Living in the West End of Glasgow
First of all, a very Happy New Year to you! Hopefully 2018 brings lots of great experiences and memories, even better still if they involve Scotland. I’m kicking off my year by staying close to base, with a look at my home turf of Glasgow and a reflective wander into my relationship with the city.
For someone with such a wanderlust throughout my twenties I’ve not been able to make much sense of my overwhelming contentment to be home, and home to stay. Not just home in Scotland but home within a couple of miles of where I was born and raised. And when it comes to the West End, I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere in the world.
The West End and Me
It has often been said that the West End brings that ‘village’ vibe to the country’s biggest city. It’s an awfully big village granted, but the point is still a good one. While the city centre is a burgeoning commercial giant, the focus out west is more on small business, big characters and a bohemian and nonchalant nature. Like the intoxicated guy in the club that can’t dance to save himself but perseveres with giving it laldy anyway, the neighbourhood has a collective personality that doesn’t care who’s watching. Playing to its own tune, it’s presented me with a firm sense of belonging.
I spent the first years of my life in the west end, in the bottom floor of a one bedroom tenement flat in Partick. Very much a working class start to life (reading that back, it sounds like I was some sort of child labour down a coalmine, it wasn’t that bad to be fair), I’m chest-thumpingly proud that this was my first home. That I now live 15 minutes’ walk away says it all. My folks were mid-20s, newly married and probably wondering what the world had in store for them. Judging from the photographic evidence, they should have been more immediately concerned about when decent hairdressing would become a thing. But I spent my early years getting shown the sights of Partick and the sandstone jungle that is the west end. My streets. In the days we all knew everyone and their granny and no-one had even heard of a mobile phone. Yeah, this was as friendly and as close as a city community gets.
But around 1990, mum and dad did that bizarre thing when parents decide that a life in the city is no place for a youngster and hauled me off to a truly god-awful wee place in small town Scotland that shall remain nameless. I spent much of my school years there, giving them dirty looks most of the time. They presumably thought they were ‘moving up in the world’ or making a sensible foray onto the housing ladder or something. Ironically, that Partick flat is now worth about ten times more than its 1990 value, but they neglected to run their financial projections past their 5-year-old so it serves them right. I’m wearing a fireman’s helmet for god’s sake, what were they thinking?? To this day and at every opportunity, I remind them of their folly. When not trying to mount a case of objection (“we wanted you to have your own garden for you to play in son” etc etc) they mumble reluctant acceptance that I may have been right. The fundamental point being – you can take the boy out of Glasgow….but he’ll hold a lifelong grudge against you.
In their defence, the 90s were quite good to me and I temporarily calmed down a wee bit over time. These were the days when kids actually played football you see. Real football. With a ball, grass, a couple of jumpers for goalposts and we only trudged disconsolately home when the bats came out and the ball ceased to be visible. The Playstation came along and, slowly but surely, ruined all that. Suddenly any advantage of being in a more rural area for a young football fanatic was gone and any trip back to Glasgow generated renewed filthy looks for the parents. Inevitably, and as soon as I was able to stand on my own two feet, I was off back to the city.
From my university days to my current state (an increasingly cantankerous 31-year-old), the west end was, and still is, very different to my fuzzy 80s memories. No longer affordable for most, it’s amongst the most desirable places to live in the country and demands a pretty penny. But the nostalgic spectator in me enjoys observing the class and cultural collisions that go on here to this day. The omnipresent smell of grease and kebabs that consumes much of urban west of Scotland clashes violently with whatever is wafting out of Mellis’ cheese shop and Papercup’s coffee hub. It’s hipster vs bam. Glenlivet vs Buckfast. Anarchy in the streets of Glasgow and Scotland’s 21st century melting pot at its best.
Isn’t the west end just really posh?
