David Adamson visits the members' club for a spot of sport and a long lunch
Exclusive and hidden spots are a fashion at the moment. Whether it's navigating some side-alley and uttering the phrase 'the raven rides at dawn' into an intercom shaped like a watering can, or battling through a reservation system for a high end restaurant, we seem to like doing a bit of work before being at leisure.
When I was invited to look around the Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club (MTRC) I arrived outside the Victorian building and wasn't sure I'd found the right place until I approached the door and saw a modestly-sized sign. This is remarkable considering the great, hulking size of the building. Honestly, you could easily walk past the place and end up in the Black Friar pub a few metres away.
I was greeted cheerily at the door by general manager Stella and waited in the grand entrance hall for John, my guide for the day. There was a calm, country club atmosphere about the place, with deers' heads decorating the walls and a sense of time slowing down. The outside world was now very much outside, which you would imagine is the desired effect of private members clubs.
Leading me around the perfectly preserved building, John explained how the club are often approached about the various rooms - festooned with old school glamour - and the cavernous courts for use in fashion shoots and TV productions. Who could blame them, when you have an interior ready-made, as if every room was dipped in formaldehyde in 1880 and lovingly tended to ever since.
Nowhere was this more true than in the members bar - perhaps the most important room in any club. Surrounded by smooth wood-panelled walls and tasteful monograms, you'd be one cut glass decanter and a set of coat tails away from cosplaying as a captain of industry, which sounds like a lot of fun. Naturally, there's a portrait of Winston Churchill, who was MP for Oldham from 1900-1904 and Manchester from 1906-1908, but even if he wasn't you could imagine he'd have probably popped in here for a few drinks and a chinwag.
The dining room, as you'd imagine, is bordered by portraits of sprightly-looking gentlemen - and a few less sprightly-looking ones - wielding racquets in various states of readiness. As far as I'm aware, no eyeballs were following me around the room. Places were laid at the table in preparation for lunch, with several bottles of wine sitting ready, and my stomach rumbled.
Before we could get down to the business of eating and drinking, there was the small matter of some sports to play. Before I changed into my very mismatching sport attire (no sane person could describe what I wore as 'tennis gear') John showed me the courts that would be the arena for my inevitable sporting disgrace.
First up was the Real Tennis court. The sport's name may confuse at first but in fact refers to it being the original version of the game: making use of roofs and walls to create a game that, at first unusual compared to the likes of lawn tennis, heightens what is the game's greatest strength, its testing of wits and trickery. If I attempted to try and explain the rules and differences to you in writing, I'd be here all week, so I will just say that once its hooks were in me, I was warmed up and wanting to win.
We went up to the viewing platform on the racquet court, an austere but somehow beautiful black box with looming high ceilings and the ghosts of a thousand cursing judges still lingering.
Enough viewing, it was time to get changed and onto the court.
The game is up
I got dressed into my embarrassingly un-tennisy attire and met John out on the Real Tennis court, where our opponents Pete and Simon awaited. I took a few practice serves and then it was time to get down to it.
Aptly described by John as like a mix between tennis, squash and chess, I saw it held for me the opportunity for a trifecta of indignity; not only could I be shown up for poor technique, but also for being slow and stupid. It wasn't at all the humiliation I half-expected, but instead a very addictive exercise in self-improvement. Being bad at golf is like being taunted by a cruel and uncaring god, whereas you only start bad at tennis. Very quickly you improve and then its teeth are in you, your hopes bound up in the trajectory of a lime green ball.
The late, great Martin Amis described tennis as "the most perfect combination of athleticism, artistry, power, style, and wit. A beautiful game, but one so remorselessly travestied by the passage of time." John, along with my opponents Pete and Simon, showed no signs of being slowly flattened by Time's winged chariot. All men in middle age, they were far more limber and speedy then I (31, 5ft 8, 5-10 cigarettes a day).
