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Thursday, 5 October 2017

Backwards and Forwards

As, unfortunately, time only seems to point one way, sometimes it’s nice to defy the currently established laws of physics and look backwards as well as forwards, maybe even simultaneously. So that’s what I’ll do here, before the passage of time renders it all mightily insignificant.

One of the aims behind this blog was to link the present with the past, specifically (though not exclusively) Glasgow bars with their previous incarnations. Largely because it is hard to think of any other shared, community assets that a person of today can sit or stand in the same place that their forefathers and foremothers did, and then do exactly the same thing they did too – take a drink.

Perhaps libraries and museums are further examples of such shared and continuous heritage but they lack the number of pubs and most definitely their conviviality. Bars are living history and are aptly described as “people’s palaces”.

So it is nice to hear some first-hand responses to this blog that tell of people’s own connections with pubs, stories that link them and their families with the life of a bar mentioned in my musings herein. Three spring mos prominently to mind.

Anne Fox now lives in the States. She used to live on Admiral Street, as a child, just round the corner from the Old Toll Bar. Coming across my blog, she decided to email me about the bar. In her early years, she was, of course, unable to enter the premises but she has fond memories of its role in the community and its use by her family. Her recollections included stories of a major subsidence issue with the building in 1954, leading to her mother having to throw the young Anne from the window to safety, and a tragic gas incident which resulted in the death of Anne’s grandparents in the mid-1960s.

Having emigrated around half a century ago, she returned to visit the area about two or three years ago and was disappointed to see the Old Toll unoccupied and in a sorry state. However, my blog alerted her to the reopening and resurgence of the bar and when she returns this autumn she intends to visit the Old Toll and raise a toast to the past with old friends and her cousin, her only remaining family member from those distant days.

A posting of mine from a few years ago, surveyed various unheralded bars round about Parkhead Cross and received a generous response from a local, Mo. He recounted light-hearted tales from the hostelries of the district frequented by his father and other relatives, most notably the gigging exploits of his brother Tommy, an accomplished guitarist, whose virtuosity on his instrument of choice didn’t protect him from the indignity of stepping aside every time a punter wanted to use the pub’s toilets. Aye, space is precious in the Glasgow bar.

The last anecdote I will mention relates to a bar I have concentrated quite a bit of attention on in this blog, it being recognised by those most knowledgeable on the subject as the oldest bar in Glasgow. Standing in a bar one day, appropriately enough, talking to a barman about my blog and specifically the fate of the Old College Bar, a woman of around 40 nearby, enquired if we were indeed talking about the bar on High Street.

Now living in the West End, she was originally from Castlemilk and she told me that the Old College Bar was where 30-odd years ago her father, then separated from her mother, would pop into the Old College after he had picked up her and her sister from their mum at the weekends. He would catch up with his buddies and have a couple of pints while the girls would be indulged with soft drinks and crisps. All refreshed, they would be ready for the long bus journey to his home. For this lady, the demise of the Old College, if and when it goes, would be a severing of a link to her past, bittersweet though it was.

Three everyday stories, no more, no less, but all illustrative of the important role pubs have played and will continue to play in the lives of the folk of Glasgow.

So that’s the past dealt with but we have to always look forward, there is no choice - unless the B-Theory of time can be proven - so here are my plans for the near future, some of which may creep into this blog.

I preferred the previous incarnation, Universal, but Malones in Sauchiehall Lane have piqued my interest with their newly constructed rooftop cider garden. I will be visiting it very soon. Coincidentally, there are a few plans for other rooftop bars across the city, including the Radisson Red hotel near the Hydro, due to open in April, and I believe another similar offering at the hotel under construction south of St Enoch Square, also overlooking the Clyde.

Less welcome, for me, are Brewdog’s plans for a new outlet, Hopworks, on East Campbell Street near the Barras. The most recent developments in the area, St Lukes, and A’Challtainn are joints that are sympathetic to the district and to its history. The arrival of the Brewdog chain to east of High Street suggests gentrification rather than benefit to locals. On the upside, the plans do include a beer terrace.

The Viking Bar on Maryhill Road continues with its radical refurb, installing, for example, huge windows on its west and south sides. I visited a couple of months ago when works were around halfway completed, I will return once everything is done and dusted.

Not too far away from the Viking, up in Possil, the Balmore Bar has reopened after a lengthy absence. It is looking bright and dapper and I will include it in a proposed survey of in and around Saracen Cross during the first weekend in November, the highlight of which will probably be my return to the excellent Standard Inn.

