Lunch hour cycle rides through north Glasgow exploring abandoned pubs and the urban remains of a forgotten world of the Forth & Clyde Canal.
Cycle out of the trendy cafes and grand sandstone architecture of Glasgow’s West End and soon you are in entirely different territory, the strange hinterland of the canal that runs through north Glasgow.
There are modern warehouses for plumbers, Chinese cash and carry, car parts, whisky and carpets. There’s an abandoned warehouse half-gutted by fire, its roof a steel skeleton. There are the housing estates and streets marooned by semi-wilderness that can’t decide whether it’s parkland or ex-industrial land being stealthily reclaimed by nature. There are worn out pubs and shops precariously clinging to the malnourishing local trade. There are old industrial buildings converted into art studios and art spaces seeking cheap rents and edgy locations. There are overgrown wild patches choked with litter and a neglected quiet cemetery. Then, of course, there’s the Stalker-like Coup, a wild lost land full of strange encounters, wild deer and illicit activities. In the Coup, nothing is as quite as it seems though its views of the city are real and striking.
This part of Glasgow stretches on for miles, full of forgotten back-areas linked by Glasgow’s branch of the Forth & Clyde Canal. The bus stops are lonely, the pedestrians few and traffic determinedly roaring on to somewhere else. The canal has its dog walkers and cyclists but otherwise it’s quiet. A woman silently sails across the top of the road on a mobility scooter, appearing and disappearing like something out of a Lynchian dream. Where the hell did she go? An old man sits outside a closed pub that has the air of never opening again. He eats a dazzlingly white sandwich in stark contrast to the grey tones of his face, which is a rolling gurn of chewing. He watches me as I cycle past, on my way to visit an abandoned pub optimistically called the Highland Fling.
And yet…by the old silent canal basin with its cyclists and dog walkers you piece together the clues, the helpful plaques left by the canal authorities.
Once there was something else here, a living bustling working community, a world of industry and commerce orientated to the canal that enabled vital trade and transport between the Atlantic and the North Sea, and linking some of Scotland’s major cities.
When the canal opened in 1790 it was a huge venture with over 3 million tonnes of goods and 200,000 passengers being transported each year by the mid-1800s and Glasgow’s canal was at the heart of it. Some of the buildings still remain – old warehouses are now apartments, an imposing ex-industrial building now houses sculpture and art studios. But look at the old maps and you see how much has disappeared of the old maltings, foundries, breweries and factories. A stone’s throw from the basin there was, from more recent times, a cinema, a pub, breweries, schools and industry – their eroded remains like that of an ancient civilisation poking through the compacted urban layers. Here, by the sculpture studios used to be the Rockvilla School, now reduced to the remnants of a toilet block and the separate staircases for girls and boys leading to nowhere. There’s the boarded up Old Basin house, built in the 1790s and once a centre of operations where the building of the Union Canal was planned. The 3,000 seater Art Deco Astoria Cinema once stood on what is now wild nature. Some of the old warehouses have been converted into apartments.
And right by the canal, some old walls are actually the remains of the Old Basin Tavern, an old inn once busy with local bargees, canalmen and other workers including those who worked on the ‘hoolets’. Hoolets were small boats that carried the passengers and cargo between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and possibly gained their name by also travelling at night (owls). The photo of the tavern is wonderful with its barefoot canal urchins, punters and landlords all watching the photographer with open curiosity. There’s even a blurred ghostly outline of someone who moved too quickly during the capture of the scene.
The opening of the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line in 1842 led to a dramatic decrease in canal passenger numbers but cargo traffic continued. Following general industrial decline in 1965 the canal was closed. In 1995 the Astoria Cinema was finally demolished.
It’s a reminder of how the foci of a city shifts and morphs. How once busy areas slip under the city radar, are reclaimed then gentrified. Worlds thrive then disappear in the endless flux. The city moves on.