Wednesday 31 August 2011

Saturday 20 August 2011

Closing the Circle

With the ferry crossing over with I could head back onto the Subway.  Govan station was partly responsible for the three year closure back in 1977; cracks in the roof caused it to be closed quickly, and hastened the need for money to be pumped into the system.

It's a surprisingly big building, considering it serves only one line.  It is however right in the centre of Govan, and has a bus station next to it, so it's a lot busier than normal.  For such a large station you'd think they'd have a bigger sign - I know "Govan" isn't exactly Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch - but you could squeeze a nice bit of orange writing over the entrance.

It was good to head back underground after all that fresh air and sun; I think I must be part mole.  (Just call me Monty).  The line diagram on the train gave me a chance to catch up on where I still had to go:

It's not the greatest map in the world, is it?  Still, it gets the job done, and it's nice to see it's sort of symmetrical.  Anyway, with Govan under my belt, that meant I had seven down and eight to go: more or less halfway.

Ibrox station is of course one of the most famous ones in the city, because of its proximity to the Rangers ground, and also because it sounds like a fabric conditioner.  This was my first indication that the south side of the Clyde is less prosperous than the north.  Instead of tall apartment buildings I stepped out of the station and was confronted with a low, boarded up shopping arcade, with a William Hill on the end covered in protective fencing to stop its windows being smashed.  A man and woman stood in the doorway, chatting while they smoked a fag, and giving me a distinctly odd look as I tried to get my photo.

Beyond the station were more of the classic Glasgow tenements, but whereas in the West End there had been a handful of doorbells at the front, now there were loads: the difference between apartments and bedsits.  Coming out of a corner shop with a bottle of water, I almost immediately stumbled into a loud, violent conversation outside a house.  Their Scottish accents were so thick I'd have needed a chainsaw to slice my way in and find out what they were saying, but they didn't seem too happy.  Finally the man wandered off, and the woman let herself in a steel-covered door.

Of course, there are very few football stadiums built in desirable neighbourhoods; have you been to Anfield lately?  Nobody wants fifty thousand people streaming past their front door once or twice a week for most of the year.  On the main road, I could see the Ibrox stadium itself, and I thought about having a wander down, mainly for the chance to sexually harass Ally McCoist.  I decided not to because:

a)  I couldn't give a monkeys about football;
b)  If I did care about football, I probably wouldn't give a monkeys about Scottish football;
c)  If I did care about Scottish football, I'd be a Celtic supporter, not Rangers.  This isn't for political or religious reasons - I just like green and white better than blue.

With that moment of deep sporting analysis behind me, I walked on towards Cessnock station.  The landscape around me was familiar; it reminded me of Liverpool.  Grand Victorian buildings that had seen better days were punctuated by low-rise Sixties mistakes.  It was the latter buildings that were showing their age the most however, with stained pebble dashing and broken windows.  A tower block was boarded up pending demolition.  Glasgow embraced high-rise living more than any other city in the country.  As with Liverpool, these modern homes in the sky were seen as wonderful new inventions, and certainly better than the slums they replaced.  Instead they became new slums, just vertical instead of horizontal.

Passing the usual mix of off licences, bookies and pizza joints you get in working class districts all over the world, I ended up at Cessnock station.  It was a wonderful surprise.  It's the only station whose outside hasn't been modernised; its location in the basement of a Victorian tenement block meant it remains relatively preserved.  It gives you a unique insight into what the Subway must have looked like for decades.  Until you get into the ticket hall, that is, which has been done in the standard orange Seventies style.

Kinning Park, the next station, presented me with another of those random irritations that make me the freak I am.  The frieze on the platform had the station name written in a completely different font.

Come on SPT - pull your fingers out.  Get rid of this unpleasant font violation post haste!

There's a famous tradition, much favoured by students and other alcoholics in Glasgow, called the "Subcrawl".  Hit a pub at each station on the subway in turn and then, when you get to the end, you'll have consumed fifteen pints and your liver will be the size of a handbag.  All good fun.

Except, as I came out at Kinning Park, I wondered: where the hell would you get a pint round here?

