Posted in Railways on Monday 29th October 2012 at 10:10pm
It's about this time each year that I find myself heading for Glasgow. These trips have grown partly out of necessity - I've almost inevitably worked through the summer whilst colleagues with kids have chosen to take their expensive jaunts to Florida or Eurodisney. But I also like to disappear in October - to avoid the inevitable birthday related activity, and to enjoy some of that golden window of end-of-summer beginning-of-autumn weather that just seems to suit me. It's no secret that this also suits Glasgow. It's at this time of year that the city is prone to sudden bursts of sunshine through the remaining leaves, or unexpected sheets of grey tumbling across the landscape at a moments notice. The population of the city reacts accordingly - jumpers off and out into George Square, or papers over the head dash under cover. These visits also coincide with a rush of musical endeavour too - with the universities back at work in earnest there is a flood of gigs to see, often many competing during a single night. In short, it's at this time of year that Glasgow has proved most engaging and importantly diverting to me. But how would the city fare this time, when I am perhaps completely and ultimately diverted elsewhere?
I arrived in Glasgow on a Thursday morning following my current custom of splitting the journey somewhere in Northern England. This was originally to save money, but it's become a habit which makes for a leisurely arrival too. The previous night in Crewe wasn't much fun to be frank, I was anxious to be in Scotland and still recovering from a transatlantic trip which had messed with my body clock and occupied my mind almost completely - and with head and heart still a long way off, Crewe was a baleful proposition at best. Once, it was a town full of curious possibilities - but as the railway has declined, and my interest with it, it's become harder to find much to like about the place. In this context of change it was comforting to note that arrival at Central Station still gave me that little thrill of being home-away-from-home, the urge to yell "I'm back!" to a city which is as indifferent to me as any other I'm sure - but upon which I've always staked a sort of jealous claim. No-one who has visited Glasgow with me has ever quite understood this - and really, all my theories about place are pretty tenuous at best when exposed to the critical eyes and ears of others. These imaginary links and personifications never bear much examination, but there is a little bit of me here in Glasgow - as much as there is in London or now in Seattle. I did what I always do - and delighted in it. I sat around and read newspapers, got coffee, wrote emails - but I did it through new eyes and ears. I felt like I was exploring Glasgow for the first time because I was sharing these thoughts and impressions with someone far away who I wanted to be here too. This novelty originated in the commonplace - the fact that the Blue Lagoon, home of my favourite 'pizza supper' culture-clash incident - had burned down. But it also extended into the significant - not least the orange glow in the sky at sundown as I walked to the station for my annual fix of Paisley Arts Festival. Hours later I'd be shivering at Gilmour Street having just spent my first evening in a Spiegeltent, trying hard to convey the idea of Paisley in the evening to someone who couldn't see it just now. Describing Paisley is never easy - but it was as much part of the Glasgow experience as any of the mellifluous sky-describing I'd been doing of course!
My first day of wandering in earnest began with an uncharacteristically lazy start - an external influence which is, in fact, a welcome one. I'm on holiday - and it seems an awful long time since I've been in my office too - a lifetime and a continent away in some senses. I wandered out into the city with an explorers sense of the unexpected, and Glasgow inevitably delivered. My rule of thumb in any British city is to walk the streets with head tilted back enough to see the floors above the gaudy but utterly familiar chainstore frontages. Here the history of the city is more apparent - buildings decorated in ways we'd never see nowadays, pride in construction, conscious design to create an impression of authority or opulence, depending on the purpose of the building. Indeed it's strange to think of buildings made for a specific purpose, rather than speculative empty office shells, full of nothing but customisable space. Above Poundland and Greggs and JB Sports is a wonderland of Glasgow architecture. Red sandstone competes with cast iron, sitting awkwardly beside the more familiar smoked glass and steel of the last century. Buildings billow out from the pavement in curves and crests, their former uses sometimes lost completely. I've been here several times each year for a long time now, but it feels like the first time I've spotted some of this stuff. Some of it is breathtaking and impressive, some fussy and laughable - but all of it calls back to a time that this was the Second City of the Empire. This second day also involved an excursion to the Southside. A bus ride through a dark evening, along the wastelands of Eglinton Street and into Pollokshaws Road. The switch from industrial distress to coffee-shop comfort was imperceptible as the bus progressed along the long straight road towards its divison at Shawlands Cross, and soon I'm hopping off at the southern edge of Queens Park, looking for the Glad Cafe - a new venture here. I remember buying a CD to support the fundraising a while back, and being tapped for contributions at a show at The 13th Note perhaps a little afterwards, so it's good to see this place open. Or at least it would be if I could locate it... I finally find it, a neon-lit entrance wedged inconspicuously between a chip shop and a newsagent. The long corridor from the street opens into a cosy, simply but effectively decorated room with excellent coffee and surprisingly polite company. Beyond that there is a large performance space. Perhaps not strictly large enough for the crowd which showed up tonight, but that's a minor issue. It's good to catch up with old friends, and to see familiar bands play new songs. This feels like a comfortable spot - and again I'm moved to look at it rather differently. I can no longer afford the detached air of the casual visitor or the self-styled ethnographer. I'm now auditioning the city for a future role. Again it's cold waiting for the bus back into the city. The pavements take on a bit of a sparkle and there is a nip of winter on the air, which is far from unpleasant and seems almost fitting. The bus reeks of fast food and perfume from shuttling the previous group of revellers into the City for a Friday night which is only beginning. There are only a few of us left on board by the time it scutters across Argyle Street and deposits me near Central Station.