Celino’s massive new opening in Partick has received lots of attention, an investment which is an enormous jump in capacity for the owners, coming from their far more modestly-sized outlet on Alexandria Parade. I’ve been in during daylight hours and am impressed with the interior, even though I would have preferred use of a darker wood tone. I particularly like the small coffee bar by the door, those couple of chairs surely the best seats in the house.

Their island bar is an attempt to create a destination drinking spot, something their rivals in the east, Coia’s, have never utilised. It will be interesting to see the interaction of a night-time between diners and drinkers.

Moving away from Glasgow, next month I will be heading up the east coast for a long-overdue return to the watering holes of Aberdeen. The historic gems, the Grill and Cameron’s Inn (Ma’s) will surely be visited, along with the whisky and cigar emporium CASC.

Nearer in time, this weekend I will be returning to Northern Ireland after a visit only six weeks ago. On that occasion, I missed the opportunity of sampling the delights of a few gloriously intact listed interiors of pubs in County Tyrone. This time, that mistake will not be repeated when I land in Belfast.

Pubs on my list include Ronnie Drew’s, the Errigle Inn, and the Rock. And even though I’ve been many times, the most famous of all, the Crown Liquor Saloon will feature too. It promises to be a good weekend. Just goes to show, there is even some comfort in the future, no matter how fleeting.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Shettleston Two

The Railway Tavern, 1416 Shettleston Road, Glasgow G32 9AL
The Portland Arms, 1169 Shettleston Road, G32 7NB

One of the main components of the East End of Glasgow, Shettleston is a district often burdened by a fearsome reputation but in reality it is much like many areas of the city, north, west, east and south, with the accompanying positives and negatives.

There is a decent promenade to be had along the length of the main artery, Shettleston Road, selecting pubs as you go. But it is a pity that so few interested imbibers, not to mention bloggers, seem to want to explore around here.

Anyway, their loss, and that includes missing out on two of Glasgow’s best bar interiors. The first of these is the Railway Tavern, situated at the eastern end of the thoroughfare.

The Railway Tavern is a modest, cottage building, with no hint of the delights inside. This pub dates from Edwardian times and was from the first regarded as a workingman’s establishment.

At first glance the interior looks quite simple, basic even. An island bar with a low-rise, fragile looking gantry greets one, but the beamed ceiling is more impressive. The interior is quite small, everything seemingly scaled-down. But this just adds to the warm feeling that comes over you in here, unannounced.

It is more than just the heat you get from the numerous guarded fires. There are two of these sited permanently in the two sitting rooms (or snugs) that give this place some of its reputation. One of these has some interesting engravings on its wall but the real interest is the service buttons that were once linked to service signal boxes in the main area. Those wishing to conduct their drinking away from their fellows could thus summon service without leaving their seats. Those were the days…

Another feature of great interest is the Family Department or Jug Bar. This is an enclosed area by one small corner of the bar counter only accessible through one exterior door. There would be no mixing between those using this area and those in the rest of the bar, because this was where the family (wife or children) would be allowed to collect a jug of beer for the man of the house. An early off-licence.

The Railway Tavern retains such curiosities long past their actual use, realising that history should be preserved and that it gives modern pub-goers an enjoyable link to that history.

The tavern nowadays is a real community pub. The manager, Derek, knows most punters by name and creates a welcoming atmosphere for everyone. Unusually for around Shettleston there is a beer garden, situated beside trees at the back. All in all, The Railway Tavern is a good option to take in the afternoon’s football on TV, a full evening of chat and drink, even karaoke at 3pm Tuesday and Sunday.

Opposite is the The Kirkhouse, a decent family and food-friendly establishment but the other historical gem in Shettleston is The Portland Arms, about 600 yards west of The Railway Tavern.

Re-opened in the 1930s to accommodate the drinking appetite of well-paid workers newly employed in the armament factories of the East End, The Portland Arms shares with the Steps Bar and Rogano Restaurant, both of the city centre, a well-preserved Art Deco interior. These are some of the best examples of inter-war design anywhere in the UK.
The previous Portland Arms had been around since 1842, the new version the brainchild of ambitious licensee Jonathan Tindal. He used the architect Alexander-Hood Macleod, whose business had been in decline. Macleod’s main experience had been industrial work, and these techniques and materials were applied to The Portland, which is a B Listed building and interior.

