Like a swollen river, Manchester city centre is breaching its banks. Property money is flooding in and central Manchester is being redrawn, as unprofitable, arty activity is swept out into Salford. Ancoats, to the east is being reinvented as an (oddly sterile) neighbourhood of indie bars and restaurants and swanky flats, while Oxford Road – a drab student corridor – promises, as the waters recede, to emerge as a green hub of tech-entrepreneurship.
Who benefits from all those cranes on the skyline is a point so moot it will be one for historians to discuss, not travel journalists. But any immediate pluses come with caveats. Juries are out. At street level, this city is as gritty as ever.
Manchester’s strutting self-confidence is, however, attracting exciting new businesses. After years of lacking interesting hotels, it will soon be home to three new ventures, which, inspired by likes of Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, are turning the traditional hotel model on its head. One is the Refuge, another the upcoming London Warehouse and then there is the subject of this review: Whitworth Locke.
Historically, hotels have been silos in cities, keeping guests captive in often terrible bars and restaurants. In contrast, Saco group’s Locke aparthotels (also in London and Edinburgh), accept that modern travellers want an authentic city experience. They want to explore cities and stay in hotels whose bars, restaurants, events programmes and co-working spaces feel plugged into the neighbourhood – in Whitworth Locke’s case the Gay Village and that Oxford Road corridor.
There are numerous good places to hang out nearby (the Refuge, the Font bar, the Hatch shipping-container development, plus live music venues such as YES and Gorilla, and Village bars such as Velvet and the Molly House), and Whitworth Locke wants to knit itself into that. Its restaurant will open in June (an events space will follow) and, as with Locke’s ground-floor, street-facing coffee shop, Foundation, that restaurant will be run by an independent operator. That restaurateur will be aware that Whitworth Locke’s 160 unusually large rooms include high-end galley kitchens. That is the level of freedom millennial tourists demand: cook, order Deliveroo, eat out… It’s their choice. And, next morning, they can work it off with free yoga classes in the gym.
Central to this idea of Whitworth Locke as a fluid home-from-home, is its co-working lounge. The absence of staff is notable. No one is badgering you to buy a drink. The vibe is serene: a rainforest mural on one wall, and distressed, exposed-brick columns framing a kind of indoor pergola. Lighting changes over the day. It even smells nice. Hotel guests, students and local business people – seduced by that blurring of work-life boundaries – lounge around, tap at laptops or hold meetings.
Whitworth Locke has only been open since last November but it is busy. The (very un-British) idea is that travellers, while sitting on a beanbag looking at their latest design project, will chat to locals, perhaps fellow creatives, and connect. To the naked eye, of course, it just looks like a room full of people staring at screens.
Helpfully, Whitworth Locke occupies a handsome complex of 19th-century buildings. The hotel’s cocktail bar – the menu serviceable, if unexciting – sits on a cobbled alley under a cast-iron-and-glass atrium, fecund with greenery.
The interior design, by New York-based Grzywinski+Pons, is similarly persuasive. It subtly mixes the slimline, ergonomic chic and warm fabric tones of modern Scandi design (one lounge area is surrounded by a low wall clad in felt), with something closer to 1980s Miami. My room has a glitzy brass windowsill, spindly gold clothes hangers, a smoked-glass dining table and is painted an apricot shade I’m calling, LA Sunset.
The detail is excellent. The bedrooms even include magnetic strips to block out the light from any digital displays at night. But, occasionally, Whitworth Locke is too clever for its own good. Salted caramel popcorn rather than biscuits by the kettle? Try-hard. Need to figure out how to adjust the heating at 4.30am? Turn on the smart TV. And why was I up at that time? Manchester parties late and this is not the most soundproofed building. Bring earplugs.
Guests can breakfast at a modest discount in Foundation (£10 eat-in, £8 takeaway; card-only, like the hotel). The service is unusually sunny and the coffee and food – scrambled eggs and spinach on sourdough in this case – is OK. Personally, I prefer Idle Hands Coffee near Piccadilly station. Overall, however, for all it occasionally teeters on hipster self-parody, Whitworth Locke is an alluring package: an enlightened vision of the future of city-centre hotels.
• Accommodation was provided by Whitworth Locke, which has doubles from £110 room-only
Ask a local
Jamie Bull, DJ and co-promoter of Manchester club night, Homoelectric
A 10-minute bus ride away down Oxford Road is Whitworth Art Gallery and its neighbouring park – for a quick fix of nature and art. The current exhibition about popular 70s Moss Side club, the Reno, is worth a look. It runs until March 2020.
The Grade II-listed Marble Arch, slightly off the beaten track on Rochdale Road, is a great spot for locally brewed beers and good food. Save room for a slice of its Manchester tart. Built in 1888, the pub is a sliver of Ancoats history that has survived the surrounding redevelopment. It has beautiful Victorian tiles, an open fire and is dog friendly.
On the edge of the Northern Quarter, Cottonopolis Food & Liquor is worth checking out for its Japanese-inspired menu. There are DJs on every night covering soul, funk, disco and chilled beats.
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