A Journey Through Glasgow’s Secret Station: Exploring the History Beneath Central Station.
“If the walls of Glasgow Central could talk, they’d tell a hellish tale.”
I’ve never really fully taken in Glasgow Central. I’m aware that as far as stations go, it’s a nice one. I was channel flicking some time ago and vaguely came across a programme about the restoration of its iconic clock. I can’t say I lingered too long, but since, I’ve always given it a glimpse as I’ve moved by, either rushing through or heavily laden with bags and with little intention of dawdling. Looking round Central it’s clear to see that this is the common experience, which is hardly surprising I suppose. The station is always merely a place marking either the beginning or the end of the journey, the spot you’re in a hurry to leave. I interrailed in Europe for a month and can honestly declare that the only station that I can recall with any great clarity, or indeed any great enthusiasm, is London Euston, and that was on account of its vast magazine selection. At the time, it was somewhat exhilarating, but still, it doesn’t feature widely on my repertoire of holiday experiences.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, to be able to report that I passed a remarkable morning at Central Station, and I travelled far and wide without stepping on a train. I’d heard rumours about a supposedly “secret” station but hadn’t known anyone to verify these claims, so I decided to do some research myself. Sure enough, I managed to book an appointment with a “National Rail Historian” and was instructed to meet with him in the station. I was unsure what to expect and naturally opted for the slot that said: “two places left”, as opposed to “available” for fear of treading the underbelly of the station alone. I have to admit I did feel a little apprehensive. I was pretty early, and, for the first time, I lingered in Central. I was stood in the middle of the morning commute and for once I was playing no role in it. It was strange not to be part of the rush, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be “part of the rush” again because rushing is failing to appreciate and failing to know just where exactly you are.
“The “secret” is that this incredible past is only thinly veiled by the functioning station we see and use today”
I was shaken from this reverie by the apparition of a tall, slender figure with a strikingly flowing grey beard. I suppose I’d never really encountered a historian before. I was quite in awe and remained so long after all this was over. We commenced through the station and I genuinely felt as though I had been transported back into some kind of Dickensian counter-life. Here I was, marching through central station following a most intriguing guide, unnoticed by the myriad of busy commuters; their minds full of the burdens of the present day whilst I walked through to the past. This sense of past wonder contrasted as I donned the mandatory orange hard hat and a National Rail High Vis vest. We passed through a perfectly unremarkable door and down into an admittedly nondescript warehouse. I was waiting to see something distinctive, something, I suppose, that would make a good photograph, and I couldn’t find a thing. I wasn’t being instantaneously wowed by the vast expanse of concrete. I think that’s perhaps a fault we are cultivating, this instant gratification of photo-worthy views and the blank dismissal of an unremarkable door at the side of a station platform. But then my guide began speaking so movingly about the significance of where I was standing, and I admit that I was quite ashamed. This feeling was twofold. Firstly, I was angry at my own disregard. It’s always a bit disconcerting to realise that maybe you aren’t viewing the world as openly as you imagined yourself to be. Secondly, I wanted to rush upstairs to the “real” world and let it know the story of this place some hundred and odd thousand of us travel over every day. This empty space some way below Glasgow Central actually served as a makeshift mortuary during the First World War. In the not so distant past, next of kin were summoned to identify loved ones they had probably last seen waving from a carriage departing from this spot. There wasn’t, as one would imagine, or indeed hope, any formal system to this practice beyond showing up and being subjected to the unimaginable task of searching through the men who had been returned. Having someone like Paul, our guide, who has invested a lifetime researching this place, emphasised the poignant realisation that in times of crisis, almost every building we see today probably had another function; another entirely different story. Listening intently to the tales of hundreds of Glaswegian families, it was so clear that the aim of this project, the aim of allowing us access below the surface, was much less to do with simply revealing “secret” architecture, as I had imagined, and much more to do with preserving Glasgow’s rich social history.
Moving further down still the air grows heavy and I was warned that the smell permeating the now very narrow passageways was the result of being just metres from the River Clyde. I have to admit that I was bothered less by the stench and more by the ominous word “rats” etched into the wall in a scrawling hand. I didn’t like to enquire how recent this admonition was. I was quite disorientated and couldn’t quite work out how we could possibly be so close to the water. Previously I suppose I tended to cover very little ground, perhaps the entrance, to the ticket machine, to the platform. The reality is that this building spans 2.2 square miles. It is quite literally the size of a small village and is indeed built on the site of one, Grahamston, which was cleared in order to make way for the station.
Visually, undoubtedly the most remarkable part of this tour was the abandoned Victorian platforms. Like everything else I had seen it was unbelievable that to get there you simply open a door that you might have walked passed a hundred times. The “secret” is that this incredible past is only thinly veiled by the functioning station we see and use today, and still lies just metres away. This element of the tour was much more in accordance with what I had pictured, a horror film style air of desertion, yet everything still preserved, making it incredibly easy to picture our Victorian counterparts going about their day-to-day lives. Unlike the area we know above, below the platforms are upheld with probably once ornate pillars and a series of large arches. Witnessing these intricacies, the foundations upon which the whole place is built on and which bears the weight of hundreds of trains and people passing through every minute of the day, it’s really quite incredible to know that the whole thing was built by hand. Brick by brick, Scottish and Irish “navvies”, many of whom found themselves in Glasgow as victims of the Highland clearances, were the ones who built this place from the ground up. Here to rebuild the lives that were stripped from them, it’s remarkable to be able to acknowledge the invaluable contribution they made to the life of the city.
It’s bizarre stepping back out into the markedly brighter and modern world having been down there. Their day hadn’t ceased for a second, all this had continued above our heads. Though this was a bizarre realisation, I’m sure we were a stranger sight to them. I’m still not entirely convinced of the necessity of the hard hat. These questions aside, the words that will stick with me most from this experience are, “If the walls of Glasgow Central could talk, they’d tell a hellish tale.” The problem, of course, is that they cannot talk. Without the conscious effort to understand the place we call home its thousands of stories can quite easily go untold, lying abandoned metres below the surface. Paul spoke enthusiastically about massive restoration plans he has to make this all the more accessible to people and I’ll hasten back to see the results. For now, though, I’ve realised the key is to never stop questioning where you are, you’ll be amazed by the places that will transport you.