously a much bigger area than the city once occupied.

In fact, according to John Speed’s 1610 map of Lancashire, in the early 17th century, Manchester was little more than a small town, apparently on a par with Bolton, Bury or Rochdale. (Interestingly, while the Hundred – a sort of medieval equivalent of a district council – is called Salford, the settlement itself is called Sawford. Huh.)

A section of John Speed’s 1610 map of Lancashire. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

That map shows Manchester sitting on the banks of the Irwell, near where it’s joined by another river, the Park Flu. The latter is still there, but today goes by a different name, the River Irk, which joins the Irwell next to Victoria station.

That was where the parish church of St Mary, mentioned in the Domesday Book, seems to have stood. There was also a castle, next door, on the site of what is now Chethams school of Music – although it was probably made of timber, rather than stone, and nobody seems quite sure when it stopped existing, which isn’t a great sign when it comes to castles.

Anyway: this is the site of ye olde Manchester, a spot in the north of the city centre, roughly where the cathedral stands today.

Medieval Manchester: convenient for Debenhams. Image: Google.

But there was an earlier Manchester. Mamucium, or sometimes Mancunium, was a Roman garison, which occupied a spot where you could cross the River Medlock from late in the 1st century AD. That would have been at the other end of the city centre, about a mile from the cathedral, in what is today Castlefield:

A tale of two Manchesters. Image: Google.

It’s probably more accurate to say that Manchester grew out of the medieval township, located at what is now the northern end of the city centre. But pleasingly, the two sites between them mark out the limits of what is now Manchester city centre. Which is pretty cool.


Anyway. If you’d like us to investigate the historic roots of your city, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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