I was in the back end of an industrial estate, with a motorway roaring above my head.  You couldn't have bought a glass of water, never mind a pint of Tennants.  Perhaps you have to bring a can from home for this round and neck it on a street corner.

It was a bit disconcerting walking through a deserted industrial estate on a Saturday.  I wondered how much use the Subway got round here; it seemed like a classic case of the neighbourhood shifting round it and rendering it useless.  You wouldn't take the subway to work when you could drive along the motorway (not unless you lived right on top of one of the other stations), and most of the units had their own parking spaces.

Further down there were hefty stone warehouses, optimistically promising "new residential developments" coming soon.  The signs looked in a worse state than the buildings.  Someday, maybe, Kinning Park will come back to life, when the economy swings back up again and those buildings become great apartments with a train to the city centre in ten minutes and the M8 within spitting distance.  I doubt it though.  I bet they'll end up sliced, dissected, cut into smaller and smaller units and rented out.

On the plus side, I did see this road sign, which made me dwell on the vaguely smutty and hilarious names Glasgow gave to some of its districts:

Pollockshields?  Gorbals?  Any more slightly rude names up your sleeve?

I had to duck under the motorway itself to get to my next stop, Shields Road.  This one's a bit of a star for two reasons.  Firstly, it has a multi-storey car park built next door, so it's a big park and ride base; always good to see.  Secondly, it has its own fishmonger, built into the station.  A fishmonger which was doing a roaring trade that Saturday, incidentally; the queue was out the door of the shop.  You can see a couple of the fish men behind me - they'd been loading up a delivery van.

I've no idea why it says "Shields Road Subway", when every other station has just had the name.  I've no idea why it's silver now, instead of orange, either.  Just go with it.

West Street station has silver writing as well.  It's also in an even less appealing spot than Kinning Park; not only are there hardly any buildings around, but someone's also built a brand new motorway right over its car park.

That's the M74 extension, the controversial but much needed connection between the road south and the road to Edinburgh.  It's so new that there are signs on the nearby streets warning motorists of its existence, and telling them they can't go down their tried and trusted routes any more.

The plus side of West Street being the most obscure station on the network (and least used: Bank Hall on Merseyrail's Northern Line gets more passengers) is it gets ignored.  Hence this wonderful 1970s map being left on the outside wall - note the "U" logo:

Continuing to Bridge Street station was a bit unnerving.  Even though I was surrounded by buildings, and cars whizzed past constantly, I felt very isolated; I was the only pedestrian in sight, and the rigid grid of streets meant I could see far into the distance.  There was no other sign of humanity on the horizon, just closed up buildings and anonymous vehicles.

It was a relief when I saw the dark bricks of the station coming up ahead.  It's funny - I was quite dismissive of their design when I first started on this trip, but now it made sense to me.  The consistent style meant I could spot a Subway station from a thousand paces.

One thing did nag at me though: why were there no lifts?  Fifteen stations and every single one featured a combination of steps or escalators to get from the platform to street.  It was strange to me that these relatively shallow stations, with brand new buildings, didn't have access for the disabled.  Merseyrail's underground stations were all built with lifts - even Hamilton Square had them retrofitted into its much older, listed building.  Glasgow demolished almost all the old station buildings and built new ones without giving any thought to people in wheelchairs or with pushchairs.  That seems a bit rude.

Anyway, with Bridge Street out the way, I was now going to head back under the river into the city centre.  I did get a unique thrill on the platform - for the first time in my trip, there were two trains in the station at once, letting me take a blurry snap before they left:

St Enoch is, in many ways, the flagship of the subway network.  It's bang in the centre of the city, with two platforms, two entrances, and a travel centre.  It's the station that feels the most like a transport hub. After the desolate West Street and Kinning Park, it was a bit of a surprise to get off at a station with other people.

Head upstairs and there's a subterranean ticket hall, filled with machines and friendly staff.  I'm not sure what that lad is sat on: it might be art, or it might be a broken roof support.

Alright, it is a bit like an underground Arndale Centre, but I was hooked.  St Enoch easily became my favourite station, because it was the one that felt most alive.  It felt cared for and busy, like SPT were proud of it.

