Caught by the Lagan, Belfast

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Upstream

On a Sunday morning I meet the river by the entrance to Ormeau Park and turn left along the embankment, heading upstream. On the bridge railings a ghost bike hangs, painted white in memory of a fallen cyclist. Below me, on the water, a solitary rower aims downstream, towards Belfast Lough and the sea, towards the waterfront developments of the city centre and the yellow cranes of the shipyard, stroke after powerful stroke.

My route takes me past the gable end of terraced houses and the entrance to Botanic Gardens. There is no life in the Lyric Theatre this early, and I share the pavement with a couple of cyclists and a young woman walking purposefully past me towards town. Across the street tattered flags stake territorial claim on an estate lining a ridge above the river, looking down on an open grassy space where the bonfire will be built. An underpass takes me beneath the road about to cross the river and I pause at a sign marking the riverside route. The inscription begins:

Down a wandering path I have travelled.

Riverside paths tend to wander, as do the rivers that they follow.

This one leads me now away from the road, past some new-looking apartment buildings, a pub, and a line of boat clubs. What was urban had become suburban, and soon, very soon, as the Lagan Towpath begins from the pub car park, it is as if the city has been left completely behind. A strip of smooth tarmac, to the joy of cyclists and runners alike, the towpath runs between the river and the soggy, boggy Lagan Meadows. I see a moorhen and a family of swans, circling gulls and a crow in disagreement with a pair of disagreeable magpies. On one corner a grey heron sits, oblivious to it all , on an overhanging branch that improbably holds its weight.

The reeded river bank. Waterlogged meadows. The first patch of woodland. A series of narrow locks and an old lock-keeper’s cottage reminds us of a time when the Lagan Navigation was an important communication route for this corner of Ireland, when industry lined the banks of the waterway, and the towpath was worked by haulers and their horse-drawn lighters. On a Sunday morning it is the domain of the joggers and the dog-walkers, the cyclists and the strollers. Outside the lock-keeper’s cottage the path continues in a straight line between the woods and the water. There is still nearly fifty miles of river left, upstream to Slieve Croob mountain, County Down.

My Lagan Love

Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blows a lily fair
The twilight gleam is in her eye
The night is on her hair
And like a love-sick lennan-shee
She has my heart in thrall
Nor life I owe nor liberty
For love is lord of all.
(by Joseph Campbell, aka Seosamh MacCathmhaoil)

Downstream

Lagan – Abhainn an Lagáin – River of the low-lying district. From the bridge by Ormeau Park on a Monday lunchtime we turn right down the embankment, heading towards the city centre.

Like a love-sick lennan-shee – leannan-sidhe – Fairy Lover. When I first came to Belfast, the gable-ends of these houses were occupied by political murals. Now only one remains, and it asks us a question:

howcanquantumgravityhelpexplaintheoriginoftheuniverse?

Thinking of fairy lovers and quantum gravity we continue to walk. A sign tells us we have a mile and a half to the city centre. Not enough time, surely, to find the answer.

The path by the river runs alongside residential districts, a community centre, and eventually the railway tracks. Signs tells us stories of the past, of the old weir and the locks that once controlled the river. Some bits and pieces remain, topped on this weekday morning by a collection of strutting oystercatchers, but otherwise the river runs free. The towers of the city centre, the yellow cranes of the shipyard, the hills beyond… slowly, but ever so surely, get closer.

We are within earshot of the station now, the garbled tannoy announcement crossing the platforms and the high fence to where we stand by a wooden bridge across an access channel. On our side of the river modern apartments with balconies offering a view over the water rise beside us. On the opposite, industrial buildings offer a link to the past outlined on those information boards we have been reading as we walk.

Once upon a time cattle and sheep grazed on Mays Meadow by the river, before being driven into town to the market. Industry and the workings of the river came next, and then the post-industrial decline. By the 1980s this was a wasteland. Then came the developments of the new economy supposed to replace the making of things. Banks and insurance companies. A hotel. The Waterfront Hall. The riverside path disappears and we are following a road lost low between these moderately high-rise constructions. A multi-storey car park. Service entrances and box-filled, camera-covered alleyways. 

Out front we pause by the sculpture of sheep – another reminder – and then we pick up the river again, the old barge and another sculpture, standing proudly on the riverbank. Nula with the Hula. From here we look down into the city centre, the route we will take after a break by another bridge. Belfast is a jumble of a city, a mish-mash caused by wartime destruction and changing architectural fashions over the following decades. But this city of the low-lying district is well-located, ringed by hills visible out the end of whichever street you are walking down, and there is always the river, offering us both a way in and a means to get out.

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Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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