Sunday, 29 January 2012

Glasgow.A Culture And History Tour

I don't go into Glasgow City centre that  much these days, not for shopping anyway. With out of town malls five minutes away it's too handy to go there and get everything I need under one roof quickly. Sometimes a year can  pass between visits on foot into the heart of Glasgow even though I live within the city limits. When I do go in it's to find more rows of charity shops, cheap, here today gone tomorrow, type outlets in the quieter, less frequented streets or upmarket stores and restaurant's I have no intention of going  anywhere near with my wallet unless I'm dragged into them by someone else. Same story throughout the UK I guess.
However one day, a couple of months ago, a  late autumnal weekend dawned where I fancied something different from hills. I thought I'd have a culture and history day instead and here it is.
My first port of call was the City Chambers in George Square. It's open for free guided tours to the public

Monday to Friday at 10.30 am and 2.30 pm. Tours with a guide last about an hour .It's usually overseas visitors that take advantage of this and a lot of Glaswegians have no idea what lies inside this iconic but fairly sombre exterior.
Glasgow was once the second city of the British Empire after London and in Victorian and Edwardian Times was one of the richest cities in the whole of Europe. Fortunately many of the buildings from that time of great wealth still survive scattered across Glasgow. The City Chambers is one of them. Inside it has more solid Italian marble staircases than even the Vatican in Rome. I have heard Manchester and Birmingham also lay claim to this second city title in  recent documentaries, they are certainly larger now and maybe out competed Glasgow later on but from the early 1800s right up until the 1920s  Glasgow was a powerhouse of Industry and commerce. No expense was spared in these heady times when this city produced 20% per cent of the world's shipping and also built the lions share of the world's locomotives in Springburn. It was not unusual for over 300 new ships completed in a year  to power down the River Clyde from the various yards dotted along its banks. 40 shipyards of every size at it's peak. "Clyde Built" was a term understood by the world's sailors of large ships for  meaning quality and craftsmanship. The great English port city of Liverpool would have been the only other serious rival but with that avenue already taken they developed profitable interests at sea in other directions,concentrating on trade and the mass migration of people rather than full scale ship building.
 In these uncertain times today  however the fact that you can  still explore this outstanding building for free is remarkable. They'd charge you an arm and a leg for the privilege in most other cities. 
Past the entrance hall, with its tile mosaic  of small domed ceilings you enter an anti chamber leading to two great staircases, both constructed of solid marble. On the one side is the white staircase, composed of the same great blocks of pristine Carrera marble that Michelangelo produced The David from along with many of his great works commissioned by the powerful Medici family in Florence.
On the other side leading to the opposite wing of the building is a similar but dark staircase composed of red marble with multi coloured veins  and  golden swirls creeping thought it. When Queen Victoria opened this building in  1888 even she must have been impressed by its scale and quality of workmanship.
The great banqueting hall lies above. Sometimes this is used for functions and meetings so check first to see if the tour includes this room if you are coming far for a visit. Even the numerous lesser rooms though are adorned with art works and scenes of Glasgow's  industrial past. One fireplace alone is valued at close to a million pounds.
The interior gets brighter the higher you climb, sunlight pouring in from several large dome windows (cupola's)  in the upper roof  section that are allowed to drop their illuminating bounty through the full height of the building. This is the highest point  the tour reaches. Through the glass dome above the central tower can be seen soaring upwards overhead to its lofty spire.(Just visible in the first photograph.) Yup ! No doubt about it this was far better than going round the charity shops.
Next we visited the debating chamber where the City Council decides which services they should lavish our poll tax money on and which ones will get an empty plate. Its well worth a visit and I've shown only a fraction of the secrets hidden within.
Five minutes walk away in Royal Exchange square sits the Gallery of Modern Art ( or Gallery of Modern Crap as some  local wits have unkindly dubbed it depending on what's on show inside) The exhibits change regularly. The story of Glasgow's great wealth began with the Tobacco lords ,the cities first Millionaires (by todays monetary values some would have been billionaires probably.) From 1707 and the act of union with England Scottish Merchants were able to compete with English rivals on a level playing field. By a stroke of luck though the famous trade winds just happened to be better  here and within  easy reach of Scottish ports first. Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh were on the wrong coast facing Europe. Bad luck for them. Even today Scotland remains the windiest country in Europe. There are still the ruins of an old inn visible  I've visited on the Island of Bute, popular and busy in the days of sail, half hidden under the bracken  in a  little  sandy cove at Glencallum bay near Kilchattan.
If the winds were unfavourable for once ships would lie up here waiting  for the right conditions then use this express sailing corridor to reach America and the West Indies up to two weeks faster than their southern neighbours in England.Here they would import Tobacco, Sugar, Rum, Cotton and other goods in exchange for  materials these colonies required. They would then resell these imported goods to other cities making substantial profits .An idea of the Importance and power of these merchants can be seen here. Under the  later added embellishments of Greek columns, new roof and pediment (the triangular bit at the top of the pillars) lurks the large town mansion of one William Cunninghame, A Tobacco lord. In 1780 It took 10,000 pounds to complete his original building and here it remains, one of the few left standing in the city. Many visitors to the gallery however are unaware as to its original use and purpose. Although most of these great piles have long since passed into history the Mansions that used to stand on the ground and the names of the merchants that lived in them linger on in the streets that eventually grew up around them. Buchanan Street, Ingram Street, Glassford Street, Cochrane Street, and Oswald Street to name but a few are named after the great merchants and houses that originally stood there.Likewise Virginia Street, Jamaica Street, and Tobago Street all tell the tale of the areas they sailed towards  to collect their goods.
