The Rail Holiday Maker
We are The Fall - a tour of The Fall's Prestwich in the footsteps of Mark E Smith
Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Manchester holds a special place in my heart. For a while it was my saviour, my sanity. During the mid-90s I found myself living in Accrington in east Lancashire, an old cotton mill town with row after row of terraced houses rammed into the valley, surrounded by hills and brooding clouds. Whilst I generally enjoyed those days amongst great people, unable to drive I would walk to the top of one of the hills from time to time to peer outside the claustrophobic cocoon. Maybe on a rare cloudless day I might even steal a glimpse at Ingleborough and my home county, Yorkshire. But it was Manchester that saved my sanity.
A regular Saturday escape to Manchester, the bus would trundle up the hill towards Rossendale. We’d talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden, then the motorway would by-pass Bury. The interesting bit of the journey for me (and my regular visiting pal, also called Rob) would be Prestwich. Both Fall fans we’d imagine Mark E Smith holed up in his Prestwich pad plotting the next Fall masterpiece. As the double decker spluttered clumsily along Bury New Road we’d maybe look out for the gun metal coloured Mercedes that the NME had described, parked on the drive of Mark and Brix’s house in the days before the split. But for some reason we never hopped off that bus to explore further. Instead, we’d gawp from the top deck at Prestwich’s Jewish community going to synagogue, pass through Broughton, then Strangeways, finally hitting a town recently made famous by music.
I love The Fall. They are my favourite band by a country mile. I don’t love everything by The Fall though. And Mark E Smith isn’t my hero. He was a genius, there is no doubt, but a flawed one. The 1990s era Fall (should this really be Falls, as there were so many line-ups?) was a rollercoaster ride, from album chart penetrators producing consistent long players on a major label to more DIY recordings, forced back onto indie labels and into tiny venues. As the decade played out The Fall leader’s lifestyle took its toll and his behaviour became ever more erratic. I guess that’s why we never jumped off that bus.
Until now! I suppose this was 25 years in the making. Or maybe it was something exacerbated by Mark E Smith’s sad and untimely death in 2018, followed by lockdown life longing to reconnect with frenz. I’m a tour operator by trade and after months without making tours (and months without having a pint with my friend) I decided Rob and I would try out a DIY Fall tour of Prestwich. A bit of research, a rough map scribbled on a piece of paper that I’d occasionally pull out of my pocket for reference, finally we reached Prestwich tram stop.
At this point, Fall-fans, I’ll point out that it is possible to see the schools attended by Mark and other band members. It is also possible to stand outside Mark’s house with its unkempt garden. I’m not going to include such ‘sights’ in this piece as, frankly, it would be a bit odd to encourage Fall fans (sorry to stereotype, but generally 50-something men) to hang around outside schools or somebody’s house. And this ain’t the Beatles, wack!
The first port of call would be a house though. Well, a flat really. Let’s face it, the flat on Kingswood Road is already well publicised and in the public domain. Una Baines’ flat was where the first incarnations of the group would hang out in the late 70s. It’s where it all started and so it seems logical to start our tour there. From the tram stop a short walk along Fairfax Road will take you to Bury New Road, with Kingswood Road on the opposite side.
Hang on a minute though……that building on Fairfax Road looks familiar! Within a minute or two the internet confirmed that we had accidentally stumbled on an extra site. The Parish Hall next to Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church on Fairfax Road appeared on the sleeve of classic 1980 Fall single ‘How I wrote Elastic Man’. Self-satisfied, smug, off to Kingswood Road we hopped.
'Mental hospitals!' I squealed in high pitch at the other Rob, pointing into the distance up Bury New Road at the area where Prestwich Hospital once stood. Now mostly bulldozed and replaced with commercial units, this was once the largest asylum in Europe. Rob is always polite, though must have been embarrassed by his tour guide’s Fall falsetto in broad daylight on a busy street. Around the Kingswood Road era merged two themes that would help define The Fall. The squeals were my attempt at a line from 1979’s 'Repetition'. What became ever clearer as the day progressed was how Mark E Smith wrote about the things on his doorstep. Literally right outside his door.
Time for a…ahem…a comfort break, I think. Let’s have a jar at the Foresters. Walking down Bury New Road now towards town, the internet* reckons that the accountants upstairs from the hairdressers opposite the Railway & Naturalist pub is the location for ‘Psykick Dancehall’. On the opposite side of the road the same source claims that the Istanbul Grill, once the Wilton pub, was home of the ‘Rebellious Jukebox’. Before you could call ‘Taxi for Mr Nelson’ we were settled into the Foresters for the first pint of the day. It has been said many times, the Foresters is a drinkers’ pub. You can imagine Smithy sat in the corner. They were really friendly, the Holt's was good and I’ll be back again next time.
‘Right, mate, before this descends into a drinking sesh we’d better get some food in our bellies!’ suggested the well-meaning tour guide. There is a certain chippy close by, after all. Back into the daylight from Mark E Smith’s drinking den, across Bury New Road, down the side of the ‘Psykick Dancehall’ on Clifton Road, is Chips @ No 8. It was closed. We were destined to have a liquid lunch instead. First things first though, we waited for the white van man - parked up, motor running, texting someone, partially blocking the mural – to bog off so that we could have our slightly embarrassed fanboy photos taken against the beautifully bonkers backdrop of Mr Mark Edward Smith.
