A Walk in the Park

A story for Christmas…

A sharp blast of wind caught Alfie as he turned in the gate of the Botanic Gardens and shrugged his duffle bag more tightly onto his shoulder. At least it’s not raining, he thought as he headed straight up the main driveway towards the glasshouses. It had been nearly a month since Erin has issued her invitation and Alfie had still not given her an answer. He’d spent most of December agonising about it, endlessly going over the pros and cons in his mind. Peter and Robert had been no help and he’d just about stopped even listening to their mumblings and grumblings. “What do you want to go to New Zealand for anyway?” “What about us and OUR families?” “Don’t you care if you never see us again?”

Well of course he cared! Why did they think it was such a difficult decision? But the truth was that, despite these two sons of his being no further away from Glasgow than Aberdeen and London, he never did see anything of them. His sons were fine men with great careers and lovely wives and families, sons to be proud of. But their lives were full and busy and while they were always making promises, they never actually found the time to make the trip to their home town to visit their old Da.

Of course it had been different when Nancy was alive and still herself. Somehow she’d been the magnet that had drawn them all together for Christmas and had orchestrated the complicated arrangements with her daughters in law which meant that they’d bring the grandchildren to visit for a few days on the way to or from some more exotic holiday destination. But these days…

He stepped inside the Kibble Palace and loosened his scarf as the warm blast hit him. It had been quite a while since he’d visited this place, but as he strolled by the goldfish pond, the memories came flooding back. He smiled at the mother of a young child who giggled as she plopped pebbles into the water, just as his own children had done all those years ago when he used to give them a penny and tell them to make a wish as it hit the water. Just as he had done as a youngster.

It had been just the two of them, him and his mum. His dad had been injured in the second world war and had never really recovered from his injuries, though he’d managed to return to work as a train driver for a few years before the bullet fragment that was lodged in his brain had one day shifted slightly and killed him suddenly and silently.  Alfie had been five years old and he still remembered the day when his mother, white as a sheet, had collected him from school at home time. The fierce hug she gave him, and her tears, told him that something terrible had happened before she even managed to spit out the words.

They had moved from Partick to live with his Aunt Maureen in her big flat in Hillhead. “Of course you must come and stay with me, Peggy! Look at me, rattling around all by myself in this big house – you and Alfie are just what this place needs!” And Alfie discovered that the formidable woman he’d always been a little afraid of turned out to have a heart of pure gold. The temporary arrangement became a permanent one, with Peggy keeping house for them all, and Auntie Maureen dropping Alfie at St Peter’s Primary every day on her way to the High School where she was the Headmistress.

Alfie stopped when he reached the statue called ‘Stepping Stones’. It depicted a young girl carrying a younger child with his arms around her neck, their heads close together as she carefully stretched out her bare foot to feel for the next stone. This had been their favourite, his and his mum’s, and they had visited it often on the way home. They’d walk round the circuit, carefully examining each of the marble statues in turn, before deciding that yes, ‘Stepping Stones’ was the best. Satisfied, they’d return home where it would soon be time for Auntie Maureen to come home and they’d all have their tea together.

Alfie quietly wiped away a tear as he returned to the main driveway. He wasn’t really one for feeling sorry for himself, but visiting the statues had only highlighted the fact that here he was on Christmas Day taking a solitary walk in the park. He told himself not to be daft and continued on up the hill, allowing the memories to flood in. That’s what he was here for, wasn’t it? To lay those memories to rest?

So many memories associated with this place.  Of his mother, his wife, his daughter, all gone now. Of his sons, who had always chosen the statue of the naked man with the monkey on his knee. Of Auntie Maureen who, to his surprise and childish embarrassment, had professed a liking for the statue of the naked Eve. This was on one of the rare occasions when she had joined them for their Sunday walk. Not long before her death, he remembered. He’d always regretted that Auntie Maureen hadn’t lived to see him go to University and follow in her footsteps into the teaching profession, first as a lecturer and finally professor.

And of course Erin was still very much alive, albeit gone to the other side of the world.

Erin… So much younger than Peter and Robert, who had already grown up and left home by the time their little sister, the ‘afterthought baby’, had been born. She’d been a happy, mischievous child who had given her middle aged parents so much joy as she grew up, and caused them such anxiety when at 18 she’d announced that instead of going to University like her brothers she was going to take a gap year and see the world.

The gap year had turned into a decade, and a way of life where there was always something new to see, somewhere new to go, all funded by a few month’s work as a nanny or a bartender or a tutor. They learned to stop worrying about what their daughter was going to do with her life and instead stuck a map of the world on the kitchen wall where they could follow her progress with coloured pins and make a border of the postcards she faithfully sent from the four corners of the globe.

