Sport City: Active City Break in Manchester
Manchester has an international reputation as a sport city. Who hasn’t heard of Manchesster United, one of the world’s leading global sports brands. But there’s more to Manchester’s sporting story than football. The 2002 Commonwealth Games left a legacy of great world class facilities and National Training Centres, most of which have sessions open to the general public, with no sporting prowess required. We toured the north’s Sport City in an active city break of Manchester, embarking on a family pentathlon of sports…
An active city break in the beating heart of the north
Can you hear that?
In the red bricked, rain swept industrial north of England there is a beating heart.
It is the beating heart of an athlete. It is the beating heart of a city, filled with people that have won world records while inspiring whole generations of children to escape from their reality into their dreams.
Sport City goes way beyond Manchester, pumping blood into the arteries of national teams and life into stadiums across the world. Best, Charlton, Law, Cantona, Beckham, Rooney, Hoy, Boardman and Pendleton are just a few of the local, global players at the heart of world sport now and in the past. Today we have brought our family to Sport City to follow in their footsteps. We will live, breath and take part in sport for two days. Perhaps some of Manchester’s skill, talent and enthusiasm will rub off on us?
Theatre of Dreams
Where to begin? Well, there are two pillars of sport in this northern city; football and cycling. Football is as much a part of the fabric of Manchester as the mills and the canals, while the city only became a hub for cycling in the 90’s. So we begin our 48 hour sports fest at the grandfather of sport and the biggest club stadium in the UK; Manchester United Football Ground at Trafford Park.
I am not remotely interested in football, and neither are the kids. So I am interested to see if we can be moved by a visit to the famous ‘Theatre of Dreams.’ My first thought as we enter the stadium at Old Trafford is more prosaic; this is not just a football club, it is an industry. Even when the players are elsewhere getting on with their training, and the fans are elsewhere getting on with their lives, this stadium is a hive of activity. Up to 42 tours leave the museum every day of the week, giving people a taste of the small wood panelled dressing room, the surprisingly intimate stadium, and the VIP areas. Almost twice an hour all year round, people sniff the armpits of players shirts (or was that just me?) and sit on the benches and dream how life could have been if they had magic in their feet. And all get to marvel at the number of pies consumed in the ground. Two and a half tons. Every game. It’s a wonder anyone is fit enough to make it to the pitch.
Football at port City. Is it sport or business?
Wining and dining is a big part of the industry. Companies fill the corporate spaces, grooms marry brides, and champagne is routinely popped and quaffed in the executive suites. And behind the scenes there’s an army of people scurrying around, stocking the shelves of the Nike (soon to be Adidas) sponsored shop, policing the ground (there are three police cells; ‘one for men, one for women and one for Manchester city fans’ jokes our guide) and grooming the grass.
It is a cold, wet day but huge overhanging lights convince the grass it is July, our guide explains. The fittingly named Don Corker is cheerful at all times, joking that if you see him in the right light you see shades of David Beckham. Facts reel off his tongue like a child counting sweets; who won the premiership and why, who scored when and how, who was the last to be signed in the press room (Diego Forlán) or spotted in the VIP area (One Direction.) We hear how Beckham liked to sit in the corner before a match, while these days the players are seated numerically to disperse cliques. We hear how they once drank whisky before matches under the leadership of Busby. We hear about the players bathing routines and imagine Beckham taking his ice bath (or again, is that just me?)
Walking (or should that be running) into the light
But engaging as Don’s Corkers are, the tour really comes to life when you leave the changing room, enter the players tunnel and walk towards the pitch like so many famous athletes have done before you. Even a non-football fan like me can’t fail to be moved by the history and tradition, as well as the emotional and physical energy. The memories of the fans and the sweat of the players seem to be held in the walls of this tunnel. Quite honestly, it’s like walking into to the light. And I don’t have the hopes and expectations of a nation and a globe on my shoulders!