They should be.  They should be proud of the whole Subway system.  It was attractive, and distinctive, and fun.  Yes, fun.  I'd had a gleeful smile on my face for the last four hours.  I couldn't help it.  The Subway just seemed like a wonderful way to travel.

Better still, on the surface is a reminder of the Subway's past.  St Enoch station used to accompany a mainline terminus of the same name.  That went in the 1960s, replaced by a car park and then a shopping centre.  When the Subway rebuild came in 1977 the new below-ground ticket hall rendered the old one useless, but rather than demolish it, it was preserved.

This brilliantly over the top architectural confection was both the entrance to St Enoch station and the headquarters of the Subway company.  For years it was SPT's travel centre, but they moved underground and now it's a Caffe Nero.  I felt I had to celebrate this marvellous piece of preservation, and besides it was lunchtime, so I went inside and had a Chai latte and a panini.

Now I had a push up the busy Buchanan Street to reach my final station of the day.  It was, oddly, the International Bagpipe Festival that weekend, so everywhere I turned there were men in kilts - a strangely enjoyable experience, like when I went to Yorkshire and the first man I saw was wearing a flat cap.  It's nice to feel like you're in a postcard.  I didn't hear anyone say "jings" but I did see a LOT of adverts for Irn-Bru and Tunnock's Tea Cakes.  Kudos for living up to the stereotype, Scottish people.  The bagpipes, though, I can do without.

Buchanan Street station has a big proud entrance next to Glasgow Queen Street, but the actual station is a street or two away.  It's one of the Subway's eternal problems.  It manages to miss almost all the mainline railway routes, meaning it's useless at providing any means of interchange.  I've already written how one station had to be moved to get closer to Partick mainline, and Glasgow Central doesn't appear on its map at all.  To provide an interchange with at least one station, they built a travelator from Buchanan Street to Queen Street.

Sorry, not a travelator: an AUTOWALK.

Despite the presence of an old Subway car in the ticket hall, I didn't warm to Buchanan Street.  Maybe it was because it as busy and crammed as St Enoch, but didn't have the same style.

Or perhaps it was because it was my last station.  I realised that now I'd done it; now I'd circumnavigated the whole Subway system.  I realised that this sadness, this feeling of completion and disappointment at it all being over, was a mini-version of what would happen when I finally finished the Merseyrail map.  I thought of that handful of stations I still had to collect across the North-West.  Not long to go now.

I had to do a complete loop, of course, so I took the train from Buchanan Street back to where I started - Cowcaddens.  See?

And that was it.

Except, of course, it wasn't; I couldn't let go that easily.  I'd done an anti-clockwise loop so, really, I had to do a clockwise loop as well.  I got on the next train to pass through on the Outer Circle and rode it right round the track.  A twenty four minute victory lap.

There are plans to expand the Subway - a vaguely talked about "eastern loop" that would share tracks in the centre and make it into a figure-eight network.  The tracks are more or less all there, with old tunnels and paths all over the city being called into service, but of course it would cost an absolute fortune and everything's gone quiet on that front.  Another plan for a Crossrail connecting Central with Queens Street would mean an interchange at West Street, giving it something resembling a purpose again.  Again, money problems mean it hasn't happened.

I hope it gets all the money it needs.  The Subway's a brilliant little network, and a real boon to Glasgow.  I know there are trains running all over the city but they can't compare with little carriages in their own tunnels burrowing under the streets.  That's proper city life.  It's such a shame that people realised it was the best way to travel a hundred odd years ago and built it but nowadays we can't bring ourselves to do the same.

I love the Subway.  It fulfils all my criteria for a great metro system.  It's fast, it's clean, it's regular.  It's unique and quirky.  It travels across all sections of the city, high to low.  It takes in tourist spots and quiet neighbourhoods and grimy industrial parks.  It passes under the river (twice).  It's fun.  Just so much fun.

I want to go back.

