The Sad State of North Belfast’s Riverside

The Harbour Commissioners with Sinclair Seamen's Church in the background - two of Sailortown's little visited gems.
The Harbour Commissioners with Sinclair Seamen’s Church in the background – two of Sailortown’s little visited gems.

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.

My friend lives in Detroit. The urban DMZ feel at Donegall Quay made him feel right at home.
My friend lives in Detroit. The urban DMZ look at Donegall Quay made him feel right at home.

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.

My brother went to Belfast and all I got was this lousy set of concrete pallettes.
My brother went to Belfast and all I got was this lousy set of concrete blocks.

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 and pumphouse.
Clarendon Dock and pumphouse.

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.

Vivien Burnside's dividers frame the new development in Titanic Quarter nicely from Clarendon Dock, while the ferry parked there at the moment, presumably for some repairs, is a reminded that this is still a working part of the Lagan.
Vivien Burnside’s ‘Dividers’ frames the new development in Titanic Quarter nicely from Clarendon Dock, while the ferry parked there at the moment, presumably for some repairs, is a reminder that this is still a working part of the Lagan.

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.

One of the best views of Titanic Quarter, rather spoiled by crash barriers.
One of the best views of Titanic Quarter, rather spoiled by crash barriers.

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?

East Berlin? No - North Belfast.
East Berlin? No – North Belfast.

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.

I was on holiday in Ireland and it was AMAZING! They have roads, and trucks and concrete and stuff.
I was on holiday in Ireland and it was AMAZING! They have roads, and trucks and concrete and stuff.

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.

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  • Great travelogue, Gerry, thanks.

    I used to cycle this route sometimes, out to Jordanstown and on to Carrick but the unremittingly windy, bleak, shabby, grey, colourless, dirty and slightly menacing atmosphere defeated my resilience, so I tend to take the alternative route along the Lagan up river to the tow path and on to Lisburn.

    Shame. I agree with your prognosis; and while I’m here, can I direct you to the Foyle, where the riverside path has been improved but is still broken by Fort George (another great iconic tale of failed regeneration) and then by the coal yard, thereby blocking any city’s strong riverside assets.

  • jthree

    It could be worse – at least this horror show was refused planning.

  • Yes, Gerry, I agree! I remember the area in the 1960s, and

    The one thing our tourism policy lacks is imagination of the right sort. Not the sort that is re-running Field of Dreams (“Build it and they will come”) instead of having real life ideas of their very own. When someone commissioned a Cultural Tourism strategy, it was published and shelved faster than the shloer vanishes at DUP/Developer parties. I expect the NITB are expecting people to come here for our sunshine and beaches……..

    We had a city with character and some real beauty until only a few years ago. The Victorian Quattrocento and Gothic of the late nineteenth century had passed beyond the “out of fashion” bit and could again be seen as a rich aesthetic environment. Perhaps not exactly Edinburgh or Bath, but……

    What the bombs left standing, the developers wrecked for a few miserable shekels. Now our visitors leave their buses wondering if they are in a very poor identikit “Bizarro” version of way back home in Global City Everywhere.

    I had an Irish language friend in Limerick who had lived there all his life, walked out the door one day and lost his way in the re-development of ten years ago.

    One last point, the “city centre apartments for yuppies” model is not about providing homes, its about turning breeze blocks and grey Belfast mud into “valuable” property. it does not have to sell. It sits at often imaginary sale value as an asset offering security on loans to do the same, a sort of pyramid selling in reverse. We don’t know the half of it.

  • Richard

    A very interesting article which inspired me to register.

    I walk to work at Whitla Fire Station from the Cregagh Road almost every day and I take in the Lagan towpath on my way towards Lagan Weir, admiring the river and the pleasant skyline of our city. However, I often lament the lack of progress in relation to the former Sirocco Works site which has lain empty for many, many years.

    As you rightly suggested, once you pass the Obel building, the atmosphere becomes quite industrial and chilling which is surprising given that it all changes over the course of travelling a few metres. I agree with your sentiment that the Harbour Commissioner’s Office and Sinclair Seamen’s Church along with the rejuvenated Clarendon Dock offer a degree of polish in a terribly neglected area. In fact, I feel that it is one of the most neglected areas in Belfast and is unfortunately one of the first sites that cruise ship tourists see as they come into Belfast.

    I’ve always felt that an area with such historical vibrancy as Sailortown could be reduced to 3 original standing houses, long tracts of wasteland and no forward thinking to celebrate an recognise a once integral part of the city. It seems that damage to The North Street Arcade many years ago (which was being touted as central to the Cathedral Quarter’s rejuvenation) has ended up having a knock on effect to the empty, industrially and (now) culturally barren expanse of the former Sailortown area. Save for a new outdoor skatepark which has added a degree of purpose to the area, there is nothing but planning being considered for more motorway widening and junctions opposite Clarendon Dock.

    The area needs more than desperate, and disparate, references to its vibrant past than a few ‘historical’ pictures pinned under the flyover on Corporation Street revealing ghosts of a forgotten past.

  • Gopher

    Would an Imperial War Museum Northern Ireland with the Caroline the main exhibit be out of the question on the county Antrim side of the Lagan. The IWM North seems to have been a success.

  • The Raven

    Great article.

    Richard, one point: “…could be reduced to 3 original standing houses…” – I’d actually like to see any proposed development be like these houses, a la Galway and Cork quays. Would be nice to see actual houses rather than apartments, which as we all know (unless they start building them to New York size as opposed to rabbit hutches) have pretty much had their day.

  • aquifer

    ‘an Imperial War Museum’

    I’d settle for a Maritime Museum or a Modern Art Gallery.

    Belfast West Power station looked a bit like the building that became the Tate Modern, but I think it is knocked down.

    Trees and bushes can be good shelter, and young trees are cheap, but a decision would have to be made to plant them, so that will not happen.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Belfast West power station was demolished about five or six years ago, if memory serves.

    Gerry brings out a good point. Up until quite recently, we have a terrible penchant around these parts for wrecking our built heritage. Examples at that end of North Belfast include the mills, especially the Gallagher factory which was destroyed to make way for possibly the tackiest, crappiest shopping centre anywhere.

    During the post-war period the government set about wrecking old architecture with gay abandon, and much of it was not the work of the IRA. All three of our fine railway station buildings were demolished. Great Victoria Street station is the one whose absence I feel most acutely today. Compare with Dublin where the four major railway stations are still in situ, albeit only two of them are still in use for their original purpose.

    I really do hope we have learned the lesson of the past.

  • Gopher

    A maritime museum would essentially be what the Titanic museum is. Caroline is the last survivor of Jutland one of the most discussed and controversial battles in history,in isolation the Caroline would make little sense.

    I would not turn my nose up if Belfast was able to dig up a tall ship of historical value it would look great along the Lagan.