The Story of a House, part 8

We resume our tale in 1987, right in the middle of the continuing program of remedial work… 

boringWith a bore hole outside her front door and the back green covered in exploratory pits, Ellen MacFarlane, Mum, must have had moments when she felt as if the whole edifice was about to collapse about her ears. After all, she only had to look across the street to see the gap where number 7 had once stood. But if she did, she never let it show. She took each successive wave of bad news with an almost miraculous stoicism, rolled up her sleeves and did what had to be done. Perhaps it’s just as well that Dad was out of the picture by then, I can’t imagine him coping with it all with quite the same equanimity. I can imagine him being very proud of the way his Nellie took on this battle, and in the end prevailed.

It turned out that the various surveys showed that while the external walls were built on a layer of boulder clay overlying the bedrock, the internal ones were founded upon a layer of “mottled brown sandy clay fill which contained gravel, cobbles, shale, ash, etc.” In other words, the rubble left over from various historical quarrying and possibly coal mining activities. The upshot being that the inner walls were suffering from settlement at a different rate from the outer ones. This of course is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation, but you get the idea.

Reading over the surveyor’s report is almost like lifting the petticoats of number 8 and having a peek underneath. The borehole extended to over 25 metres and it’s like a trip into the far distant past as you follow its progress down past the various geological layers to the bedrock at the bottom – “sideritic micaceous carbonaceous laminae” ; “pyrite knots” ; “ripple laminae”; “deposits of glacial origin”. If I had a degree in geology, I could tell you the significance of all those terms!

But it’s fascinating to start thinking about what lies beneath, and to realise that once upon a time – in fact some 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous period – this whole area would have been part of a vast swampy river plain when various plant and animal deposits were laid down. Deposits which over the eons would turn to stone, including various grades of sandstone and seams of coal, all ready for humans to discover and use for their own purposes all those ages later.

I remember our family visiting the Fossil Grove in Glasgow’s Victoria Park when I was young. We were all fascinated to see this collection of 11 fossilised roots and stumps left over from an ancient forest which had lain underground for millennia until discovered by the Victorians in 1887 when they were laying out the park. Thankfully it was decided to preserve the stone forest and a building was constructed to protect the fossils from the elements. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction – in fact the most ancient in Glasgow –  so one realises that all of the previous tenants of number 8 could have gone along to see it, just as we did.

Let me take you on one more geological diversion before we come back to the surface. The sandstone found and quarried extensively in the Glasgow area is of the blond, or yellow variety. But we also have many buildings constructed of red sandstone, which it turns out comes mainly from the Ayrshire and Dumfries areas, and from a different, slightly later, geological period, the Permian (from 270 million years ago). During this time a vast and expansive desert stretched across Scotland, resulting in massive dunes and arid conditions. Today the evidence of this desert can be found in that red sandstone with its grainy striations and rich red colour, representing an iron-rich coating of the sand grains. This phenomenon can still be seen today in the sands of the Sahara.

Once the surveys had been done, steps were taken to remedy the structural problems and render number 8 stable again. New foundations were installed and the rear basement walls rebuilt – this was mainly in the washhouse area. The ‘lateral drift’ which had caused the gable wall to bulge was solved by strapping the outside wall to the inner timber floors. Various windows were given new lintels. At the front, the access bridge, stone coping and handrail were found to be in poor condition, partly due to settlement and partly to the support steelwork having rusted badly. New concrete copings were constructed and a new bridge made of reinforced concrete. Regretfully, the lovely Victorian railings also had to be replaced.

So, by the early 1990’s, the building had undergone a complete overhaul and, if not exactly as good as new, was at least structurally sound once again, and secure, we were assured, for at least another 100 years!

repaired
All fixed! You can see the steel ties at the side and the new concrete coping and bridge to the front, complete with replacement railings. And that’s a newish drainpipe too, in place since the initial round of repairs.

As you can imagine, the entire 1980’s were characterised by one wave of disruption after another as the seemingly endless series of repairs were carried out. I am mindful of the fact that this was all in the wake of Mum becoming a widow and facing the challenge of remaking her life as a single person, a task which she tackled with her usual single mindedness. Not only was she still working in the Western Infirmary, but she’d signed up for the extra mural classes at Glasgow University which would take her away on her foreign trips to Russia and the Balkans, travels which I’ve written about before.

One can see these travels now as brief periods of respite from what became, in effect, her role as informal master of works for whatever was the latest phase of the building refurbishment. I think she must have learned from the earlier debacle when communal repairs were held up for lack of a signature or two from the owners of properties in the close next door and from then on she maintained close contact with the property managers on the progress of each successive claim for grant funding, and wouldn’t be above popping next door to leave a note, or knock on the door of anyone who was being slow to sign their mandates or pay their share.

