NORTH GLASGOW WALKING TOUR

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Saturday 23rd April // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

I think it’s fair to say that North Glasgow doesn’t figure high on the itinerary of most tourists visiting Glasgow, and for those of us living elsewhere in the city, it perhaps isn’t a regular destination. Despite living in Maryhill when I first moved to Glasgow, and having used the canal as a regular running route for the last 10 years or so, I’d rarely ventured to its northern side – so I was keen to explore. Billed as “a walking tour of hidden spaces in North Glasgow, exploring the city’s history and heritage, questions of dereliction, the benefits of wild spaces, and the potential for community transformation of urban land”, this Soil City walking tour led by Clem Sandison, provided the perfect opportunity to investigate.

A group of twenty or so budding urban explorers gathered at the Whisky Bond for a brief introduction, before the short walk along the canal to our first destination of the Hamiltonhilll Claypits. Shiona MacPhail, of the Friends of Possilpark was our expert guide around this captivating urban wilderness. A former industrial site which was vital to the expansion of the canal system – a history of clay extraction, shale-oil extraction, boat repair and iron making have all left their traces on the site, whether it be in the soil, or surface traces of former infrastructure. Left to nature since the demise of these industries, the claypits are now a bustling greenspace of great biodiversity. It was really enjoyable to have a root around and take in the quiet ambience of the place, with that compelling juxtaposition between natural and human-made things that you find in such places – finds ranged from abandoned cans of Tennent’s Super Lager to the bones of roe deer! The hopes of Shiona and the Friends of Possilpark are for the rich biodiversity and industrial heritage of the claypits to become a real asset to the local community, by raising public awareness and improving access to the site.

Next stop on the tour was up the back of the claypits to the Hamiltonhill Allotments. This involved walking up the shale bing left over from its industrial heyday, which provides a fantastic 180 degree view looking South over the city. I even spotted a couple of roe deer amongst the silver birches below, before they turned their cotton wool tails and fled. For me the hidden gem of the claypits are a proper edgeland, what Farley and Roberts describe as – “a wilderness that is much closer than you think: a debatable zone, neither the city nor the countryside, but a place in-between”.    

At the allotments we were met by one of the Soil City roving research bikes and a couple of pre-dug pits to have a closer look at the soil and some worm identification. We also had a chat with one of the allotment holders who showed us around and talked about her relationship to the allotment and the community that surrounds it. The more orderly and organised layout of the allotments provided an interesting contrast to the wilder nature of the claypits. Continuing the theme of community growing, we took a short walk into Possilpark to have lunch in the lovely space of the Back Garden – a community growing space located on formerly derelict land, which has individual, communal and group plots, as well as drop-in social gardening sessions. A great example of how stalled spaces can be co-opted for the benefit of local communities.

Our final stop on the walking tour was nearby Cowlairs Park, a large area of open parkland (formerly several football pitches) which after being effectively abandoned by the council has become somewhat of a dumping ground, and garnered a reputation as a bit of a ‘no go area’ due to drinking and anti-social behaviour. With the absence of any strict regulation the park has been re-purposed for an altogether different use – its open layout and the differing elevations of its former football pitches now provide the perfect race track for motorbike enthusiasts. This was evidenced on the day, as a large number of quad bikes and dirt bikes tore around the place, zooming by at great speed. Added to the rubbish, random discarded objects lying around and scorched areas of grass, the park had a pretty post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel to it. Despite this, it was a compelling place to be, with great views towards the north of the city and a weird beauty. Although its far from the manicured care of other city parks such as Kelvingrove or Glasgow Green, perhaps places like this are needed, where people are able to get away from the regulated and monitored spaces of the city to find excitement and release some energy by driving motorbikes at high speed? Better here than on the roads! Clem described Cowlairs Park as a “feral commons”, which I think describes its sense of place perfectly.

The short walk back to the Whisky Bond completed our circuit of some of north Glasgow’s hidden spaces, while we chatted and reflected on the places we’d visited. Although they may lie outside the area covered by most of Glasgow’s tourist maps, the various edgelands of north Glasgow are a captivating place for anyone interested in the rich industrial heritage of the city, as well as the opportunities that derelict spaces present for both wild nature and community action. 

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SOIL AND THE CITY WALK

Wednesday 20th April // Reflections by John Hutchinson

Bob Hamilton of the Common Good Awareness Project led an east end meander to observe and discuss the relationship between the concrete and social constructions of the city and the soil on which it is built. The common good awareness project, initiated by Bob raises awareness of publicly owned assets in the city and engagement in the common good fund which arises from these assets. What if we understood soil as a common good and the assets as the ecological, social and practical services it provides?

