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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Half of Maryhill - Harvey's Bar, The Botany, Elephant & Bugle, The Strathmore Bar

Harvey's Bar, 1482-1488 Maryhill Road, G20 9AD
The Botany, 1512 Maryhill Road, G20
Elephant & Bugle, 1397 Maryhill Road, G20 9AA
The Strathmore Bar, 795 Maryhill Road, G20 7TL

The Anniesland to Maryhill line was one of the casualties. The bus connections were convoluted and meant the counter-intuitive method of taking a bus going away from my destination in order to half double back to reach the target.

Initially that target had been the outer rim of north-west Glasgow, or the far end of Maryhill Road. A full traverse along the length of the road – something like 4 miles long – was the plan, taking in the double-figure of establishments on the way, before meeting some friends in the evening in the city centre.

But the snow and ice and the awkwardness of the travel meant I had to begin my pub journey near the Forth and Clyde canal viaduct. Harvey’s Bar was the first pub, sitting on the corner of Lochburn Road and the main street, this some mile or so away from my intended beginning at The Rams Head.

Harvey’s is one of the better-looking bars around here, the smart black and red frontage a notable local landmark. The taxi driver on the second leg of my journey, after an aborted ride on the 44 bus, had mistaken my reason for coming to Harvey’s. He thought I said a surprise party for a mate. I left his mistake uncorrected.

If I’d said I was here for an office party or similar, then he’d have known I was lying. Because there are no workplaces round here, apart from the benefit offices, a few mechanics and scrap dealers, and the massive new Tesco.

One of the new supermarket recruits was in Harvey’s when I entered. Along with a number of other folk at the bar who appeared to be regulars. The island bar here is said to have been altered from its original state but is still quite impressive in solid wood, the vertical bars on the far side from the door an interesting feature. It also serves to bring all the punters away from the edges of the room, into the centre beside each other. Things like that improve atmospheres, but are often forgotten by accountants talking about the efficient use of space as they persuade bar owners to demolish island bars during refurbs.

The Tesco employee and his mates were finding me quite interesting, not something I find entirely displeasing, just depends on the circumstances. Maybe it was the formal coat and black shirt. It’s happened before, being mistaken for CID. Tricky situation in certain establishments. Though not as tricky as being mistaken for a rival to the local man of influence, which happened in a pub on this same street about five years back.

Anyway, I just got on with my pint of Guiness and the attention died away, leaving me to look around in peace. There’s a raised area beyond the bar with tables and seating, which is probably the plushest area, where the pub’s striped upholstery is at its most pleasing. However, the whole interior has a slight air of neglect about it, having deteriorated in condition from my last visit, when the fittings gleamed with attention, and from photos I viewed recently.

During my short walk to the next pub, The Botany, I noticed of course the same neglect outside on the street. No work, no money, no interest. (Not that some people aren’t doing okay, as my photo of Harvey’s above, shows). That was partly what this trip was about, to see how bars in a less-fashionable district- out with the city centre, the west end and pockets of the south side – are trading in general, and specifically on this, supposedly the second busiest Friday of the year.

The Botany I suspect would be quiet in even the best of modern times. It’s a shell of a place. Just a large rectangular room with carpet that must have faded a decade ago. A few cheap tables and chairs and that’s it. I hope it’s seen better days because if this is as good as it gets then it never deserved any custom. But there are a few punters tonight; about five of them, two of those huddled outside smoking. No disrespect to them or the amiable barman but after a quick, cheap bottle I was away.

On the march through the bitterly cold evening towards my next stop I didn’t even slow to light a small cigar, but did notice the odious nature of the strip of shops I was walking by. A bookies, post office, a few takeaways and a chemist. The dirty slush everywhere added to the depression and decay of the drag. Down a gap between two of the shops was an overflowing wheelie bin, discarded takeaway containers and a shopping trolley. The only thing missing from this scene of urban malaise was a stray dog scrabbling around for scraps.

No fancy shops here, no well-stocked cheesemonger or vintage clothing store such as those available less than a mile away to the west. And I knew there would be neither cask ales nor tapas in the Elephant & Bugle up ahead. A pub that used to have a fearsome reputation, mainly because of rumours about the dodgy nature of the punters.

It looks just like one of the pubs at the centre of Nick Davies’ seminal investigative book on the deprivations and crime in inner city Britain, Dark Heart. A concrete block that resembles an exhumed bomb shelter. But in I breezed.

