On the edge of Piccadilly as you turn into the Northern Quarter, there is a bizarre and strange shop that blasts vinyl records from decades long gone, with passers-by either looking and wondering or lured into its hidden cave below the Manchester pavements — it’s called Empire Exchange.
If you haven’t come across it already it’s based on Newton Street, and it’s got more weird and wonderful hidden treasures from the past than your grandparent’s attic — left as if time stood still. This secondhand collectables shop has been going for 35 years and is one of the last quirky collector’s items units left in Manchester city centre as the age of corporatism has a firm grip, slowly squeezing them out.
Its window displays are filled with mannequins wearing Thunderbirds, brass band outfits, Batman and Star Wars costumes, or ’70s Disco wigs paired with oversized sunglasses from the same era. It’s an overcrowded treasure trove, cluttered with years upon years of nostalgia, buried under long lost memories. Old scratchy records play at full pelt as they waft into the streets above and dare people to delve into its depths.
As you walk down the stairs, you take in vinyls strung along the walls decoratively and step beneath the likes of Batman, Darth Vader, and a lineup of ex-footballers looking down and watching you. Beneath the timber staircase, you can see a dragon’s head peering through the gaps as you finally enter its lair.
John Ireland, 70, owns this fascinating world that resides beneath Manchester. He lives in Whalley Range with his wife of 50 years. John was a builder when he was younger but enjoyed collecting things as a hobby, including stamps. He said: “I used to collect stamps, I was a stamp collector, but I was a builder by profession.
“I was accumulating a lot of books and stuff and I needed somewhere to move all my accumulated stock and then it all just sort of developed and we were very popular. At one time there used to be quite a lot of shops like us but they’ve all gone now. But we’re all getting on a bit.”
It was from his hobbies that Empire Exchange was born. He co-founded the shop with his friend Ian Stott who sadly passed away in 2021. John’s friend Paul also helped with the running of things, as they had a blast together throughout the years – though Paul has had to take time off for personal reasons.
John’s son Dave Ireland also helps run the family business. You might see him in the shop sometimes, when he’s not going to house clearances and loading stock in the warehouse based in Old Trafford, before it’s sent to the shop. Items come as donations from house clear outs and are passed on to new owners in small sales.
The shop has stood in its current location for around 23 years. Prior to that there were two, one located in Shudehill and one on Charles Street. About the unusual shop, Dave says: “A lot of things happen in this shop that are just kind of cosmic and it’s a funny kind of place.
“No matter where you place Empire Exchange, it seems to be on ley lines, it seems to have spiritual connotations. People love it for all different manner of reasons, and they all know it because we’ve been trading for over 40 years.”
After all those years trading in the centre, both John and Dave have some stories to tell. One that stands out relates to the late co-founder Ian who died after catching Covid during the height of the pandemic, aged 64. Katie, who used to work Saturdays at Empire Exchange, brought some of his ashes in a small urn into the shop to rest where he spent many of his years.
Dave didn’t realise Ian’s ashes were inside the pot, and when he was pricing up ornaments for display, he accidentally placed a ticket on this one too. One day, a customer came in and decided they liked the look of it and bought it – only to get home and discover what they thought was someone’s pet’s ashes in it. They brought it back to the shop, and John’s long lost pal remains on site. However, the urn now has a note stuck on, it clearly stating : ‘Ian’s ashes do not sell’.
Showing me Ian’s funeral booklet, put together by Katie and Paul, Dave said: “It just goes to show what a fantastic guy he was. Over a year on, people are shocked that we’ve lost Ian. I didn’t realise that Katie had his ashes separated and put into little wooden urns. She’d given one to the shop because that’s where he’s worked for over 30 years.
“One day when I was standing in for someone, a lady asked for trinket boxes and I gathered a few together and charged her £3 each for them. Luckily, about a week later she came back with the pot and she said ‘this has got a pet’s ashes in it’.
“And I’d realised what I’d done, I’d sold Ian’s ashes. Since then I’ve stuck a sticker on the urn and it says ‘do not sell’. I think he would have enjoyed that story as he had a good sense of humour, our Ian. He was sold in his own shop. Anyway, I won’t sell that again, hopefully.”
Dave talked about the time he had to gather old furniture from Carborundum Co grinding factory, over in Old Trafford, saying: “It was a 1950s office that hadn’t been touched for 70 years. In the ’50s they had an Art Deco revival. And we had to punch the door open to it.
