During the 1970s, one day I strayed from the post-war sprawl of Linthaugh Road in Pollok to an enclave known as Corkerhill, passing the railway workers’ cottages and trespassing on impossibly rural farmland. By pure chance I had arrived at a strange and magical place. Pollok Estate wasn’t so much a park as an exotic parallel universe. Here was an old and venerable mansion, Pollok House, with its artefacts and formal gardens and ancient gnarled beech, the White Cart Water, the dense, mysterious woods, a frog spawn-filled pond and the police recreation ground. The fields were dotted with daft, hairy Highland Cattle. It was a place big enough to lose yourself in.
I did a lot of growing up here. Throughout my teens, into my 20s and beyond I would visit – alone, with friends, with boyfriends and eventually my husband. Like a ghost, in some unnameable, vaguely spiritual way, I claimed possession over the place, as the place has done with me.
Sadly, in recent times I’ve been put off visiting, in spite of the banner’s boast –
European Country Park of the Year. Bad enough, I thought, when the city decided to build a museum to house the artistic spoils of industrialist, William Burrell, on my favourite patch of open ground. Eventually I succumbed to the building, a glass and stone construction discreetly tucked in a wooded corner, although the surrounding land remains compromised by a commercial car park and the obligatory children’s play area, as if to admit the museum’s not distraction enough. At least, I console myself – at the time of writing – admission is still free.
Not so in other quarters. A few years ago I was dismayed to find Pollok House had transferred ownership from the city council to The National Trust for Scotland and soon after an admission charge, currently £8, was imposed. Moreover, several of my favourite pictures – El Greco’s Lady in a Fur Wrap and Blake’s Adam Naming the Animals, the Goya prints – went missing for a time. They’ve since been reinstalled, but I wouldn’t know. I refuse to pay for what my 10-year-old self had come to believe was ‘mine’.
For months I’ve watched the corporate sleight-of-hand drag out as the city council attempted to lease part of the estate’s North Wood to a private concern called Go Ape. Their proposal, to install a quasi-assault course and charge the public £20 to swing from trees in full view of the Burrell Collection met with fierce dissent from the locals when they discovered that the sole notice for a planning application was posted on a lamppost outside the park boundary.
Today the weather’s capricious, broody, great dark clouds to match my mood. My mission: to locate the site of Nether Pollok Castle, another of Harry Bell’s PSAs. In fact there are two others in the vicinity – the misnamed ‘Burrell’ ringwork in the North Wood, (Burrell had no association with the estate until the 1980s), and a tumulus on Pollok golf course. Using the Google Earth plot points supplied by geomancer, Grahame Gardner, and my trusty OS map, I set out.
I arrive at the car park beside the White Cart Water, river of my Pollok childhood so clean now that you can catch salmon and trout instead of dead supermarket trolleys and Weil’s disease. The Cart flows in front of Pollok House, the fine 18th century seat of the Maxwell family, owners of the 361 acres since the mid-thirteenth century.
These days anyone with enough cash and aspiration can play the aristo for a day. During a recent walk near Pollok House, I felt like an intruder as I watched a wedding party in full swing, the guests lining up to be photographed in the knot garden, no doubt a strategy implemented by the National Trust to drum up revenue. That, and the recent addition of murder mystery evenings. How many of the guests are aware, I wonder, of the real-life murder that took place here when the body of 23-year-old Diane McInally was discovered in bushes close to the Burrell Museum in October 1991, first in a series of unsolved murders of seven Glasgow prostitutes?
It’s the height of the season but thankfully its midweek so the park’s not overrun with visitors. But the skies look sulky and grey. I set out with my stills camera, hedging my bets, snapping the obvious landmarks – the house, the river, the lovely stone bridge. Crossing, I climb a metal railing, scramble down a slope and into a meadow, heading for the likeliest spot. On one side of me, the Cart, on the other, a clump of trees looking decidedly like a mound. Under its canopy I spot a pair of young Asian-Scots guys, bikes abandoned, spliffs billowing. A few yards on, by the riverbank, two young women share a blanket, drinking, reading magazines and texting, oblivious to their surroundings. Passing them, I locate a set of foundations, only to find them disappointingly recent. Circling the area, I prowl for signs of something older. As it turns out there are, but sadly I’m no expert in ancient castle sites. Nothing I see can be trusted.
I’m certain Harry Bell would be interested to learn that a group of archaeologists from Glasgow University and the Glasgow Archaeological Society recently (June 2008) discovered what they claim is the city’s oldest surviving road, said to date from Iron Age dwelling. In a Herald article by Gerry Braiden – I find a mention of a second ringwork in Pollok Estate, in the North Wood, not the one listed in my OS map or on the Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites on Google Earth. I’m going to have to check.
Trudging back to retrieve my video camera, I’m caught by the sight of a trio of men playing golf on the course opposite Pollok House, said to be another of Harry Bell’s sites, a tumulus. But how can I be sure? The entire area is dotted with tree-topped mounds and bumps and who’s to say which, if any, has the greater significance? All along the Barrhead Road you can find similar lumps in the ground. Having made hundreds of journeys over decades on the 21 bus from Pollok to the city centre, I can vouch for their existence, but how many are recent inventions?
More compelling is the assertion that since Pollok Estate was private land it was ‘protected from developers’ thus preserving these ancient roads, as if to suggest the grounds remained intact for 700 years. I beg to differ. Virtually every corner of the Maxwell estate was developed to some extent from the mid-13th century until the mid-20th, from house and road building to drainage, fencing and artificial landscaping – how else did all those rhododendrons get there? Those infrastructural changes and the more recent presence of ‘private’ clubs – tennis, golf, rugby, riding, even allotments – don’t detract too noticeably from the character of the estate, in fact, each demonstrates the perpetual shape-shifting of the land. Nothing remains intact. Nothing in this city ever does.
The sun breaks out as I tramp through the woods with my camera and tripod. It occurs to me that, like the site of the IKEA store at Braehead, another ancient road ‘pulverised’ by developers, lately these woods look as if they’ve been vandalised. Two mountain bike tracks have been ‘built’, designed for different levels of effort. Any chance of a peaceful walk here is marred by the constant whooshing and whirring of bikers. Moreover, judging by the churned earth, the archeologists seem to have left traces. Here and there are clearings, dead wood, vehicle tracks, piles of recently chipped trees and logs, much of it the council’s doing, but who can tell? So much for the notion of ‘protection’. It looks to me there’s been more digging, more chopping, more disturbance and despoilment in the last few years than in the last century.
It doesn’t take too much effort to find the ringwork, a giant doughnut a stone’s throw from the pond. Curiously the boulders at its centre have been wrapped in heavy black plastic then hastily reburied, the link to poor, dead Diane McInally all too evident. I set up to grab my shots. Now and again I hear the clunk of gears and the whoosh of bikes as they fly past. I try not to think about it, but I can’t resist, profit motive aside, what real difference a few humans swinging from the trees would make to this place.