Before I’ve even walked 500 metres along the towpath, six different people have said hello to me. Actually, seven, if I include a rather uninhibited springer spaniel. None of this would seem unusual if I was walking in the Northern Irish countryside, but I’m in the Lagan Valley Regional Park (LVRP), less than a kilometre from the centre of Belfast, and I hadn’t expected its urban residents to be quite so friendly.
The park is one of those in-between places that isn’t quite urban and isn’t quite rural. The signs of the nearby metropolis are everywhere: missing-pet posters, CCTV cameras, discarded ice creams, lampposts, flyovers. But so, too, is the wildlife: red squirrels, buzzards, barn owls and kingfishers (if you’re lucky). ‘The presumption is that peri-urban environments are much less biodiverse than habitats further out into the countryside,’ says Orla Maguire, the local council’s biodiversity officer, when I call in to her offices in the park. ‘But that’s not necessarily the case.’
A mere 3,881 hectares in size, the Lagan Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was officially designated in 1965. Just two years later, the 4,200-hectare LVRP was created, and the AONB now exists within its boundaries. Despite the AONB’s small size, it’s home to the stump of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, an important Neolithic chamber tomb known as the Giant’s Ring, an 18th-century arboretum and ice house, a profusion of industrial heritage associated with the Lagan River, and a linked ‘navigation’, which flows through the centre of the park – not to mention habitats ranging from meadows to pine forests.
BIRTH OF BELFAST
The Lagan – ‘river of the low-lying plain’ in Irish – only began to flow 15,000 years ago when the Scottish ice sheet that had been blocking its mouth finally melted into the Irish Sea at the end of the last ice age. As a result, a small settlement grew at its mouth, and by the 17th century, there were about 1,000 people living in Belfast, trading wool, hides, grain, butter and wine with England, France and Spain. But the local businesspeople felt that the town was being held back by the Lagan, with its shallow stretches and unnavigable bends, and decided to construct a canal that could deliver goods from Ireland’s interior to the Belfast docks and thence to Europe and the new colonies of North America.
The Lagan Navigation took nearly 40 years to construct. When it was completed in 1793, it linked Belfast to Lough Neagh, the British Isles’ largest lake, about 30 kilometres to the west, and from there to a whole network of canals that ran as far as Dublin. Coal, grain and general goods made their way upstream from Belfast to the lough, while bricks, sand, timber, farm produce and flax filled the empty vessels on their way back to the sea. The wide-beamed vessels, known as lighters, weighed up to 78 tonnes when fully loaded, and could take more than 14 hours to make their horse-drawn way upstream to Lisburn – a journey that now takes just 12 minutes by car – but the Lagan Navigation still gave Belfast the edge over other nearby towns and helped turn it into the industrial powerhouse of Ireland’s north.
While the increased trade brought great benefits to some of the city’s residents, the river itself didn’t fare so well. ‘The production of Belfast linen, which was world-renowned at the time, was a dirty business,’ says project manager Brendan O’Connor as we cross a bridge over the navigation and stand above a D-shaped island that was once used as a bleaching green. When the flax was woven into linen, it retained its natural brown or green colour, and consumer tastes demanded that it was bleached and pegged out in the sun until it turned white.
‘These islands were the perfect place to do that because they were surrounded by water, which was needed for the bleaching processes, and kept away thieves who might try to steal the linen,’ O’Connor continues. But although the material ended up looking pure, the same can’t be said of the river. ‘At the time, people said the entire river turned green or red, depending on what process was being carried out that day.’
But the river’s wildlife was saved when the linen industry went into decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, and roads began to replace the canals. In 1953, the last barge travelled down the canal, and local man John Gilchrist campaigned to have the area turned into a park. As time went on, the park grew as surrounding landowners, who had made their fortunes from the navigation, bequeathed their properties to the people of Belfast.
Initially, the LVRP was barely used, but in the past 15 years, visitor numbers have increased – the park now welcomes more than half a million people a year. ‘The Troubles made people insular. They didn’t go out and explore, they tended to stay in their own communities,’ says AONB manager Andy Bridge. And that wasn’t the only effect of the Troubles. ‘At that time, money wasn’t available to promote or safeguard the park,’ says O’Connor. ‘Conservation and tourism were so far down the priority list. Everything was spent on security. In peace, that’s beginning to change.’
As a result, large stretches of the navigation’s towpath have been upgraded, baseline surveys of the kingfisher, otter, trout and salmon – which returned to spawn in the Lagan in 1993 following a reintroduction programme – have been carried out, and a £2.3million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled Laganscape, a project managed by O’Connor, to restore some of the navigation’s features, such as the lock gates and an old lock-keeper’s cottage.
‘We’re restoring it to how it looked in 1922 when the last lock-keeper, George Kilpatrick, lived here,’ says O’Connor as we stoop to go through the tiny front door. ‘He had ten children, one of whom, Dorothy, has been helping us get the look right.’ It has a spare but homely feel: colourful crocheted blankets cover the few armchairs and a coal fire glows in the grate, while tins of tea, cocoa and Oxo cubes are kept dry on the mantelpiece.
‘It’s a tiny house with just four rooms,’ O’Connor tells me. ‘Next door is the parents’ bedroom, while the children all slept upstairs: six girls in one room and four boys in the other – top to toe.’ It sounds harsh, but, he adds, ‘it was a very sociable time. The children played with the children from the lighters, who lived on the boats with their parents, and the family was almost self-sufficient, with a vegetable plot and goats for milk.’
Elsewhere in the park, the historical remnants are natural rather than man-made. O’Connor takes me to see Ireland’s oldest oak tree – a tiny shell of a thing that looks like a crumpled, bristly old man, but it does have a definite presence. ‘It’s not dead yet,’ O’Connor says, explaining how the tree, which dates to 1642, and others like it play a vital role in the woodland, offering homes for up to 350 different species. ‘They were probably spared from being used in shipbuilding because they were so gnarled and crooked, even at a young age.’
Today, it isn’t shipbuilding or industry that threatens to pollute or gobble up the AONB, but residential development. Gardens are beginning to encroach on its land, while developers are gaining planning permission for one type of development and then altering their specifications. ‘One of the biggest threats to the Lagan Valley is the city it gave birth to,’ says O’Connor. Not if the locals have anything to do with it, though. As I’m leaving, a walker beckons me over. ‘It’s a gem this place. An absolute gem,’ he says, adding, with a smile: ‘Promise me you won’t tell anyone about it.’
Food for thought
‘At the Lock Keeper’s Inn, overlooking the canal and the lock-keeper’s cottage. It’s open every day except Monday, and serves breakfasts, cakes, paninis, sandwiches and home-made soups.’
Brendan O’Connor, project manager
‘Walk up in the direction of the Giant’s Ring for a view back across the whole of Belfast, including the famous H&W cranes, which belonged to the shipyard that
built the Titanic.’
Andy Bridge, AONB manager
A lock-keeper’s life
‘Dorothy, the lock-keeper’s daughter, tends to come down to the cottage on Thursday mornings and is more than happy to talk to visitors about what life was like living there as a child.’
‘The best time to see kingfishers is early mornings during late spring/early summer, before the trees come into leaf and when they are fairly active. Good places to look for them are on the stretch between Stranmillis and Newforge, between Edenderry and Drumbridge, and between Lisburn and Union Locks.’
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