On 15 June it will be the 20th anniversary of the detonation of the largest bomb, 3,000lbs of it, on mainland Britain during peacetime. The joke will be that £2.60 worth of damage was done, as the Northern black humour inevitably surfaces. Miraculously, no-one was killed, but the impact was clearly visibly from the plume of smoke and dust that rose up to parts of the Royal Exchange.

When people say the bomb was probably the best thing to happen to Manchester in years, they are perhaps overlooking the 212 people who received hospital treatment, or those tenants at the top of the Arndale Centre who were made homeless, or the number of market traders who lost their livelihood, some permanently. But it did lead to communities coming together, as people recognised that bombs are indiscriminate in their targets and that Mancunians of all colours and beliefs were affected. The shockwaves didn’t just uncover previously hidden access points to test shafts for an underground train network that was planned in the 1970s, but also a bloody mindedness to adjust, regroup and carry on, although the long-held feeling that all things north of Watford are isolated from the capital was fanned by the failure of the Prime Minister, John Major, to visit the area at the time.

Manchester Bomb Ged Camera

Cordons were erected around Manchester Central, with public access limited to a number of civilians called in to help clean up offices in the aftermath. I walked towards the inner cordon in the following days and always wonder what happened to the police officer who told me to “Just keep taking pictures with that fxxxxx camera,” if I wanted to see what the inside of a police cell looked like. I just wanted to ask how someone could get away with parking a large white transit van on double yellow lines for more than 20 minutes without getting a ticket.

With a typically Northern ‘so what’ shrug of the shoulders, the refurbished Royal Exchange Theatre reopened just over two years later in 1998, with a production of Stanley Houghton’s ‘Hindle Wakes’, the play that should have opened the day the bomb exploded.

Manchester Bomb Ged Camera 2

But has the city centre really altered that much given the opportunity for designers and the Council to start afresh? The footprint of the Arndale has expanded, whilst the bleak, soulless bus station on Canon Street has been consigned to memory, but the area around St Ann’s Square seems to have changed little apart from the names of the shops and the replacement link bridge over Cross Street. Perhaps it’s part of the natural human instinct to quickly replace something missing with a replica, to demonstrate that the intention to cause disruption and fear didn’t work.

Buildings were stripped back to their cores, but completing the demolition was perhaps one step too far, with the practicality of trying to restore confidence and a degree of normality to Mancunians the priority. This degree of familiarity included rebuilding the historic Shambles pub brick by brick, with a few new ones added to replace those missing. Talk about priorities.

Money started to flow back into the city centre, yet perhaps the flair came after the functionality had been restored. The decision to award the 2002 Commonwealth Games to Manchester wasn’t a sympathetic one, but probably helped continue the impetus to renew the heart of the city and reintroduce a global audience to a not-so-grey and gloomy city. At one time, the big screen installed on the outside of the Corn Exchange was used to show sporting events and create a sort of European feel so desired by Manchester councillors. This has now stopped and the nearby, newly created Cathedral Gardens is more associated with skateboarders than the ski slope of a building originally named Urbis, but now used to house the Football Museum.

Now, when people visit Manchester to socialise, they tend to head to the Northern Quarter or Spinningfields with its changing pop-up venues. Afflecks Palace is still a hive of small, varied and creative independent vendors nestling incestuously together, as it has been since its inception in 1981. The ‘Quarter’ approach has spawned the Green Quarter that successfully reclaimed redundant industrial railway land for housing, so it must only be a matter of time before the Fifth Quarter is under creation. There’s also The Sharp Project, far enough outside the city centre to have its own postcode, leading the way in fields of media and technology.

But there’s still room for sentimentality in the psyche of residents, as demonstrated by the refurbishment of the post box that survived the explosion despite being within yards of the centre. It now stands on the site as a memorial. Similarly, the traffic light that remained working was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry for a while.

Manchester Bomb Post Box Ged Camera

Unfortunately, bombing cities is still a tactic adopted by terrorists the world over. Manchester’s citizens are now used to, and accept, the increased security measures that come as a result of this, whether it’s a body search upon entry to sporting stadia, a full scan at the airport or the sight of armed police officers patrolling the city centre.

Taking a snapshot comparison between 1995, a year before the bombing, and 2016, what has really changed? In 1995, the Arndale was still being considered as the largest toilet in Europe. Today the tiles have gone. In 2001, when New Yorkers were faced with a similar, but much more destructive event, they licked their wounds and took their time to consider what to do. Designers were invited to propose a vision for the future, unrestricted by the previous design. They now have a fascinating, functional skyline that simultaneously draws people to the area whilst honouring the past. Manchester has a post box. I think I know who came out on top.

All photos by Ged Camera

Ged Camera