By Bartek BasistaFrom delving into sandstone caves in Stockport to travelling far beneath Trafford Town Hall, Hayley Flynn – creator of the award-winning Manchester-based site Skyliner – certainly has an adventurous approach to interacting with the places around us and sharing them with others.

See whole new angles of urban areas and edgelands, as Skyliner provides a platform to preserve Greater Manchester heritage by searching for the unspoken stories and hidden histories sealed into these spaces. Having achieved an MA in Place Writing at The Manchester Writing School (Manchester Metropolitan University), Hayley’s approach to cityscapes is refreshing in both its insight and its interrogation. Her website itself, which takes the form of an online magazine with striking colour photographs, has won acclaim such as Best Arts and Culture Blog at The UK Blog Awards and Best City and Neighbourhood Blog at the Manchester Blog Awards.

Not only an esteemed curator and researcher, Hayley is also a tour guide with a difference: delivering guided walks that encourage people to explore and pay more attention to place. Her ‘Modern History of the Northern Quarter’ tour has been particularly popular, pointing out details of this district of the city centre you may have never seen before – from the Thomas Street Pineapple to the ceramic birds on Turner Street. Plus there is plenty of street art to enjoy: from backstreet murals to massive designs! Skyliner has brought the subject of ‘Art in Architecture’ alive in another guided walk and other walks include ‘The Invisible City’, ‘Women of the Arts’ and a brand new development ‘Follow the Buddleia’: taking in the post-war art of William Mitchell, the stories of Alexandra Place, and exploring under-covered areas along the rivers.

In her years working on Skyliner, Hayley has found an abandoned miniature village in Levenshulme, got to grips with the ghosts of Stretford Mall, visited Salford’s St Philip’s crypt and even explored The Albert Hall whilst it was still abandoned, having laid so for over 40 years: leading to a beautiful photo essay with local photographer Andrew Brooks. Hayley has collaborated with Andrew on a number of occasions, and his stunning photography was the feature of a previous HAUNT Manchester article here.

The Skyliner site provides a type of archive for Hayley’s exploratory work, a process she has described as ‘alternative’ and ‘honest tourism’. Not only does it document cities and edgelands from a place-writing perspective, but also encourages people to consider contemporary issues in the area, such as gentrification and the loss of public space. Hayley does not shy away from asking questions of urban areas such as – why are certain features of place noticed but not others? How should heritage locations be handled, and who ultimately is responsible for them? It is perhaps no wonder that she was appointed as the UK’s first ever ‘City Curator’ for The National Trust. Pictured below: inside The Albert Hall before renovation, photograph by Andrew Brooks

By Andrew BrooksHayley has cracked some more questions too in her work on Skyliner.  For example, she has debunked many of the myths surrounding The Guardian Exchange nuclear bunker beneath Manchester centre, and attempted to find out who created the mysterious murals of Spring Gardens. No stranger to delving into potentially murky territory, other fascinating examples of Skyliner coverage in Greater Manchester includes exploring the culverted medieval bridges beneath Rochdale, investigating the umbrella-lined alleyway of Boardman’s Entry just off Manchester’s King Street and looking at the abandoned Police cells of Bootle Street

Here at HAUNT Manchester we decided to speak to Hayley herself to find out more…

Hello Hayley. May I ask, why the name The Skyliner?

“There’s no great depth behind the name, just years of exploring cities and wearing eyeliner led me to settle on a sort of pun about both my gender and interests. I guess I should have made the content more about the female experience of a city with that name in mind, but I began by unearthing stories of forgotten or unloved buildings so it was always more about the people associated with those places over the years, never self-referential.”

Your work, both written and in terms of your walking tours, often encounters the under-celebrated and hidden aspects of place. Why do you these places continue exist in such populated areas and why is it important to discuss them?

“In retrospect most of my work seems focussed on the city but a lot of my first explorations of place were the likes of Hulme Hippodrome, the nuclear bunker in Old Trafford, and air raid shelters in the sandstone caves around Stockport. Most of these spectacular locations are on the peripheries. That said, many of the empty buildings with a story to tell are in the city centre. They’ve come about in a variety of ways. Changes in culture and demand like the decline of the music hall, and then an inertia in terms of the city’s growth in the following decades.

“Until the mid-‘80s there were still only a maximum of 1,000 city centre residents, people came here to work and they left again at night time. I guess part of that daily evacuation meant that people didn’t see any need to save or convert these places, now our night time economy does a lot for these places. Look at how long the Albert Hall had been abandoned until Trof stepped in. Now we’re on the race to become a world class city and fewer of these places will continue to exist. When I first started documenting these places in 2011 there weren’t many other online platforms that shared such detailed research, or finding out these histories wasn’t always very accessible unless you were a researcher. I wanted to fill that gap between researcher and interested citizen, and more than anything I wanted people to start to look at the city in a new light and to think critically about their histories, their design and what these places meant to the future of the city.” Pictured below: Dodge Hill by Andrew Brooks

By Andrew Brooks

What prompted your approach to urban space in this way – and why did you choose to focus on the North, particularly Manchester?

