Jonathan Schofield looks at the city’s record and comes up with a surprising recommendation

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 there was a mood of celebration across the country with a day off from work or school. Manchester joined in the happy feeling by finding some mucky chocolate brown bricks, assembling them in a simple rectangle in Lincoln Square and turning on some DIY-store pipes which sporadically dribbled liquid. There was a plaque, still in place, which included the words: ‘this fountain commemorates’. The word fountain was used loosely.

The fountain didn’t survive. It’s now a tip-heap of a flower bed, filled with soil and abandoned. It’s part of Manchester’s sorry record in water features. 

Now we have another one. Brave, given the city’s record. This is another modest addition and harmless enough, a film of gently spreading water over slate between flowering beds close to the KPMG offices at One St Peter’s Square. It’s perfect for a paddle or a dip of the hand. 

St Peter’s Square is the benchmark square in Manchester. Designed by German landscape team Latz + Partner, it is a triumph decorated with high quality street furniture plus lovely purple flowering paulownias trees. Whether it needed flower beds and a water feature is open to debate (personally I believe the square would have been better left uncluttered). But as it seems we can’t leave things alone in Manchester then this is far less intrusive than it could have been.

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St Peter's Square's new water feature

Manchester’s most dramatic permanent fountains were those ranged in front of the former hospital buildings in Piccadilly Gardens. In the 1851 painting by George Hayes of Queen Victoria’s visit you can see them pushing into the sky fifteen metres or more. They were replaced by an esplanade later in the century as Manchester’s fountain curse began. A small fountain was introduced into sunken gardens after the hospital was demolished.

In the early noughties everything was swept away and we gained a bulky set of fountains in an ugly trough during a messy redesign of the Gardens. For a while the fountains worked, then the curse hit and, after rivers of public money washed away, a complete rebuild was necessary. This cost £400k and began in September 2016. Now, the fountains are working again and have continued to do so since their re-launch earlier this year. Let’s cross our fingers shall we? Or take bets on how long that might last.

Elsewhere in the city there’s a mixed picture.

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Fountains where Piccadilly Gardens now stands - painting by George Hayes (1851)

We have the crazy paving ankle breaker of a water feature in Exchange Square that has been broken for years and is due to be replaced. This provided a fun stepping stone game for kids and adults but inevitably filled with litter and broke down frequently. Now it just looks stupid. The sooner it’s gone the better, something that should be achieved within the year. Then there is the drab dribbler of the cotton bud fountain in St Ann’s Square. Designed by Peter Randall Smith, it was activated by Tony Blair in 1996, who was heard to remark as the weak flow of water appeared, “Is that it?”

More promising is the Cathedral Gardens water feature which begins at the back of the Cathedral and extends down the hill to the rear of the National Football Museum and some more broken fountains. When the stream of water down the hill works it actually looks good. You can even play Pooh Sticks. Sadly, it functions erratically and unpredictably.

Finally, in the city centre at present we have a fountain in the canal basin in front of The Bridgewater Hall which is not a success. It’s not powerful enough to be seen from the main road (Lower Mosley Street) and its wonky, leaning a few degrees from the perpendicular. Down the road, the Great Northern development on Peter Street has a water feature which is also bust. 

It makes you wonder why we bother at all.

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Wonky fountain outside Bridgewater Hall
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A Belle Vue 'Grand Spectacular'

But there is one grand, stalwart success which happens to be the oldest permanent fountain in the city. In Albert Square there’s the Jubilee Fountain from 1897 (video below), commemorating Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne. This was adapted from an earlier, simpler structure, placed here to mark the opening of a new fresh water supply from Thirlmere in the Lake District in 1894. Here the Manchester coat of arms and the gargoyles are beautifully realised. The fountain is quality throughout. This isn’t surprising as it’s the work of Thomas Worthington, a fine Manchester architect responsible for the nearby Albert Memorial and the building that hosts Albert Square Chop House. The fabulous bronze gargoyles are by sculptor John Cassidy who did the equally stirring Adrift sculpture between Central Library and the Midland Hotel. A welcome quality of the Jubilee Fountain is that it never breaks down and only ever stops in high winds so as not to soak passers-by.

There are some fountains and water features it would have been magical to see. Vauxhall and Pomona Gardens hosted huge temporary fountains, as did Manchester Royal Exhibition in 1887. Belle Vue Gardens did likewise. It must have been astonishing to witness one of the ‘Grand Spectacles’ which took place every year at Belle Vue and involved hundreds of cast members recreating great events or battles. Customers viewed the ‘Grand Spectacles’ from over the boating lake which was often incorporated as a prop with fights and skirmishes taking place on its surface.

A huge and curious fountain marked the opening of London Road Fire Station in September 1906. In Albert Square the engines gathered and ‘an escape was run up to its full length, hose was attached to the mains, and a fireman carrying a pipe to the top of the escape, threw great volumes of water to a great height. The clouds of spray were very high, and some hundreds of people gathered to watch them and also the pleasant effect of a rainbow in the beams of the sun.’

We need more impromptu fountains like that.

But as we contemplate how London and some Continental cities seem to be proficient with fountains, while ours often seem ridiculous, let’s not forget that Manchester has shown itself to be the master of water.

No other city in the UK has ever built itself anything as spectacular as the Ship Canal which opened in 1894. And few have shown anything like the skill needed to supply refreshment to the city from the two reservoirs at Thirlmere and Haweswater in the Lake District mountains, or from the reservoirs and ancillary works at Longdendale not far from Glossop.

So where is Greater Manchester’s most astonishing man-made water spectacular? This might be stretching things but I reckon it’s Irlam's locks, sluices and weirs on the Manchester Ship Canal, just up from the mighty Irlam High Level Bridge.

Forget that sweet but tiny new feature in St Peter’s Square and go west to watch gushing waters and mighty engineering which seem to be the work of giants, rather than men often armed with nothing more than spades. Designed by Sir Edward Leader Williams and built with civic pride, if you want a water feature that is exuberant, precise and filled with a certain sort of majesty then this is your baby, designed by Sir Edward Leader Williams and built by civic pride. 

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Irlam's raging waters