Until the day, on one of her rare visits home, she had lost her heart to the tall New Zealander she’d bumped into in, of all places, Sauchiehall Street! Her brothers had had plenty to disapprove of as the whirlwind romance turned into a registry office wedding. “You’ve only known him 5 minutes” “Why can’t you have a proper wedding in a church?” “This will kill your poor mother.” But the ‘poor mother’ had been Erin’s staunchest ally and had reminded her sons that they had previously spent their sister’s flying visits asking “When are you going to get married and settle down?” They could hardly have it both ways now, even if settling down was so alarmingly far away.

Alfie too had surprised himself by being quite sanguine about Erin and Niall. After all, he had learned long ago that Erin was someone who, like her mother, would always follow her own path in life no matter what anyone thought. In any case, who was he to judge? He and Nancy had only known each other a couple of months before they had got married in the student chaplaincy. They saw no point in waiting and knew that if they did it would be too late for Peggy, prematurely old and frail with heart problems. He had never forgotten his mother’s face, shining with happiness, as she sat between Nancy’s parents in the small friendly chapel. The three of them had held hands as they watched their offspring make vows that were heartfelt and – as it turned out – long lasting.

It was as if the wedding had given Peggy permission to slip away and she died peacefully in her sleep the following week. Just like her to leave without a fuss, thought Alfie. He was a little out of breath now as he reached the top of the hill and stood for a moment waiting for his heart to slow down. There was always a choice to be made at this point. On weekdays, he and his mother would turn left and start heading for home. On Sundays, they’d go right and he’d get a chance to explore the overgrown pathways that led down to the river, thrashing at the bushes with a stick and sometimes coming across frogs or a pretty pebble that he’d slip into his pocket to give to his mother when they met up again at the bottom of the hill.

He’d once asked if it wasn’t boring for her just walking quietly by herself down the path while he dashed off into the undergrowth. “Oh no, dear,” she’d said. “I love it here, it reminds me of your father. We used to come here when we were courting. See that big oak tree over there? That’s where he proposed to me” Suddenly he understood the dreamy look she sometimes had on her face as she strolled calmly down the hill and then sat on the bench at the bottom while she waited for her son to come running up, dirty and dishevelled, and eager to tell her about the frog he’d seen, or to put a round pink pebble into her hand.

He’d seen his mother in a different light after that, imagining her and the handsome young man from their wedding photograph strolling hand in hand under the trees and maybe even kissing, as he’d seen people do in the movies. How he’d blushed at the thought – he must have been maybe 9 or 10 when he had that revelation. And somehow he had understood that no-one would ever take his dad’s place in Peggy’s heart. That was why instead of burying her, he’d brought her ashes home and had placed them on the mantlepiece beside the urn that contained his dad’s.

Nancy had understood, but had occasionally asked when he was going to scatter his parents’ ashes. “When the time is right” he would reply. She’s never say any more, but when her time came he’d known what she would want and had taken the boat to Millport one sunny day two summers ago and committed her ashes to the waters of the Firth of Clyde, so that the ocean currents could sweep her away to the far off places she’d never had a chance to visit in life.

He took the path to the left and as he strode down the hill it occurred to him that it wasn’t until he had sons of his own that he had understood what a solitary child he had been, tending to shy away from the rough and tumble of the school yard rather than being in the thick of it as his boys inevitably were. They had been such scamps as children, so close in ages as to be almost like twins, and inseparable as they got into one scrape after another, climbing trees and falling out of them again, laughing their heads off. He was pretty sure he remembered rescuing one of them from that big monkey puzzle tree there at the corner. Probably Robert – he never could turn down a dare.

He listened to the men they had become tell him how impossible this proposal of Erin’s was and how he should just dismiss the idea out of hand. “I mean, do you expect us to come all the way to New Zealand just to visit you?” Well, why not, he thought. What happened to those carefree boys of mine who were always looking for adventure? But you couldn’t really say a thing like that out loud, could you?

Erin could though. “Just ignore them Dad, they never even come to Glasgow, never mind New  Zealand!” She was right, and more than that, she also addressed head-on the question which bothered him more than any other – what would happen to him as he got older and perhaps could no longer look after himself. His sons were vague, “Oh you don’t need to worry about that yet, Dad, you’re fit and healthy aren’t you? Why concern yourself with something that might never happen? We’ll do our duty by you, you know that.” He knew they realised that getting older was inevitable. He also knew that their avoidance of the issue was because of their unwillingness to admit that once their father could no longer fend for himself, their duty would consist of finding a nice care home in which he could live out his final days. The thought made him shudder.

