SOME people you like straight away and it’s the same with cities. Glasgow with its hills and grand buildings, its tipping-away streets and dizzying vistas, won us over in a blink.
We chose Glasgow for my birthday break because it was a place unvisited. Turns out I am the same age as the newish prime minister. Theresa May spent her 60th birthday running the country, and perhaps composing a grandly presumptuous speech or two, and I spent mine walking around Glasgow, looking at art, having a pint or two, and going for a meal: tasks at which I am better suited than running a country.
First up we did one of those touristy things one sometimes shuns: an open-top bus ride around the city. And it was great. We had the historian Neil Oliver for company. Or at least our ears did, thanks to the headphones, and the commentary was good and interesting, if broken up by loud bursts of Scottish dancing music. And there’s a sound you don’t want bursting in on your lugholes.
If you ever go to Glasgow, and you should, this bus trip is an easy way to get to know this city, letting you piece together a mind-map of the place. After the trip we had a grasp on the geography, an inkling of what went where, and where we wanted to go.
Glasgow is great for many reasons, for pubs and bars and restaurants; for galleries and museums; for the buzz of the place and the seemingly endless rows of tall and lovely buildings; for the hills and the steep panoramas. We like galleries so we followed the Charles Rennie Mackintosh trail – or at least some of it. One thing you can say for Glasgow is that they never avoid an opportunity to mention Mackintosh, architect, artist and designer.
Yet he wasn’t always so celebrated. He died of cancer of the tongue, probably brought on by pipe smoking, at the age of 60 (no age at all), and was more or less forgotten by then.
Mackintosh’s reputation only began to grow some years later and as you go around Glasgow, visiting buildings he designed or drinking tea in the tearooms he fashioned, or looking at the furniture he made, you can’t help feeling a sorrowful gap between the end of his life and the way he is so celebrated now. Flogged half to death you might even say, certainly in the gift shops.
But there are some great Mackintosh sights to see, from the dedicated rooms at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – a truly fantastic building – to the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow, which contains the house where Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, lived: the whole thing taken apart and the interiors reassembled. The Mackintosh House makes for a fascinating visit, old rooms perfectly recreated within a modern concrete building.
There is a photograph of Mackintosh as a young man. In it this working-class boy from the East End of Glasgow, one of 11 children, is aged about 25 and he is a proper dandy, with a twirling moustache, flopping hair and a flamboyant bow-tie. That young man’s ghost follows you around the city, and walks beside you as you trail up the very steep hill to the Glasgow School of Art, which he designed at the age of 28, winning a competition for the job when he wasn’t even a fully qualified architect.
Two years ago, the building was badly damaged in a fire, and today it wears a scaffolding shroud as the renovation takes place. But you can still go on a Mackintosh tour of the new building next door, and look at the school’s collection of furniture: an interesting tour and worth 45 minutes of anyone’s time.
We also visited the Lighthouse, a gallery and architecture hub in what was once the Glasgow Herald building, another Mackintosh project. A highlight here is climbing the red-brick tower that once held the water for the steam engine that ran the presses. The views from the top are fabulous, the Glasgow jumble spreading in all directions, with the hills in the distance.
It wasn’t all culture and Mackintosh this and Mackintosh that. We visited a Brewdog pub (always like those) and discovered another brew-pub, Shilling Brewing Co, housed in a massively grand building, possibly an old bank. Here they brew their own beer and make pizzas using some of the left-over brewer’s yeast. Both the beer and the oven-blistered dough are good indeed.
Some cities you take to straight away. And that was Glasgow for us. We will be back.