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Along the Mancunian Way, Manchester's 'Highway in the Sky'

It snakes along the southern fringe of Manchester city centre, carrying thousands of vehicles every day. It was completed in 1967, extended in 1992, has a quintessentially Manchester name chosen by a member of the public, and like much of the rest of Manchester, it's grey, grimy and flawed but interesting: It's the Mancunian Way, once dubbed Manchester's 'Highway in the Sky'.

The Mancunian Way forms the southern section of the ironically titled 'Manchester and Salford Inner Relief Route'. The A57 from Liverpool in the west to Lincoln in the east runs along the Mancunian Way (A57M) as far as the A6 junction where it becomes the A635 through east Manchester, Tameside and across the Pennines to Doncaster.

The Mancunian Way was intended to link into a network of local urban motorways, but on the maps it remains an isolated wavy blue line set amongst a tangled web of red and green A roads.

Prior to the Mancunian Way, Whitworth St was the main east west route south of the city centre. The opening of the Mancunian Way provided a new and faster route, particularly for lorries on their way to and from the Docks and Trafford Park, drastically reducing the cross-town journey times. The name was chosen by schoolchildren. There was a school competition throughout the north west to name the new road. Five pupils came up with the same name, and were invited to come the opening ceremony where they met and shook hands with Prime Minister Harold Wilson. (Previously I wrote that the name Mancunian Way was chosen by a member of the public. Thanks to Brian Peter Crossley, one of the 'famous five' now resident in Hong Kong, for correcting me on this.)

The Mancunian Way is a symbol of the new post-war Manchester, appearing shortly after the Piccadilly Plaza (1965) and around the same time as the Hulme Crescents.

Like many examples of what we refer to as 'sixties planning' it soon turned out to have serious flaws. The bare concrete, hailed as ground-breaking in its time, soon turned grimy and became a symbol of urban alienation. The landscaped pedestrian areas within the roundabouts, planned as relaxation areas for local residents, quickly deteriorated into no-go areas with crime problems. The Mancunian Way acts as a giant concrete rampart, severing the city centre from areas to the south. On recent street maps it is used to mark the city centre's southern boundary, which was once the River Medlock.

Once opened, the Mancunian Way fulfilled its basic purpose, providing a vital east-west artery, and saving the city centre from total gridlock. But the growth in traffic had been woefully underestimated by road planners, and soon the queues lengthened, especially at the approaches to the roundabouts at either end.

In 1992 the Mancunian Way was extended with a new flyover at the A6, replacing the former roundabout and landscaped pedestrian footpaths. At the western end, a new underpass was built beneath a new 'stop go' roundabout. The rickety flyover I used to enjoy driving over in my VW Beetle was, like my Beetle, dismantled in the early 1990's. The Mancunian Way forms part of the Manchester and Salford Inner Relief Route, which was officially opened on 19 July 2002. Not so much an urban freeway as a series of assorted roads, some newm some old, some widened, some very narrow, all tacked together via 15 sets of traffic lights.

And there are still rush hour queues at both ends of the Mancunian Way - I know because I use it almost every day. It has a flawed design - drivers joining at Brook Street have to queue at the top of the ramp, then 'jump' into the middle lane to avoid going down the next slip road. Some people describe the Mancunian Way at rush hour as Manchester's biggest elevated car park, but somehow the traffic keeps moving, and I've never seen an accident at the Brook St ramp.

We love to hate our roads, and yet our lives would grind to a halt without them. People don't take much interest in contemporary utilitarian structures, but maybe there will be a time in the future when tourists will take pleasure tours on the Mancunian Way, admiring the views, much as people enjoy walking along Chester city walls.

In recent years 'The Mancunian Way' has been adopted as a term to describe a Manchester attitude, sensibility, and way of doing things. It was much used during the Commonwealth Games, it's the title of a glossy photography book, as well as a recent art project at the Victoria Baths.

Whether or not we find it beautiful to look (and there are some who do), the Mancunian Way is a defining structure in Manchester, which divides and delineates the city. Imagine what Manchester would be like without it, or if the money had been available to build a tunnel.

What will the Mancunian Way look like in the future? Keep visiting Eyewitness in Manchester to find out!

Here are a few interesting facts about the Mancunian Way:

  • The section east of the A6 was opened to traffic in November 1965.
  • The main section between the A6 and A56 was officially opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 5 May 1967.
  • The flyover at the A6 was opened on 4 September 1992.
  • It was the first urban motorway in North West England and one of the first in the UK.
  • It originally had 18 pedestrian subways.
  • During its construction, the Manchester Evening News referred to it as 'Manchester's Highway in the Sky' even though only half of it is elevated and it is less than the height of a two storey building.
  • The Mancunian Way occupies a swathe of land to the south of the River Medlock, once an area of factories, pollution and poverty.
  • The site of the original St Augustines Catholic Church, destroyed in the 1940 Blitz, is directly underneath the Mancunian Way at Brook Street. The ruin was depicted in a painting by LS Lowry.
  • Two university campuses are divided by the Mancunian Way: Manchester University and MMU.
  • The blind slip road at Brook Street was intended to join up with a road into the city centre which was never built.
  • The slip road at the A6 on the north east side is also redundant: It is barred to traffic apart from special vehicles such as police and ambulances.
  • A 5-a-side football pitch was built beneath the Mancunian Way by UMIST.
  • The Mancunian Way was given the Concrete Society Award in 1968.
  • Fly posters, once a colourful feature on the grey concrete surfaces of the flyover, have been banned by the local authority.

If you're interested in roads and the features around them, check out the book 'Around the M60, Manchester's Orbital Motorway' by Matthew Hyde, Aidan O'Rourke and Peter Portland, published October 2004. For more details, please contact me .



All photos and articles © Aidan O'Rourke Thanks to Phil Blinkhorn and Steven Gibson for their assistance in preparing this feature.

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