Of course it can be. It just takes a trip to Waitrose listening to folk complaining vehemently about the absolutely outrageous absence of pistachio bread on a Sunday morning to confirm that. But that’s part of the ticket that you’ve purchased to get here. It can be amusing, annoying and even incredibly disheartening at times but, a few twits aside, the personality that comes through stronger is one of multiculturalism and good taste. For visitors, it’s a safe neighbourhood that retains a bit of a retro charm and buzz; for locals you are never far away from a world class meal or the opportunity to sample the best new crazes on the market. On top of which, Glaswegians are always able to laugh at ourselves – Kevin Bridges having a pop at the pomegranate munching high school students of the West End says it all there.
A couple of cases in point. Last autumn saw me attend the West End Book Festival. In many towns this kind of gathering would automatically disqualify large demographics from attendance. Anyone unable to instantly tell the difference between a Stellenbosh and a Napa Valley need not apply kind of thing. But everyone from students to grannies were out, jostling for a book signing and pitching questions at some of Scotland’s top new authors. Or the switching on of the Christmas lights – always a big deal that I’ve tended to pessimistically grumble about but then get stupidly excited about in the final few moments – when an even wider cross-section of society come together between mulled wines. You can keep up with the neighbourhood’s goings on via this great local hub at Visit West End.
Glasgow’s not called the Dear Green Place for nothing. With over 90 parks dotted about the city, it’s very easy to but the brakes on life and find solitude. Of course, Kelvingrove Park is probably the best of them all and, for those seeking an urban wander, I’d point you also in the direction of the Kelvin Walkway. Either start or end in the park and follow the banks of the River Kelvin, crossing under Kelvinbridge until you eventually emerge at the Botanic Gardens. Distance walkers can continue (it’s actually part of the West Highland Way) but for most this makes for a fabulous hour of a west end wander, away from the crowds.
The Botanics themselves make for another great urban distraction and, along with Kelvingrove and what was the Transport Museum, are most synonymous with the west end, at least as far as my childhood memories go. I can now picture myself being whisked around in my pram. Fluctuating, in the way that kids do, between states of unconditional delight to be alive and stern suspicion at anything that’s remotely unfamiliar. The sudden layers of humidity that hit you and exotic plant smells that consume the glass houses would have sent the clown and the detective within wee me into overdrive. The stunning Kibble Palace is the centrepiece and a stroll around the interiors will slow your world right down. Sun-worshippers and halfwits alike take to the grass outside at even the slightest hint of Vitamin D in the air and it’s a favourite space for families year-round.
For those perhaps not aware, Scots enjoy a bizarre relationship with the sun. “Taps Aff!” is an all-encompassing declaration of war on civil sensitivities whenever a freak warm weather front is blown off course over Scotland. We literally have not got the foggiest idea what to do. Invariably, all manner of ill-prepared torsos are suddenly out for all to see….and FHM is not sending talent scouts. You have to smile.
Visitors to Glasgow are always advised to look up. The walls and rooftops of the city centre’s buildings are where the most intricate and impressive architectural elements are to be found. Although much less built-up than in town, the West End does still very much require your full attention to building detail. Starting with the ultimate in public libraries, The Mitchell is a masterpiece. One of Europe’s largest reference libraries and home to over 1 million items, there is no such thing as a quick visit. This stunning building, complete with distinctive turquoise dome, has been on this site since the early 1900s. To the rear of the building, continuing west, observe the powerful entrance to St Andrew’s Halls. Victorian certainly, but with a Greek influence that would have Alexander Thomson proud.
The pillars and opulence of Park District is the next stop. The massive Park Steps and the almost Middle Eastern vibe of Trinity College were the mid-19th Century works of Charles Wilson and bear more than a slight resemblance to Edinburgh’s New Town.
