I only seem to be on Buchanan Street when I am going some place else. It’s usually for the best. Very often it’s absolutely mobbed, full of folk milling about, buskers, panhandlers, street performers and charity muggers. Nevertheless it is a fine street, with lots of great architecture plus, hey, it’s one of the main streets in the greatest city in the world. For this first Streets of Glasgow, I decided on Buchanan Street since I was in town the other day for a course and Buchanan Street is short enough to walk end-to-end and still get a decent bite of lunch. Plus Buchanan is a family name so it seemed appropriate that the street I chose had a personal resonance.
I started from the Royal Concert Hall, having sat on the steps finishing lunch before setting off. The whole of Buchanan Street was in view, a constantly moving picture of people black against the hazy, mazy sunshine. I could see right down to the other end at St. Enoch Subway Station plus a little way beyond to the river and the Cathkin Braes. There were a few folk sitting on the steps, a young couple chatting, others eating lunch or just watching the world go by. I looked across to Topshop and up to the top of the building as it rounded onto Sauchiehall Street. It bore the words ‘The Cleland Testimonial’, with a crest above. As I walked down the steps, I made a point of stopping by the statue of Donald Dewar, his plinth raised to deter folk breaking his glasses. What Dewar would have made of today’s Labour Party, we can only but wonder. I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have approved of the Mercedes Benz Pop-up Shop just feet away from his statue, though.
Walking down towards the junction with Bath Street, I looked this way and that, up to the buildings and wondering just why so many of them had railings at the top. I also thought about the old HMV, now empty but apparently to be turned into a branch of New Look, or so the Evening Times tells me. It is such a massive shop and in an iconic part of the city, prime retail real estate. Buchanan Street has very few empty shops, unlike so many towns and cities in this country. I am often in Paisley, where even McDonalds is pulling out of the High Street, so I’m glad to see shops in the heart of Glasgow and with folk in them. As I crossed the road and passed Buchanan Galleries, I stopped to look across a gap in the buildings towards Queen Street Station and beyond to the City Chambers, only for a moment since venturing further would be off this particular street and that wouldn’t do. Buchanan Street is like a lot of Glasgow city centre in that at various points you can be rewarded with fine city architecture as you stand at the traffic lights waiting to cross.
On the steps of Buchanan Galleries was some galoot done up as a knight on a horse, a living statue, one of two on the street with another one outside the Apple Store done up like the Duke of Wellington statue. Whatever gets them through the day. There was a busker too, just by the Royal Concert Hall, who I think was playing Ave Maria. Not at all bad either.
Buchanan Street is just over half-a-mile long. It is also the distance between Subway stops, between Buchanan Street station at the top and St. Enoch at the bottom. Earlier in the day, I had spent a few minutes admiring St. Enoch Subway, its old station building, now a coffee shop, and the elegant glass structures at each end shielding ascending passengers from the elements. Buchanan Street is bounded by glass too, elegant as many of its surrounding buildings are, including the former Athenaeum, now the Hard Rock Cafe, with its many statues, lintels, windows, finials and features. By the St George’s Tron Church is Nelson Mandela Place, named by one of our more left-wing council administrations in the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa. It is certainly more appropriate than many of our street names that come from tobacco plantation and slave owners, particularly in the Merchant City. Anyway, across the road one of the prettier buildings on Buchanan Street houses Urban Outfitters, a trendy clothes shop. Of more interest to us defiantly untrendy folk are the carvings around its doorways and above street level. It has the look of the Old Bailey in London, in some small way.
When I used to visit Glasgow on day trips, I invariably stopped into Borders, a bookshop that sat smack dab in the middle of Buchanan Street backing onto Royal Exchange Square. It went bust a few years ago and now it is another trendy clothes shop, but one I like, mainly for the sewing machines that bedeck its windows. At one point a few years ago, I spent a few weeks photographing hundreds of Singer sewing machines in a museum collection. When I walked past that shop, I was able to spot that the machines in the window were displayed wrongly – the wrong way round. Next door to the Allsaints Spitallfield shop is a branch of the Nationwide Building Society, another very elegant building with a coat of arms carved into the lintel above the door and a dome atop the roof. This walk was shaping up to be all about the rooftops, as many of my walks in Glasgow city centre tend to be, though I was enjoying just being in the cool sunshine, just out in the world.
The part of Buchanan Street I know least is the bit between Gordon Street and Argyle Street, mainly because that’s where the posher shops are and I don’t have any great need or want to be down there. It also has some very fine buildings, not least the one that houses Timberland, quite a weird red and yellow striped building that looked not dissimilar to the Hard Rock Cafe up the road. I spent a lot of this portion of the walk looking up, noticing the strange juxtaposition of this 19th-century grandeur and a satellite dish at one point, and loving just how beautiful and elegant these buildings are, the rival of any city in the world in so many ways. I also ducked down a lane, justifying it by there being no street sign to disprove the notion I was still on Buchanan Street, and found old signage on the building at its end – which I love (and featured on the blog on Friday here) – and some classy murals of a man’s head and a plate of fish and chips, which was appropriate since it was next to a chippy. Randomly stood in the lane was a table with two beer pumps on it, though I didn’t bother to check if they were connected since beer is rank.
I also took the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity and go into the Princes Square shopping centre, which I had never been into before but I knew had won design awards when it opened in the 1990s. According to some women I heard on the train earlier today, it also houses a very fine Italian restaurant they had been going to for years but couldn’t remember the name of. Anyway, I took a turn around the centre and it was very fine, with wooden framing everywhere, even the escalators, modern but trying to look old. The Argyll Arcade nearby, meanwhile, is old but trying to look modern with the red sandstone building now housing a Nike store.
With that, my Buchanan Street walk was over, some 20 minutes after it started at the Royal Concert Hall. The walk was fine, I have to say, enjoyable just being a tourist in my own city, seeing familiar places anew and not thinking about anything much except what was going on around me. I felt my connection with Glasgow had grown a wee bit in the time it took to walk half a mile, with all around me folk on lunchbreaks or out doing their messages, all with a purpose. I didn’t really have one except to walk and to observe. It wasn’t so bad at all.
This is the first of the Streets of Glasgow series on Walking Talking. I’ve written plenty more of them, including Gordon Street, Nelson Mandela Place, Miller Street, Queen Street, George Square, Cathedral Street and Sauchiehall Street, all of which are near or join onto Buchanan Street. Bath Street is forthcoming too. Have a read.