Jonathan Schofield gazes down from an impossible angle at the 'old city'

The main picture on this page was taken in January 2023 by drone meister Andy Mallins. It shows the old centre of Manchester hosting its very modern present. We've juxtapositioned them with other images from a similar, if often imaginary, point in the sky from down the ages. 

What will this view look like in 2123? Weirdly, that is almost unknowable

The first occupation of the city was with the Romans from AD79 almost a mile south of this point in Castlefield, but the Romans abandoned Manchester and so the Saxon town rose at this easy to defend point.

It was a perfect location where the River Irk joined its big brother the River Irwell with crags and cliffs falling into the rivers. The Saxons dug defensive ditches between the two watercourses and hey, they felt protected on all sides. The last of their ditches was Hanging Ditch. The medieval bridges still survive over Hanging Ditch and can be viewed behind the present-day Gandhi statue if you take a stroll down. 

A nineteenth century conjectural view (in the slider below) shows how this area might have looked around 1760 with the rocky fringes of the river, that led to Manchester's development here, visible. At this point Manchester with Salford may have contained 20,000 inhabitants, maybe fewer.

The town was on the cusp in this view. It's almost a picture of that sharp of intake of breath before taking the plunge. The industrial cataclysm is imminent. The world will change. 

The superb 1889 artwork, below, by HW Brewer for The Graphic magazine gets high again from more or less the same position. Given there's no way Brewer could have seen the city from this angle it's a fine piece of work that emphasises the main buildings.

Manchester's transformation is complete in this picture. All is utterly changed. The world has been remade. Manchester has become a famous metropolis, the international byword for industrialisation. The energy of the place almost bursts from the image. The population of Manchester and Salford is around 600,000. 

Impossible View
HW Brewer delivered this impressive perspective for The Graphic magazine in 1889 Image: Jonathan Schofield

Scroll forward to 1962 and Manchester is in the process of retrenchment.

The picture in the slider below reveals the physical effects of 160 years and more of industrialisation. Manchester Cathedral is jet black from all the carbon that's been pumped into the air. 

If there's a note of optimism in this picture it's the pure International Modern architecture of the CIS Tower, freshly built, rearing to the left of the Cathedral tower and at this moment the tallest office block in Europe. The Manchester and Salford population had declined from the high of the 1930s and 1,101,250 to 953,031. 

This was simply the start of the decline. By 2001 Manchester and Salford's population had slumped to 608,922, a combination of economic decline and devastating slum clearances.  

Our 2023 image (at the top of this page and in the slider below) shows a city which is again growing. The combined Manchester and Salford population presently stands at around 823,000 and looks to grow further. Andy Mallins' sunny January picture this year shows a clean Manchester Cathedral. The CIS tower still looks splendid but has been joined by other tall buildings, the National Football Museum's intriguing shape occupies centre stage, the Corn Exchange is positively glowing, while the circle of stone to the left of the Cathedral, the Glade of Light, reminds us of the dreadful events of May 2017 when 22 people lost their lives during the attack at the Arena. 

Some buildings are so venerable they seem to have grown from the earth. They provide constancy. Chetham's School of Music and Library occupy the left of all the images on this page, a slice of continuity with the Cathedral from down the centuries.

What will this view look like in 2123? It's said 'the past is a foreign country' but if so, the future is an alien planet. We can guess the Cathedral and Chetham's will remain but that skyline will be very different. 

Read next: New Manchester Lexicon: Food

Read again: Fab Café was doing nostalgia years before everyone else

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