Breakfast this morning was at the Willow Tea Rooms, not the original ones on Sauchiehall Street – they don’t open until 11am and I had a guided tour at 10. So I headed, after a mini mural walk…
…to the ones on Buchanan Street, decorated in the same style as the originals.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Catherine Cranston (the original owner of the tea rooms) collaborated on the design of her premises on Ingram Street, Buchanan Street, and Argyll Street before she commissioned him to design the Sauchiehall Street tea rooms. Cranston was Mackintosh’s chief patron – I wonder if he would have been as well known, in the UK, without her (and tea).
Catherine married in 1892, but “Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms” were the last word in quality in Glasgow through to the 1940s, even though she had sold her businesses in 1917 following the death of her husband. She withdrew from public life and when she died in 1934 she left two thirds of her estate to the city’s poor.
The room I had breakfast in was lovely but when I went upstairs to the toilets, the Chinese Room rather took my breath away.
I spent the rest of the morning underneath Central Station. When Paul, the chap who leads the tours and has spent his entire working life on the railways, proposed the idea of guided tours beneath the station, it was thought there wouldn’t be a lot of interest. 100 tickets were released for a “Open the Doors” Festival of places you can’t usually visit. 83,000 people applied.
The Station is like an iceberg and I’ve been led though the storage area beneath the Station, where the coal and grain were delivered and stored; down the Royal Mail stairs still painted red; and through the section that was used as a temporary mortuary where women came to identify the bodies of men brought back from World War One. Once identified they were now responsible for the body, including going back up to the concourse to pay a couple of blokes a few shillings to help them carry the stretcher up the stairs. Then they’d have to settle the bill in the brown envelope pinned to the dead man’s chest – the cost of his shroud.
The defunct Caledonian Railway Company stole Scotland’s emblem and motto (“Dinnae Mess With Us”) as their brand which caused a leading aristocrat to become rather annoyed (or “lose his heid”) and the court battles were never resolved, as the company merged with three others, so the branding remains throughout the Station.
There are apparently no rats in the station’s subterranean passages now but every time Paul opened a door it was: “Women and weans first!” In the lowest tunnels, work is underway to restore the original rails, clean the smoke covered white tiles and bring in a steam engine. It will look amazing when it is complete.
If you’re in Glasgow there are so many worse things you could do than join a tour with Paul. His knowledge and enthusiasm about the railway history plus outrageous anecdotes from the local history and powerful stories about people’s experiences and stories make this a cracking way to spend a morning. I could tell you so much more but, seriously, get yourself along there to hear it for yourself.
After this highly educational morning, it was time for tea. And cake. Obviously. Lemon Drizzle Cake.
Cup Tea is one of the city’s old tea rooms.
Tea rooms became hugely popular in the 19th-century phenomenon: a result of the emergence of prosperous urban centres populated by business people and middle class ladies of leisure, and by the growing Temperance Movement. Cities across the UK had tea rooms but Glasgow (as a result of Miss Cranston’s work) set the standard for welcome, hygiene and beautiful settings.
This isn’t one of Miss Cranston’s original tea rooms but it is lovely. The cake is pretty good too.
After this, my plan was to have lunch in the West End, though I ended up in High Hill instead and make my way to the Clydeside Distillery, avoiding the rain as much as possible. I was indeed successful in this endeavour, having decided to arrive early for my Whisky and Chocolates Tour.
It’s a bleak old walk from Partick down towards the river walking alongside the motorway. The grey skies didn’t help but I can’t imagine that it’s much better on a sunny day.
Glasgow was once a major whisky distilling and bottling hub, with around 40 companies operating out of the city in 1963. By the 21st century they had been reduced to just a handful. The whisky contingent dwindled so much that Glasgow distillery, which began operation in 2014, was the city’s first malt plant to open in 39 years.
Apparently the Clydeside Distillery aimed to create a malt whisky that reflects the city’s shipping heritage: a ‘light but fruity spirit’, less grassy and malty than other Lowland malts, instead veering toward a spicier Speyside style to reflect Glasgow’s past in bringing tobacco and spices to the UK.
The whisky distilling process is explained on the tour along with the rise of Glasgow whisky drinking, the grocer-blenders (like Teacher and Johnnie Walker) who made whisky drinking safer (quality blends rather than adulterated poison) and the whisky barons who developed the global promotion.
Did we try any of the local brew? Yes. After the tour and after we had tried a range of specially selected chocolates and whisky. Definitely a fun way to drink the stuff. (Not that it isn’t fun without the chocolate in my opinion).
And I rounded off the day at Mother India’s Cafe with a small plate of Sag Paneer and a large garlic naan. After a day mostly spent eating, I didn’t have a massive appetite bit on a stormy night after a thoroughly chilly and windy day, I definitely needed something warm.