An Arndale for Living / from the archive / issue 2

Much has been made of the increases, in the last two decades, of the amount of people choosing to live in Manchester city centre. It is often used as a signifier of Manchester's renaissance from a dreary down at heel post industrial city to a thriving and desirable one. The figures are indeed impressive with the city centre population standing at just 1000 people in 1990 compared to the current 20 000. Throughout the 20th century working class people had left to live in edge of city or overspill estates such as Hulme or Wythenshawe, the middle class and affluent had long fled to the suburbs and beyond.

This flight was reversed at the end of the century and Manchester's city centre housing is a varied mix of new build or buildings converted from former industrial use, such as the warehouse conversions of Whitworth Street and Ancoats. There are, however, a few rare examples of city centre housing, purpose built in a period when most people had already left the crowded city centre. There is a small pocket of town houses just off Deansgate near to Granada studios – built in 1979 by Wimpey Homes, obviously aimed at affluent professionals from the law practices and private surgeries on St John St and its proximity to Granada made it popular with staff from the TV station. A couple of cast members from Coronation Street also lived in the houses and in the early 1980s one of the townhouses featured as the fictional home of Mike Baldwin in the series – the perfect location for a playboy such as Mike to park his Jag and entertain a string of impressionable dolly birds.

Behind Tib Street there is also a council built development, a small estate of maisonettes that seems to have survived the bleak days of the 1980s (a time when Manchester essentially closed down at 5pm and became a virtual wasteland), resisted the greedy grip of developers in the land grab era of the 2000s and now sits happily bobbing away in a sea of trendy young things in that official epicentre of cool known to all but a few die hard squares as the Northern Quarter.

There was just one more 20th century city centre housing development and this was perhaps the most interesting. This was the small enclave of 60 flats and maisonettes called Cromford Court built right on top of the great heaving leviathan that was The Arndale Centre. It is unclear what the motivation was from the developers of the Arndale for including housing at a time when city centre living in Manchester was insignificant and to many unimaginable. Save for a few small pubs still hanging on in the city centre there was little attraction or amenity for people, in a time well before the likes of Sunday opening and 24 hour convenience stores, and before modern Manchester's now lively night-time economy. The streets of Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s would invariably become deserted after dark – especially around the area of The Arndale Centre – an area which, due to the Arndale's design stood like a huge impenetrable fortress –providing no activity once the doors of the shops had shut at 5.30pm.

The location of the flats could not have been more bizarre, on top of Cannon Street bus station and in the shadow of the Arndale multi storey car park. Architecturally the flats themselves now look to be quite contemporary in design. Unsurprisingly, due to the location and the general design language used throughout the Arndale as a whole , they are not what one would call pretty buildings but the dark engineering brick, the black mono pitched roof and simple elevations and layout give a air of almost Scandinavian rationalism and the design could still pass muster today. Accommodation was basic and any idea that these were luxury city centre apartments can quickly be forgotten – this was public housing for tenants of the North Country Housing Association. The main attraction was clearly its unenviable location.

GMCRO_Arndale-6585-_-140.jpg

At first it seems the tenants were mainly elderly people but its city centre location soon drew the attention of some unlikely new tenants. Ian Curtis and George Best both lived there for a while and the Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering lived there for many years. It was perhaps Pickering's presence in the late 80s and early 90s which gave Cromford Court some sort of cache and soon a new, younger tenant realised the attraction of living in such a location. Luke Bainbridge is a former associate editor of the Observer Music Monthly but cut his journalistic teeth on the Manchester listings magazine City Life. He lived in Cromford Court from 1999 to 2003 “In 1999 there was still a slight novelty value to living in the northern quarter, and anyone who came back to Cromford could not believe this little oasis we had on top of the Arndale. It was really quiet up there, considering the location, and the communal gardens were much larger than any other city centre development since built. I don't think the general public knew it existed. Even though you could see it from the top floors of the Arndale car park. Whenever anyone came back to my flat for the first time, they generally had no idea that Cromford Court existed.”

Another tenant was Steve Caton who, at the time, ran the uber-cool clothes shop Geese and who now runs a fashion distribution company in London. He lived there from 1994 until 2003 “We never had break ins or any disruptive idiots living there in my time. My immediate neighbours were quite old 60-ish, not party people at all, so it was a nice mix.” Despite being home to a couple of Hacienda DJs and various other Manchester movers and shakers Cromford Court in the 1990's Caton dispels any idea that it was party central “The flats were too small for parties! “he says “they certainly were not luxury apartments, just a 20’ sq. room separate bathroom and nice sized bedroom. The luxury was the location.” Asked if having such a unique address made him anymore popular Bainbridge has to admit “It didn't make you more popular, but everyone loved the novelty value and uniqueness of Cromford Court when they came back.” The location, he also candidly admits sometimes had its drawbacks. “The only slight problem was the main way to get back to Cromford Court from the Northern Quarter is through the multi-storey car park, so if you were taking a girl back for the first time, they would be keen to see this place you talked about, but then when you started to lead them through a multi-storey car park, they might think "er, hang on a minute...”

