Some of the things we, as a family, enjoyed doing over the festive season in and around Manchester
by Joy S on February 26, 2013
The Opera House in Manchester is a grand old theatre, located fairly centrally, with car-parks, bars and restaurants close by. Every year at Christmas, they put on a spectacular Christmas pantomime - this year it was Peter Pan, a great way to get into the festive spirit. Adults and children alike in our party thoroughly enjoyed the show.The Opera House, as well as staging some wonderful shows is also a beautiful building. It is Grade II listed and dates back to 1915 when it first opened as a theatre. Check out the facade - it is beautiful with lovely Ionic columns.It actually closed as a theatre after World War II. It then became a cinema for a while and even a bingo hall, before (thankfully) it became a theatre again in 1984. We first came here in the early 1990's to see the British preview of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera". We were blown away by the theatre and the show and have been back many times since.The theatre underwent a refurbishment in 2003, but they have kept the wonderful lush and luxurious colour scheme in the auditorium where it feels extremely grand. There are some negatives - the seats do not provide heaps of legroom (typical for old theatres) and are quite narrow and straight, there are not many toilets (you always have to queue) and sometimes your view can be obstructed a little, depending on where you sit. That said though, the opulence, history and atmosphere of this theatre more than makes up for these points. The cheapest seats are in the Grand Tier - avoid these like the plague though if you don't like heights - they are steeper and higher than you would ever believe possible.We had seats in the stalls and did get a good view. The show starred David Hasselhoff as Captain Hook - perfect casting, he was flamboyant and camp and suited the role perfectly. The stage sets were spectacular, there was plenty of slapstick comedy, some audience participation, lots of jokes that went over the kids heads but it was great, festive, family fun. We loved it.Afterwards we went to Spinningfields which is very close to the theatre. This was a great post theatre thing to do. Every year, at Hardman Square, they transform the place into a bit of festive winter wonderland. There was an ice-rink, you don't need to pre-book. they also had an indoor area with lots of chalet type food stalls and a winter bar. It was the perfect activity after the theatre and a lovely thing to do.
by Joy S on February 19, 2013
Speke Hall is a Tudor mansion, close to Liverpool airport and just on the outskirts of the city. It dates back to the 1530's and is a beautiful building with wonderful black and white Tudor architecture. It was the home of the Norris family, but now is run by the National Trust.It is a lovely place to visit all year round, but at Christmas time, the whole place is decorated and they run festive events, so it really does come into its own and we think this is a great time for a visit.We went 3 weeks before Christmas. They seem to run the festive events every weekend in the run-up to Christmas. It was very busy - do be prepared for the crowds. That said though, we managed to see and do everything we wanted.The car park is about a 10 minute walk from the entrance to the Hall. If you visit in winter, wear sensible shoes and wrap up warm - it gets extremely cold, even walking this short distance. The grounds are stunning, with beautiful and well maintained gardens. It is right next to Liverpool Airport though - the serene and peaceful atmosphere does get disturbed with huge planes taking off and landing all the time.In the courtyard they had a brass band playing Christmas carols and visitors were joining in and singing - this was great. They have a little souvenir shop - it had some nice bits and pieces but is very small and narrow - not the place to bring children, as we discovered!The Hall is beautiful from the front. The black and white Tudor frontage really does take your breath away. We had to queue for a couple of minutes to go inside. They staggered the numbers entering at any one time to avoid bottlenecks in the old corridors.All the downstairs rooms were beautifully decorated with poinsettias, trees and Victorian Christmas decorations. The dining room in particular looked marvellous. Our son was most impressed with the billiard room though - you could get "hands-on" here and have a game of billiards - he had to be coaxed away from this room.The Great Hall is really special - a wonderful ceiling, and full of history. There were carol singers perfoming here during our visit, which also made it feel very festive.In the kitchens they had an activity for children - making sugar mice. The staff were dressed as Victorian kitchen maids and were very patient. The cost to join in was £1 - our 9 year old was thrilled with his sugar mouse, but it didn't last long and was eaten almost straightaway,You can also explore the upstairs bedrooms - they are interesting. They had a children's activity upstairs as well - pomander making using oranges, cinammon and cloves. Again the staff were patient and the cost to participate was £1. Our pomander came home and lasted throughout the festive season.We spent about 2.5 hours at Speke Hall on this occasion. It is a lovely place to visit before Christmas and the activities for children meant everyone in our party was happy.
by Joy S on February 5, 2013
A visit to watch a performance of Handel's Messiah every year at the beginning of December has become another of our festive traditions. It, for us, really marks the start of the Christmas season and is a special thing to do each year. Although this choral masterpiece was originally designed to be performed at Easter time, for me, Christmas is the perfect time to see it.The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester is the perfect setting to see Messiah. It has a lovely atmosphere, is very convenient to get to and the accoustics inside are perfect.The Bridgewater Hall is one of Manchester's main concert venues. They have a lot of classical music performances, it is home to the Halle Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, but they do offer a programme that covers most types and genres of music. Every year, at the beginning of their Christmas season, there is a performance of Messiah.The building itself is very striking and worth exploring. It was opened in 1993, prior to that, the home of the Halle Orchestra had been the historic Free Trade Hall (now, I think, a hotel). Apparently the accoustics there were not very good, hence the need to build a new concert hall.It looks like a giant modern sculpture from the outside with lots of glass and crazy angles. The structure of the building is interesting - it floats free of the ground on giant springs. There is no rigid connection between the building and its foundations. This means the accoustics are perfect. The whole building, due to this feature, is entirely protected from all vibration and outside noise.There is a nice bar area in the foyer, we also noticed a small area where people were dining. They seemed to offer dining packages, the food looked very good. We had drinks in the interval, the only slight criticism I would make, is that there were nowhere near enough seats in the foyer/bar area.Inside the concert hall, there is a lovely atmosphere - it is large, but manages to feel warm and intimate. The seating is great - no matter where you sit, there is lots of legroom and everyone seems to get an uninterrupted view of the orchestra and the stage.Sometimes, Messiah is performed in period costume by candlelight. This is really special and truly a wonderful experience. This year's performance was not in period costume, but was great nonetheless. The orchestra and the soloists, not to mention the marvellous Halle choir, were all first class. Definitely to be recommended and we will be back!