For my third excursion, after another leisurely start I decided to head west. I used to turn this way a lot when I first frequented Glasgow. There were tales of G12 nights, exotic bands in strange little bars, Northern Soul socials with awkwardly hipster dancing and mysterious people having low conversations about the next big thing. These mirages all of course evaporated when I got close to them, and I found a slightly haughty student culture in which I really didn't fit at all - I was either too old, too young, too English or just somehow not right. But I came back sporadically over the years, just to be reminded. My circuit today repeated one I've done a good few times - off the bus at Great Western Road and into the cool, green spaces of the Botanic Gardens. Here I read and thought, and really took no notice of the fact there was a squirrel on my foot until he was about to run up my leg. When I spied him, he froze in terror - I reached casually for my phone to get a picture. I'd wanted to see Glasgow differently - through new eyes - and here it was! The people-savvy rodent would have none of it though, and at the flash of sunlight on glass dashed off to the next bench. I tried advancing in big, quiet steps, quite unaware of how ridiculous I must have looked to the growing crowds in the park, but every time I crouched to get the shot he'd fly a bench further forwards along the pathway. "One final try" I thought, and as I got within inches of the shot I'd hoped to get, the brave little beast dashed up the skirt of the woman a little way in front. I beat an instant retreat as she giggled and whooped, her husband beating ineffectually at her tweed. It was time to leave the park lest my part in this incursion was uncovered! However, I found it strangely difficult to depart - the place was cool, calm and strangely tranquil today despite the crowds milling around quietly, and the press of only mildly apprehensive looking tourists around the Haggis Burger concession.
But Byres Road beckoned. I strolled along it looking with a more critical eye than for a long time before - however nothing could stop the views up towards the university from arresting the eye and drawing it high above the streetline. Beyond that rise, the land fell away steeply into Kelvingrove and the quietly hip neighbourhood around Otago Lane, but that was for another trip. Today my target was one of the strange early discoveries from years back - Relics. Tucked into the strange cobbled passageway of Ruthven Lane, this is perhaps the ultimate junk shop. Stacked high with tat, including manual typewriters, obsolete games consoles, reel to reel tape machines and virtually any other bit of electromechanical equipment which ever dared to expire or outlive its usefulness. Guitars and other musical instruments abound in particular, amongst the piles of expiring magazines, dusty VHS tapes and oddly gaudy tables full of glassware. I take photographs furtively, knowing the owner disapproves. I could be Trading Standards or the Police or something, building up my case. Instead I approach him and ask about a unique TV which used to sit outside the shop - a huge globe of white plastic, huge, impractical, oddly impressive. He remembers it, thinks he still has it - either stored or hidden behind stuff. I'm welcome to look if I want. I quickly survey the place and decide not to - not this time. But maybe soon - and perhaps not alone. It would be folly to tackle this mountain alone I think. I quickly drop into a shop selling old vinyl and take in the smell of ageing shellac and the odd library-like quiet of serious men flipping through sleeves, before heading for the bus back into town and my next musical appointment.
