Peter Ross: Clyde Tunnel, a vision of beauty

BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to a 762-metre stretch of road hewn from under the Clyde almost 50 years ago

WHEN Willie ­Bernard drives to work in the morning, northwards through the Clyde Tunnel, he has been known to wind down his ­windows the better to admire what he regards as the beauty – yes, beauty – of the structure. “Look,” he says to himself with pleasure on such occasions. “Look at ma tunnel.”

Willie is operations manager at the Clyde Tunnel, the 762-metre long stretch of road which passes beneath the ­river, connecting the districts of Whiteinch to the north and Govan to the south, and which next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In years gone by, Willie would have been known as the Tunnel Master, an office which political correctness, to his sorrow, has renamed. But there is no doubt that, regardless of his title, this short, stout, staunch Govanite takes a masterly pride and sense of ownership in what for him – and the 25 million people ­passing through each year – is so much more than a muckle hole in the ground.

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His bond to the place is made firmer by family history. His late grandfather, James Douglas, a caulker/burner and riveter, was one of the men who built the tunnel. On 3 July, 1963, Willie – a wean in a pushchair – was among the cheering crowds who watched as the tunnel was declared open by the Queen. Back then the tunnel was big news – a utopian project, expressive of civic pride, part of the same rush for the future that saw so many tenements flattened and schemes thrown up. In the early years, people would ­travel from far and wide, buzzing in their Beetles, amped in their Imps, just for the pleasure of driving through the tunnel. There were even observation decks from which the public could look down upon the traffic as it passed into darkness. But those days are long gone.

“It’s astounding to me how little people know about the tunnel now,” Willie says. ­“Visitors pass through and they don’t even know they are under­water. They just think it’s a road with a roof. People talk about the architecture of Glasgow, about the bridges of Glasgow and their beautiful ironwork, but nobody really mentions the Clyde Tunnel.”

In order to begin putting that right, the tunnel is for the first time part of Doors Open Days, an annual event run by the Scottish Civic Trust which allows the public access to buildings they would otherwise not be allowed to enter. The tours, taking place in Glasgow this weekend, are free but ticketed and the Clyde Tunnel was the first to be fully booked, indicating an enduring – if untapped – interest in the place. Visitors will be allowed inside the control room and one of the ventilation buildings.

“It’s magnificent down there, like being in a cathedral,” Kathy Friend says of the tunnel. She runs holdyourbreath.org, a website dedicated to the Clyde Tunnel. The title refers to the game, beloved of generations of Glaswegian children, of attempting to hold their breath for the duration of a car journey through the tunnel, typically just short of one minute.

“I would get comments on the website asking ‘Why are you making a fuss about this tunnel? There are other tunnels that are much more impressive,’ ” says Friend. “But this is our tunnel, so why not?”

This is our tunnel. Quite right. Glaswegians, at least many of us who drive, feel we own the Clyde Tunnel and have a love/hate relationship with it. Plenty of those who held their breath as children, and now hold the fond memory of doing so, will have had plenty of occasion to exhale heavily – and curse horribly – on learning that once again the tunnel is closed for maintenance. Yet, until now, its ­inner workings have been largely a mystery.

To be allowed to walk inside, with traffic stopped, and linger over the elegant curve of the walls, the vanishing points of road and roof, the whole psychedelic geometry of the place, feels a rare privilege. And one can’t help but think admiringly of the workers who built the tunnel, digging it out by hand, with picks and shovels, bunnets on heads and fags in mouths and sleeves rolled up. Black and white photographs of the time don’t look like the Fifties and Sixties. They look Victorian. They make you think: this is ­Glasgow’s Forth Bridge.

Men died doing this. There were two confirmed fatalities, both believed to be related to decompression sickness. During the build, which began in 1957, signs were put up in the Govan Road advising that any man seen staggering may not in fact be drunk but suffering from the bends.

The tunnel is six metres below the river bed and made from cast-iron sealed with lead. It was built in order to improve Glasgow’s transport infrastructure, a bridge being deemed unsuitable at that point of the river because of all the shipping.

