Duncan Reid eulogises Glasgow's beloved West End boho hodge-podge Otago Lane, as the threat of development hangs over it
'Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot'
Joni Mitchell, 1970
How apt. It is a song from my parents’ generation. The words have a resonance that I doubt even Joni Mitchell could ever have anticipated. I am fairly certain that this stems from the sad frequency with which this quotation is rolled-out in light of the unnecessary destruction of something loved and cherished.
Otago Lane and Tchai Ovna are in danger of becoming just this which I’ll come to in a moment, but a word of context first will undoubtedly help.
I have only recently returned to Glasgow despite being born here. I spent my early years being push-chaired around Woodlands and Byers Road as my parents frequented many of the unique West End cafes and eateries. Seventeen years later I find myself doing the same. It is something of an urban adventure, discovering the one-off shops and cafes dotted around the West End. There is so much to celebrate in the dusty effervescence of this unique collection of treasures. It would be impossible to replicate them or recreate the ambience that has evolved. Organically.
Otago Lane is one of the little gems of Glasgow’s West End, but what a glittering wee nugget it is. No Rennie McIntosh or Greek Thomson finery here. Just a collection of utilitarian, artisan outhouses built on a back lane. Splendid anachronisms that warrant preservation for that very reason alone. Are they disused or redundant? Absolutely not. Are they worth keeping? In my humble opinion it is a must. But don’t take my word for it. Go and see for yourself.
Tchai Ovna, house of tea, is the crowning piece of Otago Lane. The kooky cavern where one can sit in cosy, mismatching armchairs amidst a muddle of trinkets and antiques which adorn the walls and enjoy what can only be described as a hot cup of pure pleasure. It is the venue of choice for students and indeed the majority of people you will find here on any normal day are students. Yes us, the estranged entities whose pursuits include sleeping and supposedly attending lectures. But when on a break from these strenuous activities Tchai Ovna is a wholly tempting proposition; where you can sip as you chat with a selection of brews ranging from red African tea, to white Nepalese tea rarely found in the UK. Watch countless pots of various colour and shape being carried from the tiny kitchen adjoined to the lounge, containing everything from mild and floral green teas to strong and sinus-clearing spice master’s brews, to perhaps the most popular; a milky, spicy and sweet concoction called Yogi Yogi Chai. How far from Starbucks can you get? This is the opposite end of the spectrum. More akin to Kathmandu than Glasgow, replete with a patina created from steam and smoke. Although the smoking ban now prevents the hookah pipes on offer being used inside it is possible to imagine heavy, pungent and colourful clouds of smoke dancing around the ceiling at a time when both tea and tobacco were acceptable indoors. There are over 80 varieties of tea available – most of which will blow your socks off and vegetarian foods which scream out home-made goodness; from Indian red dahl to Greek dolmades. Tchai Ovna has an indescribable ambience unlike anything else along Byers road and a genuine and undeniable quality to which it is impossible to attach a pecuniary value.
But money is exactly what it now comes down to. The land has a ‘development value’. Planning permission is being sought to build 160 flats overlooking the Kelvin jeopardising Tchai Ovna - the new plans released on the 9th of February. The development value is probably so much that lawyers and expensive consultants will happily argue the case for the developer. Anything to chase a fat fee.
“The plans defy all logic”, explains Tchai Ovna's owner Martin Fell, “We have a strong following in the community including over 5000 petition signatories.” The team at Tchai Ovna was forced to create an extra Facebook page because the first one over-loaded with members - 8000 of them. Doing some quick maths, that's around 7,840 people more than would benefit from the flats. “We have support from the Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat parties but the first proposal was refused because of public opinion and this is what we need now more than ever to attract the attention of the Glasgow city councillors.”
We have a new planning act in Scotland that obliges consultation with the public, moreso than ever before. So let the community be consulted and let it speak volubly about protecting Otago Lane. If the City Fathers wanted to, they could legally protect these buildings tomorrow and for that there’d be popularity and praise. What would be lost? A Few generic flats. So what? I doubt anyone is under the impression that the flats will not simply be relocated and built elsewhere.
Don’t hold your breath though. In the battle between the powers-that-be versus people, the presumptions all seem to be still in favour of development at Otago Lane. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘we don’t know what we’ve got till its gone’. Ready to pave over this small nirvana just yet?