On the other side of the world, Erin was the one who understood, who chatted with him practically every day on Skype and actually listened to his concerns. He’d learned how to open his heart to his daughter during the dark days when Nancy had reached the point where she no longer knew him and couldn’t be left safely alone in the house for fear she would leave the cooker on or would wander out into the street and forget how to get home again.  He’d refused to even countenance putting her in a home – she might have forgotten me, he told his sons, but I remember HER – and he took early retirement to look after her until, finally, his beloved Nancy had passed away in his arms after a massive stroke.

Unlike the boys, Erin was never satisfied with his assurance that he was fine, he was coping okay. She had gently insisted that he tell her how he really felt, that he share his sadness and despair with her. She had been with him every step of the way.

And now she was asking the killer question “What’s to stop you Dad? We want you with us, Niall and me. I can’t bear the thought of you ending your days all alone in some home or other when you can come and live with us on the farm. When you can have a new life: have some fun for goodness sake! You know I’ll look after you when the time comes. How could I ever put you in a home after all you did for Mum? Don’t you think it’s no more than you deserve, it’s no more than I can do? I know Mum would agree…”

Alfie took a deep breath. He knew the answer, he’d known for a while. In the past few weeks he’d been visiting all his old haunts, saying goodbye. He knew that if he did this, he’d probably never see Glasgow again, even though the Glasgow he knew was really only somewhere that existed in his memory. But ‘never’ and ‘forever’ were words that could stop you in your tracks, and he had one more thing to do before he’d be ready.

He had to push aside some overgrown brambles to reach the spot, but sure enough, there it was, surrounded by some sturdy railings. The low level platform of Botanic Gardens Station, deserted for some 70 years and now completely overgrown and covered in graffitti. He hadn’t been the only one to be fascinated by this glimpse of the past. Over the years many people, old and young, had stood right here to gaze down at this tantalising and perhaps haunted relic of the Victorian era. He’d always been glad of the substantial railings, preventing his mischievous boys from surely climbing down and disappearing into the tunnel.

They’d always listened in wide eyed wonder, and Erin had too, when he told them about their own special connection with the railway that used to run under the Botanic Gardens. Because their own grandfather, his dad, had actually driven the train that had taken this route! They knew the story well but never tired of hearing how in the olden days Botanic Gardens Station had stood just there, near the main gates. They’d imagine the Victorian ladies and gentlemen standing on the platform waiting for trains that would chuff into the station in a great cloud of smoke and steam and noise. And no, your grandpa didn’t drive a steam train, it would have been diesel engines by then, this was after the second world war.

He smiled as he remembered his eager children always asking the same questions as he told the tale. They especially liked the part where he told them how the actual station had been closed just before the war, never to open as a station again. But that the trains had continued to run through the ghost station for another decade and more until the line had been closed for good in the 1960’s and the station demolished in 1970 after a fire. Yes, that’s before you were born! But not before YOU were born, Daddy, they would prompt.

And he would tell them what he could recall. How as a little boy he remembered his dad coming home in his railway uniform – yes, he had a cap – and talk about about the train that would run without stopping through the subterranean ghost station all the way under the Gardens until it came out at another station called Kirklee. And no, I don’t know if he ever saw any ghosts, but I suppose he might have. There are lots of ghost stories to do with old railway lines, did I ever tell you about the Gray Lady of Hillhead, she was supposed to be a happy ghost who smiled at people….

In truth Alfie couldn’t really remember whether it had been his father who had talked about the ghost station. Or perhaps it had been his mother who had taken to occasionally taking him for trips on the very line where her dear Jack used to travel. As a train-mad youngster, these trips had been a huge treat.

“Why do you shut your eyes when we go into the tunnel Mummy, are you scared?” “Oh no darling, I know it might seem daft, but it makes me feel closer to your Daddy, this was the same train as he used to drive.” It didn’t seem at all daft to Alfie, it seemed to make perfect sense, and he took to also closing his eyes in the tunnel to feel close to the father he could barely remember. Perhaps his ghost did come and join us in the tunnel he thought. Perhaps it was waiting there still. Why not?

He took his  duffle bag and opened it to retrieve a plastic food container. It had amazed and touched him when he’d emptied the urns to see how small a space the ashes of two human beings took up. He took a quick look around to check there was no-one near, then carefully opened the box and reached over the railing to shake out the contents. At that moment a sudden gust caught the ashes, sending them in a joyful upward spiral. To his eye it was as if the two lonely spirits were entwining in an everlasting dance before disappearing together into the ether.

“The time is right, Nancy,” he whispered.