by Joy S on February 1, 2013
A visit to the Christmas Markets in Manchester is something we, as a family, do religiously every year in December. The markets are wonderful, it is hard to believe that next year will be their 15th anniversary. They have become a feature of Christmas in the city since 1998. A group of German market traders came over that year, set up 17 stalls in St Anne's Square and the markets haven't looked back!! They have grown, become more and more successful and now, seem to have taken over the entire city. It is great.The main market is in Albert Square, right in front of Manchester Town Hall. It is very pretty, especially when it gets dark, with all the fairy lights strung around the trees and the roofs of the little wooden chalets. The giant Father Christmas who sits on the roof of the Town Hall, just above the main door, is also lit up at night and makes quite a sight.We like to go to Albert Square to sample some of the food and drinks there. They have numerous Gluhwein stalls, selling hot, spicy Gluhwein in souvenir "Manchester Christmas" mugs. You pay a £2 deposit for the mug, this is returned when you bring the mug back, or you can keep it as a souvenir. There is also a great indoor German food hall at this market - there are places to sit, German sausages sizzling on huge grills and a lovely atmosphere.There are markets across 7 main sites in the city. As well as Albert Square, there is a German themed market in St Ann's Square - watch out for great wooden toys and unusual German traditional Christmas decorations here; a French market in King Street - here you can pick up French wine, cheese, pate, lavender and other typically French things; New Cathedral street has quirkier souvenirs but if you just wander around the streets, they all link together really and you can spend the whole day browsing.Stall-holders come from many countries across Europe - we saw a stall with people from Lapland selling toy huskies and woollen goods, and there are also local people trading here too.This year the markets started on 17 November and were on every day until 23 December. They open all day, every day - if you can, it is best to visit on weekdays. Weekends get extremely busy, and it is difficult to get close to the stalls sometimes. Hundreds of thousands of people visit - most of them come on Saturdays and Sundays!We are never disappointed when we come here, year after year. It is a lovely day out, but also a great place to look for Christmas gifts that are a bit different - lovely wooden toys, fresh food and lots of handmade goods. You really are spoilt for choice.
by Joy S on February 24, 2013
We booked the Christmas show at the Royal Exchange Theatre - had a wonderful afternoon out, not only did we enjoy the performance, we loved the chance to explore this beautiful theatre and its surroundings.It is very easy to find - right in the city centre close to all the shops, in a building which was once the Victorian Cotton Exchange. The theatre is in the Great Hall - a historic and very beautiful setting.The Royal Exchange was founded in 1976. An IRA bomb in the centre of Manchester in 1996 caused it extensive damage, it was closed for 2 years for repairs and rebuilding work, then opened again in 1998. They did a great job with the rebuilding - it is a lovely theatre.It is architecturally interesting due to the fact that it is actually suspended from pillars of the building. It is 7 sided and made of glass and steel. The floor of the Great Hall would not be able to take the weight of the theatre and the audience, so they suspended it from the pillars. Only the stage and ground floor seating rest on the floor.The whole place has a quirky and individual feeling and atmosphere - we loved it. The only slight negative was that it didn't feel quite warm enough - we kept our coats on during the performance. There are 760 seats in total and the stage is in "the round" - this is the biggest of this type of the theatre in the UK. I think you would get a good view wherever you sit, but seats on the ground floor are definitely best. We sat 3 rows from the front on the ground floor - this was perfect. Front row seats looked very low to the ground and not as comfortable as those behind.We felt very close to the stage and the use of the aisles by the actors heightened the feeling of closeness and involvement of the audience.The show we saw was Rats Tales by our poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It was wonderful. There were 8 different stories, all based on fairytales but with a dark twist. They ranged from the Pied Piper of Hamelin to an Italian folk tale called Wooden Maria to some stories by Carol Ann Duffy herself. The performance was gripping for adults and children alike - dark, brooding and intense, both we and our 9 year old were enthralled throughout the whole show.The Pied Piper was the first story - the children were wonderful as "rats", the rat catcher was sinister, mysterious and menacing and the whole story was brought to life in a fresh way. The use of CCTV cameras at the end showing the children "disappearing" was spine chillling but so clever. The actors were all superb and the use of lighting, smoke and music to evoke different atmospheres was inspired.We loved this show and the theatre, but also the Great Hall. There is a restaurant, a couple of little bars, several craft stalls and lots of information about the history of the building. You can explore even if you are not going to a show - definitely recommended.
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