Back out onto Bury New Road, heading a few hundred yards towards Manchester, we hit a right onto Church Lane, a dead end with St Mary’s Church at the head of the cul-de-sac. If you take the ginnel to the left of the church as you approach it you are soon in a green oasis.
'Rabbit killer left his home for the clough,' rumbled the tour guide, reciting a favourite Fall narrative, reaching the line about the cemetery overlooking the valley of mud just as gravestones appeared around the corner. Prestwich Clough on a sunny day in May, though, was pleasantly different from the mystical landscape of ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’. I don’t recall the adjacent St Mary’s Flower Park making it into a Fall lyric, but it was a gentle diversion for two men of a certain age on their way to the next pub.
***INTERLUDE - We returned months later, Rob and I, to lead The Fall tours for the 2021 Prestwich Arts Festival. We located the spot where Michael Pollard shot photos of the band in 1984, taken at the steps of the Flower Park leading up to Bury New Road.
The next pub is the one for me. The Red Lion is back up Bury New Road opposite where we turned down Church Lane. We don’t need to walk far for Fall inspiration on this tour. A bigger, more traditional Holt's hostelry with tables outside to enjoy the sunshine, we headed inside to explore. Immediately at two o’clock is the alcove. ‘What alcove?’ you ask. The alcove in which Mark and Brix sat for the video of Wings, of course!
Sheepishly, I pulled a table and a chair into the alcove for the next Fall fanboy photo. I couldn’t persuade Rob to play Brix though. I don’t know what the local drinkers think when faced with (usually) middle-aged men in their local alehouse frothing at the mouth with excitement about one of their erstwhile drinking buddies. But we had such a good crack with them that we stayed for a second, though to be fair the Holt's Mild might have swung it too.
‘Sorry, you can’t play pool due to Covid restrictions!’ Third pint of the day tanked and now with Dutch courage, we had sneaked around the bar to the Red Lion’s pool room. We bashfully explained that we were just taking a few photos. The barman disappeared, but not before fixing us with a glare of pity. The photos were rushed attempts to emulate one of Michael Pollard’s photo shoots in that same room, the tour guide taking the part of Craig Scanlon and Rob doing his best Karl Burns. We are The Fall!
Coming out of the Red Lion (though I could’ve stayed), immediately to your right is a ginnel called Clark’s Hill. At the end, turn right onto Rectory Lane for a few hundred yards to reach the next Michael Pollard photo scene from 1984, the War Memorial.
Next stop Heaton Park. Well, not quite. The walk was a bit convoluted for two old guys with a belly full of Holt’s Mild, continuing along Rectory Lane, forking onto Bent Lane, then turning left onto Ostrich Lane. The Ostrich pub provided the next…ahem….comfort stop before we ventured into Heaton Park to find the boating lake.
‘What really went on there? We only have this excerpt!’ hollered the tour guide. But there really was a party going on around here in ‘Cruiser’s Creek’. The fun fair was in town. In the slightly incongruous setting of waltzers and candy floss alongside pedalos and pleasure boats, we found the spot where The Fall posed looking glum against a mangled tree stump in 1985. Or maybe The Fall were the incongruous ones?
***INTERLUDE - If you have a little more time at this point in the tour, you can walk up to Heaton Hall to see the lions, which also featured in band photo shots.
At this juncture we made our way into Sedgley Park to Mark’s school and also the house. Moving swiftly on, leaving Heaton Park, head a couple of hundred yards down Bury Old Road towards Cheetham Hill for our final (wet) whistle, the Woodthorpe. Now this is a grand pub, very much an eatery (Food! At last!) and former home of Sir Edward Holt. As you approach the pub, take the right-hand side entrance as you see it to enter the video for 1988’s ‘There’s a ghost in my house’. Follow the video by walking right through to the very opposite side of the building to where Mark, resplendently awkward, mimed the words to the R Dean Taylor hit, with Brix perched on a bar stool. Two women had innocently occupied the Mark and Brix spot, enjoying (like Rob and I) a long-awaited social and a bite to eat. As we positioned ourselves as close as we could for our last pint of Holt’s Bitter, I hope they didn’t misconstrue our glances. We weren’t eyeing them up; it was their seats we wanted!
From the Woodthorpe, head right, back up Bury Old Road a few hundred yards, past the Ostrich pub to reach Heaton Park tram stop. Take a tram towards the city centre, but get off at Queens Park for our final Michael Pollard inspired photo stop of the day. From the tram stop walk along Queens Road, past the Irish Heritage Centre on your left, to Cheetham Hill Road. Turn left, walk down Cheetham Hill Road past the Fort Shopping Complex, then take the left fork onto North Street. Follow North Street to Stanley Street and walk to the end. Just look over the wall. That's all. It's the cityscape that all Fall fans should recognise.
Michael Pollard's cityscape for The Fall masterpiece, This Nation's Saving Grace.
We are The Fall, from the long, long days. This tour is pretty easy to do in one day though. Let's do it again some time.
The photography of Michael Pollard inspired much of this tour. You can see his work with The Fall at http://www.michaelpollard.co.uk/mark-e-smith-fall/ or https://thefall.org/news/pics/mpollard_photos/index.html
* I am indebted to https://fourholtspubsofthemarkesmith.wordpress.com for some snippets that informed this itinerary. Thank you.