This takes me to the very top of Renfield Street, where the sharply modern glass and steel of the Herald Offices abut blocks of disconnected, stark-edged tenements. One door isn't open until 11pm, the other is guarded by smoking trench-coated goons. I descend. A sign directs me to the best reggae in Glasgow. I pause. Surely not? But press on into the bar - and then into the venue. It's a club, a badly appointed, swiftly decomposing and horribly depressing place. The sunken oval dancefloor provides the vantage point, while the bands use one of the seating booths which surround it as a stage. I'm not sorry to escape back up the tangle of stairs to make an important 'phone call in the steady Glasgow rain. The place is diabolical - but as is often the case here, the music is sublime despite it's setting. But it's hard to love the Flying Duck - and we briefly discuss this as the promoters drunkenly recount money - but suddenly, unexpectedly the strains of "Marquee Moon" shiver from the speakers. It's a spine-tingling, life-affirming moment that suddenly synchronises a whole lot of disparate thoughts and locates them here in Glasgow right now. I stride from the venue into the rain - the streets are full of people in Halloween costumes, and I'm fighting the tide back down the hill to Central Station with that insistent, nagging guitar sting repeating in my head. An endless sea of rain-damp vampires, slutty cops and naughty nuns whoop and scream. I'm still on my Television inspired high, side-stepping Frankenstein's monster, dodging the flailing hair of a particularly inebriated witch into Argyle Street and under the Hielanman's Umbrella.
The final day is always a difficult proposition here - and never less so than this visit. It marks a return to real life after a strangely transformative week which has seen me travel over 10,000 miles. It's fitting that I should end up here after that, somewhere I come to process and understand things, somewhere I feel safely away from reality. Because this week I've needed to be away from it. Plunging back into the routine after last weekend's overseas trip would have been absolute folly. So Glasgow has been the ultimate buffer once again. I decide to celebrate by returning to the very beginnings of Glasgow on the banks of the deleted Molendinar Burn. I partake in my usual, now a little more leisurely coffee ritual, then head east along George Street - passing the civic centre of the city, through the channel of dour grey buildings, the university outposts and the still-empty bombsites. The little, ornate sandstone block - once occupied by a vegetable wholesaler - still stands alone at the corner of the wasteland near Nicholas Street, whilst the College Lands are being aggressively and comprehensively redeveloped filling the slope down to the Drygate. I turn for the Cathedral, blackened and ominous in it's precinct. Foreign tourists mill around, jostling each other noisily as then enter the Cathedral Close, but falling suddenly and automatically silent as they pass over the Bridge of Sighs and into the Necropolis. It's been a long while since I walked here, and I ascend carefully, the rugged path slippery with fallen and blown leaves. Finally, after doubling back and ascending I find myself at the top with John Knox, both of us glaring down on the city and over the wonderful views to the South and East. The rain slithers down from the slate sky. It's time to head back...
It's pretty clear that I've changed a lot since I was last in Glasgow, and that my way of viewing the place has altered considerably too. But there is reassuring constancy here - there is a sense of somewhere which contains a little of my past, and a hope it contains something of a future. There are hints of links to a place many thousands of miles away which just now is more significant by far. There is also a recognition of the difficulties and rough edges this city has - something I all too often gloss over, keen to promote the cultural or celebrate the unique. Glasgow is - as it ever was - a sprawling, irregular uncut diamond of a city. I realise as the train begins to shudder out of Central Station and I hang up a 'phonecall much earlier than I'd like, that I'll not be hitting the rails quite so often these coming months. But Glasgow - I'll be back...
As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue lines are the routes I took...
Posted in Railways on Saturday 6th October 2012 at 6:16pm
Today could have been a very different day if it happened a week ago...
I wasn't going to head for the Severn Valley today. It didn't feel like the right thing to do from the very outset of the morning. A frantic dash around the house to create enough time to make a phonecall. This began to define the pattern of the day, which from that point stopped being about inland waterways and extended to oceans. The usual dash up, changing at Bristol and heading onto 1M21. Then, in the absence of a backup-plan, into the coffee shop. Then over to the yard of St.Chad's Cathedral. Empty and quiet in autumnal sunshine. The benches wet, a couple of early drinkers stumbling around the grounds. I paced and talked...time passed...the park became busy with commuters heading for retail jobs, then shoppers, then the commuters returned for lunch...
I talked for a long time.
Eventually, I sought solace in the mall above the station and settled to write. I managed to express what I'd hoped and sent it winging across the Atlantic again. I wondered what would happen next. I could only look to more coffee, a journey, music and the rest of the evening...
