A Hike around Glasgow
Glasgow is one of the more interesting cities in the UK. It is also by far the most enjoyable place to go in Scotland, in my opinion. Edinburgh is all very nice in a touristy kind of way, but it’s very much the tweedy, intellectual retired lawyer to Glasgow’s blue serge jacketed, solidly working-class ship builder. People say that Glasgow is the closest thing we have to New York here in the UK: that judgment will elude me for the moment. However, continuing the theme of exploring the more interesting parts of cities I have found myself in, I took a hike in the rain one March afternoon recently.
The streets, grey and wet to a fault, are enclosed by tall, brownstone buildings that reflect the city’s burgeoning industrial past. It feels almost subterranean in places, as if the street-level goings on are somehow below ground level. The buildings, stern, stony and voluminous, evoke the same forgotten age of confidence as Liverpool does: it is clear that the Victorian industrialists whose pockets and egos fuelled their construction had grand ideas about how the city should feel, and this is clearly reflected in the buildings that you see. The scale is vast and imposing, and the same imperatives drove the construction of Glasgow: a thriving and expanding port which brought the world to its streets, and a westward-facing situation which encouraged that outward looking attitude, that desire to see and reflect the New World.
My wanderings were the result of a rare afternoon where I was stood down, if you will, having flown up for work the following day and finding a few spare hours before darkness fell. As is my habit on arriving at a hotel in a new town, I dumped my things and headed straight out onto the streets, immersing myself in the noise that characterises the place.
Wandering along the main streets, it is easy to feel as if you are anywhere else – Manchester somehow springs to mind. The shared quality of wetness adds to this impression. One thing about this Western city is that it catches the rain coming in off the Atlantic, and the whole atmosphere of the city seems to require the falling rain to be complete.
The beauty of the city is that you can wander away from the shops and find yourself in any number of areas that have their own character completely; I turned down Argyll Street and headed towards one of my favourite areas, Merchant City. This is the historic part of Glasgow, the area where the eponymous merchants built their mills and palaces to commerce. Tobacco was the original currency of trade with the Americas. The street scene prompted Daniel Defoe to write:
“The four principal streets…are the fairest for breadth and the finest built that I have ever seen…’tis the cleanest, most beautiful and best built city in Great Britain… The lower storeys, for the most part, stand on vast doric columns with arches which open into the shops – adding to the strength as well as to the beauty of the buildings.”
Although currently undergoing a yuppification process of very questionable taste, there are enough sights of interest around here to keep you immersed. Cobbled streets glistening with the constant soft rain somehow make the place look even more hard. In contrast to my what I saw on recent ramblings around Spitalfields in London, the make-over going on in Merchant City is moneyed, smart and modern. This lessens its charm considerably for me; what I loved about Spitalfields was the down-at-heel atmosphere [although of course its residents are anything but….], and the imaginative re-use of redundant industrial space. Here, however, I got the impression of conspicuous wealth and expensive bars and restaurants seemed to be the stock in trade.
You often find in provincial cities with an industrial heritage that the present occupiers of the impressive buildings are struggling to know what to do with them; witness some of the tasteless mill conversions that blight Manchester for example. The same feeling sometimes surfaced as I walked around the streets of Merchant City – demolished buildings leaving gaps like jagged teeth and inappropriate shop fronts on lovely old brick and stone monoliths.
Looking at sites like the one above is a bit like peeling an onion; you get to see all the layers added on over the years, which totally belies the facades at the front of these buildings.