Cromford Courts slight isolation, up above the busy streets below, did led to unique atmosphere though.

"We didn't sit out much, but there was a community spirit. I knew half of the people personally, and the rest to nod to. You wouldn't get that in any of the Fisher Price new build flats that have been built in the last 10 years.” says Bainbridge.

But it wasn't to last. On Saturday the 15th of June 1996 a huge bomb attributed to the Provisional IRA exploded just 200 yards away from Cromford Court. The flats were evacuated, all expect for a old man who had taken to his bed earlier in the day with flu. He didn't respond to calls to evacuate and emergency services just presumed he had left. He was still in his bed before, during and after the huge explosion unaware to the devastation around him. He had served as a rear gunner in Lancaster bombers in World War Two and wasn't going to let a small matter of a terrorist attack daunt him. Cromford Court escaped relatively unscathed but the whole area was cordoned off and tenants were left homeless for months afterwards. Steve Caton remembers “Everyone was turfed out after the bomb, but most went back after 3 months. In fact I was the first to return, back to a flat full of battered venetian blinds ” It wasn't the bomb, however, that signaled the end of Cromford Court but the then owners of The Arndale, who took advantage of the huge rebuilding needed after the bomb to extend the shopping centre. The plan entailed enveloping Cannon Street to create a new mall but sadly Cromford Court stood in the way of the new development and the residents were slowly forced to leave. Luke Bainbridge says “There was a real collective spirit when we were being forced out and P&O (the owners of the The Arndale) tried to play hard ball with us. Residents meetings were held in the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill.” The residents protestations were in vain though and by 2003 all the residents had gone and the flats were demolished.

It seems ironic that whilst around them there was a huge expansion of city centre living and swathes of bland apartment blocks were going up The Arndale's owners sought to remove some of Manchester's most characterful and unique housing. All the residents moved on, but it seems Cromford Court's unique atmosphere left a long and happy impression on them. Luke Bainbridge left to find his fortunes in London but fondly remembers “I still miss Cromford Court. It was an amazing place to live.”

Much has been made of the increases, in the last two decades, of the amount of people choosing to live in Manchester city centre. It is often used as a signifier of Manchester's renaissance from a dreary down at heel post industrial city to a thriving and desirable one. The figures are indeed impressive with the city centre population standing at just 1000 people in 1990 compared to the current 20 000. Throughout the 20th century working class people had left to live in edge of city or overspill estates such as Hulme or Wythenshawe, the middle class and affluent had long fled to the suburbs and beyond.

This flight was reversed at the end of the century and Manchester's city centre housing is a varied mix of new build or buildings converted from former industrial use, such as the warehouse conversions of Whitworth Street and Ancoats. There are, however, a few rare examples of city centre housing, purpose built in a period when most people had already left the crowded city centre. There is a small pocket of town houses just off Deansgate near to Granada studios – built in 1979 by Wimpey Homes, obviously aimed at affluent professionals from the law practices and private surgeries on St John St and its proximity to Granada made it popular with staff from the TV station. A couple of cast members from Coronation Street also lived in the houses and in the early 1980s one of the townhouses featured as the fictional home of Mike Baldwin in the series – the perfect location for a playboy such as Mike to park his Jag and entertain a string of impressionable dolly birds.

Behind Tib Street there is also a council built development, a small estate of maisonettes that seems to have survived the bleak days of the 1980s (a time when Manchester essentially closed down at 5pm and became a virtual wasteland), resisted the greedy grip of developers in the land grab era of the 2000s and now sits happily bobbing away in a sea of trendy young things in that official epicentre of cool known to all but a few die hard squares as the Northern Quarter.

There was just one more 20th century city centre housing development and this was perhaps the most interesting. This was the small enclave of 60 flats and maisonettes called Cromford Court built right on top of the great heaving leviathan that was The Arndale Centre. It is unclear what the motivation was from the developers of the Arndale for including housing at a time when city centre living in Manchester was insignificant and to many unimaginable. Save for a few small pubs still hanging on in the city centre there was little attraction or amenity for people, in a time well before the likes of Sunday opening and 24 hour convenience stores, and before modern Manchester's now lively night-time economy. The streets of Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s would invariably become deserted after dark – especially around the area of The Arndale Centre – an area which, due to the Arndale's design stood like a huge impenetrable fortress –providing no activity once the doors of the shops had shut at 5.30pm.

