Where I call home: From Salford to the big smoke and back again

Our Salford reporter Chris Vickers shares his experience of growing up in the area and his memories of the food, schools, shops, songs and sports. 

I was born in December 1951 in the family’s terraced house in Salford. The place that Ewan MacColl memorialised with the beautiful, descriptive song ‘Dirty Old Town’. Except it’s not a town it’s a city, with its own cathedral. And it’s not Manchester.

Although Salford may have been an industrial, smoggy, gritty place to grow up there was an understated integrity to the place, with close-knit communities looking out for each other.

There being few cars in those days, we kids spent all of our time outside school playing street games; ‘kick the can’ where a ball was booted up the street for one kid to retrieve whilst the others all ran and hid, to be found or called in: ‘All in, all in, can’t you hear me callin’’; or the girls would string a rope across the road two swinging and one or two skipping; or boys would peel off to play football. We popped in and out of each other’s houses and were in awe and respectful of adults.

The food was cheap and nourishing: Sunday roasts, of course, but also thick soups such as lentil or neck chop, mopped up with plentiful slices of white Wonderloaf bread; liver and onions, fish and parsley sauce and sausage and mash swamped in red sauce.

Despite the apparent bleakness there was cultural enlightenment too. Albert Finney, Almer Mater of Salford Grammar, electrified in the film Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as kitchen sink dramas became the vogue, the playwright, Sheila Delaney, visited in-laws on our street once, and Lowry’s protegee , Harold Riley, lived for many years on an adjacent road.  

Salford was a solid heartland of Manchester United and I was privileged to become a supporter during the era of Best, Charlton and Law, before the advent of ‘celeb’ supporters and Keano’s ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. How the landscape has changed with the Blues now ascendant , as Sir Alex said in a different context: ‘Football, bloody hell.’ Roll on Ralf Rangnick’s Red revolution.

Mentioning Finney above, I managed a spectacular ‘own goal’ by fluffing the 11+, though as my lovely primary school, Summerville, focused on italic writing I’m sure neatness wasn’t to blame. Therefore, intellectually impoverished I began working life as a sixteen-year-old bank clerk, initially in Salford and then, over six years across many parts of Greater Manchester.

Life took a dramatic twist as I applied for and got a job with an oil major and started working with them in Piccadilly Plaza. However, after a year working in central Manchester, the company relocated to leafy Wilmslow, of which I knew nothing. My flabber was truly ghasted when I encountered the wealth of the place reflected in people’s clothes, cars and houses; a proper culture shock.

I acquired a one-bedroom flat in Didsbury off Barlow Moor Road which was great. The village was vibrant and lively, full of students, and a High Street featuring cafes, restaurants and speciality shops such as the famous Cheese Hamlet. We habituated the Royal Oak pub, which served wonderful lunches comprising huge pieces of granary bread, with generous pieces of cheese or pate. At night the place was standing room only with people spilling onto the pavement outside, probably for the best as inside there was an almost impenetrable fug of cigarette smoke, and ear threatening decibels of animated chatter.

After ten years of contentedly living in this environment the company announced they were closing the Wilmslow office and going to London. Take it or leave it, existential! They proved to be a caring company though and we were set up in hotels during the transition, as we settled and house hunted, and travelled back and forth at weekends. We were initially based at the Kingston-Upon-Thames office and the first shock was that the existing staff got in about 7 am each day. It didn’t take long to understand why and emulate them given the prodigious traffic.

I was lucky in finding an affordable one-bedroom flat in Kingston, near Richmond Park, which was probably a life-saver, as I could walk or run through, or simply enjoy the park most days and certainly at weekends. The Kingston office then closed and I had a daily train commute into Victoria Street, central London. It’s amazing how quickly one adapts, though I was lucky in that I usually got a seat before the train filled up as it approached town. So for a while, my travel was dominated by season tickets, trains being late or breaking down, usually in insufferably hot weather. It was also not uncommon to miss the stop on the way home on Friday nights after ending the weeks labours in a boozy celebration!

My time down south coincided with the Yuppy phenomenon as the City was liberated and ostentatious wealth prevailed. It was interesting to note the passive-aggression of my southern colleagues who had been forced out of their stamping grounds by new money, but who recognised that it was an inevitable part of living in one of the great world capitals.

Eventually, the company’s purpose-built office in Leatherhead was completed and my journey into it was via the M25, though fortunately not too far along it and generally there were no problems. Life in the office was fine too, state of the art facilities and a subsidised canteen providing cheap, tasty lunches.

An opportunity then presented itself for me to go on the road as an Area Manager and as well as the challenges of the job I had to negotiate London’s roads, working in areas as diverse as Brixton, Lewisham, Eltham, Battersea and, unforgettably Pratts Bottom in Kent.

After a few years of this came a chance to move back ‘up north’ as an area manager’s job had become vacant. It was a difficult decision and I truly enjoyed my time in the south. However, the job required an office to accommodate all the rigmarole involved and clearly it would take years, if ever, to acquire the money to buy a bigger place down there. I opted to go north, ending up in Worsley, North Manchester, due to the excellent motorway connections, much needed as my area covered Blackpool, Lancaster, Barrow as well as Liverpool and Manchester.

During my time away the Dirty Old Town has transformed itself. After the IRA city centre bombing money flooded in and guided by the likes of Michael Heseltine, Richard Leese and Bernstein was used wisely and constructively. Derelict docks at Salford blossomed into Media City, home of the BBC, and Manchester city centre it covered by cranes constructing skyscraper offices, apartments and luxury hotels. The icing on the cake for Salford was the building of the prestigious RHS Worsley.

Born and bred in Salford I am ensconced, secure and at happy to be back.

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