Streets of Glasgow: High Street

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This walk was utterly unplanned. It was inspired by passing Glasgow Cross on the way back into the city. Seeing the Tolbooth Steeple reminded me that the street that lies to its north is the city’s High Street, no less. It being a beautiful sunny afternoon, it was all I could do that I got off the bus at George Square and walked along George Street past Strathclyde University and its many murals towards the top of the High Street. With the Cathedral and the Necropolis in the background, I set off, stopping within a matter of moments to admire a mural on the gable end of one of the buildings, showing a beardy guy with birds around him. The avian kind, I should add.

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The High Street represents a lot of Glaswegian stereotypes – red tenements, closed shops and it is a bit rough, a lot more so than Byres Road, the last street which featured in this Streets of Glasgow series. Also like much of Glasgow, however, it has many fine buildings – it is always worth looking up. On the first stretch leading down to George Street, I not only appreciated the mural but also some fine finials, carvings and statues in the space of maybe 300 yards. I crossed the road by a solicitor’s office and was rewarded by looking up to see an elegant building, apparently part of a City Improvement scheme in the late 1890s, complete with curved windows and towers at the top. Across the road, though, was the first incongruous building, namely 220 High Street, the headquarters of Glasgow Life, which is a modern office block which looks like it’s composed of a box of ice lollies the wrong way round. In short, it’s part of the ‘middle finger’ school of modern architecture so I gladly passed by. The High Street has a mixture of old and new buildings, as most of Glasgow does, though there was a fair bit of empty ground across from the station which yielded a good view towards the Merchant City and Strathclyde University’s many murals.

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Unlike on Byres Road, there were few folk walking the whole way like I was. There were a mixture of commuters despite the Bank Holiday and students heading in and out of the halls of residence further down the High Street. Across the road from the halls was a good reminder of how multicultural our great city is with an eastern European food shop next to a Russian food shop which sat next to a bookies.

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Only a wee while later, I found myself back at Glasgow Cross, at the end of another walk. The Tolbooth Steeple dates from 1623 and sits like an island in the midst of a busy road junction. Or an archipelago really, since there’s also the Mercat Cross and the ventilation grilles of the old Glasgow Cross railway station around the junction. The steeple is, I read, the only surviving part of the Tolbooth which was once the centre of Glasgow’s civic life before being demolished in the 1920s. I noticed, though, that the plaque on the steeple, marking it as a city landmark, was not only on the road side with no pavement but also high above where anyone could see it without craning their neck. This walk was another around this city when I did that a lot. It is always worth looking up in Glasgow, wherever you are, but this walk was a great insight into this city, more so than Byres Road, a real, diverse, interesting Glasgow.

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Streets of Glasgow: Byres Road

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Impulses

I’m not very impulsive. I usually think on things then never act on them. Occasionally I do but there’s usually a day trip involved somewhere along the line. A few weeks ago, I was in East Lothian for the day, a fine visit to my home county on a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon. We had just been to Tantallon Castle, possibly one of the finest castles on this great planet of ours, and were driving to Pressmennan Wood when on impulse I asked my dad to stop the car at a place called Pitcox, not far from Dunbar. The reason I did was because of an old signpost that stood at the road junction there, produced by East Lothian County Council at least before 1974. The signpost marked four directions, towards Stenton, Garvald, Gifford, Pathhead Farm, Halls Farm, Bourhouse, Spott and Dunbar. I can’t quite explain the attraction of the signpost beyond I just like the link to the old-fashioned way of doing things. East Lothian is still a very old-fashioned sort of place and there are a few of these signposts dotted around the county, including one in the very heart of Haddington on the junction of Station Road and West Road. In this age of sat-nav and Google Maps, navigation by instinct, knowledge and simple guiding seems to have gone by the wayside. The world is deeply complex and all we can do as people is find something to relate to, even if it might not be totally obvious. It’s the psychogeographer in me that made me stop. There are wonders to be found in the unlikeliest of places. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro said it best:

‘Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing’.

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I realise I haven’t written so much here about psychogeography. I became interested in it a few years ago after reading some articles on the subject by the novelist Will Self who walked from his house in west London to New York, or at least from his house to Heathrow then from JFK into Manhattan. I think Will Self is up his own arse – he tends to throw spanners into the dictionary and use a polysyllabic word when a decent, shorter one might do – but psychogeography struck a chord with me. It is a French Situationist concept come up with by a philosopher called Guy Debord, who sought to make sense of the anonymous big city by getting lost in it on what he called a derive or aimless drift. His big city was Paris. Mine was Edinburgh.

The capital of Scotland is a city I know very well. I was born there, I went to primary school there. I’m even going there tomorrow to see Hibs. One of the reasons I know it so well is because when I used to go on day trips, all I could often afford was to go to Edinburgh and explore. I often went on derives around the New Town, often starting on Dublin Street by the Portrait Gallery and seeing where I ended up. Waverley Station was inevitably my final destination but it was the getting there that made it interesting, following psychogeographical concepts and taking random left and right turns. I haven’t been on such a walk for a while but I still turn off on a tangent from time to time even when I supposedly have a fixed route in mind to follow. The other week I was heading to Easter Road and walked up Leith Walk since I was running early. I ended up taking a diversion through the New Kirkgate shopping centre (less said the better) and found Trinity House museum then ducked through the very fine and springlike South Leith kirkyard.

