The Secret Centre: Hidden Places and Spaces in Cumbernauld Town Centre

The problem with living in the town of tomorrow is that it doesn’t do much for people living in the town today. The very thing that initially defined Cumbernauld, the mega-monolithic Town Centre, was incredibly ahead of its time when it was planned and built, a huge project that took years and tonnes of concrete and creativity. For as long as I’ve been alive, that building has been part of my life. It was where I spent my childhood when things got too loud at home. It’s where I buy food and borrow books. It has given me money, work, and stability. Unfortunately, stability is something The Town Centre itself hasn’t enjoyed over the years, with huge changes made over time, most of which have been enforced by short-term requirements, a lack of vision, and an even greater lack of money. I can remember the Centre when it was still intact, complete with all the other parts in place, each connected to the other perfectly. But memory is a complicated thing, often offering a multiple-choice situation. The version of Cumbernauld Town Centre I spent time in back in the late ‘80s wasn’t the building in its prime, though I didn’t realise that as a child. Even by then, it was starting to run down slowly, the process being hastily accelerated in the ‘90s. By the start of the millennium, the Toony (as people of Cumbernauld know it) was starting to be surgically gutted, the only part left is the segment we’ve all seen in photographs, the iconic horizontal pillar on poles with portholes. I think this section of the building is hated more than any other. It isn’t often I hear people moaning about Woolco or the other sections that were knocked away.

Since news of the possible purchase and demolition of the building happened, I started to think about all the areas in The Toony that were locked away, the bits that used to be there in the open, linking shops to shoppers. There are walls that used to be storefronts, corridors that led to open doors, and ramps joining one part of the centre to another. What happened to them? Where did they go? At that moment, I made the decision to check it out for myself. What started as a mild curiosity soon became a personal vendetta to see everything The Toony had to offer, even the areas that weren’t well-known. These are areas that have remained hidden away from the public for decades – until now.

I started my investigation from the top of The Toony. For years the fourth floor was exclusively set aside for penthouse apartments. While looking around, my smartphone in one hand, a torch in the other, it came to me that these penthouses were probably very beautiful in their day. But the feted ‘town of tomorrow’ was a long ago. These spaces are now floundering as a result of decades-long neglect. In one apartment, I looked up to see a skylight, which would have been a brilliant view of the grime and damp being scrubbed away. That little thought gave me a sense of what it must have been like to live in such a place. I’ve been told that they were brilliant little flats. The windows inside offer an amazing view. Sadly, the arrival of The Antonine Centre, a metal shoebox with corrugated vents has taken some of the natural beauty away. No one would want to live in these flats with that industrial eyesore directly below their line of vision.

The CDC Club (Cumbernauld Development Corporation Club), a familiar bar for residents of a certain era, remains on the same level but is locked away since it closed down. Once a space used for socialising is now completely turned over to birds, who have invaded the entire top floor. “What do they live on?” I asked. “Each other,” said someone who knows from experience. In the dark, I heard their wings make a kind of feathery flurry sound. Suddenly grateful my name isn’t Tippi, I backed away and made the decision to avoid investigating further. Nearby there’s a lift that doesn’t work anymore. I also found what looked like a service lift. Though the photographs aren’t perfect, they still manage to give a good glimpse of what things might have been like back when this section of The Toony was used.

Level two is still in use. The ground next to the nail bar across from the café, which sits adjacent to the old chemist, caught my attention. If you put your foot on that patch of ground, you can feel a hollowness underneath. There’s a reason for that, like most of that building. Underneath this floor is an old door, now blocked, and it leads to huge storage space. I had no idea it existed in the first place. But I’ve learned there are lots of parts to The Toony that no one knows about, parts used for storage, or bits forgotten about over the years. I got in through a door near the bus station. Inside this area is a secret toilet, a bathroom from the ‘70s/’80s that was blocked off, a space I expected was used by The Centre staff. Also, I came across some very old Christmas decorations that I thought would have been junked years earlier. Eventually, after taking a few photographs, it was time to return to the bus station and continue my research.

