Kelvin Hotel, 15 Buckingham Terrace, Great Western Road, Glasgow, G12 8EB
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The Kelvin Hotel in Glasgow’s West End may well be just a little like one of those much sought-after places you hear about switched-on people finding in other cities or countries – the “smart choice” discovered by seasoned travellers who take the time to look beyond glossy but superficial and heavily-pointed tourism literature.
But unlike these semi-mythical hideaways in Italy, Hungary or wherever, the Kelvin Hotel is not off the beaten track or hard to find. It’s about two minutes’ walk from the top of Byres Road and Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – and its smart address on Buckingham Terrace outranks most of the heritage property in this part of the city.
Why? Because it just happens to be based in a plum site on a stretch which ranks as a masterpiece of Victorian design, and is arguably a niche visitor attraction in its own right.
It’s no secret that west Glasgow is the jewel in the crown of the city’s tourism amenities, with a host of architectural glories that hearken back to the astonishing boom years of the 19th century, when what was still a largely semi-rural area became – in the space of a few decades – a dramatic testament to Victorian enterprise and industry.
However unfortunately many people travelling to stay overnight in the West End don’t really get anything like the full picture while perusing an internet selection stuffed with budget hotels and special deals at amorphous city centre establishments.
Glasgow is rightly renowned for its superb array of hotels and guest houses, a sector which has truly taken off with the rise of the city’s reputation as a premier venue for top international conferences – and as a shopping milieu second only to London.
So it comes as a little of a surprise to some that a hotel at the very heart of the real West End is offering what’s arguably a quality accommodation experience in a prime location – one that still exudes the spirit and style of the master-designer who created Buckingham Terrace in the days when Queen Victoria was still relatively young.
If there really is a “real West End” it must surely be framed by the Kelvingrove and the Park district on one hand, and the Botanics on the other, because it was here that a new mercantile class emerged in Victorian times to create what was almost a “new town” of its day.
Tucked away amid the leafy groves of Hyndland (for example) are deluxe mansions which are the equal of anything in Europe, such as the Italianate home of an 1860’s Glasgow merchant who, shockingly, not only supported the Confederate States of America but also entertained (during his “retirement” after the Civil War) the first and only President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis. History records that the two gentlemen played cards and smoked cigars.
In case anyone should have any doubts about the high Victorian credentials of Glasgow’s West End the very street names are a celebration of Empire, with “Victoria” and “Albert” naturally conspicuous throughout.
Capping it all, just to reinforce the point, is the magnificent equestrian statue of Lord Roberts on its commanding eminence in Kelvingrove Park, reminding passers-by of long-forgotten military glories, while the Lady of the Lake fountain commemorates a real Victorian breakthrough; the supply of clean water to a Glasgow.
At that time the city’s notorious slums, swollen by desperate Highland and Irish migrants seeking food and work, were as bad and in some ways even worse as anything to be found in the teeming cities of 19th century India
Meanwhile anyone probing just a little below the standard-issue tourism literature for Glasgow will soon begin to discover an amazing miscellany of reminders of how truly great the West End has been in the story of Scotland, never mind Glasgow.
From the replicas of the Elgin Marbles in their soaring splendour above the upper stairways of the Hillhead Primary School building in Cecil Street to the elaborate Victorian grandeur of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, there was a creative explosion of art and design inspiration in Glasgow at a time when Edinburgh’s New Town glories were still splendid, but already ossified in the past – Glasgow was the powerhouse of ideas and imagination: the place to be.
But of course most visitors do not come here to study architecture, and apart from admiring the general ambience created by the wealth of yesteryear’s hard-nosed capitalists – not least in the impressive spires of its plethora of Victorian churches – few, perhaps, want to spend much time learning about the designers or their buildings
These days people flock to the West End for family weddings, 21st celebrations, graduations – of course – or simply to find somewhere removed from the bustle of a somewhat generic and brand-laden city centre (which despite its undoubted stars all too often resembles virtually any city centre in Britain) in which to enjoy their stay.
There are deluxe boutique hotels, a flourishing budget sector (whose barracks-style outlets were able to command fabulous, scandalous sums during the Commonwealth Games), and also the vast corporate temples of 21st century anywhere urban hotel culture.
(The Kelvin is a popular choice for people staying overnight in Glasgow after attending weddings at OranMor, the nearby venue.)
Then there’s the Kelvin Hotel in Buckingham Terrace, which enterprising ownership has rightly flagged up as an underpublicised gem of premier league Glasgow architecture at its finest.
On the “busy” side of this stretch of Great Western Road are shops, fast food outlets, cafes, while on the other – above the main road and serenely set back from all the hubbub – Buckingham Terrace is a “scenic backdrop” interposed between the arterial roadway and the secluded mansions of Hamilton Drive, and the still-magnificent former headquarters of the BBC.
To newcomers it can come as something of a surprise to find that the Terrace is not only a “blue chip” architectural wonder but also the home of this “hotel with a difference” – one that boasts possibly the finest breakfast room in the city.
There are, on the fringes of the core West End, superb evocations of Victorian townhouse living reinstated as hotels, which make a main play for the well-heeled corporate market, and which arguably do their expensive and exclusive job extremely well.
But in the main these extravagant Palladian bastions of modern-day refinement are not aimed at the mainstream-but-discerning visitor market, still less at people working to a budget.
People from out of town staying over for a wedding (or even a shopping trip) don’t usually put too much effort into finding pleasant accommodation, and are likely to be guided by standard-issue lists of basic attributes of the sort to be found in any tourism guide – or to plump for any of the well-known budget brands, which are utilitarian but predictable and “safe”. It is, after all, “just a place to lay your head” at the end of an otherwise memorable day.