Thursday 18 August 2011

On the Waterfront

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to visit Glasgow's new Riverside Museum.  On the one hand, it's a transport museum so - duh.  On the other hand, a brand new museum on a Saturday?  I could hear the screaming mass of hyperactive children, the bored parents, the hectic whirl of people visiting because it was new, not because they were interested.

Fate intervened.  I'd walked down the well-signposted route from Partick station, across the dual carriageway, and I'd reached the museum five minutes before it opened.  There were already a few people milling around outside but I realised I could probably get in while it was still quiet.  Plus I needed a pee, and the good thing about museums is they have very clean toilets.

I walked around the Zaha Hadid building while I waited for the doors to open.  I love Hadid's work normally; her Aquatics Centre for the Olympics is one of the best new buildings in the country, and she's done some brilliant work elsewhere.  From the outside this one is disappointing.  It's a long metal tube, twisted a couple of times, with glass walls at either end.  The only thing stopping this from being indistinguishable from a B&Q Supercentre is the jagged roof, bursting up and down.  It's not enough though.  It's a bit like putting a huge bow on top of a gift wrapped in brown paper; nice try, but tokenistic. It certainly can't compare with the Museum of Liverpool.

Its location in the new dockside is also in flux.  It's still in that stage where "iconic" buildings are being plonked down here and there to try and get people to visit, without being a living, breathing space.  Salford Quays has the same air, and twenty odd years later there are still parts of London's Docklands that feel empty.  I wandered round to the back of the building, where a tall ship has been moored.  Why hasn't Liverpool done this?  It's such a simple but brilliant attraction.  Stick it outside the Prince's Dock or the Revenues Building to get people to wander down the riverfront.

I stepped straight into the tram section, which was a nice surprise.  Genuine Glasgow trams and buses, along with interesting, informative panels and touch screens with videos.   An interesting variation on the normal transport museum was that the lives of the users were placed in context around the vehicles, so you had an idea of how the people lived.  There were features on the clothes and jobs of Glasgow's public transport users, and even a display with toys in it (which the cynic in me suspects was just there to catch the attention of Star Wars fans):

My brother had that AT-AT and the Rebel Transporter.  And the AT-ST.  And the Hoth Wampa: its arms were on a rubber band so you could spread them and slot a Star Wars figure inside in dramatic fashion.  We used to play with the figures in our garage with Darren Bell, except it wasn't Star Wars, it was an epic tale of survival after a spaceship crashed on a lava planet.  Such excitement.

Anyway.  Round the corner was a display entitled "Scotland's newest train", which had a prototype of the Desiros being rolled out across the country.  There was a caption that said "some suggestions from the drivers were taken on board before they were implemented" - yeah, I bet.  Ok, you can have a comfier seat, but we're going to have to say no to the free wi-fi and microwave oven.

This was all very interesting, but I was here for the Subway display.  An old carriage had been set up with a screen at the end, so you could pretend you were on a train with a load of bored nineteenth century commuters.  It was dark but comforting, with all that wood and naked bulbs.

A sign on the wall reminded me that it wouldn't have been as nice as it looked.  Tuberculosis was rife throughout Glasgow, so your journey would have probably been shared with twenty men bringing up phlegm.  So much so that the trams and the subways all carried the same sign - funny and sad all at once:

There was also a street scene - the classic standby of all provincial museums - but unlike most, you couldn't just stare at lacework through a window.  Here you could enter the bar, the cafe, the shop and see what the building was like inside.  And of course there was a subway station:

By this time the museum was filling up with kids, so I couldn't have a really good poke around without looking like a creepy uncle.  I may have missed some of the real glories of the street scene display.  Sorry about that.  What I saw of it looked excellent though.

I'm choosing to believe that means "cool" as in "trendy".  Yeah, all the really hip guys spend their Saturdays riding the Subway.  Honest.

The main hall contained more trains, more buses, more cars; the world's oldest bicycle high above.   This was the glory of the building, an epic space that was crammed to bursting, all done out in a very nice green (which sadly looks insipid in the photos). There was some sort of fire service display outside - old fire engines and the like - so the building was saturated with firemen as well as screaming infants.  They weren't very hot firemen though, sadly.