This was not the day I expected to report on, nor the day I expected to experience. But it was an important day nonetheless.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 22nd September 2012 at 10:41pm
There are hints as I write that we might just be emerging from the summer of strangled trips and cancelled plans, and that the autumn and winter might in fact be something of a renaissance. It's early days, and as I headed for Crewe last night after work I reasoned it would probably have felt less like an imposition had the original BLS-related plans have stood. In the event, the relatively late trip worked well - and I had a decent and interesting journey before arriving and going almost directly to bed. I did this because this morning required a very early start indeed for my replacement entertainment. I'd toyed with various options but the one which appear most cost effective and sensible was to head for Glasgow. I feared the usual experience of being frustrated by the limitations of a one day visit - but I booked the first one in and last one out to maximise my time, and also had something of a plan for my trip. So, I set out on the 05:57 and had a quiet and relaxing trip north. As the sun rose over misty Cumbrian scenes, it was clear it was going to be a beautiful day up here too. Glasgow in autumn should be a favourite trip - but could I make a one day visit work? It's always good to be back in the city, regardless of my concerns and as ever I got that little spine-tingle of excitement stepping onto the platform at Central Station. As places to arrive go, this must be one of the most appropriate and impressive. Before I went anywhere I grabbed breakfast since Crewe station had been closed up tight at 6am on a weekend. I then proceeded directly to a favourite coffee spot. I had no intention of today being rushed at all, and spent time watching the fairly pointless security staff marshalling a non-existent crowd outside the Apple Store as a few early purchasers shuffled inside on the first weekend day of the new iPhone's availability. I'm sure it got busier later - but right now it appeared overkill, as a green-shirted Apple employee looked anxiously up and down Buchanan Street. It was time to enact my vague plan - which as ever lately related to waterways...
In short, I reasoned that I ought to be able to get pretty close to the source of the Molendinar Burn. This curious and once highly important waterway plays it's part in the founding of Glasgow, but is now mostly conducted to the Clyde from the North East of the city as a sewer of sorts. Having read intriguing accounts of it's course on Hidden Glasgow a while ago, I'd been intrigued to find it - visiting the extant above-ground part at The Great Eastern a few years back. But the source? This was at a pair of Lochs on the edge of the city - it meant a walk, but that lately at least, has been the chosen mode of travel. So, I headed for Stepps station on a Falkirk train.
Initially my walk took me through a pleasant enough housing development tight against the northern flank of the railway. The other side of the tracks where I'd thought I might walk appeared to be swampy, rough ground. I was unsure and stuck to pathways, cursing my lack of adventurous spirit somewhat. I also reasoned that this wet, boggy plateau in the dip occupied by the fledgling Molendinar was probably related to its existence. Skirting the estate and edging along Cumbernauld Road I found my way to Frankfield Loch - the source as per records. But Frankfield Loch now belongs almost exclusively to Taylor Wimpey. A huge swathe of housing, named for the Loch, is being built in the gap between the A80 and the motorway suburb of Craigend. There appeared to be no safe or approved route around the lake here, so after finding a spot for a picture I returned to the road thwarted and turned west again. Looking at the map, post walk I could perhaps have progressed to the south and skirted the Loch via woodland pathways - but that wasn't the walk I wanted. The outlet of the Molendinar on the western edge of the Loch was close - but obscured.
My next aim was to find the point that the Burn entered Hogganfield Loch. This too proved incredibly difficult to achieve. I edged my way along the main road, noting that in fact despite the peeling stucco on some of the little cottages, this wasn't a bad place to live. The road pushed busily on to the City around five miles away, and there was something of a rural feel to the place. I trudged alongside a green municipal railing that enclosed a well-kept park. In there somewhere, the above-ground expression of the Molendinar lazily ran between the Lochs. There was a large sports centre, and the railings were locked wherever there was a gate. I eventually found Avenue End Road. This strangely empty, semi-derelict rat-run delves south to link with the M8 and Edinburgh Road, and as such was well used. It also became clear there was no way into the park. It was Strathclyde Region land, marked as playing fields and privatised. I could see where the woodland would have brought me in far to the south, and tantalisingly under the rise of the road, I could see the gratings which led the Molendinar into it's first culvert. Crossing the street and an alarmingly boggy triangle of land, I entered Hogganfield Park. The North East of Glasgow is a closed book to me, and merits exploration in the same way that this quarter of London which has occupied my thoughts. Here there was another echo - a sign declaring the park a "2014 Games Legacy". I shuddered, suddenly aware of how this would change the city.
