The defunct Glasgow Central Railway line left behind a trail of stations, tunnels, shafts, cuttings and bridges throughout west Glasgow: a playground for children and gallery for graffiti artists.
Glasgow Central Railway
The Glasgow Central Railway was opened in stages from 1894, connecting Maryhill to the Clyde’s docks and other main railway lines. It was never a popular line, the steam from the trains in the long tunnel sections made the trains and stations smoky and dirty. Following a decline the line was closed in 1964, although part of it was to re-open as the current Argyle line, and it has left behind the remains of stations, tunnels, shafts, cuttings and bridges throughout west Glasgow. Before the tunnels and stations were more secure, they were a playground for west Glasgow’s children, drinking lairs for teenagers, and apparently used for rave parties and by the odd musician exploiting the amplified acoustics.
Lachlan is as large and looming as a Munro, and a similar unpredictable wildness casts the granite features of the man. He’s a Munro bagger, biker, roadkill gatherer (‘that’s good meat man – we’ll cook it tonight’), pub boozer and Tartan Army foot solder found either rampaging and bellowing about the Scottish countryside, or relaxing in the city sitting about in strange costumes. He’s the type of mad Scot to cause old King George’s men to drop their load and make death-defying leaps across gorges to avoid. Better to die running, gasping for one last chance to avoid becoming twitching kill at the end of Lachlan’s claymore. So what instrument does a Desperate Dan man like Big Lachlan play? The ukulele of course, becoming a cult following on the internet and the ukulele circuit.
Once, while walking along a knife edge ridge he was blocked by a royal stag contemptuously staring at the interloper. Lachlan had nowhere to go. It was either through the stag or a twelve mile walk back with his tail between his legs. So he lowered his head and charged screaming at the stag. The stag took one look, no question who will win this one, imperiously snorted and elegantly exited down a slope to disappear into the mists below, as if this was always its intention.
So when I suggested we explore the tunnels Lachlan’s eyes light-up. Caves, tunnels, munros, lochs – they are all the same to Lachlan. Places to crash land and the fun is in the crashing.
‘I love being a troglodyte,’ was his simply reply.
We walk through the West End one early morning to explore one stretch of the line’s tunnels. Lachlan was reminiscing about his childhood.
‘You used to be able to walk in and out of the tunnels all the time. You could walk from the back of Maryhill down to the live lines at the river. It was a dare to walk a tunnel alone and without a torch. So you find a stick and scrape it along the wall as you walk. Otherwise the tunnel curves, you keep walking and you go smack in the opposite wall. It freaked you when the stick hit a recess and there was just thin air. Christ you felt alone in the dark until the stick hit the wall again.’
Every west Glasgow child growing-up in the 60’s and 70’s seems to have similar memories of roaming the tunnels.
Abandoned ghost stations of west Glasgow
The first ghost station is in a forgotten, over-grown corner of the Botanics. Its only remains are the platforms crumbling amongst the trees. There is a flash of colour of the graffiti art on a nearby tunnel portal.
There’s an ungainly squeeze through an entrance, its sharp edges digging into us, and we are in. We pause to congratulate ourselves on our victory. There might be a problem with getting out but we will worry about that when the time comes.
There is a musty smell but it is surprising how tidy it is in the tunnel. Strange figures caught in the beams of our head torches scramble on the wall, quick throw-ups from the graffiti artists. One viciously gleeful creature is about to do serious harm to another, the latter’s mouth open in a scream, its arms jerk out in horror. Another curious figure has glasses and wears a bra, a small figure with an alarmed gap-toothed smile trapped on its arm.
The second ghost station, Botanic Gardens, was the first on the line to be closed in 1939. You can see it through the ventilation shafts in the gardens. I used to tell children it was a station for the ghost trains that run across the city, taking the ghosts to the subterranean parties of the dead in the Necropolis. We would look down at the long-empty platforms below us. Sadly, I would tell them, you only ever see the trains at night when the park is closed.
The ghost station is wild nature, in abundance where the light comes in, an eerie setting and an inevitable secret gallery with graffiti pieces for the exclusive viewing of explorers and tunnel maintenance workers. A large frog hops through putrescent green ooze. We hear the voices of people strolling through the park above us. There are manic echoes of cooing pigeons disturbed by our presence. There is a stairway to nowhere, blocked-off now but once it led to the handsome station building topped by domes reminiscent of a Russian orthodox church. It suffered a fire and was demolished leaving just a tramway kiosk. Ghost buildings lie on top of ghost station for ghost trains.
We leave the station to walk up the next tunnel. The dark presses in as the station recedes behind us to a pin-prick of light. Above us, on Great Western Road, people are enjoying the autumn sunshine, shopping, and popping into cafes for coffee and breakfast.
Now the tunnel walls are white with the mineral deposits of leaking water, like shrouded figures trapped in the walls. Despite running under a main road the tunnel is surprisingly quiet.
Children in the tunnels
Lachlan is off again, chuckling with his memories. Christ he’s enjoying this.
‘We would fight in the tunnels with rival gangs. We would throw stones from the trackbed at each other. I remember once we had to flee and I escaped through a coal yard. I got home bleeding and caked in coal dust. My mum put me in the bath and yelled at me for playing in the coal yard again. Of course I denied it, while caked in coal dust.’ Lachlan laughed. ‘Just like the bleeding. Why are you bleeding? Have you been fighting? Swore blind I fell out of a tree. Amazing how many tress I fell out of.’ His laugh booms up the tunnel.
We reach the final abandoned station on this stretch, Kelvinbridge. There is another hanging rusty iron staircase going nowhere and the remains of platforms. Steel doors prevent further progress. On the other side of the steel doors the remains of the station continue, but in the surface world. I looked through the small gap of the steel doors. Cyclists and dog walkers walk along the river walkway only a couple of feet away. Some wag has scrawled ‘Life is grim beyond this point’ on the steel door. There is something peaceful, other-worldly down here.
The next tunnel starts further down river, goes under Kelvingrove Park and onwards to the Clyde and the Argyle Line. We share a flask of Assam tea before making our way back to the surface.
My thanks to Lachlan for his excellent company and his good sport with this article!