“They had Deco wooden filing cabinets, candle sticks and paraffin lamps that you don’t see anymore. It’s like they just put everything down and closed the factory. When we broke into the room it was amazing, it was like a snapshot in time.
“There were signs on the wall that said ‘please do not spit’ because of the grinding dust used to hang in the air. I sold one of the enamel signs from the ’50s that said ‘please do not spit. Carborundum Co’, that was unusual.”
Another funny tale was when Dave and the gang thought they were collecting a few boiler suits from a clear out in Ancoats to sell in their shop. Dave reminisced: “It turned out one of them was an F1 race suit that used to belong to Roland Ratzenberger. It was white with a gold belt and had scribing across the middle.”
Ratzenberger was killed in a 200mph crash at the San Marino grand prix in 1994.
John fell into alcoholism in his 30s while he worked as a builder. He was in the habit of having a daily drink and found himself needing to carry a small bottle around with him. It was then he realised he was an alcoholic.
He said: “It started off with a regular drink everyday and then got to the point where I’d have to carry a small bottle of whiskey around with me in my top pocket. I used to run a site of around 30 lads. It couldn’t carry on.”
He’s been sober now for 37 years after he got help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Now he assists AA in answering the helpline to people struggling with alcohol issues, which he does on a weekly basis.
If you haven’t visited Empire Exchange yet, you need to go in and have a look as there aren’t many places like it left. There’s so many different interesting pieces of memorabilia and bric-a-brac within this cavelike place, and the staff are very friendly too.
Located at 1 Newton Street, M1 1HW, Empire Exchange is open 10am-6pm every day.
Memories of Manchester’s long lost but not forgotten club nights
Before the face of the city centre underwent a glow-up, seeing the gentrification of its different districts with the building of numerous city centre apartments and the addition of many boujee restaurants and bars, Manchester had a number of really great dives.
In the days before social media, people would instead meet up in social situations and dance the night away to great music, get totally steaming and have a laugh with mates while making plenty of new ones – it’s what it was all about.
These absolute dungeons held club nights legendary enough to be written into history books, and many eventful nights took place in them – with some former revellers still around to tell the tale.
Those were the days; when your mate would ask you, ‘what are you wearing?’ and you’d reply, ‘jeans and a nice top’.
As rituals in preparation for the weekend would begin… The girls would get their stilettos re-heeled at the cobblers, after a few weeks of stomping them right down to the metal.
The guys would buy a new tea-towel print shirt and apply far too much hair gel, with neatly separated strands at the front of their short back and sides.
Brothers would steal their sister’s hair straighteners, making them pong of sweaty hair, but still deny using them. Sisters would steal each other’s clothes and replace them the next day, with more than a hint of cigarettes and booze, sprayed over with cheap Exclamation from the local Superdrug.
Fancy coats were a hassle, it didn’t matter if it was raining cats and dogs or snowing outside, you didn’t need a jacket because you were Northern.
There were no smart phones, so you either took a Kodak out with you or you paid for a keyring containing a group photo of you with your mates, taken by photographers who would be doing the rounds.
Some nights were so great that you would dance until the sun came up and the lights went down. Sweaty, red-eyed clubbers would spill out onto the streets hunting for crap food and a cab to take them home. And to top it off, you could go out and have a belting night on a tenner.
Here’s some of the gone but not forgotten club nights around Greater Manchester and tales of the shenanigans that went on there – from the partygoers that were there.
Based on the old Castle Irwell student village for University of Salford students, this hell hole contained drunken carnage like nowhere else and was an iconic part of student life in Salford – a rite of passage.
Built on the site of a former race-track which became student halls sometime in the 1970s, The Pav was the student dive bar that was said to be slowly sinking into the ground over the years.
Former student Louise Patton remembers the ’15-hours of drinking’ nights being ‘the most memorable’ where student boozers wore themed T-shirts – pretty impressive memory skills after all that alcohol!
Louise Thompson, who worked behind the bar for more beer money, recalls ‘drinking out-of-date vodka mudshakes after hours, until the cleaners would arrive in the morning’.
Drunken students would call ‘Alan the taxi driver’ to take them into Manchester and bring them back to the halls at the end of the night.
Chris said: “Jeez, I’ve countless memories! I worked and drank there for three years from 2003. I met my wife and made so many friends. Been in some states in that place!”
The Pav no longer exists as Castle Irwell closed in 2009 and was sold off so a new housing estate could be built.
This club was the place to go to hear all your favourite indie-rock bangers. But, club-goers soon got to know that if you went up to request a song from the DJ, it wouldn’t get played.
