A group of tourists on the upper deck gave me a cheery thumbs-up. My face puce from exertion, sweat dripping from forehead to chin, I managed a feeble wave back. When the bus finally pulled away, it struck me that, while I was on an exercise bike going nowhere, everyone on the bus was experiencing one of the best cities in the world. My city. The irony left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Despite a decade of living in Glasgow, large swaths still remain uncharted territory for me. I have become a creature of habit, traversing the same streets, parks and pubs over and over again: stuck in a geographical hamster wheel.
Which is why I find myself standing in George Square on a sunny weekday morning. It’s a little before 9.30am, the worst of the rush-hour traffic starting to abate. A handful of tourists, maps and cappuccinos in hands, are milling around.
Carrying a rucksack with all the essentials -- hat, gloves, sunglasses, plasters, cheese sandwiches -- I claim first spot at the Glasgow City Tour bus stop. While waiting I get chatting to Mike Brady from Florida, who is visiting Glasgow as part of a three-week tour of Europe.
Will he be hopping on the tour bus today? He shakes his head. “Did that already,” he drawls. “Yesterday,” he adds. “Seen it all, everything this great city has to offer. That Tall Ship is something, isn’t it? The Kelvingrove Art Gallery too. Man, I love your architecture.”
I nod dumbly. I’ve been to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum once. The Tall Ship, never. I take the architecture for granted. Mike ambles back to his hotel. I wish the bus would hurry up. I can’t stop thinking about my cheese sandwiches.
Finally it arrives. With perfect timing the previously sunny skies cloud over and large globules of rain start to fall. Tour guide Jim McGhee shakes his head ruefully. “The rain kills it,” he says, opening a large golf umbrella.
As we wait for the shower to pass, McGhee fills me in on life as a tour guide. “It’s a good job, plenty of variety,” he says. “I always recommend people go see the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens. It’s got the social history museum, a lovely tearoom, Glasgow Green on its doorstep as well as the Doulton Fountain and the old Templeton’s Carpet Factory. It’s one of my favourite places.”
As the bus fills up McGhee hands over to fellow guide Craig Welsh. Dressed smartly in the company’s regulation royal blue waterproof jacket, with a pair of wraparound sunglasses perched on his head, Welsh is a gregarious character. He previously worked for another tour bus company that went bust and before that served with the Black Watch Regiment.
Welsh uses a mix of historical and anecdotal material, watching the Scottish news every morning to make sure he’s up-to-date on events in Glasgow. “Just recently BAE Systems cut the first piece of steel on HMS Prince of Wales, the second of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers being built on the Clyde for the Royal Navy,” he says. “I like to add that in when I’m talking about the history of shipbuilding.”
The content of his tours can vary. “What I include is dictated by volume of traffic,” says Welsh. “If we’re stuck at the lights for a while or idling in heavy traffic, I’ll think up something extra to add. You need to be able to think on your feet.
“You do get some strange questions too. I had a girl ask me out the other week, although I politely turned her down on account of already being spoken for ...”
The Glasgow City Tour, operated by Wilson of Gourock, is one of two such operators in the city (the other is City Sightseeing, which offers tours worldwide from Sydney to San Francisco).
I clamber on board the bus -- a classic AEC Routemaster painted blue -- claiming a prime spot on the top deck. With a minor grinding of gears, we’re off, heading north towards Cathedral Street. Welsh’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker. “Ahead stands the City of Glasgow College, one of 28 colleges in Glasgow and quite possibly the ugliest building in the city …”
Passing the University of Strathclyde, we head towards Glasgow Cathedral and St Mungo Museum before following the road to the Merchant City. “The Ramshorn Kirk was built in 1824 for wealthy merchants who were too lazy to walk up the hill to the cathedral to worship,” intones Welsh.
The bus grunts and groans its way through the narrow streets, Welsh pointing out Merchant Square and the Glasgow Police Museum, before dropping in the aside that “a one-bedroom flat with a G1 postcode will set you back £200,000”, which prompts a gasp or two around the upper deck.
The steeple of the scaffolding-clad Tolbooth at Glasgow Cross looms into view. “We’re now turning on to the Gallowgate,” says Welsh, “which, as you might have guessed by the name, is the route people were taken to the gallows …”
Sitting in front of me are Nan and John Houghton, holidaymakers from Auckland, New Zealand. “We are originally from Glasgow and Motherwell respectively but have spent the past 50-odd years in New Zealand,” explains Nan. “John and I met at the Dennistoun Palais in 1964. When I lived in Glasgow as a teenager I didn’t really care much about the history of the city so it’s great to be able to come back and discover it properly.”
She looks out the window. “Oooh, look, that’s the Barras,” she says, taking a photograph. “It’s been marvellous. We’ve been reliving all our yesterdays.”
Trundling our way towards the People’s Palace, the rain comes on again. Everyone huddles in the canopied front section of the upper deck. The bus pulls to a stop. To our right is Glasgow Green and the People’s Palace, on the left the Doulton Fountain and former Templeton’s Carpet Factory. Nobody disembarks. “We’ll get off next time round,” confirms Nan. “We want to see the rest of the city first.”
As the bus moves off, Welsh imparts a few more fast facts: the city’s residents have the right to use Glasgow Green’s communal drying green; the park contains the first civic monument in Britain to commemorate Nelson’s victories, pre-dating Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by two years and Nelson’s Column in London by three decades; and the late Smudge, former rodent operative of the People’s Palace, held the world record for most mice caught in a single day: 346.