Unless the hot water fails or the door key doesn’t work it’s unlikely the overnight stay will figure in any account to friends or relatives of how the trip to Glasgow West End went – and the most people are likely to say in retrospect is that the place they chose wasn’t too expensive ....that aside, it will be a forgotten detail, no more significant than a visit to a high street branded coffee shop.
And that, when there are arguably real alternatives to consider, is a shame.
You don’t have to have any special interest in architecture to observe from the outset that Buckingham Terrace is “special”.
It is a key piece in what amounts to a stunning mosaic of design brilliance enacted by one of the great luminaries of Victorian urban design, J T Rochead, one of the pantheon of all time artistic “greats”..
He also designed the terrace which now includes the Grosvenor Hotel, and also Northpark House (former BBC), and in many ways can be said to have framed the character of the West End – that elusive real West End – for all time.
It’s only a minor, parochial disappointment to learn that this great doyen of superior Glasgow design culture was in fact an Edinburgh man, and when you take the time to study at close range what he created the notion that this special part of west Glasgow should be advertised more widely becomes compelling
The really nice thing about the Kelvin Hotel is that it is squarely aimed at the person who does not want to spend a fortune but who does insist on a certain quality – it is not like some dotty Barcelona art hotel stuffed with contemporary paintings and odd sculptures, and is completely undemonstrative. It exudes relaxation and quiet comfort.
This hotel is firmly based around the concept of bed and breakfast, recognising that there is little point having an elaborate restaurant or bar in the very heart of an area positively seething with first class dining facilities and licensed premises – there must be a few dozen perfectly excellent places, representing just about every known cuisine (including Scottish) within about ten minutes’ walk.
No, the Kelvin Hotel is selling a different kind of experience altogether. Here is a place which is happy to be undramatically effective in everything that it does, a fairly-priced haven of taste which quietly and unostentatiously sets out to deliver value in a sector too often dominated at the one end by uniformity and blandness and at the other by extravagant business-account “bling”.
(Don’t forget to ask about your gift bag and about the Kelvin’s pet friendly policy)
The rooms are beautiful, but do not seek to overawe with four-poster beds or a hundred different electronic gadgets.
The breakfast room is a sublime tribute to the style set in the 1850’s when Rochead and his contemporaries were busily transforming west Glasgow’s urban environment – for example there’s one marvellous tribute to the spirit of the mid-Victorian era to be seen in its exuberantly wonderful cornicing.
Practically every building in the West End of any antiquity has cornice work to some degree, but this is a bit different, because it is picked out in full, glorious colour.
This isn’t some in-house idiosyncrasy, but rather a homage to the style of the era which created it – the mid-Victorian times of Charles Dickens, the Crimean War, the Great Exhibition, etc .
It’s a period feature exemplified in the A-listed interior of a famous public house in another Victorian city, Belfast, where the 1840’s elaborate cornicing and glasswork of The Crown is one of the best illustrations of this “Victorian baroque” approach to interior decor on the grand scale.
If all this makes it sound as if the Kelvin Hotel is a functioning museum, it’s nothing of the sort, because part of the art of making a place relevant and interesting to a modern audience is the ability to allow the classic interior to set the tone – in this case, in spectacular fashion – without getting sidetracked into the sort of folie de grandeur beloved of more exotically-priced venues.
There’s another thing – we tend to think of Victorian era interiors as gloomy, tobacco-stained and depressing, while in fact the style of the mid-19th century was anything but; the best town houses abounded in bright colours and joie de vivre ...those dreary sepia walls and aspidistras came a few decades later (when the whole Empire seemed to feel compelled to mourn the death of Prince Albert).
The Kelvin Hotel breakfast room is normal, contemporary, early 21st century, but the set of the original interior lends it all some sort of low-key but powerful wow factor that takes things to a different level – this is somewhere you can really enjoy your breakfast.
The hotel’s 21 rooms pitch it in the category of “small but substantial” in its sector, a scale of operations which allows the owner to run the business to exactly the sort of standards regular customers seem to appreciate – it isn’t a destination venue with an exotic restaurant, but on the other hand isn’t a “safe” but dull as ditchwater hotel brand with “have a nice day” written unconvincingly all over its literature.
Climbing the winding staircase to the upper floors one is immediately struck by the elegant simplicity of the interior, which carries with it something of an old world charm you might struggle to find in the “golden mile” hotels on the well-thumbed menu of mainstream tourism haunts.
Friendly but unobtrusive, classic but unpretentious, the Kelvin Hotel will perhaps appeal most to people who want the accommodation side of their visit to match the quality of their shopping expedition, wedding or graduation celebration.
This stretch of Great Western Road is equally convenient for the Botanic Gardens and Byres Road in one direction and increasingly vibrant Kelvinbridge in the other, with subway stations and bus routes galore – so even if your main reason for visiting is a function in the city centre you are never far from anything of importance.
Add to this melange of sublime architecture and solid value the pleasure of a good night’s sleep in a real West End hotel, and you have some good reasons for looking beyond “the usual suspects” when next you visit Glasgow.
Your only problem may be choosing where to enjoy dinner – because the choice, within easy walking range, is virtually endless.
With a complimentary full Scottish breakfast when you book, and the prospect of loyalty bonuses for “frequent flyers”, this classy reminder of the days when no gentleman of quality would venture out without a top hat is, like the “real West End itself”, just a bit special – and one to enjoy discovering at leisure.
Roy Beers, April, 2016
15 Buckingham Terrace
Great Western Road,
Glasgow, G12 8EB