This was what awaited me today inside the GOMA.A giant orange mouse head. For me, as modern art goes it was certainly better than a few squiggles and lines under glass, or paint thrown over a blank canvas. It raised a few laughs anyway and got a few heads shaking. There is only so long you can contemplate a mouse head though and after a good exploration of its innards I climbed the stairs to the upper floors. More galleries lie above.
Now this was more like it! Part of the attraction of any art is how skilfully you interpret it. After careful consideration this is obviously a schoolteacher giving a wayward pupil the strap (you can tell that by the eye of learning in the pyramid above) I bet that hurt, serves him right. Nowadays however young folks might take a different meaning out of it as the belt is also history in classrooms now. With age comes wisdom I thought to myself. Another mysterious art puzzle solved :)
However, back to the tobacco lords we go as a few other relics of their time remain in the Glasgow of today.
Hidden halfway down Miller street is this more modest example of a merchants house. A lot of people pass by it taking the handy short cut between George Square and Argyle Street. To many people including me years ago it was just an odd old building sandwiched between taller structures in a fairly nondescript back street. The merchant city, now a trendy shopping and fine dining zone is full of magical buildings restored like this one shining a spotlight on the past.
Citation on Wilson Street. Although a restaurant now its name gives away its original purpose as the old sheriff court of Glasgow. The present modern sheriff court  lies across the river near the Gorbals, thanks to Glasgow youth's continuing love affair with the knife, it remains one of the busiest in Europe. Having said that Glasgow during the day is still one of the friendliest cities of its size in the UK for tourists. Any wild locals just tend to fight amongst themselves mainly but will stop to give you directions if asked :) On second thoughts ,like any other city, always ask someone normal looking that is not talking loudly or shouting. Tourists perceptions of overseas places they don't know can be bewildering however. Large cruise ships have been pulling into Greenock's deep water docks over the last  few summers as a sheltered short visit destination. The Tall Ships Race was an  obvious attraction. A few Russians refused to even step ashore one day though as they had read in advance about Inverclyde's reputation for violence and crime. The quiet resort town of Gourock was awash with gangsters to these Russian eyes. True I wouldn't walk about  hands in pockets dangling a really expensive camera around my neck there but then again I wouldn't advise doing that anywhere in a town or city. My parents used to take rolls and flasks of tea instead and spent a lifetime every summer strolling around Inverclyde's coastal esplanades  and parks waiting to be mugged. It never happened.
At the western  entrance of Glasgow Green sits this massive structure. The Mclennan Arch. Huge in its own right It was originally just a section of a larger building, the Assembly rooms in Ingram Street. A place where music, dancing and meetings were held. Gives you some idea of the size of the lost building when this is just a wee chunk left over from its demise
As a cultural self tour guide there is a good merchant city public art trail pamphlet normally available from the visitor information centre in George Square or  in the GOMA itself  which might have them. With plenty of pictures It gives you a route to follow around the nearby Merchant city and the Italia centre with its troop of rooftop Sculptures looking down.If you have not visited since its regeneration its well worth a stroll around the place.
If that's not enough and you want a longer thrill walk you could always  make a  full day of it and cut up through the Rottenrow gardens with its giant nappy pin sculpture where many generations of Glaswegians popped out of the maternity hospital that once stood here. I was one of them, squirted out into an empty birthing bin then set free into the big bad world. Proud to be rotten to the core :0) Says so on my birth certificate anyway. This is a good place to have lunch with seats and flowers, surrounded by the unusual and contrasting architecture of the University.
When ready climb up towards the gleaming  pin. This end takes you  onto level ground and through the campus of the University of Strathclyde. Just Follow the signs for campus village. After passing several more interesting sculptures you come  out the other end onto the honeypot cluster of Glasgow Cathedral, The Bishops Palace(Museum of Religion) the Provand's  Lordship (oldest house in Glasgow) and the Necropolis Graveyard with great views across the city. Yippee!. Also free!!!! .A long full day of culture as energetic as any hill day. With nightfall approaching I crawled back down the High Street to take a bus home. My only outlay of coin yet so many wonders. Call me mean but in these dark days of recession it doesn't hurt to stem the endless  flow of twenty pound notes from your pocket. I could live for a month on one of those in the good old days.Visit Glasgow. Its pure dead magic so it is.


andamento said...

Excellent, as ever.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Anne.
I love exploring cities.Even one I know well.In the last ten years alone Glasgow has changed and evolved around the Clydeside.When my sister comes over from Australia she,s always surprised by how much its altered since her last visit.

auntiegwen said...

You make me so homesick. Everytime I go back I visit Kelvingrove and I love the city centre, the school of art is great and I think it only cost us a few quid to get shown round by a student. The fighting locals who stop to give tourists directions line made me howl!!!!

blueskyscotland said...

Sorry Auntiegwen.
Glad you liked the post though.There is going to be a part two next week I,m afraid so keep those hankies close by:)

The Glebe Blog said...

I really must use my bus pass soon.
My dad had an illustrated guide book printed around 1900.I don't know what happened to it, but it was beautiful.
Back in the early 1900 of course Scotland was the greatest shipbuilding country in the world.
Changed days eh.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Jim.
I,ve actually learned a lot myself just by visiting these places,reading the information in the buildings or on the tour then thinking afterwards...I wonder how that came about?The more you find out the more questions you want to know.