The location of the flats could not have been more bizarre, on top of Cannon Street bus station and in the shadow of the Arndale multi storey car park. Architecturally the flats themselves now look to be quite contemporary in design. Unsurprisingly, due to the location and the general design language used throughout the Arndale as a whole , they are not what one would call pretty buildings but the dark engineering brick, the black mono pitched roof and simple elevations and layout give a air of almost Scandinavian rationalism and the design could still pass muster today. Accommodation was basic and any idea that these were luxury city centre apartments can quickly be forgotten – this was public housing for tenants of the North Country Housing Association. The main attraction was clearly its unenviable location.

At first it seems the tenants were mainly elderly people but its city centre location soon drew the attention of some unlikely new tenants. Ian Curtis and George Best both lived there for a while and the Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering lived there for many years. It was perhaps Pickering's presence in the late 80s and early 90s which gave Cromford Court some sort of cache and soon a new, younger tenant realised the attraction of living in such a location. Luke Bainbridge is a former associate editor of the Observer Music Monthly but cut his journalistic teeth on the Manchester listings magazine City Life. He lived in Cromford Court from 1999 to 2003 “In 1999 there was still a slight novelty value to living in the northern quarter, and anyone who came back to Cromford could not believe this little oasis we had on top of the Arndale. It was really quiet up there, considering the location, and the communal gardens were much larger than any other city centre development since built. I don't think the general public knew it existed. Even though you could see it from the top floors of the Arndale car park. Whenever anyone came back to my flat for the first time, they generally had no idea that Cromford Court existed.”

Another tenant was Steve Caton who, at the time, ran the uber-cool clothes shop Geese and who now runs a fashion distribution company in London. He lived there from 1994 until 2003 “We never had break ins or any disruptive idiots living there in my time. My immediate neighbours were quite old 60-ish, not party people at all, so it was a nice mix.” Despite being home to a couple of Hacienda DJs and various other Manchester movers and shakers Cromford Court in the 1990's Caton dispels any idea that it was party central “The flats were too small for parties! “he says “they certainly were not luxury apartments, just a 20’ sq. room separate bathroom and nice sized bedroom. The luxury was the location.” Asked if having such a unique address made him anymore popular Bainbridge has to admit “It didn't make you more popular, but everyone loved the novelty value and uniqueness of Cromford Court when they came back.” The location, he also candidly admits sometimes had its drawbacks. “The only slight problem was the main way to get back to Cromford Court from the Northern Quarter is through the multi-storey car park, so if you were taking a girl back for the first time, they would be keen to see this place you talked about, but then when you started to lead them through a multi-storey car park, they might think "er, hang on a minute...”

Cromford Courts slight isolation, up above the busy streets below, did led to unique atmosphere though.

"We didn't sit out much, but there was a community spirit. I knew half of the people personally, and the rest to nod to. You wouldn't get that in any of the Fisher Price new build flats that have been built in the last 10 years.” says Bainbridge.

But it wasn't to last. On Saturday the 15th of June 1996 a huge bomb attributed to the Provisional IRA exploded just 200 yards away from Cromford Court. The flats were evacuated, all expect for a old man who had taken to his bed earlier in the day with flu. He didn't respond to calls to evacuate and emergency services just presumed he had left. He was still in his bed before, during and after the huge explosion unaware to the devastation around him. He had served as a rear gunner in Lancaster bombers in World War Two and wasn't going to let a small matter of a terrorist attack daunt him. Cromford Court escaped relatively unscathed but the whole area was cordoned off and tenants were left homeless for months afterwards. Steve Caton remembers “Everyone was turfed out after the bomb, but most went back after 3 months. In fact I was the first to return, back to a flat full of battered venetian blinds ” It wasn't the bomb, however, that signaled the end of Cromford Court but the then owners of The Arndale, who took advantage of the huge rebuilding needed after the bomb to extend the shopping centre. The plan entailed enveloping Cannon Street to create a new mall but sadly Cromford Court stood in the way of the new development and the residents were slowly forced to leave. Luke Bainbridge says “There was a real collective spirit when we were being forced out and P&O (the owners of the The Arndale) tried to play hard ball with us. Residents meetings were held in the Hare and Hounds on Shudehill.” The residents protestations were in vain though and by 2003 all the residents had gone and the flats were demolished.

It seems ironic that whilst around them there was a huge expansion of city centre living and swathes of bland apartment blocks were going up The Arndale's owners sought to remove some of Manchester's most characterful and unique housing. All the residents moved on, but it seems Cromford Court's unique atmosphere left a long and happy impression on them. Luke Bainbridge left to find his fortunes in London but fondly remembers “I still miss Cromford Court. It was an amazing place to live.”

© Eddy Rhead

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.