Bob proved to be an interesting and informative guide as we took a stroll around the East End. In the spirit of a Parisian flâneur, our route was unplanned and our pace was leisurely as we took time to stop and discuss places and points of interest. Our first stop was at Glasgow Green, where a legalize Cannabis event provided an appropriate backdrop to discussions surrounding the social role of the commons as well as the ecological importance of their soil. Before starting the walk, Bob had compared the city to the structure of a computer circuit board, with their conductive tracks, pads and copper sheets resembling the roads, pavements and buildings of the city – individual components that all serve a vital function within a larger whole.  In providing a breathing space “where people don’t have to do anything, or buy anything” common greenspaces act like the heatsinks and fans of the circuit board, preventing components from overheating and breaking down. As we looked around Glasgow Green and saw the plethora of people who were enjoying it and the diversity of activities going on, this analogy really resonated.

Bob then suggested that we visit Free Wheel North, a cycling development charity based at Glasgow Green as a good example of the ways in which we “can plug-in” to the commons and utilize their benefits for the common good. It was great to see so many people utilizing the vast array of adapted bikes that Free Wheel North offer – a testament to their belief that everyone should have the right to access health, fresh air and exercise.  From then on we meandered to Bridgeton Cross, taking the time to look up and appreciate the wealth of architectural heritage that Glasgow has to offer. We ended up our walk basking in the sun at the Abercromby Street Burial Ground – a compelling site which contains the graves of three weavers killed in the Calton Weaver’s Strike of 1787. Until recently, this graveyard had long been neglected, but thanks to the efforts of local activists it has since seen renewed attention  – not least as the site of a Georgia Hogan exhibition as part of Glasgow International. Visiting this site for the first time, I was unaware of the role of weaving in the industrial history of Calton and the events of the weaver’s strike. While we enjoyed the sun in its peaceful surroundings, I thought of the importance of such places, and of their soil, as points of connection to the past and as incubators of local identity.

 

 

GORBALS & GOVANHILL

Thursday April 21st // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as Glasgow basked in glorious sunshine, and what better way to spend a day in the sun than rooting around in the soil and worm hunting? First port of call for the Soil City roving research team was the Gorbals Rose Garden, a former burial ground established in 1715, which now provides a quiet greenspace for the local community. During redevelopment in 2005, some of the original headstones from its former days as a cemetery were installed into the park walls. This provided us with an interesting nod to its past usage and also spurred some thinking on what lay in the soil beneath our feet. Aside from some local workers sunning themselves in the park at lunchtime, there weren’t a whole lot of people around. Help was on hand however, as two kids in the park with their parents got involved with testing the ph of the soil and worm hunting. Spraying the worms with water to stop them from drying out seemed to be the favourite task!

After finishing up in the Gorbals it was onwards to Govanhill Baths, where a small but pleasant garden sits serenely next to the hustle and bustle of Calder Street. Here we were met with a enthusiastic group who were only too happy to sit in the sun and get their hands dirty. It was a nice ambience sitting in the calm of the park, directly adjacent to the busy street and the curious looks of passers-by. It seems that communal handling of soil is a great way to generate conversation – perhaps there is something in its tactile nature and shared childhood experiences of playing and rooting around in it that facilitate this? When discussing what the soil smelt like, one response was “like freshly cut grass when I was a kid”. After wetting the soil to test its consistency and texture (which turned out to be indicative of a sandy clay loam soil type) more fun was had by making some ‘seedbombs’ – sort of like a bath bomb but made of soil and packed with wild flower seeds! This resulted in some impressively spherical balls of Govanhill soil loaded with wild flower seeds to be dropped elsewhere. On my walk home back to the city centre I duly lobbed mine into the large Brownfield site next to the M74. Perhaps there will be a small patch of wildflowers growing there the next time I walk past…

 

URBAN ALLUVIUM WORKSHOP

SOIL CITY: Urban Alluvium Workshop / Guddling About // April 17, 2016

Artists: Minty Donald and Nick Millar // Field Notes by Ursula Lang // Photos by Clementine Sandison

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What does the water carry?

Have you looked into a storm drain along the streets of Glasgow? Probably you’ve glanced down at the floating cigarette butts, sky reflected on a thick surface, and odd pieces of urban detritus. Following the former tideline of the River Clyde, in this workshop led by artists Minty Donald and Nick Millar, we used urban storm drains to investigate what the water carries as it moves through the city. And how might this matter become soil?

Glasgow’s rivers have been shaped in conjunction with the city’s settlement and industrial history – and vice versa. What was once a wide, flat alluvial plain shaped by the coming and going of the tides has become the solid paved streets we take for granted. Over centuries of dredging and channelizing, the river’s path through the landscape has deepened and narrowed, constraining its meandering tendencies. This Soil City workshop is part of a larger ongoing project of Minty and Nick’s called “Guddling About” – based on the Scots word meaning to muck about, to be playful, to get messy. link: http://guddlingaboutexperiments.tumblr.com

How do water and soil meet?

It was a cold Sunday afternoon, windy and grey. A small group gathered, lots of conversation. Out we went, to meander along the former tideline. As we talked and walked, we stopped to peer into storm drains in gutters. We collected jars of water from eight storm drains with a basic water pump attached to a length of plastic tubing taped to a stick. Lowering the tubing into the water attracted pretty enthusiastic attention from passers by – many of whom were football fans. The liveliness of the streets loosened up conversation.

