A short break in Salford Quays – ‘a beautiful place with no ships’
The suburbs of Manchester may not spring to mind when you imagine a fun family weekend break, but following years of investment and redevelopment there are now plenty of things to do in Salford Quays, making it a great choice for an interesting short break, even on the tightest of budgets. From art at The Lowry to history at Imperial War Museum, from BBC TV tours to water based sports, you can spend a whole weekend here without resorting to shopping. Oh and there’s a mall too, if you really can’t resist…
Welcome to Manchester!
The cloud looks like it is holding up the sky while the rain falls in near horizontal sheets. On some weekend breaks this might be a disaster. But not on a break to Salford Quays. Nature might be wild, but we are feeling warm and welcome. Anyway, no time to chat. There are lots of things to do in Salford Quays and the galleries at The Lowry are about to open.
Visual art and creativity
The Lowry is part theatre, part exhibition space and part creative playground. We begin our visit by checking out a temporary exhibition called In the Frame: Dance on Film. We wander white rooms and corridors watching beguiling movies of dance on location around the world including city ballet on a New York skyscraper. Then it’s time to create some art ourselves, with a backdrop of the Salford roof tops. Not quite as romantic as Manhattan but a little more accessible. The Lookout is an activity gallery where the whole family is invited to make art and test their drawing skills. It’s free to visit and materials are provided. I chew my pencil for a while before sketching out a seahorse, with some help from the display on the table in front of me. And while I don’t think Jonathan Yeo, who is exhibiting his portraits upstairs, need feel very threatened by my masterpiece, it’s not bad for a beginner. One of the staff tells me there’s a free talk on the artist Lowry at lunchtime. Perhaps this might inspire me further? So far our day has cost us nothing. If we wanted to we could splash out on a show. Tonight there’s a touring production of Fame that a box office staff member tells me is an annual institution here. Wicked is coming soon to The Lowry, and War Horse is soon to return after its successful run at Christmas. No shortage of creative inspiration here.
A budget break
It’s fairly easy to do Salford on a budget. The Quays are small enough to wander around freely, yet just about big enough to keep everyone entertained. Around the perimeter of the waterways there is a line of budget hotels. We stayed at one of the Accor Hotels which have hotels in Manchester to suit all budgets. The Salford Quays Ibis has great budget rates. We booked in advance on a non refundable deal and found room only deals for a room for three for £34 per night. The general exhibitions at the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum are free of charge, although there is a parking charge for the latter. But if you park in the underground car park and buy a coffee, your first four hours are free. If you come by public transport you’ll find Salford Quays well connected with Manchester City Centre by bus and shiny new trams which will take you to the heart of Media City and show you a bit of the city and surroundings on the way.
Impressions of War
The Quays are so full of British institutions it’s surprising there’s even room to park a car. The BBC’s MediaCityUK Salford base straddles one side of the water, while ITV and the Coronation Street studios are a short walk over the bridge. And the skyline is dominated by the sombre form of the Imperial War Museum North, another free to visit attraction. To me it looks like a large metal bunker, but for the architect Daniel Libeskind it was a less literal design, “I have imagined the globe broken into fragments and taken the pieces to form a building; three shards that together represent conflict on land, in the air and on the water,” he explains on the plaque on the wall in the entrance to the building.
Learn how war shapes lives
While your kids might initially be more excited by the giant Blue Peter Badge on the other side of the water I guarantee that they’ll be engaged by the IWM North with its high interactivity, its dramatic use of space, light and sound and special events and dramas. From the moment we enter we are drawn in by the stark memorabilia and metaphor of war. From the massive white poppy studded cross on the wall to the board game where you have to throw an electronic dice and dodge the obstacles to visit your friend on the other side of the Berlin Wall, we feel guiltily part of the human (and sometimes inhuman) mess that was World War.
Ariel action and a great view of the world beyond
We pay £1.50 to climb to the top of the Air Shard, the iconic jagged tower of of the IWM. If you’re active you can climb the 180 steps to the top although there is also an unusual lift that rises up to the top at a strange and slightly disconcerting angle. The top of the Air Shard is a great spot for taking pictures with great views over Salford Quays and Manchester, although you may have to queue for the port hole if you want pictures that don’t feature the trellis of metalwork that enclose the space. When we visit an atmospheric sound installation adds to the atmosphere and sense of separation from the world beyond. Beyond the metal bars the storm has passed and below us the bridges and walkways have started to sparkle in the weak sunshine. Lunchtime shoppers are hurrying in and out of the mall, and at MediaCityUK, staff buzz in and out clutching phones and iPads. But they needn’t check them for the news; it’s playing out on a giant screen in the plaza, with the yellow trams buzzing in and out of the quays behind it.
A media city
If you’re kids watch TV or are interested in the media, there’s a good chance they’ll find wandering around the plaza outside Media City exciting. Signs around the plaza explain where different programmes are made and what goes on in each building. And it costs nothing to sit outside and watch for stars coming and going. If you want to learn more and see inside you can book a tour of the BBC at MediaCityUK where you can have a go at reading the news and weather in the working building. Or if you have children age 6-11 they can enjoy a CBBC tour. There is a fee for both of these and you need to book in advance as tours don’t run every day, but the pricing is not exorbitant, about £29 for a family of 2 adults and 2 kids. Unfortunately we haven’t booked. But since the sun is now out, we decide to go explore the docks.
Unlocking Salford Quays
Salford Quays has a unique sculpture trail, Unlocking Salford Quays, that brought together local communities, writers, historian and artists and now encourages tourists to explore the rich heritage of the docks. Five life size installations tell a story, through art, of the industrial and social history of the quays. We track down a couple and then experience dockland industry of today by watching a dredger out on the water. It takes a while to figure out how the dredger got into the quays but if you wait long enough you may get to see one of the giant swing bridges move aside to let a ship in or out, a reminder that these are still working waterways.
On the water
We wind up at Salford Watersports Centre which offers outdoor activities on the Quays. If we were feeling energetic we could go wake boarding from a cable in the middle of the water. Meanwhile our kids could sign up for instruction in sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and canoeing or for a small charge families can hire equipment together on a Saturday morning. “If you book your own session then we go out further around the quays and the docks,” says the centre’s Assistant Manager Geoff Stones. He explains his centre offers an unusual urban setting for watersport, with all its buildings and landmarks. “Most places where you go canoeing and kayaking you’re out on a lake in the middle of the countryside. This is a totally different place to do it.” In spring and summer there is also Wild Swimming on a Wednesday and Saturday from Pier 9. There is no minimum age, as long as under 16’s are swimming with a parent. We prefer to stand on the dockside and watch the huge bridge swing open. All we need to complete the entertainment is a Blue Peter Presenter to swing by on a wake board. And why not? This place is full of low budget, highly entertaining surprises.
Over to you
Have you visited Salford Quays? Got a recommendation for something to see or do, or a great place to stay on a budget? Do leave a comment and let us know.