The control room of the Clyde Tunnel is down a lane just off the Dumbarton Road, next door to a carpet warehouse and the Glasgow headquarters of the Royal Ante­diluvian Order of Buffaloes. From here, staff operate the lighting, ventilation, sumps and pumps, control the flow of traffic, and keep an eye out for claustrophobic drivers suddenly panicking at the thought of being enclosed and slamming their car into the wall. A blue rectangular building above the northern approach, the control room looks out over the 65,000 or so vehicles passing through the tunnel each day.

I say tunnel, but tunnels would be more accurate – one heading north, the other south, each with two lanes. ­Beneath the road are two narrow, cobwebby octagonal tunnels for pedestrians and cyclists. These are busy during shift changes in the shipyards and Southern General Hospital, but eerily quiet at all other times. They are being repainted just now, covering over the graffiti, making them less suitable as a gritty location for Taggart, but altogether less frightening to walk or cycle through. From the writing that remains it is possible to ascertain that these were disputed lands for rival gangs. The Scots­toun Fleeto; Young ­Govan Team; Young Linty Goucho; Young Mental Bowrie – each has left its mark, like those ­Vikings carving their names into Maes Howe.

For the past two years, the pedestrian tunnels have been secured by heavy gates, observed by cameras and opened by the control room in response to an intercom buzz. This has deterred the ned raiding parties. No longer is this the place to go for a kerry-oan with a kerry-oot. “It was bad,” Willie Bernard admits. “There was an occasion when the ­police phoned me in the control room and said, ‘We’ve had a report of a man running around screaming in the pedestrian walkway waving a samurai sword. Can you go and investigate?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, no I can’t. Is that not more your realm?’ But since the secure door entry system there’s been a phenomenal change.”

So much for the walkway. What about the roads? These are monitored 24 hours a day by a controller watching a bank of 18 screens. To the outsider, passing traffic appears as a homogenous blur, but experienced staff can, over time, begin to recognise individual cars – the red Ferrari belonging to a particular fading pop star, say, or the souped-up ­coupes of especially troublesome boy racers who insist on treating the tunnel as if it were their own personal Knockhill.Looking at the bank of monitors, a haze of brake lights, I can’t help but wonder whether, after a while, the watchers become hypnotised and dazed. But Peter Lindsay, the controller on shift, shakes his head. “No. The potential for disaster keeps you awake.”

This is the sobering side of the Clyde Tunnel. Any incident – a puncture, a rear-ender – which could be quite minor on the open road has the potential to grow serious quickly in the confines of the tunnel. It is common, apparently, for vehicles to run out of fuel on the steep inclines near the exits. Stoppages of any kind are dealt with in the first few minutes, tunnel staff towing people to safety in security vehicles. The worst-case scenario is a fire. In the lifetime of the tunnel, there have been only two fires of significance, with no injuries on either occasion. The tunnel lining can withstand temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees centigrade.

More likely than fire, given the Glaswegian climate, is flood. Last month, on 6 ­August, the rain fell so quickly and so hard that the drainage system was overwhelmed and the pedestrian tunnel filled with water to waist height. On that occasion, a Weegie straight from central casting buzzed the intercom and – undaunted – requested access.

Weegie: “Scuse me. Kin ah get intae ra tunnel, pal?”

Control room: “Naw. The tunnel’s flooded.”

Weegie: “Zit bad, like?”

Control room: “Aye. It’s three and a half feet deep.”

Weegie, after due consideration: “Aw, that’s awright, pal. Ah kin swim.”

Those in charge of the tunnel have grown used to dealing with the unpredictability of human nature. They remember with weary fondness the old dear in the Volkswagen Golf who, taking a wrong turn off Dumbarton Road, attempted to drive down into the ­pedestrian tunnel and found herself jammed.

They know all about the ­patients escaped from the pys­chiatric wing of the local hospital, disorientated and trying to walk down the road tunnel.

They will never forget the suicide who jumped off the bridge by the north portal and the sound of his legs snapping as he hit the road.

One thing about the Clyde Tunnel – it’s never boring. Or, as Willie Bernard puts it: “This is a monument to the city which I think is overlooked.” «