The bus station is divided into two different sides, each taking passengers in opposite directions. That is, of course, when the buses bother to arrive. If you want to cross over from one side to the other, you’ll find it very difficult. The bridge that joins both ends has been locked away for a decade. Travelers, including the infirm, must go to the other side the long way around. Years before I was born, the bus station looked very different. Now there’s a large loading bay in place, with columns festooned with spikes. There are also two doors that lead to an abandoned area that looks like it might have belonged to the old bus station, now something almost totally different.

Scattered around The Toony are remnants of old shops and blocked-off areas lost to time. Staircases lead to upper levels that aren’t used anymore. They’ve been forgotten. Walls with bricks neatly arranged suddenly stop, a pattern interrupted by smooth walls that look like hastily erected walls. Where did they lead? Did they go anywhere?

Then there’s the large ramp that leads down to Argos. This sloping concrete corridor has been a fixture of The Toony for as long as I can remember. It stops at a large grating, which of course meant very little to me. Actually, there’s a lot more behind that grating than I ever suspected. A huge zone of pipes and tanks exists there, deeply rooted in a complicated arrangement, each marked with handwritten stickers. This is the sprinkler system and it reaches every bit of the building. The tunnel is in case of fire, which means smoke can (in theory) be safely dispersed. It looks like it would lead out close to The Red Triangle Snooker Club.

Once I’d finished looking around, I started to think about this big old building I’d spent so many years in for various different reasons. The Toony has a lot going for it, lots of small corners that people walk by every day, but they’ve been left too long, unused, or abandoned. These leftovers from the building that gave Cumbernauld the title ‘town of tomorrow’ are a fascinating glimpse of What If? The problem with What If is that it can keep you trapped in a cycle, possibly like the one Cumbernauld is stuck in with its Town Centre. There comes a point where you have to stop looking at What If and instead consider What Next?

I’ll miss the Town Centre when – if – it goes, but let’s be blunt: I’ll miss something that no longer exists. A building that disappeared a long time ago, full of places and spaces that have been replaced, abandoned or left to rot away. The people are gone too, moving elsewhere, either by choice or because they were unable to keep their business going in an unsure economy. I’m completely unconvinced The Toony can be saved, having been inside and around it, spending time there every day. Your town centre should be an escape, a place to socialise, laugh, and forget your problems. The building, however, is one big problem and no one can escape it. If you ask anyone that lives here in Cumbernauld, you won’t find a single person who wants to keep The Toony intact. If you do, you’re luckier than me for sure. There’s no malice in this collective dislike, but the town deserves a central meeting point we can enjoy using, a space for everyone that is used thoughtfully. More than that, it should be a place we’re proud to show off, and right now not much of it is being seen out of embarrassment or uncertainty over how to use the space. There’s more of it I haven’t managed to see yet. Somewhere in The Toony is a hidden road that runs through the building, only seen by workmen. That door was completely locked. If the bid to list the building fails, there might still be an opportunity to see these nooks before they vanish forever. At least we’ll have some photographs of the archives which is where I’ll send my collection for their digital folder, if only for people who want to look back at the building that gave the town of tomorrow a suitable look to match, long before it fell out of step with how the town looks today.

All images on this site are copyright of Kirkland Ciccone and will be donated to North Lanarkshire Council Archives. If you want to use one of them for whatever reason, email me using my address on the Contact page. Please attribute them to me if you do.

A final note before you leave. If you don’t know it yet, I’m the author of a novel set in Cumbernauld during the ’90s called Happiness Is Wasted On Me. It’s available in bookshops, online stores, your local library, and the publisher. My next novel is Sadie, Call The Polis, and is out on the 27th of October. Set in Denny (Falkirk) during the ’70s/’80s, I’m looking forward to getting out there to promote it. If you want to pre-order the book, you can do so at various different places. The launch is happening on 27th at Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street, from 19:00 to 20:30 if you want to pop along. Thank you.


3 responses to “The Secret Centre: Hidden Places and Spaces in Cumbernauld Town Centre”

  1. Great read and brilliant pictures, thanks for taking the time. I grew up playing in these places, it’s sad to see them fall into disrepair. It would make a great set for a dystopian movie 🙂 You could put your images in one of the open archives and share them under a creative commons license, more people could see them, share them and use them and attribution would be part of the license.

  2. So interesting! I often think about places like this that loomed so large in our lives versus the state they’re in today (if they still exist) As an archivist I’m delighted to hear this collection has found a safe home 🙂

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