It was bigger than Disneyland: Story of Belle Vue to come alive in Manchester Histories Festival

The youth of today might baulk at a trip to a botanical gardens or zoo during the long summer holidays.

But for generations of Mancunians – and even visitors from further afield – Belle Vue was the ultimate way to while away the hours under East Manchester’s not-so-tropical sun. 

Once attended by millions of tourists, now nearly 40 years after closing the showground is being re-visited.

The story behind ‘the showground of the world’ that attracted two million visitors a year in its heyday can now be uncovered at the Manchester Histories Festival, which starts today.

Belle Vue was once the entertainment epicentre of the north housing a zoo, a circus, a speedway track as well as hosting gigs from the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Clash.

A total of 21 events will be staged commemorating the showground over the ten-day nostalgic extravaganza and festival director, Claire Turner, says the show was massive in its day.

“It was huge, it was bigger than Disneyland,” she told MM.

“People travelled from all over the country to visit.

“In the same way wherever I have travelled and you say ‘Manchester’ and people just go ‘Oh Manchester United!’ people used to say ‘Belle Vue’.

“Apparently in South Wales they used to say ‘Oh Manchester, that’s that place near Belle Vue isn’t it?’”

The showground which closed in 1977 also played host to boxing matches, wrestling matches, stock-car racing, dances and political rallies.

Tributes made by former workers, trapeze artists, speed way racers and simply people who loved attending the showground are incorporated in to the Belle Vue: Showground of the World Exhibition.

People were encouraged to share their memories of Belle Vue via social media, e-mail and interactive workshops and Claire claims it is a place that many people hold dearly to their heart.    

“People have a real passion for Belle Vue because they had those landmark moments there,” she said.

“Like the first time they saw an Elephant, or the first time they went dancing or the first time they fainted at a rock gig and a huge amount of people met their partners there.”

“It provided something for all the family, for different generations and there was nowhere else like it in the country at the time.”

Such was the array of activities that took place, Claire believes that a visit to the Belle Vue would tap in to anybody’s interest.

The director also thinks the Manchester History Festival, like the legendary showground, provides something for everyone and challenges the often negative stigma attached to history.

“I think people will have great fun which people don’t always equate with history, I think people think of history as being quite dusty and serious and boring.”

“I recently spoke to a woman about the festival and I asked her if she was coming to it and she said ‘I’m not interested in history’,” Claire added.

“So I said ‘what are you interested in?’ and she said ‘Take That’.

“I replied ‘what if we did an event about the history of Take That?’ to which she said ‘Oh I’d come to that!’

“I said ‘well you’re interested in history then!’

“History is about the things we are interested in, it’s about our passions and it’s about how we are part of that and how it shapes our lives and how it shapes the places we live.”

The show climaxes on Saturday March 29 when 90 exhibitors will descend on Manchester Town Hall for the festival’s Celebration Day.

Over 3,500 visitors came through the doors of the Town Hall at last year’s event and Claire believes the festival showcases all the facets that have made Manchester the vibrant city it is today.

“Everything in the festival is part of how we built our city,” she said.

“Whether you label it as entertainment, sport, science or education, that all played its part in creating the city of 2014.

“I think people will go away (from the festival) feeling very proud of their city.”

For more information about the Manchester Histories Festival visit

Image courtesy of William Shewbridge, via Flickr, with thanks

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