I pressed on around the fine and extensive park which circles Hogganfield Loch. It was quiet except for joggers and dogwalkers, and I sat and watched for a while. At the far, western end the municipal golf club offered facilities - but not for the likes of me. Children ate ice-cream and fed ducks or swans with Waitrose bread. This was a strange collision of a working class playground for the North East and the edge of suburbia. I contemplated a return to the city on foot, braving motorway bridges and edgelands, but now my time- and range-anxiety kicked in. Maybe if I'd not needed to be back for a train - which was in reality hours away - I'd have done it. Instead I boarded a bus which clung tight to the Burn's hidden route - at least as far as the head of Wishart Street on the edge of the city. This was to be my first arrival at Buchanan Bus Station too, that busy confusing mass of humanity and machinery which decants vast portions of the city, especially from the areas I'd been walking today.
I spent the rest of my day reading, writing, drinking coffee and just enjoying being in the city. I can't help feeling my jaunt to the North Eastern edges is incomplete and unresolved. Perhaps when I'm back in October I'll revisit this odd quadrant of the city. For now though I have grainy, indistinct pictures of the Burn before it disappears from view. Mission sort of accomplished?
Posted in Railways on Friday 7th September 2012 at 9:09pm
I used to refer to these strange interludes when something went wrong with the plan as "Lost Weekends". They've mercifully been rare over the years - save for the bad patch in 2007 and last year's "Lost Week" which oddly enough coincided with the riots - a strangely distracted and depressing week indeed. It's a little late to claim this as some sort of anniversary of those events, but it's oddly close. So, we face an uncertain Autumn, and sad to say I have a rather worrying sense that for some of the tour organisers, this is now terminal. ASLEF's dispute is about rest day working, and the fact that TOCs should take on more drivers rather than stretch the existing workforce. I think that's unrealistic. They key to success in straightened times is flexibility - and a whole host of new drivers during uncertain financial events just puts a lot of people at risk of redundancy. Some might claim that it suits the unions, as it provides a buffer between their members and the bleeding edge of cuts. But the fact remains that a healthy company is more likely to retain staff, so attacking customers isn't a good strategy. Sadly of course this little niche market is just a fragment of the rest day working done so the lobby is powerless. We're at the mercy of the unions in an uncomfortable way and one of my prized hobbies is dying as a result.
And its exactly because of this that I find myself in Basingstoke.
Last weekend I complained bitterly all over social networks about Doncaster. It was certainly deserved - despite its good shopping opportunities and its excellent position on the ECML, its a grim and occasionally lawless spot. The fact was I had a fairly neutral experience despite the dullness of the time there - I could have been doing other things elsewhere and felt a bit trapped. That was the key to my dismay. But this week, after a fairly good week at a new job I ended up taking a train to Basingstoke. It was planned that this would let me pick up the Charity Railtours trip to East Anglia. This had already taken a battering - banned from the GEML because it fell during the Paralympic period, redated once, and finally cancelled to be run later.
I arrived in Basingstoke late, in evening sunshine. It is, in my experience, the best way to see a town. I'd been here before - the useful station facilities are good and I recall being taxied here from Southampton once too. I'd even waited for a late-running Voyager to arrive in a little more style than a Networker. But once out of the station I was plunged into a mall - a long, insulated stretch of covered shopping space. Having consulted my maps before travelling, I couldn't see any other way to get across town except taking a very long route around. The first mall, a spacious, ominously empty affair gave way to a short stretch of daylight before the doors of another mall reared up. There was no escape or alternative route - except for access to a car park. This second, older mall was white, tiled, shiny - probably of 90s vintage. It was largely empty too - I'd wondered if these routes would even be open in the evening, but it seems that they are so fundamental to getting around town that they have to be. One consequence of the accretion of building projects is that the signage and wayfinding is inconsistent. It's impossible to plot a route without instinct. I pitched it just about right - emerging in a car park at the end of the mall. To my right, an old town street curved up a hill - even that was pedestrianised and made part of the sweep of retail. I veered left, across the empty expanse of parking spaces.
The Red Lion Hotel is a strange, red brick 1970s extension to an old pub. Like many independent hotels of it's vintage it feels a little tired, a little unkempt and weirdly cold inside - but it was pretty good. Clean, safe and staffed by some really good people. A bright, open smile and an unexpected conversation awaited me. It felt like the first human experience I'd had since I left the train and as such was very, very welcome. My room - home for the next two days - was fine too. I had nothing to complain about, yet I was still finding Basingstoke difficult to understand. I didn't want to be here, hated the way the Town Centre space had been privatised and didn't have the planned trip to fall back on as a reason for this. It was a difficult, dull night I faced...
Tomorrow, I'll predictably go to London again. It's still the midst of the Paralympics of course, and I wonder what I'm going to find - I'm also acutely aware how much time I seem to be spending there lately. But it feels like the only reasonable escape from here just now.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.