When I did land a shot that they couldn't return - backhand, the flattest of curves over the net, touching down in an almost sarcastically tricky corner - the sense of satisfaction is the sort of stuff that, if you could bottle it, would have you considering pouring your wine down the sink. Only considering it though.
Pickle ball and padel for £30 a month
Next up were the more modern variations of pickle ball and padel, two games John explained were the fastest growing in popularity in the country. To capitalise on this and in the hopes of bringing a new generation to the club, Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club have started a 'Bronze Membership', whereby for £30 a month you can play as many sessions as you like. This seems to me, in the context of gym memberships, to be a steal. Plus I'm pretty sure Winston Churchill was never a member of Pure Gym.
Pickle and padel were a hoot, the perforated ball or racquets (depending on which you're playing) making for less of the crazed leaping and diving that normal tennis can end up in. And the slightly slower speed gives you the impression that you're actually pretty good, what with sport being as much about confidence and state of mind as anything physical.
That said I did do a bit of leaping and diving, and both being doubles-based games allowed it to be what sport at this level should be - fun.
We called it a day after a narrow victory from Pete and Simon and went to change for lunch.
Lunch is served
I have to be honest, I was particularly looking forward to this part.
We now seem to exist in a world where exercise is about punishing yourself towards a personal best, and the gym environment just a cold and corporatised space in which to do it. The social aspect seems to have faded further and further into the background. Why drift through each session, headphones in, before necking a protein shake, when you can sit down with people who've become friends, eat a lovingly made hot meal and have a glass of wine? I know which I'd prefer.
We met up in the bar and nattered over a drink while lunch was readied, and while it did feel like stepping back into a different time - when the broader details of a deal would be bashed out over a brandy, that sort of thing - not everything about the past should be consigned to history.
Yes, everyone there was male and middle-aged and above, but not by design. Club secretary Carl Hamill explained to me how clubs like MTRC need to continue to provide for the generations coming up now: women are obviously welcome and the prestigious surroundings deserve to be maintained in the modern age with just as modern a make-up.
"In the past the club was slightly invisible to keep it exclusive and quiet," he said. "We want to try and extend it out to new people. Before covid we had lots of members who'd also come to the dining club, but with the pandemic they've adjusted their life not to come into town and have never come back. We've lost them, which is sad.
"So we've got to try and encourage younger aspiring individuals to join as well, because it's still a great place to do business even though the internet has surpassed that, it's got great sporting facilities, and the dining is second to none."
On that note, lunch was served. I went for the scallops with black pudding, pea puree and duchess potatoes with champagne and pernod sauce, cooked by club chef Gareth Lloyd and served by Shelley, a charming and easygoing presence about the club and dining room. Sitting at dinner with the members and laughing over several rotating bottles of wine, I was curious what working life is like corralling and taking care of a group of members that have a great deal of vitality, not to mention a youthful, puckish sense of humour.
"The best way to describe the dining experience at MTRC is 'like coming home'," explained Shelley. "All the fun, laughter, banter, support, caring and sharing that you'd expect from a family dining table but with the tradition, elegance and service that you would expect from a private members club."
I eventually left just before 5pm, full, slightly squiffy and with the inevitable lactic acid only a distant possibility at that point (it made itself known eventually). The most enduring feeling however was that of having been made to feel extremely welcome.
For one of the oldest and most prestigious tennis and private dining clubs in the country, it had a remarkably student union feel to it, with members and staff alike who clearly give some joy to each other's lives, enjoying a degree of sporting social life that's lacking more and more in the modern day.
Why endure the treadmill of corporate gym existence when there's a cosy, convivial place to enrich the body and soul just over the River Irwell from Deansgate in little old Salford?
This is a club with old school charm fit for the modern age.
Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club, 33 Blackfriars Rd, Salford M3 7AQ
For more information about memberships, or to book the dining room for a private event, visit the MTRC website, call 0161 834 0616 or email email@example.com