WHEN I arrived at the Manchester Holiday Inn, I immediately found myself holding the front door open for the Manchester United captain, Steve Bruce, and the former England captain Bryan Robson. 'Thanks, mate,' said the latter. Had I continued to stand there, I could have acted as doorman to the entire Manchester United football team.

But I realised that unless I got to the reception desk quickly I would find myself at the back of one of the longest and most gifted footballing check-in queues in Britain. With a neat body swerve I sent the Welsh wizard Ryan Giggs the wrong way and landed at the head of the line.

I was further delighted when the United manager, Alex Ferguson, wandered up and asked me if I needed any more tickets for the following day's derby match against Manchester City. Sadly, he wasn't asking me, but Eric Cantona, who was standing behind me. A simple misunderstanding.

On my way out to dinner that evening, I walked past the private function room where the United team were having their meal. The lads sat around a U-shaped table drawn up in front of a large TV set: they all ate in total silence while they watched Coronation Street with rapt attention.

'What is this thing about Coronation Street? Why does everybody here seem so interested in it?' wondered my son. Why are you so interested in Neighbours, I riposted. 'Because Neighbours is interesting,' he said.

The second curious sight of the evening came in a nearby Italian restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. The place was patronised almost exclusively by Chinese. Proceedings were considerably enlivened when a flaming row broke out between an Italian waiter and a Chinese customer who jumped to his feet: 'Don't you say that to me] Don't you say that to me]' The Italian waiter seemed ready for a punch-up - or perhaps a karate-up - but wiser counsels prevailed. It made better viewing than Coronation Street.

Over dinner my son perused the brochure for the Granada Studios Tour we were taking the next day. The star attraction is the real Coronation Street set. You can also watch something called The Coronation Street Experience ('Tears, laughter, romance and tragedy - our special motorised audio-visual presentation brings them all vividly to life as 30 dramatic years of the Street pass before your very eyes in minutes. As the final frame fades, the walls disappear and suddenly you're there, free to walk the hallowed cobbles and touch the very essence of a legend. . .')

What is this thing about Coronation Street, I wondered.

We went to sleep in Manchester but awoke somewhere in Central Europe. The first noise I heard was the rattle of a tram punctuated by the curious sea-lion hoot of its horn. Morning had illuminated a city with the grandest public buildings of the sort you would expect to find in Bruges or Prague rather than Lancashire.

The giant warehouses and cotton mills of the commercial districts - solid turn-of-the-century piles - looked as though they had been plucked from the downtown areas of Chicago or St Louis. Some buildings had found a new life as a hotel or swanky restaurant but many were derelict. Their faded grandeur provided a rebuke: you should have seen us 90 years ago, they said. Indeed, the more I saw of Manchester, the more I wished I could have walked these same streets a century ago, when the place was at the height of its commercial powers.

The five-ring Olympic symbol that hangs from every lamp-post points to the city's admirable ambition to host the Olympic Games in 2000. The bid may fail but it has concentrated minds wonderfully on smartening up the city. It will also help to convince the rest of the country that the city should not be judged by the gun-carrying drug gangs of Moss Side.

On our way to the Granada Studios Tour we passed the entrance to Granada TV. I told my son that many years before I had been there for a job interview. 'For Coronation Street?' I think he was joking.

The Granada Studios Tour, which opened in July 1988, has been one the big modern tourist success stories in Britain, with visitor numbers running at around 700,000 a year. It is roughly modelled on the Universal Studios tour in Hollywood - but where Universal can build attractions around productions such as Jaws and Back to the Future, Granada has less epic material to work from.

New attractions on the tour this year include the New Baker Street Experience ('let us take you to the era of swirling mists and gaslit nights. . .') and the All New Sooty Show. The Backstage and Soundstage Tours are feeble - children will prefer the MotionMaster cinema and 3D movie - but what we enjoyed best was the rollicking House of Commons Debate in the full-scale Commons replica.

And, of course, there is the Coronation Street set, complete with Rovers Return and Alf's Mini-Mart 'Looks like this is the high point in everybody's life,' said my youthful chum, acidly observing the excited throng.

The Granada Studios Tour forms part of Castlefield, Britain's first 'urban heritage park'. For my money, the best part of Castlefield is the neighbouring Museum of Science and Industry, perhaps the best of its sort in Britain. Standing on the site of the world's first passenger railway station, the museum has a head start in the business of industrial archaeology. The Industrial Revolution began, in effect, in and around Manchester. A visitor in 1842 wrote of a 'forest of chimneys pouring forth volumes of steam and smoke forming an inky canopy which seemed to embrace and involve the whole place'.

But out of the poverty, grime and disease (all of which are spelt out in graphic detail in fascinating exhibits and displays), came positive things. The Co-operative movement, trade unions and the creation of the sewerage system - that great gift of the Victorians - are concisely explained (you can walk through a replica of a Victorian sewer, complete with disgusting-looking mock effluent).

Disraeli described Manchester in one of his novels as the 'modern Athens' but the museum also repeats the verdict of Marx's co-author, Engels, who came to Manchester to manage his father's factory and was rather less impressed by the city.

Across the road from the main museum in a handsome old market building is the air and space gallery that contains a Spitfire, a huge Shackleton and dozens of other air and space exhibits. In three hours we had time to see only a quarter of what the museum had to offer.

At one point on our walk through the deserted museum site, we were able to look down next door on to the set of Coronation Street, packed as always with visitors posing before the Rovers Return and videoing the smallest details of Rita's Kabin.

My son and I exchanged a meaningful glance. We were two minds with but one thought: 'What is this thing about Coronation Street?'


Accommodation: The city's guide lists more than a dozen major hotels, all offering special weekend breaks. Frank Barrett stayed at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Midland (061 236 3333), which has a weekend break rate of pounds 80 per room per night for a double: children up to 19 share the room for free. The newest hotel, the Victoria & Albert (061 832 1188) is owned by Granada and is next to the Studios Tour. Each of the 132 rooms is named after a Granada TV programme: weekend breaks from pounds 79.00 per night, including breakfast and tour tickets; children sharing stay free.

Museums: The Museum of Space & Industry is open daily from 10am-5pm, including Sundays and bank holidays: pounds 3.50; children pounds 1.50. Others include the National Museum of Labour History (061 228 7212); the Manchester Jewish Museum (061 834 9879); Manchester United Museum (061 877 4002); and the Museum of Transport (061 205 2122).

Further information: Manchester Tourist Information Centre, Town Hall Extension, Lloyd Street, Manchester M60 2LA (061 234 3157/8).

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