History, Running, Travel, UK

All Toes on the Towpath

Belfast is a surprisingly wonderful city for running, with no shortage of greenways, parks and riverbank trails. My favorite place for long weekend runs is definitely the towpath, which runs for 11 miles alongside the Lagan River and forms the backbone of Lagan Valley Regional Park, an area of 4,200 acres that includes meadow, forest, marsh, historical estates and urban parkland.

The towpath is a remnant of the Lagan Canal, a 27-mile water route linking Loch Neagh (the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles) to Belfast Harbour. The canal’s main purpose was transporting coal to Belfast. In an era when roads were undeveloped and there were no trains or motorboats, ‘lighters’ were pulled along the canal by a horse, which was led by a guy called a ‘hauler’ .The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn opened in 1763 and is known as the Lagan Navigation, ‘navigation’ being a term used to describe a river whose water is made more navigable by a system of locks . The second part, from Lisburn to Loch Neagh, opened in 1796.

By the 1950s, the Lagan canal was rendered obsolete. But even today there are a few reminders of the old days—a cute lock-keeper’s cottage, an abandoned canal barge and the towpath itself, the trail along the banks where horses plodded towing the boats. The path is now paved with asphalt and has become a popular walking and cycling trail. In fact, it has even been absorbed into the National Cycle Network of Northern Ireland, which explains the silent wheeled ones who zoom past you every once in a while.

The waters of the Lagan are dark and deep, reflecting the varied greens of trees and plants that grow on its banks. Birds are at home here; I regularly see herons, terns, gulls, coots, mallards and Irish magpies with iridescent green in their black feathers. Allegedly there are also tufted ducks and jays (garrulus glandarius) but I have never seen them.

A lot of the riverside plants are unfamiliar to me, especially the pink things I’ve nicknamed ‘bucket flowers’ that grow in great clusters all along the banks. I’m pretty sure they’re the source of a delicious fragrance that combines elements of watermelon, pepper, honeysuckle and grass. On warm August days it seemed each bucket flower was occupied by a bee and I took care not to bump into them or into the pin-pricking nettles on the path’s verge.

My towpath trail begins at the Belfast Boat Club, the biggest multi-sports and leisure club in Northern Ireland. It’s always pretty busy around there, with the tennis courts full and the joining restaurant very popular.  

Further along the path on the opposite side of the river is Belvoir Forest Park, which is the only place in Belfast where I’ve gotten seriously lost. After running around in circles for two hours and emerging briefly onto  I finally emerged onto a street called Galwally Avenue and guessed my way back into town.

Ever since getting lost in Belvoir Forest Park I tend to stay on the other side of the river until getting to the little red bridge, which takes me over past some restored locks, an old lock-keeper’s cottage and then on over John Luke Bridge. This was named for the famous Northern Irish painter John Luke (1906-1975), who started out working as a riveter in a Belfast shipyard and is considered one of the greatest Irish painters of the twentieth century.

  

Three Dancers (1945) by John Luke

John Luke Bridge takes you past a car park and into Clement Wilson Park. This, was apparently the site of a clog factory until bought by Wilson Management Ltd. in 1929, when it became a fruit-canning factory.  Because the factor was so far from town, factory staff wandered around the surrounding grounds during their lunch break rather than going home. This allegedly inspired management to landscape and prettify the grounds. The city council bought the area from the Clement Wilson factory in 1974 and it is now a very pretty park with a paved trail suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.  

Weaving between dogs, children, cyclists and hand-holding couples, I eventually get to Shaw’s Bridge, an impressive structure that owes its existence to the need for artillerymen to cross the River Lagan to carry out Cromwell’s genocidal conquest of Ireland. Originally oak, the bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1709 and has remained in its original condition ever since.  

Shaw’s Bridge

When I get to the Mr. Whippy Truck and Shaw’s Bridge, it means that I am only a couple of steps away from Barnett’s Desmesne, which is named for its last private owner William Barnett, a grain merchant and the breeder of the first Irish horse to win the Derby (Trigo, 1929). The grounds include woodland, flowery meadows and a grand renovated Georgian mansion called Malone House. This stretch of the towpath is probably my favorite because it is usually very quiet and peaceful and there are some beautiful old trees overhanging the path. Occasionally I have come across people doing a spot of line fishing from the path.

 The next bulk of city-owned green we meet is Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. This is named for a Belfast ship owner and his wife, who was made a Dame for services to Admittedly the towpath skirts its borders so I have never actually been in the park proper but by all accounts it is a nice place covering more than 128 acres, which includes the City of Belfast International Rose Garden.

Portrait of Lady Edith Stewart Dixon By Henrietta Rae (30 December 1859 – 26 January 1928) (c) Larne Borough Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

After that there is a mile of green water. A BBC article says that it’s probably just duckweed but others think it’s algae. I’m not sure, but it’s a striking sight. Along this stretch of towpath there are some cow fields. That’s about where I turn around.

If you are ever in Belfast when it’s not raining, or if it is raining and you have a raincoat, I highly recommend the towpath for an afternoon of wonderful wandering.

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