There are some streets which as important as they are invariably seem less interesting than what lies around them. Byres Road, at the heart of Glasgow’s West End, often feels one of them, surrounded as it is by Ashton Lane and other lanes bearing markets and restaurants, plus the University and the Botanic Gardens. It is one of those streets that is quintessentially Glasgow, stylish, lined with red and golden sandstone buildings for most of its length. Glasgow is of course a complicated place, full of contradictions and imperfections, and Byres Road is one Glasgow of many. It is very different from the other side of the river or even a short distance in Maryhill, more prosperous and vibrant than elsewhere, not necessarily a bad thing, just different.
I walked onto Byres Road around 3pm, straight from the Subway at Kelvinhall. My plan was to walk the length of Byres Road, sit in the Botanics for a bit and see where I got to after that. As I set off, I dawdled a bit, looking around me towards a car advertising the nearby TriBeCa cafe bar, not quite the New York taxi cab or the police car that often sits on Dumbarton Road. Glasgow has an American feel at times – I often feel it in the city centre looking towards the high buildings lining the straight streets – though it is quintessentially Scottish too, particularly when walking up Byres Road and looking towards the old school building in red sandstone with the Boys entrance clearly marked as in so many Victorian schoolhouses across the land. Byres Road, though, is very much in and of the West End and there are things there that would be seen nowhere else in the city, including a trendy chippy, a clothes shop with a jumper over the shoulders and a bulldog tied to a lamppost wearing a green neckerchief.
As I waited to cross the road at the junction with Highburgh Road and University Avenue, I just stood and tried hard to take in what was happening around me. Two guys walked to stand beside me, one offering the advice that ‘What you need is some public affection’, though what that form that affection would take was lost to the winds when the lights turned green. There were parents and kids heading home from school, one child earnestly discussing what she had learned that day about Hitler. Sometimes when walking alone you cannot help but listen, not from a want of company but to understand other people and the world just that little bit better.
Like on most of this city’s great streets, it is always worth looking up to imagine what once was. Above Nardini’s are the words ‘1876 Victoria Cross’, apparently a reminder of an old dispute when the city fathers wanted to rename the street after Queen Victoria, which didn’t ever quite happen. The back of the Western Infirmary, on the corner of Church Street, with crests and finely worked details around the windows, is also worth looking at, particularly when waiting at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road, invariably the best time to pause and look around and very often up.
Byres Road isn’t a street I am massively fond of. It isn’t the prettiest in the city, neither is it the most historically or architecturally interesting. It can be hipsterish in many respects, incurably and insufferably middle-class, which makes it so much harder for me to relate to the place. But I don’t dislike it. It has some great music and book shops, plus it is very close to some of the best places in the city, Kelvingrove and the Hunterian, the Botanics, plus it also has some very interesting inhabitants. Walking its length was an insight into a Glasgow I don’t see very often, with its infinite varieties of people, shops and entertainments, in short a city of kaleidoscopic difference. It brings to mind the quote from Peter McDougall, which I have by my bed as I write this:
‘Glasgow is not a geographical site; it’s a state of mind’.
After this walk, Glasgow very much remains my state of mind, today as four years ago when this first became my geographic site. It will hopefully remain for a long time to come.