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By Jason Michael
SCRATCH BENEATH THE SURFACE of every great city and you will find hidden the story of the people and the spirit of the people who built it. Rome has its Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano, with its present twelfth century church built atop a fourth century basilica built over a second century Mithraeum. Under la Rue de la Tombe-Issoire in Paris are the catacombs; a home for the dead from the city’s overflowing eighteenth century cemeteries, now the final resting place for some two million Parisians. Glasgow is not unique in having a portal down into its subterranean past, but what we find quite literally in the basement of Glasgow Central Station is certainly special, the ghosts of a village swept away to make space for an expanding city, the platforms of a Victorian underground station, and a record in brick and mortar and steel of the social history of the whole city.
Paul Lyons is a guy who kept showing up on my social media timeline, a chap with a formidable – possibly Hipster – beard; a work of near peerless facial topiary. As an Ayrshire lad with Ayrshire’s grudging admiration for Glasgow, I could see this guy was pure Glesga – his patter is Glesga, his team is Glesga, is opinions and politics are Glesga. It was a no brainer; I hit the follow button – and I wasn’t disappointed either. If you’re not following Paul – @pylons45 on Twitter – maybe you should. It’s no secret that I have a thing for trains. Not quite a train spotter – that’s more an Embra thing, but choo-choos do it for me, and this Paul guy works for the railways and he has done, as he told me, since shortly after Central Station opened in August 1879. What’s more, he gives a tour of the station – a special tour of what lies beneath.
Again, a no brainer. Seeing as I was in Glasgow at the end of my whistle-stop speaking tour of Scotland, I dropped him a line and invited him for a coffee. He was busy, but invited me along to join the tour and for a quick natter after. Game ball! I thought, and I was off. After arriving for the walking tour, joining a group of other interested day-trippers, I was suited and hatted in a hi-vis and hard hat and taken off on a frankly brilliant adventure down into the chthonic undercarriage of this iconic train station right in the heart of Glasgow. But, much to my surprise, this wasn’t the heart of Glasgow. Central Station isn’t in Glasgow at all. Well, it is now. But it wasn’t when it was first built. Central Station was built right on top of Grahamston, a village which once sat outside the western boundary of the old city. Central Station was a colony of Glasgow.
Now what’s there, without giving away too many spoilers, among other things, are what had been a temporary mortuary for soldiers brought home from the trenches of Flanders and France and a whole underground Victorian train station. On their own, these things are pretty fascinating, but it’s what Lyons brings to the tour that really brings them to life, and makes them resonate. He’s a lover of Glasgow, this gorgeous auld building, and all the shadows of their histories. He spins a deeply passionate story of the people who passed through these platforms and vaults as he tells a wonderful and truly insightful social history of Glasgow and of Scotland.
The mortuary touched me quite unexpectedly. Only a few summers ago I spend some time on a fellowship at the In Flanders Fields museum at Ypres, seeing up close the conditions in which young men from all over Scotland lived and died in the filth and mire of industrialised trench warfare. There I saw and touched the shrapnel and oxidised bullets that killed them, I poured over the orders books and the regimental diaries of the battles of Messines, Ypres, and Passchendaele, and I visited the front lines – now green, and the tended cemeteries of the rows on rows of white stones marking the remains and partial remains of boys now only “known unto God.” Under Central Station, before the government deemed it too expensive, as Paul pointed out, is where some of those lads were laid down for to be taken and buried by their mothers, fathers, wives, lovers.
In a poignant aside, Paul took the time to describe the scene; the pain of a mother, the indifference of the state, and the indignity of return. He described how women would have to come down into the mortuary, pass the rows of blanket-covered dead, and look at face after face until she found her child. And even this wasn’t the end of her suffering. Having found her boy, she would have to leave to find some strong idle men to pay to lift her son up and out of the crypt for his last journey home.
How could these stories not leave the listener affected? At every stop on our way around the tunnels and underground platforms Paul informed us not only of the stories of the places and the events, but of the people – the ordinary working people of Glasgow, the ordinary working people of the Highlands who came, cleared from their homes, to work in the city, and the ordinary people of Scotland and elsewhere who passed through the station. This was so much more than a tour. It was a people’s history of the highest order, given by a man who is in every way deeply committed to telling their stories, and the story of Glasgow’s magnificent Central Station. In the coming years he hoped to have the tour developed, transforming it into a museum. What’s not to like about this dream? Without a history a city has no future, and Glasgow has plenty of both.
Glasgow Central Train Station Tours 2015