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The Vacuum Issue 2 spacer Issue 2
Parks Review
by Daniel Jewesbury
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1 tree = Desolate. Municipal.
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2 trees = I can see the swings but there's too much dog muck.
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3 trees = Promising, offering some alternative vistas on the city.
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4 trees = Good all-weather potential. Urban and 'natural' are conjoined with pleasing affectation.
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5 trees = The city burgeons with new life. I can hear the grass growing.
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So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers was girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
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(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan)
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I'll happily put money on this being the first time that Belfast has been linked in print with Xanadu, notwithstanding certain unsubstantiated rumours of a liaison between Terry Hooley and Olivia Newton-John in the back of the Liverpool bar circa 1979. And yet the words above surely describe Belfast as much as any mythical or holy city. The ancient forests, after all, were the original reason for the town's existence, since they provided the material for the shipbuilding industry on which it was built; both forests and industry may largely have gone, but the hills, the 'sinuous rills', the 'sunny spots of greenery', as much as the 'walls and towers' still persist in this place.
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Keep these images in your mind, then, and join me on a short and highly selective tour of the city's parks and gardens. These green spaces seem to define the very atmosphere and ambience of their respective locations: some are neat and ordered, others, inspired by the crags of Cave Hill perhaps, offer sprawling faux-sublime. If this city is a number of different villages, what might we find in its many village greens?
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Up North: The Beginning And The End
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This is where life began. The great redbrick villas of the north of the city give testament to an era of great commercial wealth, and even philosophical Enlightenment, when it was considered that a beautiful city would be a harmonious city. In these wide streets, beneath decayed but yet imposing houses, however, it often feels that this is where life may end, and soon. I have embarked on a circuit of the Waterworks Park, and I am cursing my editor for sending me here with neither a pushchair nor a brace of dogs (it seems lurchers are the preferred option). I might as well hold up a placard: "I fiddle with kiddies". Have you ever walked in the Waterworks at sunset? The solitary stroller is out of place, and I draw suspicious, sideways glances, particularly when nodding and offering a hello.
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This feeling never quite vanishes, but vestiges of the park's civilising ideologies somehow reassert themselves. Waterworks is a landscaped park, a corner of the city delivered idiosyncratically back to 'nature'. The large upper lake is frequented by coots and swans (the latter spending some time this evening on displays of semi-aerial water-splashing; if the bye-laws were legible on the noticeboards we'd probably discover that this was forbidden), and even boasts a couple of elegantly tree-lined islands. In the red dusk it looks like it could have been inspired by Claude Lorrain, or Turner. Water is obviously the feature here: at the northern entrance to the park, a small stone bridge crosses what just might be the urban version of a rill, clear water splashing in concrete culvert. The more grim and municipal lower lake is less popular this evening. Down at the level of the roadway, it feels less insulated from the surrounding streets, and nor does it offer the same vistas.
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Cover is good in the Waterworks, if that's what you need. Around the side of the upper lake I come across a large copse that seems to make this end more of a heath than a park. It's not yet dark but I wouldn't venture in there right now. On a warm summer evening, with the right companion, perhaps I could be tempted.
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The park is lined by huge houses with long gardens, as well as the aptly-named Solitude, home of Cliftonville FC. From up here you can see the hills that surround the city, which themselves recall the lost hopes of another era: Henry Joy hides out in Napoleon's nose, looking down and waiting for his betrayal.
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Verdict: Huge white paw prints on the ground do not betoken the menace that might be expected. This park speaks of a great bygone age, and now that the north is fast becoming the frappacino quarter of the city it may yet thrive again. If you listen you'll hear the plangent chimes of the ice-cream van as it hawks hooky fags on these slumbering boulevards. [3.5 trees]
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East: Not Belfast
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There's a curious pleasure to be had, stood at one of those still points in the city, as one oscillates between being in the city, looking out, and the awareness of the eyes looking in from without. Caught in this natural basin, one doesn't need CCTV to make one aware of the duplicity of the visual. Mobility through the city, between its different cantonments, seems also to make one aware of this feeling, as one moves through a series of continually contrasting atmospheres, without the purposeful logic of the dog-walker or the corner-shopper. One becomes a sort of privileged traverser of space, pushed, or pulled, inexorably onward. I am driving from the north to the south, and this evening this necessitates driving through the east, to avoid the city centre. We stop at a couple of parks en route, but they are begrudging affairs, prim, ordered municipalities that nobody uses. Watch out on the swings, they might lock them up. However long its proud traditions may be, east isn't really Belfast at all, all this reclaimed land on the wrong side of the Lagan. Let's not beat about the bush, they'll be out to trim it soon.