It was deathly. The night was getting worse. No, it’s okay, I don’t mean I was in any danger. There was no threat in the air here. Hardly enough of a collection of pulses for that. No, the theme of virtually empty premises continued. Just a few guys stuck at one end of the bar, back right as you enter.

Talking of death, I wouldn’t say the clientele of the Bugle in particular were knocking on heaven’s door but here was another pub lacking in youthful customers. Where were they? Perhaps they’d be coming out later, or maybe they were entertaining at home, using alternative types of intoxicating substances.

I got my drug of choice, a TL or other session lager, and retreated to a well-placed stand-at table. No problem seeing what was going on from here because it was so damned bright. One of my pet-hates, over-illumination.

One of the guys chatting near the bar I recognised from my varsity days, I’m sure. He and the rest were watching a chap in a wheelchair taking on all-comers at pool. He was effing and blinding and properly pissed, but still doing the business.

I was scanning the room for the door leading to the upstairs lounge I’d heard about. Couldn’t see it. Did notice the large picture tribute to the Highland Light Infantry, whose barracks were situated near here. This pub takes its name from the regiment’s cap badge.

Oops, missed someone else joining us. You would remember this guy. Normal enough haircut – apart from the black dye – but shaved round the edges so as to leave at least an inch between it and his ears. Wild. I wasn’t the only amused at the guy’s appearance, so much so that you could feel the jokes brewing at his expense for later on.

And later in here might well have been fun, but the road was still to be trod. The last thing I heard as I left was the disabled buy bellowing for his next victim, “Whose next, ya c***s ye?”

Waiting in the bus stop across the way, I recalled car journeys along Maryhill years ago. Then there was double the amount of pubs as now. Pubs like the White House and The Redan – where friends of mine enjoyed a coming of age experience one evening involving whipped cream and several types of soft fruit – are gone, while others such as The Royalty, The Thistle and, indeed, The Botany are up for sale/let.

You could hang the same sign over Maryhill as a whole. In the days of those car journeys, the area was hardly booming, but the area held a sort of mystique for me, there seemed to be a vast hinterland of housing either side of the main road, and people came from Maryhill, the area had that definable quality.

Today Maryhill Road is much diminished, a far quieter place. Now little seems to occur along its length and the large groups of homes in the roads off the main road have been thinned considerably. A dislocation in the district is apparent, a malady, ironically, that could perhaps be alleviated by thriving local pubs and clubs if social trends weren’t heading in the opposite direction.

About a mile or so further along the road, past the top of Queen Margaret Drive, The Strathmore stands alone. It has for as long as I can remember, the adjoining tenements long demolished. It was one of the jokes about Glasgow, that no matter what buildings round about vanished, the pub would remain. No more.

The Strathmore is a one- storey block building, proudly flying two Saltires. No beer garden, though there is plenty of space out back. From the outside with its two doors it looks as if there are separate areas but there is no internal division.

So it’s a basic layout, bar facing you as you enter, seating on both wings of the interior, and two unimpressive pillars framing the counter. The barman had trouble hearing my order for a half and a half (house staple, Grouse), either that or he was being discourteous. Perish the thought. He lightened up a bit when I paid him.

To my right three regulars were engrossed in their game of dominoes. What made this unusual was that they were playing it on the bar itself. The barman didn’t mind so maybe he isn’t such a bad fellow after all.

As before only a handful of people were inside out the bitter cold. A couple of them were wearing Glasgow Warriors rugby shirts, obviously preparing to go to Firhill to watch their team play Toulouse that evening. Some time later a couple of other guys were moaning about the effort that had been spent getting the nearby streets gritted and clear enough for spectators going to the match.

Now, I like rugby and have been to a number of Glasgow fixtures and think the council was right to invest in ensuring the game went ahead. But I could see the blokes’ point, money only being put in when there’s a glamorous ‘outside’ event being staged.

On the occasions I have been to Firhill for the rugby I have, as you would expect, popped in to a couple of nearby pubs, the nearest being Munn’s Vaults. There were very little rugby fans in any of the pubs. I got the feeling they were happy to come in to Maryhill for the game, but nothing else. Soon they would be back off to the west end and their usual haunts.

People and their money not staying long enough to help the area or any of its assets. Yeah. The irony of that thought wasn’t lost on me as I finished my half pint and headed off to the bright lights of the city. But I will be back, of course.

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