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Thursday, 3 September 2015

Dennistoun Duke Street - Old v New - Part One

Alexandra Bar, 468 Duke Street, Glasgow G31
The Crown Creighton, 480 Duke Street
The Duke, 631 Duke Street
The Snug, 402 Duke Street
Garvale Inn, 187 Reidvale Street, Glasgow G31

Duke Street is a famous thoroughfare, as far as Scottish thoroughfares fare in popular consciousness. Thanks to a number of articles and documentaries – most notably the excellent The History of Our Streets – it is now widely known to be the longest street in the UK. But a few other, more interesting, facts emerged, too.

For instance, Britain’s first housing association was formed in the Dennistoun area around Duke Street in the 1960s, and Duke Street and its environs were originally designed – in Victorian times - as a bucolic overflow from the overcrowding and squalor of areas nearer the centre of Glasgow such as High Street and Saltmarket.

Gardens and squares surrounded by large houses and substantial terraces characterise the area north of the street, while more standard “working class” tenements fill in on the south between Duke Street and the railway line. This dichotomy defines Dennistoun, and perhaps explains why all the pubs are on the south side of Duke Street and any cafes and restaurants to the north.

Ever since house prices the west end of the city really began to rocket, north Dennistoun has increasingly become an overflow from that part of town. But that is only one way of looking at it. Perhaps that class of people were there from the very origins of the district and it’s only now that the microscope of 21st-century social inquiry has been employed we outsiders can observe and comment fully.

Whatever the truth, Dennistoun is now, as before, at the front end of urban change. And the fortunes of its pubs, of course, reflect that.

Bars such as the The Alexandra, The Duke and the Crown Creighton have been watering Dennsitoun’s citizens since at least the late 1800’s, as old as the tenements housing them.

In the heyday of Glasgow pubs, local demand and travelling workers would have kept these bars buzzing and thriving. The slow decline since then means they are much quieter, especially midweek. And the area lacks the kind of passing trade only enjoyed by the city centre and west end.

On the occasions that I have been that passing trade, the impression is that these are definitely ‘locals’ much as I hate using that term. Punters know each other and the staff. But not to the exclusion of everyone else. A pretty good state of things.

Of the well-established Dennistoun joints The Alexandra is the largest and most notable. Trading since 1891 under the same name, it shares its title with the main road running parallel to Duke Street – Alexandra Parade.

Inside its walls there are two rooms, one with relatively modern décor and a blue-baize pool table, the other larger area with a large island bar and more traditional fittings and appearance. Elements that make up a decent-looking pub of this era – a tidy gantry, red ceilings with gold cornicing, red leather banquettes and elegant booths – are all present. And I am reminded of another bar in another city, The Central Bar in Leith. Both places that are perhaps past their best days but which still present excellent examples of pub architecture.

Prices are good - £2.70 a pint of basic draught lagers and beers and signs let you know that “All bottled beers = 50 bob”. A downside is, however, the very limited whisky selection. Very poor for one’s national drink.

From my knowledge, the Alexandra is the busiest bar in the area, and its numerous TVs allow it to cater for the big-match demand. Saturdays can still get pretty busy around here, with or without football.

The Duke and the Crown Creighton have more modest interiors, and share an understated clientele. Of the two – The Duke, with its rapidly crumbling exterior looks the one most likely to be at risk of closure.

These three are located at the eastern end of the Dennistoun stretch of Duke Street. The Snug is a little further west. It shares the more upbeat atmosphere of The Alexandra, condensed into a far smaller interior. For some years the property lay empty, after the demise of the original – Ramsay’s – a mainstay of the area, owned firstly by the eponymous John Ramsay, a well-regarded publican who blended his own whisky in the cellars.

Traditionalists might think that was that for Dennistoun, but they could delve a little more and find one more example of an unfashionable bar. Down a side street – Garfield Street – is the Garvale Inn, an obscure place that even the most comprehensive of bar guides seem to have forgotten.

We’ve all heard of the apocryphal “one man and his dog” in the context of pubs. This place is so tiny that such a couple would take up around 20% of the available space.
Not that that is an issue for me, most of the best bars are on the small side, but the Garvale’s modest dimensions are accompanied by an air of limited resources, too.

There is room for a TV and a dart board, but these feel like an extravagance in here. Even more sorry is the small, ill-composed photo montage of “good times” like one sees in many holiday bars, along with the paper currency of innumerable countries pinned to the ceiling.

No notes are on display here, however, again it would feel like an affront to the parlous state of the place and its punters. Approaching the counter, I couldn’t see any pumps – “Perhaps this place can’t even afford draught beer,” I thought. But they were there, a guy sitting at the bar had obscured my view. As it happened, the Best was off, no matter, I took a cheap lager instead.

This joint appears like a community initiative, a venture to give locals a place to go to during long afternoons – with no thought to profit and loss. Who knows how much the Garvale makes or loses, but pubs like this used to do OK, and there were hundreds like it all across the city.

But the bar business isn’t like it used to be, as I will show when I look at the newcomers to Duke Street in my next blog.