A Love Letter To Fallowfield, Manchester’s Lost Student Paradise
To some, maybe even you, the bad old days of Fallowfield might sound like Salo by way of Salford.
The author, sat in a trolley, having the time of his life.
For two solid years, I was woken up three or four times a night, every night by people singing the "Happy Days" theme tune. It was the late Noughties, and I was living in the student mecca that was Fallowfield, Manchester.
My flat was typical of Manchester's student accommodation: the kitchen was in the attic, the living room was a cupboard on the second floor, there wasn't a straight wall in the place and—delightfully—my bedroom was immediately above Happy Days, a late night take out spot. Every single night groups of pissed up students would stand directly under my window to belt out "Monday, Tuesday, HAPPY DAYS!" stopping only for a mouthful of chicken or a drag on a rollie. It was a particular kind of hell, but looking back now those days were more fun than I'll ever have again.
Fallowfield's golden age of 2007 to 2014 was a genuinely wonderful thing to be part of. Sure, it wasn't as culturally significant as Woodstock, and yes, there probably won't be as many articles dedicated to its rise and fall as there have been to the second summer of love, but in terms of unbridled hedonism it was unmatched. Those few square miles were home to the student population of three major universities with more bars per capita than is either sensible or necessary.
Those attracted to Fallowfield were a unique bunch. These were people who had come of age when Skins—and Skins Parties—was an actual thing as opposed to a quaint point of reference like new rave or property ownership for people under the age of 45. They were lucky enough to go to uni when it was cheap enough to be "about the experience", and they were already a year or two in when the economy tanked, along with their employment prospects. When you're 18 months into a social science degree and suddenly Gordon Brown has to sell the gold to keep cash machines dispensing, any qualms you had about your sixth night out in a row sort of evaporate.
The combination of time, place, and people, created a party culture unlike anything before or since. Even the infrastructure of Fallowfield seemed catered to getting right on it. You had Gaffs, the newsagent specialising in Warehouse Project tickets, bongs and (then legal) mephedrone. You had the central strip of late night, cut price, takeaways. From the aforementioned Happy Days, to Chicken King—a place so loved, it even has its own music video. And of course there were the bars.
Fallowfield had everything from the cheap glitz of Baa Bar, whose music policy was as sickly sweet as their £1 shots, to the old man charm of The Friendship, where you could have a sit down Thai whilst watching the football with problem-drinking pensioners.
The Ram & Shackle, probably the quintessential Fallowfield bar, was ostensibly a hotel—though I can't imagine anyone has ever stayed there. You could spend an entire day drinking their homebrew for a tenner, before getting a stamp for free entry across the road at Red Rum. Red Rum, for those of you unlucky enough to have not lived in or near M14 during this epoch, was a cramped basement under a post office delivery store. You'd pass through the always-unsettling door cage, go downstairs and into the smoked out sweatbox that provided some of the best music in Manchester. Hundreds would cram in to sweat it out at house, techno and dubstep nights. It was an anarchic, scaled down Warehouse Project that would have you glued to the dancefloor—until someone would drop an inevitable pill fart and the whole room would go for a smoke break.
There was The Bop, where swarms of freshers in fancy dress would be bussed in from their inner city halls to dance to Timbaland and vomit on themselves. There was Orange Grove which was popular only because it had the merest scrap of grass where you could sit and drink on a rare sunny day. There was Queen of Hearts and its baby brother The Cheshire Cat where you would go to pull, The Corner where you would go to dance and Revolution, where you would not go. And then, and then, there was Robbos.
Robinskis, or Robbos as it was and always will be known to those of us who darkened its doors, began life as a classic student bar. A pitcher of Fosters would set you back a fiver, a pint and a burger less than that. There were karaoke nights and battered pool tables. In 2009 or so, Robbos went bankrupt and the site lay dormant. One night while walking home from town with a few friends, I passed its dark yellow exterior and heard the faint, but unmistakable thud-thudding of 140 BP,M drum and bass. Up for an adventure we tried the unmanned doors, which creaked open with ease. In the hallway the faint sound of muffled voices and barely there laughter drifted down the stairs, hardly noticeable over the din of the music. Spurred on by the tunes and the booze in our system, we slipped up the stairs. At the top we were greeted by a sight I'll never forget.
A handful of people dancing to bait drum & bass, played off a phone through the PA. More revellers in the corners, visibly k-holing. A bar piled high with pizza boxes and people doing lines off stools. Fag-trails coalesced with weed smoke and the unmistakeable smell of Mkat. The only lights in the place came from the streetlights outside and the green neon of the fire escape. The fifteen or so people inside didn't even register our arrival, they carried on, a Manson family of ket zombies stuck in the sands of time.
With so many students living in close proximity to each other, the party scene became the backbone of the area. With no sane person wanting to actually live there, the local businesses became more and more dependent on a strong student community to survive. But as Fallowfield's reputation for partying hit its zenith, it was only a matter of time before the powers that be would conspire to bring it crashing down.
The first time partying in Fallowfield would make the news was way back in 2008. Lancross Road, which at the time was ground zero for house parties, had found itself the location for five separate bashes on the same day. The accommodating hosts decided to join forces to create a huge street party. Speakers were brought outside, decks were placed on roofs, and...the police inevitably turned up and the whole thing ended up on the news.
This kicked off a campaign of increasingly hysterical media storms against the horrors of Fallowfield, one that would culminate with the area's house parties being discussed in the House of Commons. "Students race each other to A&E in lethal drinking game" proclaimed the Daily Mail. The Owen's Park tower, which served as University of Manchester's halls in Fallowfield was a 21-storey brutalist monolith. The Tower drinking game involved having a shot on every floor, or until you 'went to A&E' which the Mail labelled a "new low for binge Britain".
This level of notoriety could never last and in June 2014 the floor literally fell out, when 300 people crammed into the living room of a student house causing it to collapse into the basement. Twenty people sustained minor injuries and the council had a green light to pressure the universities into shutting the whole thing down.
Now professional security is required for any gathering of over ten people and anyone hosting unsanctioned parties runs the risk of expulsion. This year Manchester Uni will even be employing G4S to patrol Fallowfield. But by the time these measures came in, the party was already over. The world had changed again, tuition fees had doubled, austerity had hit and a cultural shift was occurring in the student body.
I last visited Fallowfield in December 2015. The streets, largely, looked the same. But any trace of those halcyon days had vanished. Almost all of the business' mentioned in this piece are no longer active. The bars that are left were empty. Owens Park is readying itself for demolition.
To some, maybe even you, the bad old days of Fallowfield might sound like Salo by way of Salford, but as club closures reach epidemic levels and young people are facing more debt and less fun, I can't help but feel those days represented a sort of hedonistic high water mark for Britain. With those involved now scrambling to build a career in an era of low wages and high rents, the Fallowfield years provided a shelter not just from the transition into adulthood but also increasing hostility of the outside world.
Happy days, indeed.