It’s a question asked by many, but few Glaswegians are aware of the answer. What lies beneath Glasgow’s Central Station?
Of course, there have always been the rumours, primarily because of Grahamston, the suburb of Glasgow which was essentially demolished to make way for Central Station in the 1870s.
People tell tails they heard as a child of hidden streets with shops still intact as if the owners had simply walked away one night and never returned – Glasgow’s equivalent of the east’s Mary King’s Close if you will.
Some even say there’s hidden treasure located below ground!
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It’s remarkable to learn that as you walk through the portals of the station, there is actually more of it below ground than there is at street level. The analogy of an iceberg is perfect for this building. And, for that reason, I urge you to book up for a historical extravaganza as you wander through the tunnels and walkway of the hidden subterranean world below Central Station.
The tour which is operated by owners Network Rail and run on both weekdays and weekends are hosted by, using the Scottish vernacular, a character!
Paul Lyon, a true railwayman, former manager of Kings Cross and Euston in London, returned to Scotland to pursue his career, and, through his lifelong interest in railway history, fell into the perfect job. Paul acts as your tour guide – but does a lot more than merely reciting, parrot fashion a pre-written script. This is a man who is absolutely passionate about what he does. He wants his guests to leave knowing, not only the history but with a real-life sense of the drama and hardships which were endured by many of the time.
So, if you are expecting a ‘Disneyesque’ production with costumed actors popping up at every corner, then you’ll be sadly disappointed. This particular tour doesn’t need any props to make it work because it has an inveterate professional historian at its helm who has that well-known local sense of humour to balance the seriousness of what he’s doing – the Glesga patter!
The tours started in 2014, and thus far more than 45,000 people have wound their way down several flights of stairs, along corridors, around corners and down yet more stairs taking in three levels below the concourse and rail lines above your head.
It’s an amazing experience, and I for one had no idea that the station also doubled as a mortuary during WW1, or that a court battle between the Lord Lyon and the Caledonia Railway Company over the use of the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland was never settled legally.
The tour takes you on a walk from the concourse down several flights of steps into the very foundations of the building, stopping at various levels as Paul imparts his wit and wisdom in a series of stories and anecdotes. But it wasn’t all a laugh-a-minute experience, there’s a sobering side too.
I touched earlier on the station’s role as a temporary mortuary for soldiers’ remains repatriated from the front during WW1. I was shocked to learn that wives, mothers, and girlfriends were forced to walk among the hundreds of bodies lying on stretchers, lifting the blankets covering them in an attempt to identify their loved ones, such was the ineptitude of the British Army at the time in ensuring all soldiers carried/wore ID at all times. Then, to add insult to injury, those same women were then forced to carry their loved one’s remains up several flights of stairs to take them home. Now we know why there was so many unemployed found loitering around the surrounding streets. They were waiting to be paid a couple of shillings to help the widows with the bodies. And therein lies the origin of the term ‘dead-weight’.
The tour is a remarkable step back in time, however, the pièce de résistance was kept to the end – a visit to the old abandoned Victorian platform.
This low-level station ceased operating in 1964, and two of its original four platforms were left abandoned when the Argyle line re-opened in 1977.
It’s been more than half-a-century since the last steam train coated the roof with soot. It was a strange feeling, standing there in the gloomy darkness, looking up a track bed, knowing that in the past this very platform I am standing on was bustling with locals going about their daily business.
There are plans to develop the site with the track being relaid, walls torn down to allow a spur line to be created in order that a steam locomotive can be brought down the line into a recreated ‘living museum’ of the platform was it would have been like in the late 1800s, complete with a newsagents, tobacconists, and gas-effect lighting.
To my mind, this is a huge undertaking, and if it can be pulled off it’ll be a game changer for Network Rail. I just hope they don’t see it as a money-making opportunity and lose the authenticity of the present-day tour with Paul in charge. He is quite literally the glue that binds this whole enterprise together.