The same set played week-in, week-out as you started the night with The Charlatans and ended it jumping and shaking your head around to Faithless. Fifth Ave held epic foam parties that would get very messy. Louise remembers how the ‘bank holiday foam parties were brilliant’.
Once the place to go if you liked R’n’B, this venue was huge. So popular, it would have queues along the front, around the corner and all the way up the side street – in any weather.
Hundreds of shivering girls would persevere through the pain of frost bite just to be able to get inside the club. Lads would separate from their mates and ask to join groups of girls to hopefully get accepted entry.
It wasn’t easy to get inside – if the door staff didn’t like what you were wearing or there were too many of you, you would likely be turned away.
The layout inside had balconies overlooking the dance floor area – after all, it was an old amphitheatre. Located inside the Theatre Royal building on Peter Street, it became Discotheque Royale in the ’70s, before it was rebranded as Coliseum and later, M-Two. The club closed its doors for good in 2009.
About M-Two, Dave McLaughlin remembers: “There was loads of bouncers always on the door and the queue was huge. The dance floor was brilliant and the music was really good in there as well. They had like R’n’B and Hip Hop.”
Reminiscing of his misspent youth, he continued: “We’d go to a friend’s house first for pre-drinks, then get the bus into town and drink pitchers at Paramount before the club.”
He added: “Back then, the music influenced the way that you dressed and the places you went. Music was important.”
Circoloco at Area 51
Laura Jayne, who worked for some of the club nights and liked to rave the night away at others, recalls: “I loved all the Electro house nights: Studio One 11 at Venus, Ampersands, Sankey’s but most especially Area 51’s Circoloco night.
“That [Circoloco at Area 51] was the best night we ever had in there after a crazy bidding war with Sankey’s to host the night.
“Working for the club, I always remember the politics between the venues to get the bookings – the rivalry was very real. I miss those days; of being out for the vibes and the music. Making new friends each time and dancing my a*se off for hours on end.
“Area 51 was absolutely rammed and the roof [would be] pumping off with the tunes. Venus was mint – I think it was the connection to strangers. You don’t get that in the same way anymore. I’m glad we had the times we had before Instagram.”
This club had three floors which each played different genres of music. The lower level played all the feel good cheesy tracks from the time. The next level up played R’n’B and Hip Hop tunes, and the top floor played dance and trance tunes.
Revellers would drink bottles of alcopops and dance the night away. When it was time to leave, navigating the metal stair case after a few too many drinks was pretty tricky.
Especially as it was made extra slippery from all the clubbers who had wandered between floors throughout the night to sample the different music on offer, while clumsily spilling their drinks along the way.
It felt like a weekly basis that someone would land on their backside and go flying down this staircase. Walkabout shut in 2015 and later reopened as Blues Kitchen.
It played pure dance music all night long and had a huge dance floor – so big, it also held roller discos. Ex-party-goer Dana takes us back to an era before social media as she shares her clubbing experience throughout in the early noughties. This club had metal detectors on the way in.
She reminisces of the times she would borrow her friend’s ID who looked nothing like her to get into clubs. “There were no camera phones, it wasn’t about going out for the pictures, it was about dancing the night away, ” she said.
“You’d have to look through sites like Tillate.com to see the fun everyone had or take your disposal camera and have belly laughs at the non-edited photos.”
Dana remembers: “Going out with just £10 and getting drunk and not coming home until the sun came up. And hoping to see the guy you fancied or meet new people as there wasn’t any social media.”
Cha Cha Boudoir
Ali Saeedian fondly remembers outrageous club nights in Manchester’s Gay Village before the pandemic. He says: “Nights such as ‘Cha Cha Boudoir’ that elevated the standards of club performances to new levels where nothing was impossible and a spectacular show was put on no matter what, and in turn launched countless drag careers in Manchester.
“If waiting a month or three for the next event was too long, Aftershock at club Sub101 was the place to be. No matter where you started, everyone used to end up in Aftershock dancing and sniffing poppers with [drag artist] Anna Phylactic.
“There was such a buzz around these events every time they were on. The dilemma of what to wear, when to go, where to meet, what time the performances were on, who was Queen of the night (the winning performer that night) was honestly playing on a loop in my head everyday.”
“The aim was always to shock and stand out, in contrast to today’s post pandemic neutral and humble sense of living.
“Or is it just that no one has the same energy? Maybe I was just younger.” Ali has created his own event night called Your Dad Sells Avon to give clubbers a chance to re-live the days before Covid.
