Monday, 9 July 2012

The Greenock Cut

I'm not quite sure what I'm driving at here, and I certainly won't be able to convey the feeling to you with these rubbish, over-saturated iPhone photographs, but I want to discuss a strange sensation I felt recently when visiting a building.

I was back up in Glasgow, having been at a wedding looking out over Loch Lomond a few days previously. I am at that particular stage of life, when a particular conjunction of age, class and education means that I am currently surrounded by weddings. Indeed, it's not just my friends - I have lived in the same neighbourhood for four years now and cannot help but note that the inhabitants have gone from carrying their hangovers around with them to carrying their lovely little babies instead, albeit equally sleeplessly...
As part of my time up there there was the opportunity to go out down the Firth of Clyde, seeing Port Glasgow and Greenock, two very sad, neglected towns that still dwell in the shadow of their Victorian grandeur, with some undeniably exciting 19th century buildings amongst the boarded up council semis that climb the hills by the water. In a brief swoon of imagination it seemed like it might be possible to create a bohemian enclave there for those of us who are sick of London and its poisonous wealth, but of course we all know where that kind of thinking leads.

Up in the hills above the Firth is a remarkable bit of early 19th century infrastructure called the Greenock Cut. This was a narrow canal winding its way around a hillside down from an elevated Loch, connected to all manner of secondary reservoirs, eventually cascading down towards sea level and thus powering the mills and factories of Greenock below. Although the power it generated was nothing like what steam or combustion engines would do relatively soon afterwards, it was a fascinating example of what we now call 'sustainable' infrastructure.

For many years it lay abandoned, but it received some millenium money and was cleaned up and now functions as a charming walking path. But it's not this I really wanted to mention here.
There's a condition I've mentioned on a number of occasions, which you might call 'the space too big', or something perhaps a bit more eloquent than that. In the book I discuss it with regard to the sensation of visiting Crystal Palace Park without the Palace, the overwhelming sense of a space constructed too large for the events using it. It's something I go on about a lot, actually. But on this trip I experienced a similar feeling from a very small building.

This is the Greenock Cut Visitor's Centre. An unremarkable building, one must admit, a design in what you might call Rural Scots Quotidian; cheap, sturdy, unostentatious. There's a lot of these buildings all over the country, especially the highlands, from public toilets to village halls and so on.

The teenage girl who was working in the shop that day looked at us as if we were the first people she had seen in a long time. At one side of the room (to the left of this image) were the usual assortments of ridiculous toys and sweets, none of which you've seen before, which call to mind small dilapidated factories on the outskirts of Midlands towns, churning out little plastic alligators and so on, last little traces of (non-military) manufacturing in the UK. Next to the door was a visitor's book that seemed to have been signed at a frequency of about once a week. 

In a room off from the gift shop was the exhibition proper. This was a snaking maze of panels, with illustrations of men and women in 19th century clothing explaining the story of the Cut, how it functioned and how it effected them. There were a number of three dimensional displays, including my favourite, in which LEDs embedded in a relief map of the area lit up with the flicking of a small steel switch - the lights depicting the Cut itself coming on one after the other in sequence. For an exhibition that supposedly had been completed within the previous ten years it was remarkably dated, but in what felt a rather pleasant nostalgic fashion, as it brought back fragments, grainy memories of all manner of small exhibitions that I had been ushered around as a child.

But it wasn't just the displays that induced nostalgia; look at the ceiling. Nobody in their right mind would specify a tongue-and-groove timber panelled ceiling any more, but they were once incredibly common. Inside and frequently adorning the undercroft of a building, you could find them from at least the 1960s through to perhaps the beginning of the 1990s, by which time they were beyond the pale. They were particularly common in Scotland; and everyone from shop-fitters all the way to Gillespie Kidd & Coia would specify that kind of ceiling in their buildings. It just goes to show that a detail, a material can conjure up a certain time period in a very involuntary way, that simple architectural devices can be powerfully evocative in a very personal, perhaps emotional manner, and that the slowly changing fashions for space can, even when of a low quality, still be used as a temporal signpost.


And then there was an educational room, which I suppose plays host to school groups during term time,  a flurry of activity in a short period, but at this point empty, with the small windows casting a thoroughly wan light into the room. Even the fish in their tank looked lonely.

The door to the office was open. It seemed that perhaps there was room for a staff of perhaps two curators. There was a large board for notes, and some attractive plan-chests, as well as a rather quaint but charming old fuzzy green carpet. One wondered what the career route to working in this near-empty building by the side of a loch was: someone in there must have been a historian, and perhaps the other was a conservationist or some such, as much of the information shown around the building was wildlife-related. What kind of research would they do? Did they ever have to edit or re-curate the exhibition? There was something eerie about the building, silent, quiet, a design that seemed out of time, with little to do. There's always something melancholic about a building from which activity seems to have fled, even in the most humdrum of spaces.


Lang Rabbie said...
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Lang Rabbie said...

This was the visitor centre telling the story of how the water infrastructure contributed to Inverclyde's industrial heritage that was famously closed for a couple of years because they couldn't get fresh water to it!

David said...

I am from Greenock, a very odd part of the West of Scotland: at once industrial, and yet it has this serenity because of its position overlooking the Cowall pennisula.

We used to play up the cut in the Summer (we used to end up there after collecting golf balls from the Council owned golf course)...great view, never realised its industrial significance.

The sugarhouses at James Watt Dock are sublime. One of the finest examples of industrial architecture. I prefer them even to their Liverpool counterparts...shame they lie there without use, although thankfully some remedial repairs have been completed thanks to the Tall Ships event.