Manchester is full of stories, most of them worn smooth through repetition. Just the same, there are still some tales less familiar to the ear, with edges rougher hewn, that retain the capacity to catch the listener unawares.
Such is the case with the city’s medieval history, and such is the subject on which Fran Healey, the creative commercial director of Chetham’s Library and The Stoller Hall, is keen to expound, speaking with all the rush and eloquence of unbridled enthusiasm in anticipation of the second Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival on the weekend of September 23.
In doing so, she effectively beckons an invitation through the library‘s guarded archway, to grounds which, even if they’re noticed, remain out of bounds to the public for much of the year.
“So many people who come into Manchester on a day to day basis have no awareness of what they walk past with their heads down and their earphones in,” she reflects. “Last time we held the festival, in 2021, people were saying, ‘Wow! This is amazing. I knew there was something here, but I didn’t know what it was, or what it meant.’”
There’s a sound reason for this security, of course, since Chetham’s also houses a school of music. “We so rarely get to open the building up because of the kids being on site. So we have these occasional breaks when the boarders go home for long weekends.”
Two years ago, however, Covid was still in ascendance, as Healey recalls.
“It was a bit on the edge of whether it was going to happen. The reason we launched it in 2021 was because it was the 600-year anniversary of the old buildings. The first one we did was very much based around Chetham’s, as it’s the oldest public library in the English speaking world. The building itself is one of the most intact of its age in the UK, although Humphrey Chetham founded the library much later on, in the 1600s.”
Since then, things have evolved. “This time, it’s a little bit different, because we’re working in collaboration with other organisations in this part of Manchester. Manchester University supported it a little bit financially. The city council, as well, have been really supportive because of the ‘place-making’.”
This, it turns out, is a concerted effort to establish the area, extending out from Chetham’s and encompassing the cathedral and its grounds, as Manchester’s Medieval Quarter.
“The plan is very much that the Medieval Festival becomes an event centred around Cathedral Gardens that the organisations around there deliver,” says Healey. “The timing has meant that, this time around, we’re treating it as a bit of a launch. People can come without having to pay anything, without having to book on anything, because it’ll all be open. There’ll be re-enactments happening in Cathedral Gardens themselves.”
That’s not the half of it, as Healey explains. “We’ve got medieval dance workshops. And Historia Normannis will be re-enacting a medieval village. There’ll be people cooking and holding court.”
Some activities, of necessity, will require booking, and others will come at a cost. “If you want to come into the library itself, because we have to manage numbers, you can book on tours. We’ve got an exhibition called ‘How Many Cows?’ about the value of paper and vellum, because books were made from cow skins.”
It’s all intended to build up a present tense portrait of 15th century Manchester in the visitor’s imagination. Healey puts me in the picture. “It would have felt much more like a village, really. It would have been a lot more open. The river would have been the transport network. And Salford wasn’t there.”
Having spoken in such rapt terms about the past, I wonder how Healey envisages the future. “The plan is to do this every two years. There’s so much to learn about it. Every time I go into the library, I see something different.”
Perhaps a little more whimsically, she adds: “Another thing I’d love to do is jousting. Although the insurance company weren’t too keen.”
As to what sustains her motivation, she sums it up best herself. “To spark that curiosity in people, so the next time they hear something about medieval history, they can connect. It’s raising awareness of people feeling like it belongs to them. Manchester is ours, isn’t it?”
There can’t be a more persuasive enticement to step back in time.
All photos courtesy of Chetham’s
Manchester Medieval Quarter Festival is on September 23-24, 2023. For more information, click here.