A bright, cold, day earlier this week saw me head out for a constitutional along what is now rather a pleasant route along the banks of the Lagan past the Odyssey and up to the Titanic Museum. With the hazy afternoon sun making the East Belfast bank of the river look particularly pretty, and the tourist information signs informing me of the Belfast Maritime Trail, I changed my mind and instead turned left at the Lagan Weir and decided to walk to Sailortown and then on for home.
By chance, the next day I had the opportunity to do the same walk a second time in cloudier and colder conditions, when an American academic friend who has visited Belfast regularly for some years told me he had never been in the New Lodge or Tiger’s Bay. A perfect opportunity for a bit of maritime heritage trailing plus an introduction to North Belfast.
If one is a maritime history buff or a fan of 19th Century architecture, there is enough of interest to make the walk worthwile, but sadly right-of-access issues mean the walking route regularly departs from the river and at times is downright ugly. As I said, there is enough that it still might appeal to tourists with a particular interest in Victorian North British architecture or maritime history, or locals interested in a part of Belfast that was key to its development as a major industrial port, but this walk must be staggeringly off-putting to any run of the mill tourist.
The problems start right at the Obel tower, where the route passes under the M3. This is probably the ugliest part of the East Belfast equivalent route, but at least one is through it and away quickly on that side of the river. Here, one is confronted with an ugly metal fence, forced off the river and into a very Skid Row-esque bit of Donegall Quay. At that point, I imagine most people unfamiliar with the area would just give up.
Fortunately, one is soon around the corner and face-to-face with the interesting Sinclair Seamen’s Church and simply stunning palazzo belonging to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. If you ever get a chance to have a look inside the Harbour Commissioners, please take it. It is more stunning inside than outside, a testament not only to the wealth but the taste with which it was dispensed in Belfast’s maritime heyday – but it’s also a working office, so off the tourist trail.
At this point, there could and should be a footpath through the grounds of the Harbour Commissioners and through to Clarendon Dock. I realise there might be security and access issues to sort out but these should not be insurmountable. Instead, one is directed round to Corporation Street, a nightmare of carparks, waste ground, endless traffic and sheer ugliness.
This mercifully doesn’t last for more than a few hundred metres before one can cut back into Clarendon Dock – however, this isn’t signposted or indicated in any way, so non-locals might be more inclined to continue past Belfast’s finest collection of disused concrete and metal scrap.
Clarendon Dock itself is one of the most sympathetically executed and successful conversions of hitherto abandoned dockland in Belfast. The pumphouse and dry dock are particularly pretty, as well as being quiet and secure: a perfect spot to while away an hour with a book on a sunny day. The pumphouse is a successful office conversion, and given our Victorian ancestors’ penchant for ripping up Georgian Belfast, must be one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city today.
The signage starts again once inside Clarendon Dock and leads one through the development and back to the Lagan. The area is mostly given over to offices, with only one café whose trade must come mainly from local office workers. While the office development has been commercially successful and generates the income to keep it all looking so spic and span, it does leave it feeling a bit soulless and completely empty mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
It provides great views across the river to the new Belfast taking shape on the other bank. Titanic Quarter has admittedly been a very qualified success – based on the same “build lots of city centre apartments” model that was always based more on speculation than demand, and came a cropper in most British cities when the 2000s property boom ended. Belfast was perhaps the most extreme example, but the Titanic Museum has exceeded expectations in terms of visitor numbers. With the Odyssey, Belfast Met campus, studios and Innovation Centre, that’s five key anchors for further development. Sailortown, by comparison, has one upmarket office park and, er, that’s it.
There is a particularly nice view of the Harland & Wolff cranes and the Titanic Museum further up beside the Policing Board offices. It is particularly fine very late on a winter afternoon when the Titanic Museum – the best building built in Belfast in my lifetime, in my opinion – catches the last of red glow of the sun in the southwest. It isn’t possible to walk along the river here any more, not since a 400 lb bomb was planted in 2009. I appreciate the need for security might make this a permanent state of affairs, but if so, can the route be closed by something less ugly and more permanent than metal crash barriers?
After Clarendon Dock, one hits another metal fence, not unreasonably as from this point on, the North Belfast bank of the Lagan is a working port, and ports can be dangerous places even for people who work in them every day. Someday, perhaps an interesting attraction could be built here around the reality of a modern working port to compliment the maritime history celebrated across the river (if that sounds boring, the wonderful National Coal Mining Museum in West Yorkshire is an example of what can be done). Pilot Street has a bit of interesting history, but unless you’re a local, you’re unlikely to get any sense of it just from walking around it. Instead you’ll see a decaying, disused church, a few empty blocks of flats and a few council houses.
And then our putative tourist on the Maritime Heritage Trail is dumped into the wasteland of Dock Street, where ironically the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is urging us in a big advertising hoarding to discover our own region. The identikit inner city retail parks either side of Brougham Street are unlikely to be of much touristic interest, but the murals of the New Lodge and Tiger’s Bay are both within 10 minutes walk, and again unsignposted . (Are the middle-classes still a bit too wary of Troubles tourism? – Like it or not, it fascinates visitors.)
I realise that Belfast is never going to be Barcelona, and that Barcelona has its share of bleak industrial parks and housing estates, but surely we can do better than this with one of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods, with acres of cheap land right next to the City Centre? The Port of Belfast once had grand plans for the area, and the Port tends to do things right, so it’s a pity the prolonged recession seems to have prevented these from being fulfilled.
More than anything there seems to be a need to get more people and footfall into the area, as well as offices, to generate traffic for other types of business. I think we can all accept that the “city centre apartments for yuppies” model has its limits, and that Belfast has more than enough capacity for that in South Belfast and the Titanic Quarter. On the other hand, the acute need for social housing in North Belfast is hardly a secret, and UUJ will soon move to a campus a short walk from Sailortown at York Street.
In the real world where not everyone is a yuppie, might that generate the population to put some life back into Sailortown in the medium term? In the short term, a properly signposted walking route through Clarendon Dock from Donegall Quay and staying as close to the river as possible might actually make this an appealing walk for visitors and locals alike.