It was with a lighter heart and a lighter step that Alfie walked out through the gates of the Botanic Gardens that day. He’d be just in time for Christmas Lunch with his neighbours the Dempseys, a kind young couple who had insisted he join them as soon as they discovered that his family had other plans which didn’t involve him. And then he’d go home and listen to the radio while he waited for Erin’s call round about 8.00. By then it would be early on Boxing Day morning in New Zealand and Erin would be having her first coffee of the day while she checked in with her Dad. She’d wake up fast, he thought, when she heard what he had to say.  “Yes Erin, I’d love to come and live with you in New Zealand.”

 

 

 

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The Story of a House, part 5

After the war, a family called Campbell made their home at 8 Kersland Street. All I know about them (from the electoral register) are their names – James, Catherine, Hugh, Mary, Jane. So, possibly a mother and father and at least three children old enough to vote? They stayed a good long time, from 1947 all through the 1950’s, until, in 1960, the house was bought by William and Fay Darling. And this, dear reader, is a very significant moment!

If you have been following this story you may have noticed that up until this point all the residents of 8 Kersland Street have been tenants. It turns out (now that I’ve procured a copy of the historic title deeds from the Land Registry) that through all these long years the landlords, the owners of the property, were named Blackie and were in fact members of the famous Glasgow publishing firm, Blackie and Son. The firm ceased business in 1991, but you may be familiar with some of the iconic childrens’ books they published, including Cecily May Barker’s Flower Fairies books.

flower fairies

The Blackie we are interested in is John Blackie Jnr, whose father – John Snr – founded Blackie’s in 1809. He had originally been in business as a weaver, but was persuaded that money could be made by selling sizeable books in monthly or quarterly instalments, by subscription. Money could indeed be made and the enterprise developed and prospered for another 180-odd years.

Blackie_John jnr

John Junior entered the business with his father and from 1831 the firm became known as Blackie and Son . But John’s sphere of influence would grow wider when in 1857 he was elected to the Glasgow City Council and in 1863 became Lord Provost and served a term in that position. He proposed the City Improvement Scheme, a major plan to improve the quality of life in the poorer areas and was also involved in bringing water to the city from Loch Katrine.

The 1861 census shows John and his wife Agnes living at Lilybank House, Hillhead with their three young sons, John, William and Albert. His profession is given as “Publisher employing 20 men and boys”, a proud declaration one feels, and by this time he would have also been involved in city politics. But… Lilybank House…?

Lilybank House was built sometime around 1830 for the merchant Robert Allen. This would have been quite early in the evolution of the suburb of Hillhead, when James Gibson was selling off plots of land for development as villas and terraces. When John Blackie took on the tenancy in 1857, Lilybank House was a small Georgian villa with a large walled garden and greenhouses.  Once he actually purchased it in 1864, he commissioned architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson to add a new wing to the south end and relocate the entrance. During his term as Provost, Blackie had the satisfaction of entertaining both William Gladstone and young Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, at his newly enhanced residence.

Lilybank_House_1
Lilybank House has undergone various additions and alterations over the years. In 1894 it was converted to a Hall of Residence for women attending Queen Margaret College, known as Queen Margaret Hall. It was taken over by Glasgow University in 1924 and after it ceased to be a hall of residence in 1966, it has been used to house various departments of the University. It has been the subject of further refurbishment and conservation work and is now part of the Thompson Heritage Trail.

Lilybank House is of particular interest to us because it is situated in Bute Gardens, which is more or less a continuation of the other end of Kersland Street from number 8. So James Blackie Jnr would have been ideally placed to witness the streets of Hillhead emerge and grow before his very eyes, indeed it’s not unlikely that he and James Gibson would have been well acquainted with each other. Which probably explains why in 1871 Blackie purchased a plot measuring 738 and four ninths square yards of ground on the West Side of Kersland Street and, I think, other plots which I can’t identify.

upstairs

Did John Blackie then take a daily stroll down Kersland Street to monitor the progress of the construction which was growing into the 4-storey tenement building which became numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street (for he was the owner of both addresses). I’d like to think he did, it’s what I would have done, wouldn’t you?

But John did not survive long to live to appreciate his investment. His health had been undermined due to overstrain during the years of his Provostship and he finally succumbed to a sharp attack of pleurisy on February 12th, 1873, in his 68th year. John Senior outlived his son and he died the following year at the grand old age of 91.