Then there’s Glasgow’s West End churches. Like it or not, religion has long been ingrained in the city’s sense of identity and there’s a huge range of architecture to keep even the atheists in awe. The Greek Revival style of Kelvingrove Parish Church; the eye-catching Indian influence dominating the Sikh temple at Central Gurdwara; the distinctive spires of Cottiers and Lansdowne or the Mackintosh tribute that is the completely unique Queen’s Cross Church. Taking things cheekily to the next level, the nightlife hub that is Oran Mor has seen an Italian-Gothic structure transformed into a bar, nightclub and theatre.
And, of course, there’s Glasgow University. Gothic magnificence that brings comparisons with Brussels and Cologne in particular to mind, finding the best vantage points of the famous spire has become a bit of an obsessive past-time for modern-day Instagrammers. Deep within the Harry Potter-esque structure you’ll find the cloisters. Witness to generations’ worth of graduations, this is another of Glasgow’s iconic shots as the Cathedral-like design can’t fail to impress.
The best museum in the world. Glaswegians have a strong and genuine pride in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that goes back to its origins at the turn into the 20th Century. An iconic building that has stood strong in the face of west of Scotland weather, it pays personal tribute to the city’s past in a way that makes it a treasure. I find myself returning here again and again. Whatever your interests, Kelvingrove has you covered.
When I say that Kelvingrove gives you a bit of everything….You can find yourself working your way through the Bronze Age of Scottish history – deeply immersed in the primitive yet crafty crannog culture of our earliest civilisations. Then move on seamlessly to appreciate the ferocity and ingenuity of the Vikings with a looked at their basic but effective relics and artefacts. With my autumn trip to Shetland still very much in my mind and Vikings and Last Kingdom having consumed my recent TV time, this is a chapter of timely personal interest. Fast-forward a few centuries to Scottish historical milestones like the Wars of Independence and Highland Clearances via artwork – appreciating the strain and angst in a uniquely powerful way. Highland families wrenched from their homes and livelihoods and deported as a means of removing them as a burden. Truly one of Scotland’s lowest moments.
It doesn’t stop there. There’s exhibits for Ancient Egypt, a Rainforest Experience, the world’s first Alcoholics Anonymous exhibition and works of renowned international art superstars including Dali and Rembrandt. To top it off Kelvingrove is home to the world’s only daily organ recital – time your visit to coincide with the one o’clock performance if you can.
You’d think being one of the UK’s top tourist attractions would allow the folks at Kelvingrove to focus on simply maintaining the high standard they have set for over a century. But it’s testament to the team here that things never stand still. Exhibits and pieces come and go and visitors old and new pour through the doors every day. And yet, it just never loses its aura.
Perhaps what I love most about cities is their ability to endlessly impress and surprise. You never completely know a city. Even in a densely populated space like the West End, there’s always tucked away little treasure troves that don’t make it into the guidebooks and newspapers. One such surprise for me was the mighty Kelvin Hall. Just over the road from Kelvingrove, I grew up as a wee lad knowing this place as the home of the Transport Museum. Many’s a happy memory of me playing on the trains, being seriously cool. I’ve not been in in years, assuming that it was under some sort of permanent construction. Unbeknownst to my ignorant self, it has undergone a massive fairly recent transformation. A partnership between Glasgow Life, Glasgow University and the National Library of Scotland gives this futuristically impressive refurb new life and personality.
Hosting everything from a shiny new gym (the largest in Scotland), through a gigantic Aladdin’s Cave of archives (tours available), to the revelatory, digitalised National Library, it’s as diverse as it gets. Literally millions of items and over 100 years of Scottish history is stored away in interactive and engaging formats that bring both chuckles and amazement. Although the refurb is still underway, Kelvin Hall should be worth a look for any lover of Glasgow. Like Kelvingrove, it belongs to us all and is something to be proud of.
I’ve quite enjoyed my jaunt down memory lane. Tangents have popped up all over the place and I could’ve turned this into a small novel. That’s what happens when you start going on about somewhere special to you and, when it’s somewhere as dynamic and proud as the West End of Glasgow, there’s no end in sight.