Theatre of wheels
A Man United stadium tour is a big and bold start to our weekend, but hasn’t raised our heart rate or made us sweat. So we’re off to the National Cycling Centre for some mountain bike skills training. The Velodrome, or National Cycling Centre is part of an area that was redeveloped for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. Before the late 80’s British cycling was less of the magic and more of the tragic, with few medals and no real glory in the UK. But huge investment into the sport and into cyclists like Wiggins and Hoy turned it around for good.
Most of the major British cycling names train at this world class indoor cycling track, and have taken a clutch of medals at the last few Olympic Games. The recent addition of an indoor BMX training track, one of only two worldwide, has made it a ‘must visit’ attraction for cyclists – particularly since you can have a go yourself. In a morning of family mountain bike skills training on the outdoor course, we learn to balance, turn corners, ride over obstacles, handle adverse cambers and negotiate a muddy track in hail and rain. It is both exhilarating and educational. And then we watch the professionals do it, first on the velodrome, then on the BMX track where two of the British team are training. By the end we believe we can fly.
Back in the air
And fly we do, on the way home. Emboldened by our mountain biking skills and training, we jump, hop and forward roll over the wide range of posts, benches and walls available in this urban landscape in our own version of parkour. Luckily we don’t have far to go; our Ibis Budget Hotel is well placed at the edge of Sport City, with easy access to most of the sporting venues and only a short walk from Manchester city centre.
As every athlete knows, food is fuel, and this brand new white and green Ibis comes attached to a Costa Coffee and Domino’s pizza. Perfect for a family mid way through a pentathlon of sports. Its breakfasts are cheap too – our whole family ate for about £10. And we all sleep in one large family room. Good for a late night team talk.
Our final day is split between two more centres of sporting excellence. The National Squash Centre was built for the commonwealth games at a cost of more than three million pounds. It is a high tech, high sweat place, where courts can be converted from single to double at the switch of a button and the show court floats on air like a hovercraft. Squash, surprisingly, turns out to be an ideal family activity; unlike tennis the courts are small enough to be accessible to younger children without exhausting them, while big enough to test the skills of a teen with a powerful swing.
We round up our sporting challenge at the Manchester Aquatics Centre. A huge pool packed, not with sports people, but with families relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Our active city brek in Manchester’s Sport City is complete and from squash to biking, everyone claims to have a different favourite activity. Who knows what our visit to Sport City may inspire? It may not have been long or intense enough to capture our hearts forever, but for two days it has definitely made them beat faster.
Manchester City and Manchester United football Clubs run stadium tours every day of the year. The best way to book is online. Here are the times and contact details:
Manchester United Stadium and Museum Tours run all day round and last an hour. If you are a real fan you can upgrade to a Legends Tour that lasts a morning and includes lunch with an ex player. Sadly not David Beckham.
Manchester City Stadium Tours run every day from 10.30-3.30 plus Friday nights and last 70 minutes.
The National Cycling Centre was Britain’s first indoor Olympic cycling track. Since its opening in 1994 it has become one of the world’s best and fastest tracks. It is in use seven days a week and offers sessions to anyone seeking to have a go at track cycling, mountain biking or BMX. Regular users of the indoor track include the GB track cycling team. In 2011 it expanded to include the UK’s only permanent indoor BMX track with seating for two thousand fans. The outdoor mountain biking track at Clayton Vale is a 12km track offering facilities for different levels of skill. At weekends and in school holidays the centre offers training skills sessions for families. Book ahead for any activity at the velodrome as it is a very popular facility that often runs at full capacity.
Ibis Budget Hotel in Pollard Street, is an affordable, accessible option for families with free wi-fi and friendly staff.
The National Squash Centre offers public facilities all year round. Courts close at 10pm on a weekday and 5pm at weekends. Families are welcome and can hire equipment. Ask if you can borrow one of their larger training squash balls for the kids; it bounces higher and is easier for them to hit.