I had my pee and exited out the back, passing the Wall of Motorcycles and avoiding the gift shop for the sake of my bank balance.  It was interesting and well laid out.  I suspect if I was ten it would have been the best museum in the world.  I'm glad I went in the end.  I wish they'd have just opened it up for me, and not let the damn public in though.

As is normal these days, the museum would really prefer it if you arrived by public transport.  I'm not sure why they're so bothered since it's next to a dual carriageway in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by a free car park.  However, they have subsidised a ferry service across the Clyde to take passengers to and from Govan, for access to the Subway.

I waited at the pier, and - well ok, I was a bit surprised.  I asked the man getting off the boat, "Is this the ferry to Govan?"

"Yes," he replied, looking at me like I was mentally deficient.

Let's be honest: it's not exactly the Royal Iris is it?  It's a tugboat with ideas above its station.  I was the only person to travel across to Govan, and the trip took only a couple of minutes.  It was a nice way to travel though, a more interesting way to cross the river than in a dark tunnel.

One last glimpse of the Clyde and the museum across the way, and then I turned inland to resume my circumnavigation of the Subway system.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

round the glasgow subway we go

If I'm honest, I had one reason and one reason only for going to Glasgow: the Subway.  My deep fascination with underground railways meant it was always going to be on my list of places to visit; it was just a question of when.

I decided to do my usual trick.  Head to a station, take the train one stop, then walk to the next one.  I checked out of my hotel (the Abode in Bath Street - not recommended; they don't even have wi-fi), topped myself up with a coffee and a pastry from Starbucks and headed for Cowcaddens.

This meant my introduction to the Subway's distinctive ticket office design, perhaps best described as "public toilet chic".  It's not their fault.  The ticket halls were constructed in the late Seventies when the whole system was closed for three years for a full and thorough refurbishment.  This was a different time, when the entire Western world was determined to make life as miserable as possible.  Entire government departments were devoted to constructing ugly buildings, designing ugly fashions and getting the worst possible music in the charts.  They didn't call it the Winter of Discontent lightly.  (Of course, this determination to make everyone hate themselves culminated in That Bloody Woman becoming Prime Minister, and let's face it, things could only get better after that.)

So this windowless brick cube will never win a design award.  It does the job well enough, and inside there is a manned ticket office and automatic gates.  I bought a Discovery ticket, giving me a day's travel on the Subway, and headed down the escalator to the platform.

That's platform, singular.  The Subway system was built with two tunnels, one inside the other, and with a platform in between.  Despite the modern reclad and the tiled floor there was something distinctly old world about it - something retro.

I didn't have to wait long for a train.  Well, I think it was a train.  It looked like something you'd build out of Lego.  I knew it was going to be small, but it was incredibly tiny.  It was as though someone had looked at a Tube train and said "those are far too roomy.  Can we make them smaller?"

This is not a criticism.  I mean, it is, but it's also a celebration.  It's utterly charming.  You feel like you're going to have to crouch to get on board, and maybe stand with a crick in your neck, but no: inside it's just another train.  I might not be saying that at 8 am on a Monday morning but early on a Saturday it seemed like a perfectly adequate train to me.

Next was St George's Cross.  No, I take it back: St Georges Cross.  Where's the apostrophe, SPT?  Are you doing it just to annoy me?  Could you just not be bothered splashing out on the extra plastic for the sign?

The station's buried in an underpass, so it's probably the most 1970s station you can get, short of having Suzi Quatro playing Devilgate Drive as you step off the train.  With this distinctly grim setting I wondered where I was going to end up.

It turns out, I was in a beautiful place.  I was almost immediately seduced as I walked along the Great Western Road.  Tall stone tenements with elegant shops on the ground floor.  Restaurants and wine bars.  It was seductive and boho.  I pictured myself sitting on a window seat, three floors up, sipping a cup of tea and watching the people go by.  Yes, I'd been there for all of two minutes and I was already planning my fake life there.  That's a very good sign.

Kelvinbridge station has its own escalator down from street level, plus a car park out the back.  Quite surprising so close to the city.  A quick Wikipedia search reveals that there used to be a goods yard here for the surface line, which the Subway took advantage of.  It was just like being back on Merseyside, standing in a car park making a tit of myself.

