When organizing my trip, I didn’t make plans to visit Glasgow. In truth, I try not to make many plans at all and just wander. However, on my first day in Edinburgh, I had a conversation with another traveler in my hostel about our travel plans. He was a Californian as well who was working as an English teacher in Spain. We shared a mutual interest in Harry Potter and he expressed his excitement to visit the University of Glasgow the following day because it looked so much like Hogwarts. This, of course, caught my interest so I asked him to tell me about his experience. He showed me lots of pictures when he got back that made me definitely want to visit.
So, the morning of my fourth day in the UK, I decided to make the trip to Glasgow. In my usual (and slightly insane) nature, I left the hostel around 5 AM. Edinburgh Waverley Station was just a few blocks away from the hostel. (Yes, everything was close to my hostel. It was amazing, go stay there!) The station was the busiest place I’d seen yet. It was full of commuters who I assumed were on their way to work. I got a little lost trying to find my platform, understandably given that it’s a central station. I asked a young man in a name badge if he could help me. At first he looked at me and firmly said, “I don’t work here.” In a lot of places I’ve visited, people in this situation would have left it at that. However, this kind Scot smiled and said, “But you know what? I can try.” He then continued to help me search the station until I found platform 16. Already my day was off to a great start.
The ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow only took about 45 minutes. Because I had left so early in the morning, I journeyed there in the dark. But regardless of the lack of view, I enjoyed the ride. I sat with my coffee and breakfast bar, enjoying the soothing roll of the train and the occasional rustling of newspaper. I arrived at Queen Street Station at dawn. I didn’t really have any plans for the day other than to see the university, which I wanted to save for last. Queen Street Station opened up to George Square, which on January 5th was covered with frost and adorned with Christmas decorations.
Downtown Glasgow was quiet so early on a Thursday morning. There were a few people shuffling about – presumably on their way to work. I let my feet wander aimlessly, in my favorite fashion. I seemed to be guided by a stream of beautiful store buildings down to the River Clyde, stopping of course to admire the famous statue of the Duke of Wellington with the traffic cone on his head. I watched the sunrise from a walking pathway against the water. I was again blown away by the beauty of a Scottish sunrise. It was both relaxing and energizing, with the golden rays dancing on the surface of the water and the crisp air reddening the tip of my nose. In those early hours, I found peace.
Between the South Portland Street Bridge and the Gorbals Street Bridge, I saw my first street mural of the trip. It was an insanely realistic wall painting of a tiger with it’s jaws open. There was a red brick building across Clyde Street that if you stood at just the right angle, jutted up from the tiger’s forehead. The artist even went as far as to match the paint colors to the bricks. There was incredible street art all around Glasgow. I think one of my favorite pieces was a couple of marionette sock puppets dressed as street hip hop artists painted on the side of a brick apartment complex. I was also mesmerized by a piece that wrapped around the two visible sides of a commercial park. It consisted of accurately detailed birds of many species being chased around by salivating house cats. This one made the ornithologist in me flutter, though I did feel bad for the fictitious birds.
When trying to find a specific location, I always try to test my navigation abilities before resorting to Google Maps to guide me. When traveling with others in the past, this was a huge source of frustration for my friends. I almost never find a clear path to where I’m going. I usually end up weaving through streets, getting distracted by pretty things, and doubling my journey. I don’t mind this. I don’t feel the need to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. I enjoy the distractions. I feel that I am able to discover so much more this way. So naturally, I did not go straight from the River Clyde to the University of Glasgow. I wove through the streets, following incredible murals and glowing bricks. The sun was still rising, you see, and the numerous red brick buildings of downtown Glasgow came to life under it’s rays.
After about an hour of wandering, I found my way back to George Square where there was a large map of the surrounding area. After inspecting the map, I found that I needed to take the underground to the University. I love subways almost as much as I love the trains, so this excited me. I bought a day pass for £4 and headed out. When I arrived at my destination, I considered staying on the underground just to see where it would take me, but decided against it.
The University of Glasgow was in a cute and quite neighborhood with small markets and overgrown townhouse yards. The general imperfection of the area was comforting. When traveling, it’s often easy to forget that these are real places, not just fairytale lands meant to tickle my creativity. This was a college neighborhood through and through. It almost reminded me of my own neighborhood in California. The architecture was of course very different; but with discount bookstores and a few empty beer cans lingering on porches, feelings of familiarity rushed in. Yet, with the tall stone townhouses and opposite facing traffic, it still felt very British.
The University was only a few blocks away from the station, but still I took my time with the walk. When seeing a used bookstore, I couldn’t resist popping in. I was a little uncertain whether or not they’d be open so early so I opened the heavy door slowly, waiting for someone to shoo me away. There were two middle aged adults sitting in the back of the shop in tattered arm chairs. They paused their conversation only briefly to acknowledge my presence, but quickly resumed a fervent debate on the origin of a poem I cannot remember the title of. The shelves were close together, overflowing with books, and sagging under the weight. The inside of the shop smelled of dust and that coveted combination of vanilla, almond, and grass that we all associate with old books. There was a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor that made my heart flutter. (Before this trip, I had been obsessed with spiral staircases. I’d never actually taken one so I didn’t understand how truly terrifying they could be.)
Part of me had been hoping that school would be in session. I was curious to see if there were many differences between the campus environment of British and American universities. I almost let myself believe it after the same border patrol agent who found my purple hair hilarious asked me why I wasn’t at school. Unfortunately, the university was near empty when I arrived. For the first hour of my visit, I was the only person in sight; but soon enough people trickled in, took a few pictures, and left.
The University of Glasgow was stunning. The Renaissance style building was commissioned by Mary, Queen of Scots in the late 16th century, according to an inscription inside. Throughout the experience, I was stunned by the windows and the way they reflected the sky. Out front, they adopted the whimsical shade of blue you can see above. But inside the eastern courtyard, they were glowing gold as they absorbed the sunlight. There were two courtyards divided by the corridor pictured above. It was this corridor that made the castle feel like Hogwarts, especially with its holiday lights. However, this university had a magic all of its own. The air seemed to be buzzing with energy, despite it’s lack of occupants. I struggle to describe the feeling I had while walking through it’s halls. Instead, I would encourage anyone who is able to visit the University for themselves.
I spent hours sitting in the east courtyard, writing. It was difficult to pull myself away from such a special place, but I grew unavoidably hungry. On my way back to the station, I stopped at a produce market and purchased some oranges to accompany my oatmeal bar. With the sun still high, I ventured back to Edinburgh – I wanted to ride the train without the risk of the sun obstructing my view. Watching the lowlands roll by outside my window was enchanting. I am absolutely in love with Scotland. The aged stone cities and the expansive green of the countryside both filled my soul with joy I had yet to experience.