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Verdict: If you must look for something here, spare yourself the pusillanimous parkscapes and go to Belmont for the allotments (but see below). [1 tree]
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South: The Garden (Paradise Regained)
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This is the real 'green lung' of the city. The south is a long chain of parks, gardens, meadows, allotments and even one glen. Begin in the Botanic Gardens and you may find yourself walking for days. I take a minute to divert to the old Catholic cemetery, beside the museum. The Sandy Row boys used to attack this back in the 1860s, making the gatekeeper fear for his life. Towards the back it becomes a ramshackle paupers' graveyard, the headstones crudely incised with name or date.
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Parks Review
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The Gardens offer a good, if slightly sloping, informal football pitch, on the large lawn between the disused toilets, the bandstand, the Tropical Ravine and the Palmhouse (these, surely, are the elemental features of the Ur-park). Ordered areas (rose garden) and more 'natural' planting (the 'Japanese' garden, the flower walks by the Stranmillis entrance) are pleasantly juxtaposed. Alas, though, even here the council has imposed its will, and the gates can close arbitrarily in the summer, as students converge for extramural drinking and residents' thoughts turn to compulsory euthanasia.
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The large fields at the bottom of the park, beside the embankment, are generally too exposed for good football, although they are some of the most level in the area.
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Continue your perambulations along the embankment towards the Ormeau Bridge. Cross over and pause to look down at the obsidian water. On the south side of the bridge you will come to
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Ormeau Park. Immediately inside the gates, in front of the public toilets (surely the only ones still open in the city?), you'll find a once-favoured spot for Sunday football. The ground is treacherous, being extremely uneven, but it's sheltered from the worst of the wind here. To the south one could venture into the bowling green, but we will take the top path, past the gazebo, and walk east amongst the banks of flowers and between the trees. The house in the centre of the park is still deserted and will presumably be demolished once the vandals can bring it to the required stage of dereliction. If you keep going you'll see the golf course to the right, and opening out below the expanse of green around the Ozone centre. This is the bleaker end of the park (it being almost in the east); on both sides, space becomes instrumentalised, landscape engineered for 'sport'.
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Now we have to take the roadway, emerging out onto the Ravenhill and climbing slowly up to Rosetta. If we turn down Annadale Avenue we come to allotments again; there down at the bottom of the plot is my own neglected, abandoned square. A hop across the road, and over a stile, would lead us into the back of Belvoir forest, and from there down to Lagan Meadows (beware; Cutters' Wharf is not quite the rewarding endpoint to a walk that it may seem). Carry on up the Ormeau, and eventually one emerges at the dual carriageway; to the right, hidden behind an anonymous street, we could stumble into Knockbreda Cemetery, with its successive orders of death, youngest at the bottom of the hill, oldest at the top. From high up here we can clearly make out the orange letters: SAINSBURY.
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We're starting to escape the city now, in a multitude of directions. Past the petrol station and across the dual carriageway, east for a little while, and we come to a shaded entrance just before the Rocky Road. This is the start of Cregagh Glen, a meandering woodland walk alongside another whispering rill (still urban, for the detritus of the city is still common here, even a burnt-out car from time to time manages to make its way in). One could walk up the glen, a mile or so, and emerge into fields. Keep going, keep walking, south all the time, along a track between the fields, the city behind and below you. Only ten minutes further on is one of the highest points around the city, the hill of Lisnabreeny, from where one can simultaneously see the Europa, the City Hospital, David and Goliath, Stormont, Scrabo, and the Mournes.
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But by now we've left the city behind us. Those are cowpats underfoot. We never even got to Lady Dixon Park, with its brass bands and rose festival and steep banks ideal for rolling on a hot day. We never even got to the West and its twin necropolises. Walks for another day, perhaps. For now it's time to stop surveying the city and get back down there, amongst it. Verdict: Eden. We're fools to leave. [5 trees]
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