I have to be honest. I had my doubts about The Winter Gathering at Manchester’s London Road Fire Station. Too cool for school? Or was it going to be all overpriced sausages and tinsel-tinged knick-knacks? I needn’t have worried.
The Winter Gathering strikes the perfect festive notes without even mentioning the C-word, and yet I felt more in the mood than I ever have in mid-November. As you walk through the main entrance, you are met first with the smell of cooking meat and then by the sight of the ice rink which dominates the space. Our son Gabe’s eyes lit up like fairy lights and he was on the ice before you could say “Triple Salchow”.
Stabilisers are available for young ‘uns, although I did see several wobbly-looking grown-ups taking advantage of the penguin-shaped skating aids. There were always at least two members of staff on hand to help any casualties back to their feet, and to offer the odd handy tip. Gabe started the session by attempting to run in his skates (and not getting anywhere fast) but, by the end of the session, he was whizzing around with the best of them – even attempting the occasional jump.
After a lengthy time on the ice it was time to head for some food, and we were spoilt for choice. There were vans and stalls from Steel Smoking (pulled pork buns), Beastro offering pigs in blankets and black pudding Scotch eggs, soup and salads from So Salad Crew, and Wing It serving hot chicken and deep fried halloumi (absolutely delicious). Over the next few weeks, there will also be a range of other food operators curated rotationally by the British Street Food Awards. In the end, we went for the burger option from the Eat New York Street Diner. We had to wait a few minutes for the burgers to be cooked but man, they were worth waiting for – the deep fried macaroni mac and cheese ball on top being a welcome wee treat. Add a side of curly fries and the result was my not being hungry for the next 14 hours. Immense.
The drinks side of things was well-catered for as well. An extensive cocktail menu, with a selection of wines, fizzes spirits and ales (I’d never had a Shindigger before but it’s a remarkably nice beer). The bars smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, and this is always a good thing. One minor quibble was that the toilets were on the opposite side of the ice rink to the bars – but are there toilets in the Albert Square markets? Didn’t think so…
So why does it feel so festive? There’s no tinsel. There are spruce trees at the entrance but they’re bare. There are fairy lights over the bar and food areas, albeit very subtle. And I think that’s what works so well. It doesn’t try too hard. Great food and drink, friendly vendors, knowledgeable bar staff and helpful rink assistants. Bars which smell of cinnamon. There’s a huge screen projecting various wintry scenes (aerial shots of snow-covered pine trees, snowfall, a roaring fire) but also some stills of the old London Road fire station itself. A nice touch. It wasn’t raining or snowing when we went but there’s plenty of shelter should the heavens open. For non-skaters, apart from the bars and food areas, there is an art space and a programme of live music and DJs.
If, like me, you’re growing tired of the traditional markets in town, then you could do far worse than heading down to London Road for the Winter Gathering. It’s November? Too early for the C-word? Bah, humbug.
The Winter Gathering runs until January 8, 2017. Tickets can be booked at http://www.elementalevents.com/thewintergathering.