“Since starting Skyliner the articles have taken a back seat to my tours, and perhaps to my Instagram account too which is the quick hit for people to come and find out interesting facts without having to commit to a long-form piece of writing. The way in which I approach urban spaces with my tours is to interrogate it with my audience, some of my tours are just good fun but the backbone of what I do is what I’ve been calling ‘honest tourism’ and have lately found out has something of a movement worldwide as the ‘anti-tour’.

“I see my tours, and my written work, as a chance to tell people about the city in all of its ugly glory. I don’t want to shy away from the fact there’s so much litter so instead, once in a while, I run my tours for free in exchange for guests litter picking as we go (this has been overwhelmingly popular so far, a real surprise for me). I don’t want to point out a mural depicting a homeless person and fear that talking about our issues with homelessness and addiction would be off-putting and not adhere to some sort of unwritten rule that we must only talk about the positives. I point out flaws but I do so in a way that people want to problem solve and engage with the city. In terms of why Manchester - it was the place I knew best, although Liverpool is the city where, as a child, I learned to trawl through library archives and study its architecture and I’d love to focus some of my research there.”

People often describe certain, often neglected, areas of the city as ‘haunted by the ghosts of the past etc’. Why do you think we continue to have an uneasy relationship with the pasts of place – and is this something we should be scared of or learn from? Or neither?

“I think, however macabre a place is thought to be, it’s all based around a romanticism of sorts - we do have a habit of fetishizing abandoned places and imagining horrors of the past and these empty places can really feel full of a heavy sort of energy.

“I’ve been interested in this especially since looking into my own past and finding out the hospital where I was born and the college I went to have both become these haunted old buildings - I did feel like a ghost to see my own past erasing itself in that way. I was born in Billinge, it was abandoned some years ago but they couldn’t immediately demolish it as it was then occupied by a colony of bats. I found photographs of the empty wards, pink textured wallpaper with floral borders, and it all seemed so tragic, there didn’t feel another word or emotion for it. All the babies who started life there just 30 years ago now had nowhere to pin their story to on the map as it was eventually demolished and is now a modern housing estate. My college still stands but the walls have caved in, and it's documented online in dramatic shots set up to look like a horror film. And it is a kind of horror, a horror that the places that made you have ceased to exist.  I’ve written about something I call 'grief of place' before, saying goodbye to villages and towns from childhood for the last time, and I really feel its the same as grieving for a person.

“In a more day-to-day sense these places that are left to decay are really just symbols of our hopes dashed - I think of all the promise of new futures both the hospital and the college brimmed over with...but those promises are in the cities now, not in the satellite towns where most of us grew up.”

We have just discussed the concept of being scared – and another prospect which people often refer to fearfully is the changing face of the city and its development (often demonised). Do you think the changing face of the city is something to fear?

“Well, I feel like this takes me back to those places I’ve lost. I don’t have a problem with development and progress but it needs to be smart and considered and still sympathetic to the city’s heritage in some capacity. I don’t think anything new going up in the city at the moment is in line with any of that (except for over the River in Salford perhaps). If we continue on, imagining for a moment that we’re not constrained by the climate crisis, then I do see a future of mega-cities, and though this isn’t exactly something I embrace, when I think of the towns I once knew left floundering in the shallows whilst the surrounding cities prosper, then maybe it’s a future for those places once again. I don’t know. That might be too ‘Bladerunner’ of me, I’m sure there are more achievable ways to save these places in the short term, but I am experiencing a guilt lately of being so involved with Manchester that it’s greater than the sum of its parts - those parts being Greater Manchester.”

Follow The Buddleia

Are there any locations in Greater Manchester that you feel particularly drawn to? Why do you think this is?

“I’ve got a project in mind where I write about every stop on the Metrolink lines, a sort of tram-based writer in residence. There’s places along the route that I’ve already written multiple odes to - Pomona being the one area that I’m perhaps most aligned with. An urban wasteland full of blackberries, and the tri-point of Manchester, Trafford and Salford. It feels magical to me, like there’s rips in the fabric of time. I find myself drawn to Collyhurst more and more these days, and those parts of the region that are within walking distance of the city but are so segregated by abrupt ends in the landscape - unpassable roads like Great Ancoats Street that act like moats around a fortress.”

How can having an increased geographical awareness of place transform our engagement with it for the better?

“If you take notice of a place, even if it’s only to observe its flaws, then you can’t help but feel invested in it somehow and want to make a positive change or see it taken care of.  I also think it’s a really cathartic exercise when you’re out exploring a new place, and to take positive experiences from the city in that sense can have the same effect. Fundamentally I think knowledge of a place, on whatever level, leads you to care more and that can only benefit the future of those places.”

Visit The Skyliner to find out more.

By Emily Oldfield


Image 1 (of Hayley Flynn) by Bartek Basista

Images 2 and 3 by Andrew Brooks

Image 4 from The Skyliner website