Down below I realised that each station had a different colour scheme: a modern version of the Leslie Green tiling schemes on the London Underground.  Each one had a different pastel shade - a contrast with the orange and brown of the ticket halls.

At Hillhead I got a bit of a surprise: two platforms!  The station's one of the busiest on the network, mainly because it's so close to the University, and so it was adapted during the shutdown for refurbishment in the late Seventies.  The existing island platform was made into the Inner Circle platform, while a second platform was formed to make a new Outer Circle platform.  A perspex shield was then erected to screen off the old side and to stop people plunging onto the tracks.

It meant I got my first glimpse of the new Subway logo - an orange S in a circle.  The system was called the Subway when it was first built, but in the 1930s it was changed to the much more British "Underground".  The name stuck with the Glaswegians though and in 2003 SPT finally gave up and just called it the Subway again.  It means that there's the odd mix of signposts around the city - some stations are pointed to with an S, some with a U.

It's a great little logo - distinctive and classy.  It's got a very European feel.

Hillhead was in the middle of being refurbished.  There's a visualisation of the new look here.  The first thing that strikes you is - no more orange!  Well, still some orange, but in a very understated and modern way.  All glowing shiny lights with a mainly off-white look everywhere else.  I was a bit disappointed.  The orange and brown is very much of its time, and I wouldn't pick it today - but in 1977 it was incredibly groovy and up to date.  The redbrick station buildings are dull and dated from the outside but the interiors still seem fresh and exciting.  I wonder if they'll regret removing all these Seventies designs in thirty years time?

I had another station captured, anyway.

Onward to my second "Kelvin" station, Kelvinhall, which used to be called Partick Cross.  I wandered past delicatessens and bakeries and desperately resisted the urge to nip in and buy something snacky to munch on.  This walk round the city was going to help me lose weight; chomping on a pork pie would sort of ruin that effort.

Kelvinhall's one of the few stations that wasn't given its own funky building in the 1970s.  It's located underneath an apartment block, so it needs a big overhanging sign to give away its presence.

In fact the sign's so big I couldn't stand on the same side of the road to get it in.  So I apologise: you'll have to squint a bit to see it in the background.

Heading into the arcade gave you an insight into what the Subway network must have been like before it was rebuilt.  After the Subway was opened in 1896 it was basically ignored for another eighty years; the only real change was the adaptation of the service from a cable railway to an electrified one.  The passageway to the station entrance was dark and grim - certainly not the gleaming future that Hillhead's being transformed into.

Thankfully the ticket hall itself has been refurbished to modern standards, and I was soon descending to the platform for my train.  An interesting side effect of the narrow island platforms is that there's no seats; it's lucky there's such a frequent service or you'd end up squatting on the floor.

Partick was something different.  Very different.  For starters, it had two platforms.  It was the only "new" station built during the refurbishment project, replacing one at Merkland Street, and so they built stations on opposite sides of the tunnels.  It immediately feels more spacious and grand - in fact, with the orange and the 1970s look, it reminded me of some of Paris's RER stations.

Heading up the escalator I saw another difference - white.  White ceilings, white walls, white lights.  It felt like I was rising up into the future.

The reason the subway station was moved was so that it would be closer to the mainline station at Partick.  Then, in 2005, Strathclyde Passenger Transport tore it all down to build a proper interchange station, with a bus hub outside.  The replacement building is glass and steel and soaring staircases.

You know what else it is?  Charmless.  I know, I know; I'm always banging on about new developments and saying there should be gleaming surfaces everywhere.  But it just didn't feel as interesting as the orange and brown subway stations.  It was like a box with some platforms attached.  I couldn't warm to it.

Poor Partick.  All that twenty first century effort and I just wanted to be back down below ground where I could play with toy trains amidst burnt umber tiling.  Perhaps this is a childhood thing: my mum's kitchen was bright orange when I was growing up.  Perhaps I just wanted to revisit my youth.

It was going to be a while before I'd return underground though.  I had a ferry to catch...