“I started YDSA because I missed the pre-pandemic days of clubbing in Manchester. Every aspect of this club night is sampled, or paying homage to past Manchester club nights or venues,” he added.
You can follow @YDSAEVENTS if you’re interested in attending the club nights and re-living your pre-Covid party days.
What’s your favourite Manchester clubbing memory?
These are the most haunted places in Greater Manchester
WARNING: Not for the faint-hearted…
If you think a walk down Market Street on a Saturday afternoon is the scariest thing Manchester has to offer, you are gravely mistaken…
Because it turns out our region actually has a massive number of ‘allegedly’ haunted buildings ranging from pubs, abandoned hospitals and even cathedrals (yep, even the home of God isn’t safe these days).
So, here are some of the spookiest spots to get you into that Halloween spirit…
There are many great ghost stories stemming from this historical cathedral but the most prominent rumour of all is undeniably that of Black Shuck.
Black Shuck is the generic name for a demonic giant greyhound-type dog that would haunt villages back in the day and basically cause a whole load of havoc – and, apparently, there used to be one lurking in the shadows of Manchester Cathedral.
Though legend has it that the cathedral’s own Black Shuck was actually exorcised under the bridge crossing the River Irwell a couple of decades ago, so you don’t need to worry too much about getting chomped by a demonic dog from the underworld when you’re next walking by.
The beautiful Ordsall Hall is one of the oldest buildings in the whole of Greater Manchester and is known today for its rich history… but, sadly, it is also known for housing a number of ghosts and ghouls.
Yep, the Elizabethan half-timbered manor house is apparently one of the most haunted places in the North West, and even has its own ‘ghost cam’ to capture the eerie going ons throughout the night – the most commonly reported paranormal activity takes place in the Star Chamber where the voices of small children have been heard.
Visitors to this room often report the room becoming colder, including getting shivers and feeling random cold drafts from nowhere (yes, those brave enough can actually take part in a guided ghost walk of the building… It’s a no from me).
The Ring o’ Bells Pub
The infamous Ring o’ Bells pub in Middleton is notoriously haunted, which comes as no surprise considering it is built upon the site of an ancient Druid temple where regular sacrifices and massacres were known to take place.
And, if the presence of murdered souls wasn’t enough, the pub was also home to a pair of serial killer landlords in the 17th century – legend has it that the man and his wife murdered over sixty people during their time at the pub.
Over the years, punters have reported ghost sightings, the sounds of groaning and wailing from upstairs, and even the feeling of a cold invisible hand pulling at their pockets and coats. Reckon you’re brave enough for a pint in here?
Stretford Memorial Hospital
The Stretford Memorial Hospital permanently closed in 2015, but a number of eerie spirits were allegedly left behind.
Built back in 1850 as a private residence, the building was eventually lent to the British Red Cross as an auxiliary hospital during the First World War where, as you can only imagine, hundreds of people passed away within its walls. Following the war, Stretford Memorial was then converted into a maternity hospital.
There have been a ton of ghoulish reports over the years and, thanks to the fact a number of the beds and hospital furnishings have been left behind in the abandoned building, visiting makes for a truly chilling experience (I definitely would not recommend it).
Boggart Hole Clough
While Boggart Hole Clough is one of Blackley’s more scenic green areas, legend claims the 170 acre woodland has roots in the Bronze Age and is subsequently alive with spiritual history and general creepy going-ons.
Even wilder folklore claims there’s an actual Boggart living in the woods (for those of you who haven’t seen Harry Potter, a Boggart is an evil gremlin-like creature) and has been credited for snatching a number of missing children from the 1800s.
Folklore books also suggest that the worst thing you can do with a boggart is give it a name. If you do, it will attach itself to you and pursue you to the ends of the earth until it captures you. Something to think about when you’re next wandering in the woods, okay?
Barnes Hospital, a stunning Grade II listed building in Cheadle once named the creepiest abandoned place in Britain, has now been transformed into flats – though you might not be the only thing that lives there…
Built in the 1870s by Robert Barnes, the hospital was designed to help the then thousands of factory workers in Manchester who worked and lived in dangerous and filthy environments. Of course, many people died within its four walls and, with a graveyard just around the corner, many of the poor souls who perished are said to lurk around today.
One individual reported that he saw a nurse, clear as day, doing her rounds of the patients. Only there were no patients, no beds and the tune she was whispering echoed deafeningly around the entire building. Spooky.
