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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Out From The Shadows - The Victoria Bar

The Victoria Bar, 159 Bridgegate, G1 5HZ

There’s very little sound round here after dark. Mostly just the wind whistling off the Clyde and finding the gaps in the buildings through which to, er, whistle. The lamplight seems dimmer than in the rest of the city centre, and shadowy figures emerge on street corners only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. I had just stepped out from my hiding place when suddenly…

But enough of my attempts at noir pulp, my job is to look at the recently re-launched Victoria Bar. It has a long history and good reputation in this part of the city, along with its near neighbour the Clutha Vaults. Recent years haven’t been so good though, including an abortive name change to Scotch Corner and opening times reduced to two days a week.

The neighbourhood has had its troubles too. A forgotten corner of town enclosed by a massive outdoor car park, the High Court, and the river with nothing but empty or dilapidated buildings in between. A homeless hostel is round the corner bringing the predators who latch on to the inhabitants, and Paddy’s Market, which, for all its faults and signs of glaring poverty, at least brought colour and authenticity to the area, has been consigned to history by the city fathers, holding their collective noses while doing so.

Quite a change from the days that Bridgegate – the street on which The Victoria sits - was one of the handful of streets that made up Mr. Glasgow, Jack House’s medieval Heart of Glasgow. Some centuries on from that, the area housed the city’s grandest residencies and their influential owners.

Gradual decline occurred during Victorian times when the wealthy headed to the west end of the city and since then no major development has reversed the decline. Apart, that is, from the rejuvenation of The Briggait building in the 1980s. It was restored and occupied by various small businesses, mostly fashion and art and design outlets, even some licensed units. This precursor to the later re-development of the larger Merchant City, failed after a few years, despite the efforts of its optimistic backers.

The drinking round here has changed vastly too. On adjacent Stockwell Street many premises have been demolished, including Ronnie’s Bar and the ancient and the brilliantly-named Robert Jaferay’s Wine & Spirit Cellar. Today an Argos store and the car park occupy their places. All that remain nearby from a long list are Westering Winds – a modest den on Bridgegate – the aforementioned Clutha Vaults and The Scotia, with its unsubstantiated claims to be Glasow’s oldest hostelry.

The latter two and The Victoria have a long tradition as folk music havens. This heritage and the pub’s renown as part of this triumvirate helped persuade present operator Tom O’Donnell to buy the lease a few months ago.

Now, folk music can’t be listed amongst my life favourites but that didn’t prevent me visiting the new operation. It was good to see the Old Victoria sign back again and a decent paint job too. Also noticed the Pop Up Comedy poster, an indication of O’Donnell’s wish to have live performance at the heart of the pub’s attractions.

Inside, I was struck by instant déjà vu. Without warning I was back in an indie music bar of the eighties and nineties. Not quite student days or the QM, but of that ilk, like The Halt Bar on Woodlands Road, only more so. Blackboard signs promising live delights such as open mic, the pop-up comedy, established band visits, quizzes etc were drawn in the vivid colours and style of circus posters, or that of a tattoo artist. And one wall is festooned to cramming point with music tour posters.

A partition wall does just that to the room, one side busy, the other quiet, my guess that the bands play on the former side while the less sociable customers seek respite on the other. Not that the interior is very big, there’s only enough seating for around thirty punters, with the three booths the pick of the spots.

The Muse sat in one of those while I went to the semi-circular bar – situated to the right of the partition wall. The Victoria is one of the few Glasgow bars to stock Brewdog beer on tap, part of its commitment to draw away from the mainstream. I took the Punk IPA at 6.5%. This particular beer proved too intense and hoppy for my palate but I have since tried the modified, weaker version, which was smooth on the taste buds.

The Muse had been admiring the tongue and groove panelling on the wall and ceiling, but she’s always been more interested in DIY and practical things than a dreamer like me. I nodded for a while then asked her nicely to get another round in. She returned complimenting the service, a friendly barmaid lacking the pretension or disinterest still prevalent in many of our bars.

I had done my own admiring in the meantime. Vintage framed ads going beyond the ubiquitous Guinness ones. Balloch Lade and Claymore whiskies were among the old brands I noticed. These were from the original Victoria, something of a bonus for the new buyer. They form a nice link to the pub’s heritage and go well with the dark wood interior.

The trailed Pop-Up Comedy was taking its time to, er, pop-up, so we looked for the beer garden. No sign was evident so we walked past the bar to one of the doors on the far side. This proved to be the right one. The garden is shared with the Clutha Vaults, using the space at the back of their wedge-shaped premises backing on to the walls of the Briggait.

It’s a very good size, in warm weather it has the capacity to hold more than the interior of the two bars combined. Murals and a real-to-goodness-actual tree growing through the concrete – not quite as impressive though as the indoor tree at Waxy O’Connors in London – complement the rough and ready feel out here. In winter, as with all beer gardens, it lacks a cheery feel. But a handy flu by the door gives you heat at your back, allowing you to linger over your nicotine stick of choice.

We left via the Clutha, it looking a little quieter than its neighbour and with the staff giving off a bored air absent from next door. The Clutha does have a pavement area but that seems to be its only advantage over The Victoria. And while The Victoria doesn’t have the same interesting nooks and crannies of The Scotia, it also possesses none of its cliques or its delusions.

The triumvirate will continue to combine to attract punters to this windswept corner of the city, and maybe The Victoria will become the most celebrated of the lot, stirring a revival in the licensed trade and the area in general. Let’s hope that’s not mere fiction.

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