We’re nearing the High Court and Welsh points out a smaller structure nearby: the Glasgow mortuary. “Where the mortuary now stands was once the site of the city gallows,” he says. “The last person to be publicly executed in Glasgow was Dr Pritchard in 1865. He poisoned and murdered his wife and mother-in-law. His punishment was to be hung, but personally, if it was down to me, the man would have been given a gallantry medal.”
Passing the Scotia Bar on Stockwell Street, where famous customers, says Welsh, included Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty, we make our way north again. One of the best parts of the tour is the bird’s-eye view of Glaswegian life: a man picking his nose outside a pub; a teenager adjusting her boob tube at a bus stop; an elderly lady with a purple rinse and matching mauve leg warmers doing her messages.
Outside Argos I see a man being dive-bombed by a seagull determined to make off with his sausage roll. A spirited fight ensues. The gull appears to be winning. My last glimpse is of the man tripping over an errant traffic cone.
Over the PA, Welsh is explaining that Glasgow can lay claim to the origins of the term “rip-off”. It is derived, he says, from a time when travelling merchants would bring their wares to sell, passing through the Trongate en route.
The tron was a weighing scale on which goods were measured upon entering the city. If the loads were found to be under their declared weight, the merchant’s ear would be nailed to the tron’s wooden beam as punishment. When the beam was released, it would swing away, tearing a sizeable chunk from said merchant’s ear -- hence the term “rip-off”.
Sitting across the aisle is Kyle Ward, 48, and his son Reese, 20, from Cary, North Carolina. “I love the architecture in Glasgow,” enthuses Kyle in a honeysuckle Southern drawl. “I work in construction and enjoy seeing different buildings around the world. I’m not a fan of newer stuff, but here in Glasgow you have plenty of old-style architecture which is wonderful to see.”
His wife Carol and daughter, Logan, 19, are sitting downstairs out of the wind and rain. “Reese and I made a trade-off with them,” says Kyle. “We get to see our buildings, then they go shopping. You can betcha they are keeping track of all the different shopping streets as we go past.”
The bus returns to George Square before beginning its western loop of the city. “Straight ahead lies Glasgow City Chambers, which is famous for its marble interior,” says Welsh. “The only building in the world that has more marble inside it is the Vatican. To our left is the Millennium Hotel, where Winston Churchill stayed when visiting Glasgow.” The North British Hotel, as it was called, hosted the then PM several times.
More people get on the bus, among them Bill and Ali Greville, both 65, who own a farm in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. They are on a 24-hour visit to Glasgow before flying on to France. “From what we have seen, we love it,” said Bill. “It is a big city, that’s for sure, and the old buildings are fantastic. We’ve found the people in Glasgow to be very friendly too.”
Daring to brave the rain in the uncanopied part of the upper deck is Australian couple Michael and Pauline Greenlees, both 50, a project manager and a hotel worker from Perth, Western Australia.
“What do we make of Glasgow? We’ve only been here three-quarters of an hour,” jokes Michael. “Whenever we arrive somewhere new we always go on a tour to get a feel for it. I’m drawn to open spaces, hills and parks -- Glasgow seems to have plenty of all three.”
Leaving George Square to make our way south again, the natty facts just keep coming from Welsh. On Union Street we pass the majestic Ca’ d’Oro building, a Victorian version of the Golden House in Venice designed by renowned Glasgow architect John Honeyman. The distinctive triple-arched cast-iron frames are reputed to have inspired the design of skyscrapers the world over.
Then there’s the “Hielanman’s umbrella” at Central Station, Welsh pointing out the distinctive green railway viaduct. “The bridge gets its nickname on account of being the meeting place for men coming from the Highlands of Scotland to find work,” he explains as, appropriately, the rain briefly comes on again.
Joining us on the upper deck now as the rain eases is John Bruce, 40, from Greenock, with his four-year-old son Cameron. “I’m a bus driver myself so it’s nice to be driven about for a change,” says John, laughing. Cameron oohs and ahhs, excitedly shouting: “Look at that,” every time a new sight -- the SECC, the Riverside Museum -- looms into view.
The bus trundles up Finnieston Street -- where Sir Thomas Lipton opened a tearoom in 1871 -- and along Argyle Street -- home to a rich melting pot of cuisines, says Welsh, including Korean, Thai, Italian, Indian and Chinese -- towards Kelvingrove Park and the University of Glasgow.
We climb University Avenue then head down Byres Road and on to the Western Infirmary, “which is a lot more modern inside than its exterior would suggest”, deadpans Welsh. Nobody looks convinced.
Soon Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum looms into sight, prompting an appreciative buzz. I hear one woman murmur “palazzo”. Four-year-old Cameron is chattering away about “the castle”.
Passing along Sauchiehall Street, Welsh points out where the infamous Dr Pritchard -- he of wife and mother-in-law poisoning notoriety -- once lived. We pass my gym. I give an enthusiastic wave to those toiling away on the exercise bikes inside. Nobody waves back.
It’s starting to get cold on the top deck now. The rain has been on and off all morning and my jeans are slightly damp from sitting on a wet seat. I can feel my lips turning blue. We turn on to Renfrew Street, where the expanse of potholes throws up a few problems. Everyone bounces around, limbs jerking like a scene from Thunderbirds. A young Italian couple cling to each other, with a worried look in their eyes.
There’s time for a few more kooky facts before the bus trundles back to George Square. The Pavilion Theatre apparently has a retractable roof; Buchanan Bus Station is the busiest of its kind in Britain; and the auditorium at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall is insulated by a massive rubber membrane to block vibration from subway trains.
Arriving back at George Square the bus hisses to a stop. I get off: colder, wetter, but definitely a little wiser.
For more information on Glasgow City Tours, visit www.glasgowcitytour.com or call 01475 781957.