There are many notable features starting with the building’s modernist exterior. Its granite and brick fascia and steel lettering sets it apart from the tenements all around. Inside, the vogue materials of the 1930’s walnut and chrome are employed to great effect. All doors and the counter are in walnut, with walnut zebra-style veneer panelling also on the walls. Chrome is banded round the counter. Small match strikers remain under the counter and between seats, an echo of smoking days. Above the bar gantry is a large cream canopy, a very unusual feature, originally inset with neon lights.

Probably the most notable aspect to the interior is the four well-preserved sitting rooms, or snugs, in each corner. All are self-contained and glazed, the two front rooms with windows on to the street, something unique in this country I believe. One of these is designated as a ladies room, the other, is unfortunately, in use as a storeroom. There is also a jug bar. With all these wonders it is easy to fail to notice the two Art Deco fireplaces, notable features in their own right.

There is no denying that the bar is operating at a level far below that of its heyday and this is reflected in the rather cheap, harsh strip lighting under the canopy and indeed the whole of the interior. It is also unfortunate, though unsurprising, that the original terrazzo flooring is long gone.

The last but one time I visited the Portland, I was on my own and smartly dressed in a winter coat and crisp white shirt and happy with my appearance. A few guys in their early 20s, who looked to be in the know, were smoking at the entrance and one of them, noticing me as I passed, greeted me thus – “Alright, slick?” I smiled and nodded, glad that someone else had appreciated my look, even if it was not entirely what he meant.

Inside, there were quite a few other colourful characters and after my visit I made the following notes – “Within minutes you realise that this joint contains the highest concentration of reprobates and rogues since the last meeting of the Privy Council. To be more specific, the denizens here can be split into two categories: those who are barred from the Railway Tavern, and those who should barred from the Railway Tavern.”

But on my most recent visit to the Portland, a Saturday in late April, things were different; the bar staff more attentive, the clientele rather less forbidding, a unity amongst all the punters creating a far more relaxed vibe, an atmosphere that this wonderful interior deserves.
There are other notable bars along Shettleston Road. I have in the past confused The Drum and The Town Tavern pubs, being not too far apart. I prefer the latter for its attractive bar staff, ingenious wee patio and various malts priced at £3 a pop.

Venture off the main road and The Palaceum Bar might be your choice for refreshment. I’ve done that once…

Ahem... but returning to Shettleston Road, The Cottage Bar is well-known, even to non-drinkers. That relates to the Arthur Thompson/Paul Ferris gangland saga, that has spawned more bad books and films than Jack the Ripper.

My first time in the Cottage was around 15 years back, a full decade after the lethal end of that feud. After a couple of beers I decided to ask a few punters what they knew of the case. The first guy said nothing, the second pointedly ignored me, the third told me to GTF. I took that as the cue to drain and split.

A little lesson learned, you could say, and one that I keep close as I continue to tramp the streets documenting the life and times of bars in Shettleston and beyond.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Renfrew By Ferry

The Ferry Inn, 1 Clyde Street, Renfrew PA4 8SL
Pickwicks Bar, 7 Meadowside Street, PA4 8SP
Cottons Bar, 27 Ferry Road, PA4 8SA
The Black Bull, 18-20 Canal Street, PA4 8QD
Luna Rossa, 1-3 Canal Street, PA4 8QE
The Kind Man's, 25 Hairst Street, PA4 8QU

Standing at the back of the only urban ferry in Scotland I looked across the river at my first pub of the day. The Ferry Inn, Renfrew, is its unsurprising name.

It was 2.30pm. It was only a 5-minute stroll to the Yoker-Renfrew Ferry and a wait of a couple of minutes for the small craft to cross the Clyde to pick me up. There was a ferryman and a trainee on board. I chatted to the younger guy as we made the short sail. He asked me if I remembered the previous ferry. I replied that I remembered the car ferry from the ‘70s. He looked closely at me, shaking his head. Well, I don’t get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water.

Talk moved onto a proposed bridge from Yoker to Braehead. Renfrew locals see this as a lifeline for their town and there is even discussion of moving the town hall to Braehead. This plan was repeated to me by the bar manager in the Ferry Inn beer garden, some 20 minutes later. I had already sat in front of the fire for the first few draughts of my first pint, the inn surely one of the few pubs left in Glasgow with a real, operating fireplace. The fireside and the recessed window seats are the best spots in this joint, which is let down a little by the widespread use of Artex. The beer garden isn’t particularly pleasing to look at either but functional. And talking of functions, there was much chat amongst the staff about their do that night, a Halloween party (this being the closest weekend night to that date) but I couldn’t hang around, I was soon away up the main road to Renfrew town centre.

