The church everyone sees from the train – and how what’s inside could produce our Olympians

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For many people traveling to Manchester, this is one of the first things that greets them.

The spire of the stunning St. Benedict’s Church, which pierces the West Gorton skyline and dominates the train line to Piccadilly station.

What’s inside is unknown to many – an extensive indoor climbing facility that’s leading in its field.

Ironically, it all started with a wrong turn.

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John Dunne, then a professional climber, had seen a gap in the market for an indoor climbing center.

He was looking for premises in the town when he ended up taking Pottery Lane, Gorton Road, then Bennett Street before coming across the church – a superb example of 19th century architecture in an unassuming residential street.

Twenty years later, with the sport booming and now at the Olympics, the center attracts over 50,000 visitors a year and has seen a number of its alumni compete nationally.



St Benedict’s welcomes passengers on trains to Manchester

His boss says he hopes he can act as a “youth academy” and attract more disadvantaged children to the sport – while potentially developing future medalists.

Internationally renowned mountaineer John, from near Bradford on the edge of Ilkley Moor, started climbing in the late 1970s.

During his 25 year career he established many new world class routes and was also instrumental in bringing competitive climbing to the UK in the late 1980s.

Towards the end of his competition career, in the early 2000s, he began to look for opportunities when he hung up the ropes.

“A lot of indoor climbing centers started in the early 90s,” he says.



It was transformed into a state-of-the-art climbing center in the early 2000s

“But they have become commercial operations – mainly for climbers on rainy days.

“In the early 2000s, believe it or not, Manchester was one of the only major cities without an indoor climbing wall.

“And I was just coming to the end of my professional climbing life and thinking, ‘This won’t last forever, what am I going to do with myself?

“I thought, wait a minute, most climbers in the North West go to a center in Warrington or Marple.

“I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a building and really struggled because it was all about the height.



Former pro climber John Dunne took a wrong turn – and found an opportunity

“So while there were industrial units in Trafford Park and various other places, they just didn’t have the height needed.

“Totally by chance I walked down Alan Turing Way and walked across West Gorton past the church, I had never been down this road before. I saw this huge church and on the door was a big sign that said ‘this is now a redundant church, if you want to get in touch call Reverend Peter at this number.

Often mistakenly confused with nearby Gorton Monastery, St Benedict’s Anglican Church, built in 1880 to serve the surrounding area and Ardwick, was designed by renowned church architect JS Crowther.

Crowther was responsible for a number of outstanding churches across the country, including overseeing the restoration of Manchester Cathedral in the 19th century.



Today, more than 50,000 people visit the center each year

St Bendict’s enjoyed the support of a single benefactor, a wealthy merchant, John Marsland Bennett, after whom Bennett Street, where it stands, is named.

It closed in December 2022, amid declining local population and attendance. After an online campaign to keep it open failed, it became one of Manchester’s most famous ‘at risk’ buildings and remained closed for three years.

“I called the number and asked what was going on and if there was a chance,” John says.



The building in Bennett Street is Grade II* listed

“He showed me around, and there were all the benches, all the chairs.

“It was exactly as it had been left by the congregation.

“There’s a climbing wall in Bristol in a church, there’s one in Warrington, one in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh. They’re much smaller churches and smaller climbing walls but I had saw the potential and I thought ‘God imagine what you could do with this, it’s almost the size of a cathedral.'”

John spent two years negotiating with the diocese, who eventually agreed to sell it, and with Manchester City Council and English Heritage, who eventually awarded him an £80,000 grant to preserve the Grade II listed building *.



The church – which served the well-populated areas of West Gorton and Ardwick – pictured in 1972

In total around £400,000 was spent to turn it into the facility it is today, which opened as Manchester Rock Climbing Center in 2005.

The centre, part of John’s Parthian Climbing company, now has sister sites in Harrogate, Reading and Southampton, offers 125 rope and self-belay routes, 70 lead routes, as well as bouldering for people of all levels.

It offers introductory courses for children and adults and beginner courses for those who want to take it a step further, all supervised by what John claims to be among the most experienced and qualified rock climbing instructors in the country.

“We were pretty busy, pretty quickly,” says John.



The interior of the church before the start of its redevelopment

“Due to the location – from Stockport, all around Oldham, to Bolton, the edges of Warrington and almost to Stoke, we were getting this deal every night as there were no other climbing walls.

“Now there are walls in Stockport, Oldham, Liverpool, Preston, Stoke.

“The sport has developed enormously.

“So that definitely sparked a boom in the North West of indoor climbing centers.”

Over the past 17 years, a number of children who were part of the centre’s youth program have participated in international competitions.



A number of children who have learned to climb at the center have participated in international competitions

Alumni include Jennifer Wood and Aiden Dunne, who are both currently part of the GB senior team, and Joseph Xiberias, who is part of the GB development team.

John compares the center to a football club’s youth academy, spotting and developing the talents of the future.

“As the sport develops, we will play a role in that process to identify young talent, who could go on and represent Great Britain, potentially even at Olympic level,” he said.

“We provide an academy system, giving people the opportunity and spotting talent. It’s a path and a progression – that’s what we offer.”

The success of the center means it is no longer the preserve of hardcore climbers.

“They’re probably 15-20% of our business today,” says John.



John hopes they can spot and develop more talented kids to potentially compete in the Olympics

“The rest are parties, corporate groups, fitness, people having fun, kids sessions, scouts, youth groups.

“A lot of people use it as a gym, a lot of kids are into it, there’s a lot of community use and awareness.

“So it’s now much more than just a climbing wall.”

John’s hope is that the center can use its unique location to bring children from disadvantaged areas into what he accepts as a prohibitively expensive sport.

“The challenge we had when we opened was that the area wasn’t great at the time, even though it was up.

“It’s changed beyond recognition now, you have the film studios close by and obviously the monastery as well. We’ve been involved in the redevelopment of the area, which has moved in a positive direction. And I think Hyde Road will change in the next five or six years as well.



John wants to get more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into the sport

“But in 2005 we were wondering if we were doing the right thing at the right time.

“In the area around the church there was a lot of crime and deprivation when we took it, in equal measure.

“But we really engaged the local community when we did.

“I made a real point, there were a lot of kids hanging out there at the time, and I said ‘guys, come in and take a look, see what we’re up to. .

“And we’ve worked a lot with the community and allowed them to use the facilities. We’ve never had a burglary in 17 years.

“Two of our greatest successes are those of two children who lived on the local estate.



The center has been instrumental in the huge redevelopment of the area around it, which has seen the construction of new housing and facilities

“We took them into rock climbing and one of the kids finished second in the Nationals three years after we opened. The other went to the States and did a sports scholarship. And they both went on and got good jobs.

“And those are two of the biggest achievements of this building, that we’ve made a difference on the pitch.

“I never thought of it when we created it, that’s not why we did it, but it opened a lot more doors.

“It’s great to bring people in from Altrincham and Hale, but our biggest challenge now is ‘how do we target children who will need help and potential support to help them climb?’ And we’re looking at different ways to do that.

“Because bringing in kids like those two and getting them away from that kind of lifestyle has been a bigger success for me than anyone getting on an Olympic podium.”

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