Jonathan Schofield welcomes the survival of a pub subjected to previous ridiculous proposals
The Commercial Hotel, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, is rescued. The oldest purpose-built railway hotel in the world is becoming a hotel again with a bar and restaurant. This is very good news.
Pubs are disappearing quicker than summer sunshine at present, transformed into nurseries, old people’s homes or simply demolished. The Commercial Hotel will remain and continue on its 192-year (and counting) journey.
The skill with which The Black Friar has been reinvented offers hope and gives confidence for the future of The Commercial Hotel
Greater Manchester developers, Salboy and Domis, intend to give Castlefield a boutique hotel costing £12m across a site which includes the former Commercial Hotel plus a pair of adjoining buildings behind and to the east. There will be 39 "upmarket" hotel rooms including a lounge bar and restaurant.
It’s a wonder the site hasn't been snapped up earlier.
The Science and Industry Museum opposite is going through a massive refurbishment which will bring in more visitors. More to the point, the 7,000 capacity Factory performance space will open within the year about a two-minute walk away from The Commercial. At the same time, there’s great amenity in Castlefield in terms of a cracking landscape of canals, viaducts, bars and the Castlefield Bowl. A new footbridge across the River Irwell is opening with Factory which will bring foot traffic from all those apartments on the Salford side of the river.
The hope is that Salboy will deliver another scheme to match The Black Friar pub, a mile or so away, again in Salford. That old pub might have been a landmark but it had been closed for more than a decade. Salboy's rescue operation has brought it back to teeming life. The skill with which The Black Friar has been reinvented offers hope and gives confidence for the future of The Commercial Hotel in Castlefield.
The architect for the Commercial will be Tim Groom Architects from up the road and round the corner at Eastgate on Castle Street.
The Signature Living controversy
The building has had a chequered recent past.
In April 2019 the most ridiculous plan came from Liverpool’s disgraced Signature Living. The boss Lawrence Kenwright had acquired the Commercial and wanted to call it The Quality Street Hotel. No, not after the harmless chocolates but after the notorious and violent Manchester criminal gang behind organised crime from the sixties to the eighties.
Kenwright wanted to “include artefacts and memorabilia from the Quality Street era.” He said: "The Quality Street Hotel will become a real destination for history lovers and those intrigued by the mystery surrounding Manchester’s Quality Street men for which there is still a great interest."
That remains the most asinine, odious and cynical naming exercise in Manchester’s hotel history. But, of course, as so often happens life imitates art. And let’s add pride comes before a fall. Signature Living collapsed a year later and Lawrence Kenwright is still under investigation over the circumstances.
Salboy to the rescue
Salboy has promised to do things differently and respect the history of the Commercial Hotel.
Here's a bit of history. The Commercial opened in 1830, timed to coincide with the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the first passenger railway system in the world and the one which popularised railways globally. Stand on any rail platform in any country and those rail lines next to you ultimately lead back to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway station building, now part of the Science and Industry Museum, which sits directly opposite the Commercial Hotel.
Indulge me for a minute.
Years ago frustrated that the then landlord seemed to be unaware of the significance of the Commercial I went in and said to him: "Hey, your pub is the oldest purpose-built railway hotel in the world. Why not smarten the place up, bring in the memorabilia and turn yourself into a place of pilgrimage for rail enthusiasts? You'd help city tourism and make a fortune for yourself." The landlord looked at me as though I’d dropped in from Mars and said, "I'm not interested. Let me show you my real passion and it's not railways." The man took me into the front parlour and pointed at some dead birds in a case. "I like stuffing partridges," he said. The landlord was a taxidermist. He didn't seem to be getting my point.
Given Salboy’s desire to turn the Commercial Hotel into a boutique hotel there probably won’t be too many rail enthusiasts staying but that’s not the point. The point is that a really significant, if modestly proportioned, Manchester building will burst back into life and help lift this most beguiling of central Manchester districts.
Follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @jonathschofield
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