Manchester is situated on a large plain which stretches from the west coast to the Pennines. Changes in topography tend to be only small undulations. Consequently even minor rivers are capable of shaping the land into valleys. Part of the conservation area lies in the valley of the River Medlock, and this is marked by a distinct southerly slope and by large bends in the course of the river creating contrasting spaces within the overlying street grid system. The Rochdale Canal traverses the area from north-east to south-west, and although not contributing to the slope it nevertheless flows gently downhill through a series of nine locks, two of which are in the conservation area.
The great height of the warehouses along Princess Street, and especially on Whitworth Street, give the area its most obvious physical character of a canyon-like atmosphere. The Princess Street warehouses are relatively early in date, and for the most part are relatively plain and simplified developments of the Italian palazzo style. By the time the Whitworth Street warehouses were built, the Edwardian penchant for decoration was at its height, and the technology for constructing buildings with a steel or reinforced concrete frame enabled them to be taller than before. These later buildings also tended to abandon the use of traditional brick as a wall material, and instead favoured the then fashionable faience or glazed terracotta, which lends itself to rich decoration.
Generally, slate is used to roof the buildings, though many are too high, or their roofs are too gently pitched, for this to be seen from ground level.
Windows, like those in most Manchester buildings of this period, are predominantly of the vertical sliding-sash type. They occur singly, but are more often seen in pairs, threes, or occasionally in groups of four.
Entrance doors are very frequently located on the corners of buildings, and this is often associated with the further emphasis of a corner by means of elaborate detail, or by means of an extended roofline embellished with a tower or cupola.
Property boundaries are marked by the building itself. One of the interesting characteristics of city centre construction of this period is that buildings covered the entire site, right up to the back of the pavement. Access for servicing and delivery vehicles was by means of a loading bay within the building itself on the ground floor. These often passed right through the building from one street to another. They were protected by large, decorative iron gates extending up to the top of the opening.
Although streets are arranged on a rectilinear grid, so that sites are more or less rectangular, no street runs straight for any great distance before changing direction. This creates subtle changes and interest, with views along a street being modified or foreshortened by the elevations of buildings on the outer side of a bend or curve. It also gives even greater emphasis to the corners of buildings.
The roads were originally paved with stone or timber setts. These have either been replaced by or covered with tarmacadam, but in some minor streets the setts are still exposed. Manchester was famed for the quality of its setts and the care with which they were laid. Most footpaths have been repaved in tarmacadam but some, notably on Princess Street, have been reinstated with new stone paving flags.
Few kerbs are original. Most were of granite, subsequently replaced with concrete, but a few, particularly on less-used back streets, may be seen in their original cast-iron form, much worn by the passage of time and cart wheels.
Street lighting was originally provided by gas lamps, which would have been installed at the time the area was first developed. None of the original cast-iron lamp standards now remain, and all present day street lighting is provided by a range of electrical fittings on steel or concrete poles.