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Back at the Soil City Lab, the kettle was on and cups of tea warmed our cold fingers. We used a simple apparatus to filter each of the eight water samples: test tube stand, glass funnel, filter paper, and jar. Part ritual, part experiment. For about a half hour water dripped at varying rates. People chatted, looked through the library, and attended to ongoing Soil City projects like making nettle beer.

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We looked at the eight soggy filter paper circles laid out on the map. Tiny bits of vegetation, grains of sand, a couple of very small piles of wet mud. The actions of this performance brought us into closer contact with the drain water and all it carried, while at the same time our almost clinical treatment of the water once back at the lab distanced us from it. We talked about when dirt, sediment, and soil might be “matter out of place” (Mary Douglas’ famous phrase). Dirt in the garden is soil, is earth, is right where it should be. Is the muck from a city drain ever in the right place?

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At the end of the workshop, Minty sprinkled the filtered water as we walked a length of the former tideline. Lines of water marked the sidewalks, crossed the road diagonally. A man outside a pub watched us go by, and asked if if was holy water. Hard to escape the symbolic meanings of water, how we carry it, and where we place it. Minty smiled and said, “It’s drain water!”

Counting the earthworms

Reflections on North Kelvin Meadow, Tuesday 12th April by Kate Foster

It was raining heavily and chilly too, but Soil City’s research trip to North Kelvin Meadow left me smiling warmly. It was magic! Conversations went backwards to memories people (like me) had about how this was once a football pitch, and forward to the plans for more gardens and activities.

Meanwhile three grey worms took centre stage to be identified, in turn. Digging up a patch of ground for the worm count showed how much soil has formed over the old pitch surface. However enthusiastically kids poured mustard into the lower layers, deep-digging worms refused to be flushed out. Perhaps they weren’t there? As we exchanged experiences, we were also confronted by how much we did not know. What were those birds nesting? Crows? surely not ravens? Had anyone seen a wren? Are those ash or birch seedlings? Is there any known way of distracting kids from screens? Actually several kids were there, up for worm catching and earth-smelling. We all enjoyed watching Alex make a giant worm – to test the soil texture she said.

The next day, I landed the job of testing North Kelvin Meadow soil samples for ‘basic’ information – acidity, Potassium, Nitrogen, Phosphorus. A wee kit with different potions, measures, and pipettes.

After reading the instructions twice, and setting aside questions of why I was doing this, I filled the test tubes (1:4 volume of soil and water) and used yellow labels to make it feel more official. After a little while, you get to add liquid and powders. Then comes the best bit – comparing the mix in the test-tube with the colour chart. Greens, purples and reds mysteriously appeared. Suspiciously, all my readings were the same: alkaline, with moderate levels of nutrients. This will probably be the only day I get to be a lab chemist.

So what do I like so very much about Soil City? I think the bikes push art, and artists, into places where ideas about culture are tested. This isn’t a journey that should end when GI wraps up, and it can’t be understood simply within an individual’s autobiography or fine art practice. Different critical registers are needed to think about what the Soil City mobile unit is doing. The project’s success won’t be told simply by how many people visited the Lab. For a start, we need to count the earthworms too.

Garnethill Park

Thursday 14th April – Reflections on Garnethilll Park site visit by John Hutchinson

Despite having lived in Glasgow for over 10 years and attended many an event at the Art School, this was the first time I’d actually set foot in Garnethill Park. Although very much in the city, enclosed as it is by buildings, streets and cars, I was impressed by the sense of contemplative space that Garnethill Park offered – almost as if time was moving a little slower while the city trundled on around it. A great spot to just sit and watch people drift through and the local posse of pigeons mill around. The arrival of a local with a bag full of breadcrumbs signaled feeding time – a mad flurry of grey feathers with some opportunistic seagulls bullying their way to the front of the scrum. The birds had obviously been waiting for this regular feed – an example of how small green spaces like this can offer opportunities for people to forge connections with the more-than human.

Delving into the soil, we found a plentiful array of worms. A couple were tentatively identified with the help of a flow chart – who knew there were so many different types!? Funny to think of that hidden world under our feet – a hidden meshwork of worm-ways bisecting and intersecting like an inversion of aviation vapour trails.

Due to the park’s close proximity to the Art School, it seemed only right to try a bit of soil painting. Mixing soil from two different parts of the park with water provided two slightly differing hues of soil paint. Although I’m no artist by any means, I enjoyed painting the shapes which popped into my head without much thought. The end result was a mixture of triangles and swirling lines – a subconscious result I think of having been looking at triangular soil ID charts and wriggling worms! Garnethill Park is a great example of how a small urban green space can provide a welcome breathing space to just be – a welcome island of soil in a sea of asphalt. I’m glad it’s now on my mental map of the green spaces of Glasgow.