I soon turned off onto Meadowside Street, though, to take in Pickwicks, an isolated pub beneath an isolated tenement block. You get the picture. Inside it’s big but not too impressive with numerous modern touches that don’t work – such as a false ceiling and a cheap, light- wood counter. It might be an OK place to watch the football and other big events but that’s about it, I think. There’s also a strange notice stating that there is no entry after midnight. I can’t think there is much demand for that but maybe I’m misjudging the area.

Cottons, which is back on the main road towards the town centre, is a better stop than Pickwick’s, without a doubt. This pub is split in two, the right-hand section a cosy public bar, full of atmosphere even around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and somewhere where tartan carpet actually works in an urban setting. There were obvious regulars dotted all over, but there was no cliquey feel about the place.

The pub has a decent beer garden so I set off through the second half of Cottons to find it. A barman, though surprised by my request, opened the appropriate door on the far side of the restaurant/function half of the joint. A few wooden tables and benches in gravel made up the garden. A bit bleak but what could you expect late October?

I lasted 25 minutes outside, long enough for half a robusto, before returning through the pub to the exit. Cottons is worth a return.

So is the Black Bull, a pub a few hundred yards further on, in the middle of what you could regard as the town centre. It’s got a wide whitewashed frontage and has no functioning windows. Two doors too, on either side of what I think is the close entrance for tenement flats upstairs. So, I tried the first door. Inside was a very small space with a very small counter. Something made me walk straight out and try the next door. This reason wasn’t booze, it was only 4.30 and I’d had barely three pints.

The second door led to a slightly larger space, this differing from the first in that it had people in it, around 20 or so. I walked to the far end of the bar counter and ordered. Beside me were an attractive couple. The guy, 50-odd, and his younger partner - long brown hair and tall – were in easy conversation. Normally I would have attempted what I imaginatively describe as “the eavesdrop” but this time it felt wrong, they looked so attuned. Most of the rest in the bar were older single guys but there were a group of three women in their 30s near the door.

After getting my pint I left it on the counter and investigated the layout. Soon I discovered the reason for the unusual double frontage – there’s a passage at the back (no laughing, please) that links this room with the smaller one. How it manages to circumvent the close, I don’t know, but it is an interesting quirk. As is what can be described as a darts alley, an oche and dartboard separated from the rest of the saloon by a screen. Don’t know if this is for safety reasons or it is just a design flourish. Anyway, I like it.

And I liked the Black Bull in general, a well-timbered interior populated by folk motivated by chat, rubbing shoulders and a comforting booze-up of a Saturday late afternoon. The evening promised even more fun. Whether the Black Bull would actually provide it is irrelevant, the promise was all.

On the other side of the road is the Luna Rossa, a completely different joint. It markets itself as a cocktail bar and bistro and is owned by the family behind the nearby Piccolo Mondo restaurant, which itself has a sister eatery in Glasgow city centre.

Dark wood panelling, red upholstery and a gantry and cabinets stuffed with premium spirit and wine brands reflect the owners’ purpose here – give the wealthy locals of this part of Renfrewshire a place to rival the fleshpots of the city, a place to flash the cash and impress. And why not? Often in Scottish towns outside the cities, the local Italian restaurant is the place people go for special occasions and slap-up Saturday night dinners, and I think Piccolo Mondo fits that bill here in Renfrew. So, the family now have seemingly cornered the market for premium food and drink in the town.

I sat on one of the bar stools, took five minutes to examine the drink list, then ordered a Disarrono Royale and watched the barman prepare. It’s an easy drink to make but the guy didn’t quite have the accomplished air of some of his city equivalents, and as for the drink itself, it needed some fruit accompaniment.

This was now 5.30 and various people were popping in and chatting to staff, as if arranging their visits later. I won’t say I felt left out by these interactions but I was given less attention than these obvious regulars. And my departure was unnoticed, not even the barman enquired if I wanted another. Perhaps they are satisfied with their regulars’ custom – a risky attitude to have in the licensed trade.

My last visit in Renfrew was The Kind Man’s, back over the road again. It’s a no-nonsense joint with one circular bar serving what is, in effect, two separate rooms. The chequered floor is a pleasant feature which I imagine is original, and the prices are reasonable. Now an hour after The Black Bull, the Saturday night atmosphere should really have been greater but the extra space in here dissipated it, that and its more conventional shape.

Despite that, I was still sorry to leave this pub, and Renfrew itself, when I drained my whisky, but I had a bus to catch.
So, six bars visited, about the same number to visit to complete the set in Renfrew town centre.

Therefore, my return is guaranteed (the usual provisos withstanding) whether I arrive by boat or not.