Urban sketcher Len Grant captures the quirky charm of Manchester’s Northern Quarter

Photography by Fiona Finchett

Illustrator Len Grant has drawn the places and people that make Manchester’s Northern Quarter so special in his new book, Bars and Barbers. But he needs your help to make it a reality.

If you’ve seen a man cycling through the streets of Manchester’s Northern Quarter at the weekend with a sketchbook and stool in tow, chances are it’s Len Grant. That’s because the renowned urban sketcher has spent the last couple of years busily drawing the unique charms of the city’s hippest neighbourhood.

Now, these drawings, along with anecdotes he overheard while sketching them, are being put together in a new book. Named after the two things that leapt out to Len while he was furiously sketching away, Bars and Barbers is set to be a 96-page A5 hardback book. However, he needs help on Kickstarter to take his work to a specialist printer.

With plenty of time left, we’ve got our fingers crossed that Len should be able to raise enough money in time. And if you are a fan of his work and want to chip in, be sure to head over to his Kickstarter page and make a donation. Your pledge could make all the difference.

We’re quietly confident that Bars and Barbers will raise enough to be taken to the printers, not least because his two previous sketchbooks, one based on Rusholme and the other documenting Burton Road, have both done well. With these successes under his belt, Len decided that the Northern Quarter, with all its quirkiness, should be the next challenge.

“The book is called Bars and Barbers because there are a lot of both there and because they’re particularly interesting to draw in, especially if it’s wet or cold,” Len tells Creative Boom. “I love listening to the banter in the barbers, and that often gets written up as a little story and included in the book, too.”

There’s more to the book than these haunts, though. During his travels, Len would even set himself up on the pavement to document a scene if something interesting caught his eye. And he made sure to include the Northern Quarter’s big hitters.” As the book got filled up, I made sure I’d included institutions like Afflecks, Band on the Wall, Matt and Phreds, the Design and Craft Centre,” he explains. “There are a lot of iconic places in the Northern Quarter.”

The book’s creation not only familiarised Len with these famous places but also helped him see the area in a new light. “The Northern Quarter is fiercely independent, alternative, and quite a bit grungy, which is absolutely its appeal, and I love it for that,” he says. But what I hadn’t appreciated was just how mainstream it had become.

“It’s very much on the hen and stag circuit and a popular Airbnb destination. And yes, there are already huge commercial developments on the fringes, with more to come. As a city, we have to be careful not to smother the uniqueness of the neighbourhood.”

A prime example of the Northern Quarter’s one-of-a-kind charm can be seen in one of Len’s favourite illustrations from Bars and Barbers. Drawn on Thomas Street, the illustration depicts the Rustika sandwich shop and the adjoining sex shop. “I got chatting to Andrew, who was sitting outside finishing his lunch, and he mentioned he was going to get his hair cut,” Len reveals. “So I tagged along and got to sketch him in the barbers, too. It was a productive afternoon.”

By its very nature, urban sketching means that Len is in the thick of it. And in a place as vibrant and bustling as the Northern Quarter, Len came away with plenty of notable experiences while trying to go about drawing.

One such interaction happened on Thomas Street, when a gentleman asked if Len’s nearly-finished drawing was made from scratch. Upon confirming that it was and offering the man a postcard, Len was told not to “waste it on idiots like us. We’re not from round’ ere, we’re from Bolton.” The man and his friend then fell about in fits of laughter while Len tried to draw them. “It was like being surrounded by three Peter Kays.”

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