Play: Manchester

Today, I went into town to make playful use of the city, as the first part of a new project.

Me - Feb 1st 09

Manchester is a city very well known to me, it’s just like home. By the end of this outing, I felt as if I had only really managed to use a small part of it. I kept seeing new potential in places I’d never noticed before.

Spot 1:

Bench - Fairfield Street

I got the bus to a stop just outside the back-exit of Piccadilly train station. I walked down Fairfield Street to the corner where it meets Aytoun Street and I noticed two benches, (or at least that’s what I assume to be their designated or preferred function), of a low rectangular design that would be ideal to skateboard on. As I got closer to one of the benches I noticed that one edge had been waxed and used for skating.

Waxed Bench - Fairfield Street

I stepped up onto the bench and began walking around the perimeter of the flat top, one foot in front of the other, as if I were measuring it in some way.

As I jumped off the bench I caught the eye of a man as he walked past. He looked at me with a perplexed expression, perhaps because there was simply no reference for what I was doing. I was alone, dressed in normal – in fact, some would say smart, clothing – There were no visible signs to explain my actions.

Spot 2:

I continued down Fairfield Street and just before Sackville Gardens I decided to use a set of railings to swing along, back and forth.

Railings - Fairfield Street, nr Sackville Gdns

After a short while, I felt as though I was dancing with the railings. As I repeated the action, my movements became smoother and more developed. After I finished I realised just how vigorously I had been swinging – my arms were aching at the elbow joint.

Spot 3:

In Sackville Gardens I noticed the rail at the corner entrance had been used by skaters.

Skated Rail - Sackville Gdns

Above the steps, a little into the park, I found a cross and an arrow marked on the ground with tape:

Cross and Arrow Tape, Sackville Gdns

I decided to use this cross as a starting point. I ran in the direction of the arrow and jumped down the steps, repeatedly.

Rail and Steps - Sackville Gdns

I began trying to jump farther away from the steps, trying to beat my last jump each time. People in a car, waiting at the lights, were watching me. They got carried away and the people in the car behind had to hoot them, to try and move them on.

The boots I was wearing weren’t absorbing any shock and I had to stop after about six or seven runs, as my feet were aching.

Spot 4:

I walked the length of Sackville Street and turned right at the end, on to Portland Street, heading towards Piccadilly Gardens. Near the bus station, I noticed some unoccupied rails used for locking up bicycles.

Bicycle Rails - Portland Street

Just a few moments before it started snowing, I crawled underneath them, from one end to the other on my hands and knees, transforming the rails into a tunnel.

As I got up quickly and walked away as if nothing had happened I caught the eye of a boy who had been watching me. He smiled and I smiled back.

Spot 5:

In Piccadilly Gardens, I walked across the top of some benches, which line the gardens.

Benches - Piccadilly Gardens

I tried to walk on the metal bits, but was afraid I’d slip.

Benches - Piccadilly Gdns

Spot 6:

Right across the middle of Piccadilly Gardens, is a walkway that bridges a large flat area of fountains, which only come on during the summer months.

Walkway - Piccadilly Gdns

Instead of walking down the centre, I decided to walk down the outside edge of the railings on each side, I hopped onto each paving stone lining the outer edge, keeping my balance by holding onto the rail.

Railing on Walkway - Piccadilly Gdns

Piccadilly Gardens is a landmark, central point in Manchester. There is a statue of Queen Victoria amongst others and it’s lined by commercial businesses, such as a huge, flagship Primark, Burger King, Pizza Express, Cafe Nero and Boots.

A young girl walks by and I hear her say, “What the fuck is she doing”. I don’t respond, but I begin to feel the tension in this space.

Spot 7:

Right near the walkway, I find rows of bollards

Bollards - Piccadilly Gdns

I begin a movement slaloming them. After repeating this back and forth along the row of bollards I notice more of them, across the tram lines and my sleeve is wet from touching each bollard as I sidled around them.

No sooner had I committed myself to moving on to the new bollards I’d seen, when I noticed (and then remembered – as it’s often there) the mobile Police Station parked up right next to them, and a Policeman watching my every, strange, movement.

Bollards and Cops - Piccadilly Gdns

At this point, the feeling of tension reached it’s peak. I’m aware of the policeman watching me intensely. I feel like he is deciding whether to approach me as I slalom the bollards infront of his van. I wonder if he thinks I am doing this in front of him to be deliberately facetious – that’s what it feels like. Though at the same time I continue because I’m not doing this for him, he just happens to be in a van that’s parked directly in front of some bollards I want to use, and besides, I’m doing nothing illegal.

I don’t look at him – I think that this will be the best way to diffuse the tension. I’m working out what I would say to him if he were to approach me, when I realise that I’m not really enjoying this particular moment and decide to leave.

Spot 8:

I make a fast exit out of the Gardens, down Tib Street and into the Northen Quarter. The first thing I see are some more bollards, so I decide to slalom them.

Bollards - Lever Street

Spot 9:

On the corner of Tib Street and Thomas Street I find some steps and a large concrete square, which is unfortunately not visible on the photo (it’s just off to the left).

Steps and Concrete Square - Lever St/Dale St

After walking the perimeter of the steps, one foot in front of the other (similarly to the movement I performed on the benchs at Fairfield Street and in Piccadilly Gardens), I started trying to walk the perimeter of the concrete square in the same way, though with the added task of trying to balance on only one half of each of my feet. This proved quite difficult and I was there for a good 10-15 minutes trying to complete a full perimeter without falling off.

