One month ago, in the early evening of Monday 5th November, a group of people assembled in the churchyard of Govan Old Parish Church (known as ‘Govan Old’). They came there to begin a ceremonial procession to Water Row, the oldest street in the town, the last surviving portion of an ancient route that once connected the northern and southern banks of the River Clyde. The procession was the first in a trio of ceremonies that evening, the others being the official opening of the Govan Fairway and the installation of the Ghost Of Water Row. An additional feature was the Govan Incident Room, an innovative project closely related to the three main events.
The proceedings opened with an introduction by Andy McAvoy of Edo Architecture, a Glasgow-based practice run by Andy and Ann Nisbet. Over several months, Ann and Andy had designed and constructed the Ghost Of Water Row, a three-dimensional representation of a group of buildings – now long-vanished – that once flanked the old route to the river. But the Ghost is more than a symbolic structure: it is a work of architectural art, with walls and roof of patterned lace and a framework of pale Scottish spruce.
After welcoming the 40 or 50 folk who had gathered for the procession, Andy introduced Eileen Reid, daughter of renowned trade-union leader Jimmy Reid whose funeral had taken place at Govan Old in 2010. Eileen was soon to lead the procession to Water Row, carrying as a totem the Big Question Mark. This is the iconic symbol of Glaswegian artist George Wyllie who sadly passed away this year at the age of 90. George’s strikingly original public artworks made many statements – and asked many questions – about the past and future of Clydeside, so his symbol was a fitting banner for the evening’s events.
Before the procession began, the gathering heard a brief speech, given by myself, on the history of the route from the churchyard to Water Row. I spoke of the ceremonial path of the kings of Strathclyde linking the church to the Doomster Hill, a huge artificial mound utilised as a parliament hill and ritual venue 1000 years ago. The ceremonial landscape of church, path and hill constituted one of the foremost centres of power in Viking Age Britain. Traces of the path were discovered by archaeologists in the 1990s, in the southeast corner of the churchyard, with an alignment pointing towards Water Row and the Doomster Hill, but the great mound itself is long gone.
After saying a few words about Water Row, highlighting its historical significance as the last relic of Govan’s ancient connection with the river, I ended with an overview of the layers of history that followed the fall of the kings: the medieval village that sprang up around the crossing-point; the thriving community of weavers who survived until the 19th century; the great expansion of Govan in the shipbuilding era. I also mentioned that our gathering coincided with the centenary of a significant event: the loss of Govan’s independence on 5th November 1912 when it officially became part of the City of Glasgow.
And so we set off on our processional journey. It was a fine autumn evening. Lantern-bearers accompanied us as we made our way out of the churchyard. Turning off the main road we entered Pearce Lane which marks the course of the royal pathway. This soon brought us to Water Row where the Ghost awaited us, its white walls illuminated from within. Gathering in the glow we listened as Andy McAvoy gave an evocative speech about the design and construction of the Ghost and what it represents. Andy spoke of the old ferry slipway that formerly lay at the end of Water Row, and of the cottages that once stood there. He observed that the withdrawal of the ferry service in 1966 severed Govan’s ancient connection with the north bank of the Clyde.
Our attention next turned to the Fairway, a celebration of the fairground community that has dwelt in Govan for more than 100 years. As one of the oldest such communities in Europe, the ‘Showpeople’ are an integral part of the history of Govan. Their yard alongside Water Row maintains a long continuity of human settlement around the approach to the ancient crossing. We joined them for the grand unveiling of impressive new gates at the entrance to their yard, and listened to a speech by community leader Jimmy Stringfellow. A screen in front of the gates played a short film by local company Fablevision featuring Jimmy and members of his family talking about their heritage. The evening’s ceremonies ended with hot refreshments generously provided by the Showpeople.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Water Row, near Govan Cross, the Govan Incident Room was busy with investigations into what was missing from this part of the town. Witnesses to the lost heritage of the shipbuilding era were interviewed, and forensic evidence of the Doomster Hill was analysed, by chief investigators Kathy Friend and Susan Pettie. Like the Ghost, the Incident Room is an ongoing project that will continue to keep a spotlight on what happens in the area around Water Row – and on what Govanites would like to see happening.
Finally, after a successful and enjoyable series of celebrations, the crowd dispersed. The Ghost of Water Row was carried into the Showpeople’s yard for temporary storage, but plans are already afoot to bring it out for future events. Discussions and chinwags begun earlier in the evening resumed at Brechin’s Bar. The mood was positive, for the historical importance of Water Row had been highlighted and acknowledged. Hopes were high that Glasgow City Council might now postpone its plans for a car park on the site, at least until alternative uses for the land have been explored in consultation with local people.
But then, a few days later, the machines and materials arrived…..
Work on the new car park commenced in the ancient heart of Govan….
That was several weeks ago. Since then, the case for preserving and conserving the heritage of Water Row has been re-stated, and new voices have given their support. What is needed now, most urgently, is a pause, a breathing-space. There are hints that the situation may indeed be moving in that direction. A period of consideration and reflection would allow the future of this part of Govan to be examined carefully and openly, so that any development is guided not by short-term planning but by what local people actually want to see there.
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I am grateful to Tom Manley for letting me use his photographs in this blogpost.
A news report on the Ghost of Water Row appears in the architectural journal Urban Realm. See also a recent article by Tom Manley at the website of the Water Row Action Group (WRAG), and Edo Architecture’s flyer for the event of 5th November. Edo’s own blogpost on the Ghost has a good selection of photos by Tom Manley and Julia-Kristina Bauer.
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