Let me take you back a couple of years. I was a nervous new writer and had just received my first assignment for Northern Soul.
The brief was to research and write a piece about the plight of a beautiful building in Manchester – London Road Fire Station. I wrote the article and felt that first, addictive rush when you see an article with your name on it. As I’ve gone on to do other things, I’ve always kept an eye on that building.
So it was with butterflies in my stomach that I finally visited London Road Fire Station on a recent guided tour. Saved from decay by developers Allied London after 30 years of neglect, seeing the building up close was a magical experience. I’ve never been on a film set but I imagine it’s close to how I was feeling as I walked through the imposing wooden doors which have remained firmly closed since 1986 when Britannia Hotels bought the structure and left it to rot.
Manchester tour guide Jonathan Schofield has devised an informative tour (lasting around 70 minutes) of this beautiful building which stands proudly by Piccadilly Station. I’m confident it’s on the cusp of restoration and will once again be a jewel in the city’s crown.
“I’ve been blown away by the response this tour,” says Schofield. “I’ve been guiding for 20 years and sometimes you have to work really hard because properties have more or less disappeared and you have to keep painting pictures. That’s quite hard work but when you’ve got this thing to look at already that’s easier because you can almost shut up and let people wander.”
The building is triangular in shape and in its heyday housed a fire station, police station and a coroners’ court, as well as apartments for fireman and their families. Standing in the immense central yard, there’s the sense you are standing somewhere that time forgot. But Schofield brings it to life with stories of water fights, tricks played on new recruits, the female-only control room and ghostly goings-on.
How did he research all these nuggets of information?
“First you do the classic stuff, you look it up in all the libraries, look at any material you’ve got, then you go through newspapers and you try and find archives and dates that are important. The obvious one is the opening of the fire station and you find out what the newspapers were reporting at the time and you get a world view of those people at that moment which is very different often from the world view that we may have. Then the joy of London Road Fire Station is that you get people coming on the tour who lived or worked here and they supplement that and it’s those little details, it’s life.”
Schofield is brimming with anecdotes. The most interesting are from the children who grew up here. They were clearly full of mischief, whispering into police cell windows to scare the drunken occupants.
The grand finale of the tour is the coroners’ court. Thanks to Britannia’s lack of interest in the space, it is pretty much intact, apart from a section of the ceiling which has collapsed. You can even read the paperwork from the last cases held here; notes are strewn across the desks.
Nevertheless, it is heartbreaking to learn how the firemen used to carefully wash the building’s frontage because they were so proud of it, and how devastated they were when the building closed.
Schofield says: “The last of the brass firemen’s poles are missing because the last shift cut them down and made them into bracelet-sized mementos. So this is an ever expanding thing which is interesting for a tour guide.”
But the future is bright for London Road Fire Station. Developers Allied London say: “London Road will be a mixed-use building offering leisure, retail and commercial experiences, and will retain as much of the original heritage as possible. London Road will create something very special for Manchester and will be a place of quality, design, and above all experience. External and internal renovation work will begin towards the end of 2016.”
Schofield is also optimistic. “Now it’s got a future it’s great. Because of the incompetence of Britannia, it means that all the little features like in the engine house, the annunciator, they’re all there. Now that wouldn’t have happened if it had been refurbished in the 80s, people were far less careful then, they would have ripped it all out, everything would have gone and been painted anyway. It was stupid and ugly of Britannia to do what they did but they would have refurbed it in such a terrible way.”
London Road Fire Station lives to fight another day. Don’t miss your chance to see it as it is now.