Retired teacher turned world’s oldest battle rapper stars in new documentary
She only meant to try it once, but now she’s a pro
A teacher from Greater Manchester who took early retirement and went on to become a battle rapper is now the star of a new documentary.
Joy France is a 66-year-old from Wigan who came across battle rapping around five years ago, shortly after taking early retirement from teaching to embark on a new direction in life.
Don’t be fooled though, beneath the warm and friendly appearance Joy will tear you apart with her brutal freestyle battle raps in front of all your friends – if you dare take her on.
After a series of life events, Joy decided to take early retirement from teaching so she could spend some time on herself to do the things she wanted to do, on a journey of self-discovery.
“I gave myself a year to discover, to enjoy this new found creativity that was to do with spoken word and I performed at festivals, and did all sorts of things for a year,” Joy told us.
But during that time, she was having far too much fun to go back to her old life, explaining: “And then I was meant to be sensible and get some supply work and be ‘grown-up’ again.
“But what happened was, I was chatting to somebody who had a little theatre – that used to be attached to Afflecks – about my year and I remember saying to him that I’d had three Residences and was appointed Creator in Residence that year at a charity shop.
“Then this guy said, ‘do you know what, Afflecks could do with a Poet in Residence. You should go and chat with the manager’.”
Thinking it would be a great idea, Joy arranged to sit down with the manager of Afflecks. She explained: “What came out of my mouth wasn’t planned.
“I said, ‘I’m going to tell you what Afflecks needs. You need a Creative in Residence – somebody who will celebrate and promote creativity of all kinds. And what you should do is give them an empty space on the quietest floor in the quietest corner, rent-free, that they can just go in and basically just invite people in to be creative and see what happens’.
“And he turned to me and said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it to you for three months, will you do it?’ I was like, ‘Okay’.”
She’s now been Creative in Residence at Afflecks for eight years.
Then, after turning 60, Joy decided to try 60 new things: “That could be anything from trying a new food, to holding an owl – I’m going with somebody to do some spray painting graffiti art, so that’ll be added to my list.”
On the events that led her into the unlikely route of battle rapping, Joy explained: “It started out I was still really quite shy into my mid 50s and then I found performance poetry and started writing songs and found my voice.
“And then I had a room in Afflecks, where I’ve been Creative in Residence for the last eight years.”
And it all went from there.
Joy showed her poems to someone at Afflecks who suggested she tried rapping – another new thing to tick off her list.
She went on: “It wasn’t like a sudden Ctrl+Alt+Delete, but there was a series of events that meant that I changed my attitude to life.
“So, instead of worrying about what people felt, and just doing what people expected me to do, you know? There were a couple of bereavements that were pivotal.”
About what it’s like to freestyle battle rap and her discovery of that world, Joy said: “It’s very intense and the battles are brutal.
“I stepped into that world thinking it was everything that I hated. I thought it was misogynistic and homophobic.
“And, you know, my intention was to see whether I had the guts and the ability to do it, so that people would look at people like me differently. What happened was, you know, people just accepted me as me.
“And all my preconceptions about that world turned upside down. It really is a lovely community, I’ve got some really good friends there. Young men talk about mental health and there’s just a mix of amazing people.”
Joy says she was meant to ‘run away’ from battle rapping and ‘only do it once’, but she’s done it several times now and plans to do more.
But her journey doesn’t stop there, as she’s now become the star of a new documentary, ‘Joy Uncensored’, available for free on YouTube by Northern Heart Films, directed by Natasha Hawthornthwaite.
The short film documents Joy’s story of how she entered the world of battle rapping and was released on August 11th this year.
Natasha came across Joy in her creative space at Afflecks in 2017 and was fascinated by Joy’s outlook on life. She approached her, and having been asked by many filmmakers before, Joy decided to say yes to Natasha.
There was something ‘different’ that she ‘liked’ about her, compared to all the other people that had previously approached her. Joy says Northern Heart Films have done ‘a really good job of capturing how scary [battle rapping] is’.
‘Joy Uncensored’ has gone on to win the Audience Awards at the Hebden Bridge Film Festival and the Wigan and Leigh Film Festival, and Best Documentary at Women Over 50 Film Festival and Beeston Film Festival.
Joy is now looking forward to heading to New York next year to compete in another battle rap. She’s also still trying even more new things, breaking ‘the stereotype’ and challenging herself.
“You know, somebody’s teaching me DJing at the moment, I might be the worst DJ in the world. But at least I’ve given it a go,” she added.
Head over to Afflecks some time and go up to the top floor – you might just come across Joy at work in her creative space.