And of course she always made sure she was on the spot to liaise with surveyors, council inspectors, building control officers, contractors, loss adjusters. Would it be going too far to say that it was Mum never keeping her eye off the ball that in the end saved the building from deteriorating so far that it couldn’t be saved? I don’t think so!

Once awakened, the sleeping tiger wasn’t going to lie quietly down and go to sleep again! In the aftermath of the remedial work, the back green had been left in a terrible mess, as described in this letter: “Due to extensive remedial works on our building and drilling for the Consolidation Scheme in our back courts, the drainage and surface have been badly damaged and the fencing by the lane for 8/10 Kersland Street has disappeared. This back court in particular is open nightly to intruders from the nearby bus stops and is being used as a toilet area. We do not have any bin shelters and consequently a great deal of rain-soaked litter lies about.”

A sorry state of affairs indeed! The above extract comes from a request for funding for environmental upgrading from the members of the Kervin Residents Association, formed in 1991. Secretary of the Association? One Ellen MacFarlane!

Nothing is ever straightforward and while the merits of the case were unquestionable, there was another factor complicating matters. Arnold Clark’s proposed redevelopment of the Botanic Gardens Garage, round the corner in Vinicombe Street. This would involve access to the rear down our lane to the side of the house. We would have to wait for the outcome of the planning application.

You’ll perhaps remember that we encountered the Botanic Gardens Garage in 1929 when it was celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Art Deco building had been taken over in 1968 by Arnold Clark Automobiles, becoming the company’s first accident repairs centre and causing, truth to tell, a lot of annoyance to its neighbours by the constant comings and goings of the mechanics as they shunted cars in and out of the various workshops and parked wherever they could along the street.

morris ten-four
Arnold obviously bought the car back again once he’d become successful. Here he is with it taking pride of place in his showroom.

Arnold Clark was an interesting chap. It seems he started out in 1954, when he used his demob money to buy a 1933 Morris Ten-Four which he restored and sold on for a profit. Thus began the company which eventually became Europe’s biggest privately owned car retailer with a turnover of billions. I suppose by the late 1980’s the company had outgrown the Vinicombe Street premises and had applied for permission to demolish, then redevelop the site, something that the Council initially looked upon with approval.

But there had been a sea change in attitudes in the intervening years since 1968. No longer were the inhabitants of Hillhead – and Glasgow as a whole – content to just sit back and allow business interests to determine the fate of what was increasingly recognised as a wonderful Victorian heritage that should be preserved for posterity. The development plans encountered stiff resistance and the Campaign to Save the Botanic Gardens Garage was born.

Other conservation groups sprang up around this time – the Glasgow West Conservation Trust and the Friends of Glasgow West are just a couple of examples. Buildings started to be given Listed Building status in order to protect them from inappropriate development. Glasgow West (i.e. Hillhead and adjacent districts) became a Conservation Area, defined as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. Legislation was enacted or updated to force landlords to comply with building and safety regulations. The Landlord Registration Scheme was introduced.

Mum, in her 70’s, became Secretary of the Community Council and of course kept a finger in every pie. There wasn’t much going on in Hillhead that she didn’t know about! As a private individual, she spoke up for a street trader, Sherbanu Halai, who sold flowers just round the corner at the top of Byres Road, when it looked as if his Street Trader’s Licence was going to be withdrawn. Mum succeeded in persuading the Licencing Section of the Council to change their minds and renew it after all. Sherbanu never forgot what she’d done for him and would often send round a big bunch of flowers left over at the end of the day. Sometime if you stopped to buy Mum flowers on your way to visit her, he’d recognise you and wouldn’t take your money: “No, no, it is for Mrs MacFarlane, no pay for Mrs MacFarlane” and he’d push a whole armful of blooms at you to add to your own modest offering. He even invited her to his daughter’s wedding, an event which she joyfully attended.

But I digress. 8 Kersland Street hadn’t been the only address where extensive rehabilitation was needed. The whole area had been built upon old quarry workings and coal mines, and was generally subject to ground settlement and subsidence. Not every building survived. It’s just fortunate that the growing awareness of the merits of preserving one’s heritage, together with new sources of funding, came along just in time to turn Hillhead from a rather down at heel locale to one with a much brighter future and sense of its own worth.

We’ll explore that idea further, together with what it meant for our house, in the next instalment.

flower stall