So we’ve moved on from Glasgow, with four days in Edinburgh before we move south for our next house sit. It seems an appropriate time to summarise how the city felt, in my three months there.
I admit to a fair degree of trepidation leading up to our house sit in Glasgow. I mean, come on, it’s no secret that the place gets given the mean-and-tough tag, perhaps more so than similar, post industrial UK cities than have faced a similar boom-then-bust history like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Was the city as tough as it’s made out? Did it feel safe to walk around both day and night?
It’s important to know that we were staying in a broadly conservative, leafy well-to-do suburb on the northern outskirts of the city. The suburb of Bearsden is mostly middle aged or older, families, detached housing with good sized gardens, and not the place where SNP got most of it’s Glaswegian support in the recent elections. Talking to a number of the local folk, many were quite open in their support to stay in the UK. SNP window stickers were more obvious once you got toward the central city and the less affluent suburbs like Maryhill. So, just for the record, our stay should be taken in the context that we spent a fair amount of time in a suburb of Glasgow that had a significant conservative political leaning and well above average incomes.
In real life this meant that most people in Bearsden are tucked up in bed by 11pm. It was actually quite rare to see people walking in the streets, even during daylight hours. Cars are the mode of transportation by choice. It’s not dissimilar to any other wealthy neighbourhood you’ll find, in any other part of the western world. People work away from home during the day, they come home, cook dinner, watch TV, go to bed, repeat the following day. The retired folk, of which there were a number in the immediate neighbourhood, worked on their gardens or in their garages, said hello to you if you reciprocated when passing by, but were otherwise quite anonymous. So insofar as where we were living, sleeping and spending much of our time, you can well imagine that it felt very safe to be there.
The city and central part of Glasgow has come a long way in the last 20 or so years. This reinforced what others had told us before we got to Glasgow. Our first few visits into the downtown area were like any other into the heart of a busy metropolis; exciting, a little confusing as to how the city layout worked, mixed with recognition of brands/stores that are commonplace anywhere else you go like Starbucks and a couple of large covered shopping malls. Buchanan Street is the central heart of Glasgow, a long pedestrianised street that appeared to attract mostly tourists, the street filled with chain stores, eateries and a generous number of highly accomplished buskers including the ubiquitous Scottish piper. Buchanan Street is like most other tourist-orientated streets in large cities. There are always a large number of people around and it felt very safe during any time that we passed through, which would have been anywhere between 9 am and 11pm.
Off to the side streets, we ventured perhaps a mile or two on foot, in nearly all directions.
Merchant City is the night life part of town, set just to the south east of the centre. The stunning architecture here is the first thing you notice. The area seems to be more well preserved and loved than other parts. Obviously there has been some concerted effort to preserve the historical significance of the early merchants here. The area is home to many pubs and venues, as well as being home to Strathclyde University campus. We spent a reasonable amount of time here, attending events or just walking around. There are less people here, particularly during the daylight hours, but we felt comfortable and there is a fair amount of tourist traffic passing through here too.
The bottom of Buchanan Street, along Argyle Street and streets off to the west, appears to be where the locals do most of their shopping. It’s a buzzing and busy part of town where you get a good sense of the local population. The central railway station is set here too so you get a fair share of tourists, fresh off the train from London or other parts of the UK. The station itself is, internally, a stunning piece of historical architecture. If you didn’t arrive in Glasgow via the station you should pop in anyway, just to admire the steel beam roof and to take in that feeling that this is a station that could tell you many an amazing story of past travelers, their lives and their epic journeys.
North of the city centre is a different story. This is where the motorway cuts through the city like an ugly barbed wire fence. Roads rule here and there are lots of them, going in all directions, leading you to any other place because this is not an appealing part of town to hang out in. Whoever made the decision to run the M8 through the northern part of the business area, made that decision without thought to the consequences. The consequences are that there is an ugly barrier between the northern suburbs and the city itself, and it looks to have had a negative effect on the residential areas just the other side. Here it’s hard to find a shop without a steel grill over the windows. It’s very easy to find a bookie if you feel the need to gamble. You get my drift. There are signs of regeneration though, like the massive new Tesco store in Maryhill that looks to have injected some life and optimism into what must have been a very depressing place to live. There are new housing developments, alongside a number of fairly grim 1980’s style residential blocks. We saw quite a few young international students here too, a sign that the area is still affordable but changing to a place that attracts different world views.
The trendy, hipster part of Glasgow is set away from the city centre, about 20 to 30 minutes minutes walk to the west and called, yup, The West End. This is where the University of Glasgow has its main campus, making it a hub for young people from all over the world who come to Glasgow to study. It’s weird that it’s such a distance from the centre of the city and I’d quite believe it if those that live in the West End never go into the city centre itself. This is the place for cafes, restaurants and lots of pub options. The main street, Byres Road, isn’t particularly attractive, geared more for cars than pedestrians. But off Byres Road you’ll find lots of little pedestrian lanes that contain all manner of curious places. The side streets are full of attractive and well looked after, Georgian style tenement flats, where the prices reflect that this is a desirable part of town to hang out and live in.
We didn’t really spend any time south of the River Clyde. I walked there once on a journey to the Job Centre, to pick up my UK National Insurance Number. Over the bridge and across the river the first thing that strikes you is all the open space. By this I don’t mean green fields. I mean huge empty lots full of weeds where at some stage buildings stood, now demolished. Apparently this is an area where a high concentration of social housing existed, tower blocks built in the 1950’s and 1960’s that became slums when Glasgow went through the difficult period of economic stagnation and a massive rise in unemployment in the 1970’s and 1980’s. If you’ve been to Christchurch City in New Zealand in the last few years following the earthquakes and demolition of 80% of the city, you’ll know the scene, as it’s very similar to that. There is rebuilding here though. The job centre is a brand new building. But it’s surely going to take quite a bit of time to rebuild a thriving neighbourhood here.
So onto the people of Glasgow. How did they shape up? Teresa and I met lots of locals and I honestly don’t remember a single episode where we weren’t offered as much help as we needed to get to where we wanted to go. We managed to escape paying the occasional bus fare because, like any tourists you have no idea how the systems work. Drivers were always forgiving of our lack of knowledge. Locals always offered to help out with a lift somewhere or directions. Shop staff were amazingly friendly and helpful, often going out of their way to assist you, reminding me of the Kiwi spirit in many ways. There is a ton of truth in it when people tell you that Glaswegians are likely the friendliest people in all of Scotland.
Finally, I should say something about the weather. I haven’t deliberately left this for last. The first few days after we arrived in late March, were gloriously sunny. The following ten weeks till mid July were mostly cloudy and cool with rain on many of those days. The rain doesn’t falls heavily here, but it’s persistent and regular. The locals were shaking their heads at what had become of their summer. It’s apparently the worst they’ve had for some time. You’ll need a decent rain jacket at any time of the year here.
Personally I really enjoyed my time in Glasgow. I didn’t let the weather put me off and my wet weather gear did the job on my hikes in the Highlands. The scenery is magnificent. The people are perhaps the friendliest you’ll ever meet. The city has some way to go to shake off it’s tough exterior but that’s happening as we speak. I do hope that one day they’ll find the courage and the money to re route the awful motorways away from the city.