The project I started a few weeks ago, Streets of Glasgow, has a psychogeographical dimension to it. I’ve lived in Glasgow for nearly four years but I still haven’t scratched the surface of it yet. Far from it. The walk on Buchanan Street was brilliant, a few snatched minutes in a lunchbreak from a training course, and I hope to get out some more in the coming weeks. In the meantime, there are always new things to spot when looking the right way, like the ghost sign I spotted on Nelson Mandela Place walking back from the bus station the other week.

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Just shy of a year ago, I went to York, one of my favourite cities. One of the highlights was the National Railway Museum, which I always refer to affectionately as the most autistic place on Earth. In the Station Hall was a signpost which tickled me when I saw it then and sums up much of my outlook on life. One direction points ‘To the glorious and unknown’. It might be just a little bit impulsive but that’s all good with me.

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Before I forget, very soon, probably some time in June, will be the 300th post on this here blog. I like to mark these things, as with The things I love are not at home and Post 101: Talking, so for the first time, I am going to crowdsource what I write about for the 300th post. So, if there are any suggestions, based around what tends to appear here, please do let me know, either through the comments section or by other means if you know them.

 

The five I’ve not been to

Once a year, a news story appears which says in slightly different words than the year before that Edinburgh Castle is a popular place to visit and so are the National Museum of Scotland and Kelvingrove. This year’s appeared the other day. NMS is the most visited attraction in Scotland, with 1.8 million visitors last year, only a few thousand above Edinburgh Castle. I’ve written about NMS before and I’m not really fussed about the figures – they merely confirm what most Scottish folk know to be true. Why I’m writing about them is because of what appears lower down the story on the BBC News website, namely a list of Scottish visitor attractions that appear lower down the list of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK, and of those 47, I have been to all but five of them over the years. They are:

171. National Museum of Rural Life

181. Inverewe Gardens

184. Provand’s Lordship

223. Brodick Castle and Country Park

238. Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

At some point, I will write a bit about those places I have visited but of those five, three of them are not far from where I live, indeed one is about 3 miles from here. I think GMRC even follows me on Twitter, randomly, and I still haven’t been.

The National Museum of Rural Life is just outside East Kilbride, not far from Glasgow. I haven’t felt any great urge to go – farming doesn’t interest me hugely and I’m never sure whether EK and all its concrete is the best place for such a museum. Randomly I saw an advert for the museum on the telly tonight when I was eating my tea. The last time I passed, though, I did think vaguely about going but since it was on this list, I will jolly well have to.

Of the five, by far and away the hardest to get to is Inverewe Gardens, which is in Wester Ross, well up north. It looks a stunning place. I spent about twenty minutes yesterday planning a trip up there, realising that without a car it could be very, very hard since I gather Poolewe only gets buses from Inverness on a Monday and a Wednesday, making a day trip even from Inverness, let alone Glasgow, absolutely impossible. It was nice to try, though. The 70-odd miles from Inverness to Inverewe Gardens covers a great swathe of the country I’ve never been to before, including Assynt and Gairloch, which would be great to see. As it is, it might not happen any time soon. It’s nice to dream, though.

The Provand’s Lordship is the oldest building in Glasgow. It is open to the public, managed by Glasgow Museums. It sits across the road from St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, a building I haven’t been in for a while, come to think of it. It is also very near Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis. I haven’t missed it out for any particular reason. Perhaps, like the National Museum of Rural Life, it is just that I’m not overly bothered but that isn’t true. I am fascinated by history and by this city’s past. It just hasn’t come high enough up my list. At the earliest opportunity, I will have to make it right, perhaps as part of a Streets of Glasgow walk down the High Street.

Brodick is on the island of Arran, in the middle of the Firth of Clyde. The castle sits a little way out of Brodick, which is also the island’s main ferry port from the Scottish mainland. I have only been to Arran once, a few years ago on a beautiful and sunny Easter Sunday when we walked along the coast a little way, sitting for a while on a harbour not so far from the castle. The castle still eludes me though I am a member of the National Trust of Scotland who own it so I have less excuse as I wouldn’t have to pay £12.50 to get in. I gather, however, that only external tours will operate at Brodick Castle this summer but I am overdue a trip across to Arran so I might just go anyway, if only to get a picture of a RBS £20 note (which bears a picture of Brodick Castle) with the real thing.

Last but not least Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, also run by Glasgow Museums. Clue is in the title. They operate tours of the museum stores every day of the week, usually themed around a particular topic. GMRC is in a warehouse in Nitshill, an unglamorous part of the city about 3 miles from here, It really isn’t difficult to get to, a bus then a wee bit of a walk, but as ever other places have taken precedence. I will keep an eye on the tours and see if there’s one that strikes my fancy. I have been in a few museum stores in my time and I have not met one I haven’t liked or wanted to spend my life exploring. This being Glasgow, GMRC will no doubt be bigger and better than any other.

Writing posts like these makes me want to get out and explore, even if I am writing them (as tonight) after hours. I am off in a couple of weeks for about 10 days so I will hopefully see one of them, at the very least. Stay tuned.

 

Streets of Glasgow: Buchanan Street

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.

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Buchanan Street
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From the steps
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Cleland Testimonial

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.

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Donald Dewar statue

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.

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Hard Rock Cafe
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St. George’s Tron Church
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Urban Outfitters

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.

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Sewing machines, the wrong way round

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.

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Beer

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.

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Finished!