The Car Park at the End of the World

The altar lay in fragments on the concrete floor. A cross spread-eagled in the middle, under a tangle of rusty scaffolding. Several beams of the chapel’s original ziggurat roof still spanned the space above, now open to the sky.
            JK and I drove to the abandoned seminary on Glasgow’s outskirts in his marigold yellow van. JK is an environmental engineer, the creator of a garden burgeoning with tomatoes, sunflowers and beetroots. He spends his working week planning urban ponds or designing ways for trees to survive the rough and tumble of city life. At weekends he usually sports hiking gear, cycling Lycra or a lumberjack shirt (today’s was a fetching blue check.)
            ’Like a temple for worshipping aliens:’ this was how JK described the place we were going. We’d squeezed through a gap in the fence and crossed a stone bridge laced with creepers. Butterscotch September light. The path was lined with trees, including some imposing yews. They looked as though they hadn’t seen the pruning shears for decades.

DANGEROUS – DEMOLITON – KEEP OUT. From the outside, you could see what looked like a pebbledashed car park four storeys high. Five cylinder-shaped alcoves at one end recalled nuclear silos. The whole place had the air of an exhumed bunker.
            We crept in through a doorway. An old light socket had been ripped out and chucked on the floor. Wires splayed out like the severed nerves of an eye.
            Puddles on the floor, popper canisters cluttering the concrete. The ground floor housed the broken altar. It once stood upright, like a planted sword. Arthurian. Stencilled artwork on one of the blocks featured a bearded king.
            Porthole-sized windows let in light. Someone had put orange acetate in one of them – apocalyptic stained glass. This was the dancefloor for a rave after the collapse of civilisation, with its floor of shattered bottles. Would I come here on my own? Yes, but only in daylight. I thought of David Harsent’s poem ‘Fire: a party at the world’s end’: ‘They are drinking the last of the wine having drunk/ the last of the water.’

A gap in the floor over a sheer drop – to get to the next floor, you had to jump over a void. We entered an open courtyard swarming with graffiti. Every pillar had a tag or mural: a grinning thistle with its shock of purple hair, a smiley face grinning to reveal the skull below. Piles of pigeon droppings under the pillars. A girl and a guy entered, the boy in specs and beige check, the girl with blue hair backcombed at the front. She beckoned him across the gap in the floor – ‘Dare you!’


The seminary at Cardross is considered a masterpiece of brutalist architecture. Inspired by Le Corbusier and created by modernist architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein, the vaulted ceilings and floating staircases retain some stateliness in decay. An artist once commented that ‘It has an elegance and a lightness, while at the same time having the heaviness of industry and concrete and hardness.’  But the building’s working life was short. Those lofty rooms generated ridiculous heating bills. The number of young men entering the priesthood was dwindling. (Well, after the bohemian Sixties, who’d want to live a life of sexless seclusion?)
            One priest who trained there commented that ‘it was a great building, but utterly useless.’

A birch sapling sprouted from the spine of the northern staircase. Steel grilles linked the stairs to the body of the seminary, a void of air below them. Graffiti at the centre read Hello u c—.
            Each floor of the building was a tier of half-cylinders that looked precariously brittle. They were faced with orange foam that had begun to leak out of the cracks. I tiptoed out onto one of the vaults. Thin concrete was all that separated me from a twenty-metre fall. To our left was the central staircase, stripped to the bones.

What would happen to our cities, homes and places of worship if human beings just disappeared? In his book The World Without Us, Andrew Weisman wonders what the Earth would look like without people – say, if aliens abducted all of us, or a virus wiped us all out. New York would be taken over by trees, and voles would scurry down the Channel Tunnel. We can glimpse this already in the irradiated high-rises of Chernobyl: wolves wander the streets and the pavements are split by poplar trees.

On the road back to Manchester, Spotify played REM’s ‘It’s The End of the World as we Know It,’ right on cue. I told JK about the plants and fungi that took over my balcony during lockdown. Hart’s tongue ferns sprouted from the brickwork after heavy rain. Jelly ear mushrooms burst out of the damp wood panelling under the eaves. ‘I spotted one – gave me the shock of my life. Thought one of the neighbours might have had a Van Gogh moment.’

If there’s another pandemic and no-one survives, what will the block of flats where I currently live look like? It’s a thought that gives me a greyish sense of loneliness. How quickly would the weather strip it to a skeleton of girders and stairwells? With no humans, the chink in my roof would let in a determined leak. Those ferns and mushrooms would eat up the wooden floor and festoon the brickwork. Mould and mildew would devour the books on my shelf. There’s a plump wood pigeon who flies onto my balcony – the neighbours call him Humphrey. He’d enjoy roosting in my top room. Urban foxes would raise their kits in the car park. There’s always something that manages to cling to life. It might even thrive.

Dr Yvonne Reddick