At one point, I looked up and a man in a car was staring at me as he drove along. I lost my balance and fell about a metre. As I landed I looked over at him, he was still watching.

Another man walked past and said, “Mind you don’t fall”, in the manner of an adult advising a child. I smiled. He didn’t say it in a patronising way, but with a feeling of genuine kindness.

Spot 10:

I turned left down Thomas Street and noticed that the walls next to the multi-storey carpark had been erected in a zig-zag formation.

Wall - Dale Street

I climbed onto the wall and walked along it, around the planted area and back along the wall to my starting point.

Spot 11:

At this point I decide to make more progress towards a couple of spots I had in mind before I came out, so I make a quick trek across town towards Oxford Road railway station.

On the way, I avoid stepping on cracks as I walk down Portland Street and as I turn left and walk down Whitworth Street, until I reach the corner with Oxford Road.

When I get to Oxford Road, I decide to use the circular steps, which function as a traffic island, in a pattern of movement starting from the bottom. I walk along the lowest step, until I reach the point where this connects with the next step up and so on, until I reach the pinnacle of the steps.

Steps - Oxford Road railway station

A woman is sat, smoking, on the steps. She realises quickly what I am doing and moves herself down the steps as I approach so that I can complete my task. I say, in a very apologetic manner “Oh, you don’t have to move”. She replies, “that’s OK” with a slight laugh, as if to acknowledge the playfullness of my activity and her desire to allow me to accomplish it.

Spot 12:

I leave down the side steps of the station and begin walking up Oxford Road towards the Universities.

Outside one of the buildings, on the main road, there are some red-brick banks, which have (for some reason) not been skate stoppered. As I approach them I can see some children playing on them – they run up to the top of them and walk along the narrow flat level at the top. Unfortunately they do not see me doing the same thing.

Red-Brick Bank - Oxford Road

Spot 13:

I walk further up Oxford Road and cross over to slalom a long row of bollards underneath a section of the Mancunian Way (A57).

Bollards - Oxford Road

Spot 14a:

Much further up Oxford Road, outside part of the University of Manchester, I visit some blocks/benches/bollards (the shape of these don’t make it obvious what their function is), which I skated around a year ago with a friend, but which have since been stoppered (note the new metal additions).

Blocks - Oxford Road

I’m not sure what to do with these. As objects, they appeared quite ‘closed’ to any use. In fact, I’ve never seen them used at all, by anyone other than skateboarders, which makes it seem even stranger that they’ve gone to such lengths to prevent skaters from using them.

Blocks - Oxford Road

I hop over the metal dividers and from one block to the next. I get bored of them quite quickly.

Spot 14b:

Across the road and further up there are more of these blocks, though without the metal. I find a row of them and I straddle them, hopping from one foot to the other, whilst shifting my weight, to move along the row of blocks.

Blocks - Oxford Road

Spot 15:

Further still up Oxford Road, alongside the Stopford Building (part of the University of Manchester) is a lengthy bank of  concrete and bricks. This was stoppered many years ago, but had previously been used by skateboarders, according to people I’ve spoken to. The method of stoppering here is the addition of larger, protruding bricks onto the surface of the flat bank.

Bank - Stopford Building, Oxford Road

I began moving across the bank in a side-on orientation, by using the protruding bricks as steps. I started scaling the bank by utilising the same bricks in a pattern so as to create a rhythm of movement. As I became more confident and moved faster, the movement became more elaborated, similarly to the movement I created on the railings on Fairfield Street.

I liked performing this movement as it was the most physically demanding, It felt like an achievement getting across the entire length of the bank. I was fully emersed in what I was doing at this point, more than at any other, which meant I was completely incapable of judging reactions to what I was doing. At this point, I felt more anonymous in what I was doing- though being on the main road, I was certainly visible.


When I started this project I wanted to go to different cities, though after today I feel like I may have quite a lot to do in Manchester alone. There is plenty to develop on when I go out to perform again, and I feel that there will be a great benefit in repeating the project on a regular basis, in order to become more recognisable.

Something that I noticed quite quickly was that when not performing movement on objects, I was quickly ‘reabsorbed’ into the environment. It was as if the movement was a temporary ‘exiting’ from the dominant flow of specific spaces.

I recieved few comments from my accidental audience, many ‘knowing’ glances and smiles. I felt as though people understood exactly what I was doing with reference to ‘play’, though I can’t explain why. The way that the woman outside Oxford Road train station moved out of the way for me, the way the man in the Northern Quarter told me to be careful were like an act and utterance of permission for me.

Certain spaces of the city were easier to be performing in than others. Piccadilly Gardens was where I felt the most tension, to the extent that I eventually felt I had to stop what I was doing and move on.

In the Northern Quarter, which is an eclectic, regenerated area of the city containing predominantly independent businesses and that has a creative, informal vibe, I felt able to spend more time, to linger and play.

On Oxford Road, the universities are the most dominant places, there is not a great presence of businesses as there are in Piccadilly. As it was Sunday and the buildings were not in use, the only attention was drawn from people passing by on the main road. As a skateboarder in these places I have been moved on at the same sort of time by the University security staff, I didn’t have any trouble occupying these places today.

Oxford Road railway station is a transitory space, I felt comfortable performing there, particularly after my exchange with the woman smoking on the steps.


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