John Jnr’s widow Agnes moved out of Lilybank House and took up residence nearby at 6 Wilson Street, now known as Oakfield Avenue, and only four streets away from Kersland Street. In her household were her coachman and two female servants, so her “private means”, including the rental from numbers 8 and 10 and possibly other properties, seems to have left her comfortably off. It tickles me to think that Agnes Blackie and her tenant Madame Stewart might have actually known each other. But I’m probably being fanciful – presumably a woman of property and a tenant would have moved in different social circles, especially as all the actual renting out and collecting moneys and property management would have been done by an agent. It’s not impossible though, is it?

Inkedhillhead 1860
This 1860 map neatly illustrates the proximity of the site of 8 Kersland Street (#1) to Lilybank House (#2), Hillhead House (#3) and 6 Wilson Street (#4).
hillhead 1894
By 1894 the whole area has been transformed, and Hillhead House is no longer there, having been demolished in 1878.

On the death of Agnes in 1887, the Kersland Street properties were passed on to William Gourlie Blackie, John and Agnes’s middle son. One gets a feeling that after the death of his father in 1873, life hadn’t been particularly easy for William. He had married Katherine Rankin in 1875 and their son William R was born in London the following year. Two daughters, Agnes Mary and Ruby Katherine, came along over the next couple of years, both born in Kirkcudbrightshire, and then it’s back to London where another son, John Herndon was born in 1880. William was only 21 when his first child was born – could it be that he left Glasgow under a cloud? Why didn’t he join the family firm? Of course it could be that he just wanted to strike out on his own…

The 1881 census shows William to be an “unemployed printer” living in Clapham with his wife and four small children. Very sadly, they lost the youngest, John, the following year when he was only 2 years old. We find the family still in London 10 years later and William is now working in the publishing industry. There are clues which put the family in Canada in 1901 – indeed Blackie’s had an office there, so perhaps William did after all come to hold down a position with the family firm. But whatever dreams took William and Katherine to Canada, they didn’t last, for the next we hear is the report of William’s death in 1905 at Ballantrae in Ayrshire, at the age of only 51.

Katherine and her daughters then seem to have lived on their ‘private means’ in various places in the south of England until Katherine passed away in 1911 at Hastings in Sussex. She was then 57.

Agnes and Ruby would have been in their early thirties when they inherited numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street. The sisters never married and as far as I can tell had set up house together and were living in Tunbridge Wells when their mother died. I don’t know that they always lived together – at one point they seem to have had separate houses in St Leonards on Sea and at another time are recorded as residing in Stirling, where I think they may have had relatives. I’m picking up these tiny tidbits from the title deeds and, to be honest it’s a miracle you can pick up anything from them as they are written in that arcane legal language so beloved of solicitors and their ilk. Here’s a wee snippet to show you what I mean (this is one of the clearer bits!)

deeds snippet

Anyway, the years rolled by and the rentals rolled in, until Agnes Mary passed away in 1929, age 50. Ruby Katherine carried on as sole proprietor and at some point in the mid nineteen thirties came to live at 24 Hamilton Park Avenue in Glasgow, a rather nice looking terraced house not a stone’s throw away from Kersland Street. (Hamilton Park Avenue is indicated by the blue arrow on the map below, and Kersland Street by the yellow one). The tenement properties were being managed by agents, but I can’t believe that Ruby wouldn’t have been familiar with them. She could hardly have avoided them whenever she passed by on her way to the Botanic Gardens, or the shops of Byres Road.

So what brought Ruby to Glasgow? As far as I know she’d never lived there, hadn’t known her grandparents, who had died before she was even born, hadn’t known the imposing house where her father had been brought up. I think that once again geography can come to our aid here. When you place 24 Hamilton Park Avenue (then known as James Street) on our 1860 map (#5) and realise how it fits in to the general scheme of things, I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that this property must surely have been another acquired by the far sighted John Blackie Junior, and that in taking up residence there, Ruby was doing no more than coming home.

inked ham park ave

I’d like to think that Ruby felt a sense of belonging when she came home to Hillhead and got to know the area her family came from and the various locations which were part of her own history.

Economic conditions became more difficult after the second world war and the title deeds show us that Ruby, through her agents, began selling off the various flats at 10 Kersland Street in 1949, and that this continued throughout the 1950’s, culminating in the sale of number 8 in 1960. This no doubt enabling her to maintain herself as she became older and frailer (she’d have reached her 80th birthday in 1958). Ruby eventually moved into a nearby old folks home (Henderson House) and then possibly one in Edinburgh, where I think she lived out her days and died some time in the mid sixties.

My mum used to say that before us only one family had ever lived in our house, which, as we’ve seen, isn’t right. But she WAS correct in thinking that only one family had ever owned it in the previous 90 years. I wish I could tell her she was right, but she probably knew that anyway; she knew things, did my mum…