Manchester and Liverpool: A different dimension

Manchester and Liverpool comprise a pair of contrasting cities. But they are linked by striking architecture, cultural clout – and a certain Ship Canal. Simon Calder goes west, slowly

The two great cities of North-west England are dramatically, deliciously different. They are connected, though, by corridors of water, steel and tarmac, and a journey between them comprises a trip through time as well as space. Best of all, you need not crunch through too much credit to enjoy the dimensions of Manchester, Liverpool and points between.

To start at the very beginning, find your way to the Castlefield area of Manchester: urban archaeology at its best. Within a few hundred yards you find a reconstruction of the original Roman camp; the Bridgewater Canal, Britain's first man-made navigable waterway; and one of the many towering railway viaducts that helped to propel the region to primacy in the 19th century, and which is now used by Metrolink trams.

The wealth that brilliance, sweat and toil created funded the majestic buildings at the core of the city – including one of Britain's leading municipal collections of art. But a 21st-century twist has transformed the Manchester Art Gallery into a space that catches the eye and takes the breath way. Sir Charles Barry's solid early 19th-century design remains at the core – but steel, glass and imagination have been deployed in equal measure to open up the space, make it much more inviting and reconnecting it to the city. Besides admiring the architecture, there is plenty of art – notably the engaging naiveity of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Nothing naive about the most dramatic recent addition to the city skyline: the Hilton Hotel, a startling attraction with its slender profile and audacious overhang. The one drawback with a drink at its high-altitude Cloud 23 bar is that you can't see the monolith you are occupying.

One of the structures you can see is the city's modest cathedral, which on closer inspection has its roots in a medieval town church. While Liverpool boasts two monumental cathedrals, only Manchester has the status of providing the setting for a best-selling computer game: Resistance: the Fall of Man, which caused controversy when its location became public last summer. But if it draws more visitors to the cathedral, so much the better. "Diversity – healing – glory – wholeness – inclusion", is the message of the Healing Window, unveiled four years ago, after bombs from first the Luftwaffe and then the IRA destroyed much of the glass.

Manchester and Liverpool were, in their different ways, among the world's greatest cities in 1830 when they were connected by the first double-track, inter-city railway; Manchester had made its money from cotton, while Liverpool had profited from slavery. The 37-mile gap filled by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company, directed by George Stephenson, signalled "truly the start of the railway age", according to Britain's leading rail writer, Christian Wolmar.

Today, the station at the Manchester end of the line is part of the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the great national collections that is all the more satisfying because it is open to all, for free. Not only can you trace the DNA of the industrial revolution through the evolution of weaving machinery – you can also see a reconstruction of the world's first computer, a suitably Heath Robinson array of valves and resistors that has about one-millionth of the calculating power of an entry-level PC in 2008.

This cornucopia of contraptions provides the energy surge needed to start a journey to Liverpool – broadly following the line of the Manchester Ship Canal. The pioneering Bridgewater Canal and its rival, the Leigh Canal, still carve their westbound way on the map of North-west England. But the ship canal – which predates the Panama Canal as a channel for big ships by 20 years – is the mother waterway.

Today, the former mercantile frenzy of Salford Quays, where many of the ocean-going ships were bound, provides a handsome setting for another weapons-grade attraction: Imperial War Museum North, whose jagged frame dominates the skyline in this corner of England. The realities of man's most tragic vice are rendered all the more compelling by Daniel Libeskind's uncompromising geometry.

Time to escape the urban environment. The line of the Manchester Ship Canal – the channel that became the city's window on the world – delves through surprisingly verdant countryside, which begins even before the waterway exits the bounds of Greater Manchester. Wander a few miles north or south of the canal and you can gain some green rewards. Tatton Park, just across the county line in Cheshire, bestows an extraordinary sense of space: meadows and woodland rippling from a serene lake colonised by birdlife. The stateliest of homes is in command of this vista – and besides a wealth of antique furniture, the interior contains several landscape paintings of the Manchester Ship Canal.

The transition from the canal to open water takes place just upstream from Runcorn, where a mighty lock connects the artificial waterway with the Mersey Estuary. In a perfect world, everyone would see Liverpool for the first time from the water; the Royal Liver Building, celebrating its centenary this year, is still the central focus.

The alternative is a train (which, incidentally, dips beneath Penny Lane), whisking to the city and leaving you on the verge of one of England's most spectacular collections of architecture. Emerge from Lime Street station, look to the right and a Greek temple fills the horizon: St George's Hall, dating from the start of the Victorian era, mimics the Parthenon in Athens and sets the bar high for subsequent designs.

Albert Dock, the magnificent mercantile quadrant, followed a few years later - and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Anglican cathedral, on its heavenly perch, on the opposite corner, marked the end of Victoriana. The 20th century was far from kind to Liverpool, but spectacular new landmarks have risen from the muddle of the city centre - coinciding with its spell as European Capital of Culture.

Venture a short way from the hub of Liverpool, though, and you discover one final, free flourish. Sefton Park is a spectacular open space in the shape of a right ear (Google it if you don't believe me). Just where the eardrum would be rises a gorgeous greenhouse. The three-tier Palm House was rescued from rusty oblivion by some visionary local people, and transports you to the tropics – where much of the money that built Liverpool was won. Immerse yourself in the lush vegetation – and then turn to pages X and XI of this section for many more dimensions to Liverpool.

Traveller’s Guide

Manchester

Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street (0161 235 8888; www.manchestergalleries.org): open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free.

Museum of Science and Industry, Liverpool Rd (0161 832 2244 www.mosi.org.uk): open 10am-5pm daily, admission free.

Imperial War Museum North (0161 836 4000; north.iwm.org.uk): open 10am-6pm daily (November-February 10am-5pm).

www.visitmanchester.com



Cheshire

Tatton Park (01625 374435; www.tattonpark.org.uk): park open 10am-7pm daily. Free entry to the grounds for walkers and cyclists; cars are charged a fee of £4.50.

www.visitcheshire.com



Liverpool

Sefton Park Palm House (0151 726 2415; www.palmhouse.org.uk): open 10.30am-4pm daily, from 10.30am-6.30pm Mon-Sat in summer.

www.visitliverpool.com

****

Getting there and getting around

Rail is the ideal way to reach England's North-west, with frequent services across England, Wales and Scotland. The West Coast Main Line runs through the region, from Carlisle through Oxenholme (for the Lake District), Lancaster, Preston, Wigan and Warrington. Regular trains also serve Manchester, Liverpool and Chester, from London Euston on Virgin Trains.

From Yorkshire, North-east England and Edinburgh, the main operator is First TransPennine, which serves Manchester, Liverpool and other stations in the region.

From many other parts of England and Scotland, such as Brighton, Birmingham and Bristol, Cross Country Trains has long-distance services. Most links from Wales are on Arriva Trains Wales. Northern Rail and First TransPennine are the main operators in the region. For times and fares, call 08457 48 49 50 or see www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Both National Express and Megabus offer competitive fares on services from a range of British cities to the North-west. The bus network with the region is also comprehensive; call 0871 200 22 33 or see www.traveline.org.uk.

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