Saturday, 1 November 2014

A sideways glance

I don't know how much thought you give to the environment you are cycling through. Perhaps if it is for the first time, your senses and interest are piqued and you take more of your surroundings in. Cycling through the same environment on a regular basis, whether transiting through, to get to an area you wish to ride in, or just using your bicycle as transport to get from A to B, the familiar just blurs into the background. It is after an absence of decades and the many changes wrought to the landscape in the intervening years, that you begin to notice the landscape again, this time seeking the familiar in all the many changes. This is how I found myself in the urban landscape of summer, enjoying riding my bicycle in Belfast. I fondly remember the school visit to the Harland and Wolff shipyard as part of my Engineering Drawing studies decades ago. A guided tour through the yard to see the erecting shops, foundry and the dock under the giant cranes 'Goliath' and 'Samson' where the sections of ship's hull were transported to be welded into position, the quayside from which the hulls were moored for fitting out. Several bulk oil carriers, christened 'Supertankers' at the time, were under construction. Shipbuilding on such a scale is now only a fading memory. I was intrigued to see how much of Belfast's maritime past still exists. 

Riding along Duncrue Street towards Belfast city centre from the direction of Fortwilliam you pass through much of the old dock area. The old N.C.C. concrete railway gate posts mark where railway lines once entered the docks. The wooden gates have long gone, now replaced with steel fencing. Much of the old port has gone, due, in part, to the migration of the port towards the deeper water of the Victoria Channel, Belfast Lough, the containerisation of cargo and increasing size of modern vessels. This has moved the port away from the city centre. The once familiar quays, warehouse and grain stores have gone, demolished and replaced by modern office blocks. 

The development known as Clarendon Dock at the bottom of Princes Dock St and can be accessed as part of NCN 91/9. Cheek by jowl with the little square as you enter the gate is the Rotterdam Bar. 

This tiny bit of old Belfast is is very much down at heel, but is mentioned by the author Eric Newby in his 1956 book 'The Last Grain Race', published by Secker & Warburg Ltd, about his 1938 voyage on the Gustav Erikson owned S.V. Moshulu. The crew went to the Rotterdam Bar for a 'liddle trink' to say goodbye to the crewmen returning to Moshulu's home port of Mariehamn, Finland. There are some photographs of the old port of Belfast taken in 1938 by Eric Newby which were published in his 1999 book, 'Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the last of the Windjammers'. The Moshulu sailed from Belfast on 18th October 1938 just after the Munich Crisis of the month previous and harbinger of the impending world war. 
Further along the route are the twin graving docks of Clarendon Dock and then the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Offices. The route then rejoins the road, past the Royal Mail sorting Office at Tomb Street, before continuing towards the substantial Custom House. 

The back of the building faces the River Lagan and the front steps have been a meeting place for demonstration and protest for over a century. The Custom House Square is now used each year for an open air pop music festival. As you continue towards the Queen's Bridge the premises of James Tedford, Ship Chandlers, Sail and Tent Makers,  is located on the right hand side. 
The sail loft was located at the top of the building, parts of which is believed to date back to the 18th century. The business is one of the last long established Ship Chandlers in existence in the UK and Ireland and in 1991 vacated the building to move to a new premises. The original building is now an up-market restaurant. The community of Dockers who worked in the port, lived in the terraced streets off Corporation Street. The area was known as 'Sailortown' and has largely gone in the re-development of Belfast. The old terraced housing, the hard graft, uncertain pay, of the stevedore was not mourned by many, but rather the break up and loss of the small, self reliant, tight knit community forged in adversity has been a source of regret. Such is the march of 'progress'. Time and tide wait for no man.

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