With a bit of investment and creativity, we can dramatically improve our outdoor attractions for the benefit of locals and tourists alike…

One of my ways of staying sane throughout this pandemic is going out for a daily walk. It is free, it keeps you fit and it good for your mental health. What’s not to like? A lot of people have the same idea and all our outdoor facilities are full of people enjoying the great outdoors.

We are very lucky here in Northern Ireland that we have many beautiful places to visit right on our doorstep. Over the past few weeks, I have been to Cavehill, Shaw’s Bridge, Stormont, Giant’s Ring, Colin Glen and many more. I took the above photo of the double rainbow at Belvoir Forest on New Year’s Day.

I strongly welcome this change: in my view, it is better people are traipsing around a forest than traipsing around a shopping centre. The only issue is that some of our amenities are having issues coping with demand. In particular, the roads around Divis Mountain have been very congested. There are similar scenes at a lot of sites across Northern Ireland.

It is no surprise that with shops and restaurants closed entertainment options are limited. People are choosing to spend more time with the original entertainer – mother nature. Another sign of the boom in the great outdoors was that most shops were sold out of kids’ rain gear – I must remember to stock up the next time they are on offer in Lidl.

Judging by the number of times we get asked for directions, it seems a lot of people are new to the whole nature thing. There are some things we can do to make our attractions more accessible, such as:

Proper car parking: in an ideal world we would all walk or cycle, but a lot of attractions are on the outskirts and hard to get to.

Signage: Even small forests like Belvoir or Colin Glen can be intimidating to first-timers. It would not take much effort to have proper route maps, suggested walks with estimated times, and most important markers and signs in the forest. They need to be proper signs with actual information on them like 1/2 mile to the car park, not those weird coloured shapes that only Duke Of Edinburgh students know.

Bins: the lack of bins in a popular area like Shaw’s Bridge is a constant frustration for people. Let’s not even get started on the subject of what headcase thinks it’s a good idea to tie bags of dog sh*t to a tree like some fecked up Christmas bauble. Is it really that difficult for our councils to install a few extra bins? And bins should have ID numbers on them so you can let the council know when they need to be emptied.

Toilets: while many of us resort to a pee beside a discreet tree it would be nice to have actual toilets. I know there are issues with cost and vandalism but you would think with a bit of creativity you could come up with something. Even it was just an enclosed area for a bit of privacy.

Water fountains: not an essential, but a nice to have. In the summertime, it would be good to be able to fill up your water bottle or get a drink if you are out for a run.

Promote less well-known areas: The old favourites like Shaws Bridge are very popular but I suspect a lot of this is down to people not that aware of other locations. It is easy to stick with what you know. Councils need to see outdoor areas as a key for tourists. We visit Rostrevor quite a lot due to the wonderful Kilbroney Park. We can also use parks as a way to revitalise areas.

The question of course is will the outdoor boom continue or will we all go back indoors once the pandemic is over? I think even when we return to normal the demand for outdoor attractions will continue. People have discovered how enjoyable it is and they will want to keep going. Even before the pandemic attractions like Divis Mountain have been increasing their visitor numbers every year.

The question of course is who is to pay for it all? This question exposes the weakness of our government, namely the silo mentality. It is easy to see that the more we get people into nature the fewer people will be going to their GP or hospital. Exercise and nature are proven to be more effective for mild depression than antidepressants and without all the nasty side effects. The problem is our system is not designed to keep people healthy: only 2% of the health budget goes on prevention. The Executive must look at the big picture and see that increasing spend on outdoor activities is a very low-cost intervention to keep people healthy for longer.

A cynic might argue that our politicians would much prefer to get people back into shops to keep the tills ringing. It is hard to make money from trees. This is a blinkered view. There is lots of potential to monetise outdoor facilities. There are obvious things like cafes or food trucks, but with some imagination, you can have new attractions.

The Colin Glen Forest in Belfast have done an amazing job of transforming a once-neglected area into a thriving hub of activity. As well as their popular Gruffalo walks, parkrun, SkyTrek etc they are getting ready to launch Ireland’s first Alpine Coaster.

YouTube video

We are extremely lucky to live in such a scenic country. With a bit of investment and creativity, we can dramatically improve our attractions for the benefit of locals and tourists alike.