To paraphrase a well-known Glasgow song, you’ve never lived until you’ve travelled on the Glasgow Underground. The Glasgow Underground, also called the Subway, is the third oldest underground passenger railway system in the world having been built in 1896. And unlike most other systems, it runs completely underground. There are fifteen stations served by two concentric circles of track with one set of trains travelling clockwise and the other set anti-clockwise. Very, very simple.
When I used the underground regularly in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, each train consisted of two narrow cars with very little headroom. You were virtually squeezed into a tube entering at the middle of the train and leaving through the doors at either end. You turned left for the smoking car and right for the non-smoking. By a quirk of design, the wheels, the cars and the seats were to an extent independent of each other. This led to the characteristic movement known as “the shoogle”. Following modernisation the trains were changed to three cars, smoking was banned and miraculously they now feel a lot more roomy. And “the shoogle” has gone for ever.
If you want to know how long a journey will take you can make a small calculation in your head. It’s 2 minutes per stop!! And because there is only one set of points, there is very little to go wrong. In fact, until quite recently, there were no points at all. For the purpose of maintenance, trains were hoisted from the track up through a vertical opening directly into the depot which was above ground. How simple can you get? Nowadays the hoist has been replaced by a branch line running up into the depot.
So why am I writing about the Subway, to use its original and once again current official name? Well, apart from being a transport nut, for the last four days we have been in Glasgow and travelling underground is the easiest way to get around the city centre, the west end and parts of the city south of the River Clyde. Our hotel was roughly mid-way between two stations, namely Buchanan Street and Cowcaddens. Although the latter has a more interesting sounding name, it is in a less than salubrious neighbourhood, so our station of choice was the former, right in the heart of the shopping area. The hotel was directly above the track so, in quiet moments, you could hear the rumble of subway trains trundling along somewhere down below us.
Our first destination was Kelvinhall Station. This station used to be called Partick Cross, the name of the place where it is situated. However, I think in the 90’s, the name was changed to indicate that it was near to the major entertainment and sporting location of Kelvin Hall. That, however, was not our destination today. We were going to the finest public art gallery and museum in the UK. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is housed in a magnificent red-sandstone building on the banks of the River Kelvin. It was opened in 1901 and is now the most visited museum in the UK outside of London.
The really striking feature about the KAGM is the accessibility of the exhibits. Every Glasgow child is introduced at an early age to see the historical exhibits, the stuffed animals from all over the world some of which saw out their lives in Glasgow’s zoo, the models of ships built in Glasgow and so much else. And it only took one or two visits for you to become addicted. My first port of call (appropriately) was always the models of the Clyde built liners and cargo ships. I guess it was an early sign of a desire to travel. Unfortunately this visual pleasure can no longer be indulged, at least not at Kelvingrove. Just a few years ago an investment was made in a purpose-built transport museum right on the site of the old dockyards on the banks of the Clyde. All the ships and associated engineering exhibits were transferred to this new building.
So our starting point today, chosen at random, was a hall devoted to exhibits of the largest animals and insects of their kind in the world. They ranged from the fairly obvious such as giraffes and elephants to the largest crab and the largest butterfly. And, being in Scotland, there was the head of the largest carp which happened to be caught in Loch Lomond. We went on to see a history of the Vikings in Scotland, an exhibit about the remote island of St Kilda, a history of tartan and a wide-ranging exhibition of armour, both as worn by soldiers and as found in the animal kingdom.
The real charm and attraction of the museum is the openness of exhibits with minimal barriers so that, whilst you may not be encouraged to touch a 1,500 year old Viking dugout canoe, you are close enough to smell the old wood. Accessibility is the over-riding criteria used to decide on the displays.
Many galleries are devoted to paintings but on this visit we didn’t really explore that area. Having said that we did go round one gallery devoted to an explanation of picture restoration. It was fascinating. I guess if you are interested in art then you may have a passing acquaintance with cleaning and repairing, but one particular exhibit was a real revelation for me. A particular large painting had suffered from rot of the canvas. I would have assumed that that would be the end. But no, the restorers were able to painstakingly remove the rotten canvas thread by thread and replace it leaving the original painting intact. Amazing.
And just to add a final touch of Glasgow and its patronage of the arts, we were treated to an organ recital in the main hall. But this was no ordinary recital on an ordinary organ. KAGM has a most magnificent pipe organ that dates back to about 1900 and which rises from a balcony to the rafters. The organist today was none other than the Hon. Director of Music, Dr James Hunter. The audience was made up of anyone who was visiting and probably some people who had specifically for this recital. We sat in rows of chairs in the main hall below the organ balcony. Others sat in the café at the same level and yet more were leaning over the balconies of the upper floor.
The event started with the traditional Scottish song that begins “Let us haste to Kelvingrove bonnie lassie o” followed by a range of pieces both ancient and modern. The piece de resistance was the final work, a passionate rendition of the “The Dambusters March” written by Eric Coates for the film of the same name. There was not a dry eye in the house as the music evoked memories of the film and the great losses of WWII. A very fitting end to an enjoyable visit.