A SHORT CYCLE RIDE THROUGH BELFAST
Northern Ireland is fabulous for cycling. Steve Dyster has ridden along the spectacular Antrim Coast, across the Glens of Antrim, around Loughs Neagh and Strangford, across the Sperrins, through Tyrone and Fermanagh, from Enniskillen, to Derry/Londonderry, to Carrickfergus, to Downpatrick. So, here’s a little look at a short day ride through friendly, fascinating Lisburn and Belfast, for a change.
The joy of a single-speed in Northern Ireland is finding some flat bits. With the ferry back to Scotland beckoning in the late afternoon, it was Dad’s day to be let of the leash and have a ride to the ferry port.
Mind you, it was not all flat until busy lttle Lisburn anf the Laggan Canal. Having said that, if ambitious plans to restore the canal all the way from Belfast to Lough Neagh are successful, there’ll be a fine leisure and commuting ride for everyone witha bike. Equally, I bear rewsponsibilty for a few hilly meanders - missing a sign and not checking the map. Hey-ho, I got to see a little moe than I otherwise would.
Lough Neagh is the UK’s largest lake - more of an inland sea with awkward navigation and soemtomes swept by strong winds. There’s a signed cycle route around it (NCR94). I’d been camping at one of the purpose built marinas so was quickly onto NCR94/9, the latter being the route to Belfast.
It’s pleasant pastoral country around lough Neagh with the odd gentle climb on quite lanes. Whilst ot was a drizzle mornign, the air was soft and the scenery, too. Navigation was no trouble until i got to Moira. Perhaps i was distracted by the mass of parked cars along the verges. It loooked like the event of the year, though there was almost no-one to be seen. Froma mle outside the small town the cars were aprked up. Could they all have been commuters? Funeral of a popular local?
The Northern Irish rail network is not especially well developed. The exception is around the capital city. The cross border line, and the line to Derry/Londonderry, are supplemented by local lines that run, what seemed to me like, a decent service. All trains carry bikes, but not before 09.30 monday to Friday, and tandems and trikes ae not permitted. Moira is very much commuting dstance to Belfast.
I chatted with some cyclists who were heading south, aiming to be across the border and in to Drogheda that evening. They were Americans, seeking their ancestral sites.
Whatever it was, I missed a sign - the trouble with signed routes is that it is easy to slip into auto-pilot - and was rewarded with a few lung-bursting, thigh-straining (I was on a single-speed) climbs toward Maghaberry. Be advised, keep your eyes opena nd check your map.
As ever there were longer views form the heights, though the low cloud was slow to break and did not really give way until I’d almost reached the end of my ride. The eventual result was that, rather than enter Lisburn along a quite stretch of traffic free cycle route, I dumped myself onto the A3. I have to say that I trundled along at much the same pace as the lorries and cars and no one got shirty.
Lisburn is a busy city, acrtually the third largest in Northern Ireland. Its origins seem to have been in a hillfort, but its prosperity came through the linen industry. A milltown, with a Cathedral, that became a city in 2002.
From here it is possible to follow NCR9 all the way into the heart of Belfast along the banks of the River Laggan and the Laggan Canal. That was my plan, and since the choice was either following the route of ending up in the drink, I navigated without error.
Lush greenery quickly surrounds the waterway. There are information boards every now and again, but if you are interested in waterways it is worth reading up and observing the mix of canal and navigation. Above all it is a lovely cycle ride - or, of course, walk. If one of Sustrans’ aims is to crerate green corridors, there can be few greener than this.
Derelict as many much of the waterway is, there’s the occasional switch of banks or slightly awkward narrow bridge - good job I was not towing thr greyhound in her trailer. Greyhounds like to run, but only for short distances; they like to walk, but not too far. It does not take long for her to lie down and refuse to move until the trailer's cover is unzipped and she can jump aboard the Skylark for a bit of a cruise.
That aside, I’d had a chat with a couple of guys in Lisburn. In their seventies, they rode to Belfast and back once a week. “You’ll keep an eye out for the racing boys. There’s some as like to come round the the corners fast as they can.” One did, wobbled scarily as he swerved toward the bank and steadied himself just in time.
In places the water was well-used by youngsters in kayaks and canoes and floating - hopefully - on rafts. Belfast was getting closer. A thriving cafe at Shaw’s Bridge provided a luch of sweet Ulster cakes and a pot of tea.
From then on, it was into the big city, though a park, but mainly close to the bank. The canal went through various stages of construction, especially where it joined the River Laggan. The Laggan is a big river; just think of the ships that slid into her waters - Titanic and Olympic spring to mind. Fans of waterways engineerng will think Christmas has come.
There are few things better than avoiding a city’s traffic and rolling along a great river into its heart. Where main roads had to be crossed, facilites were provided and the lights favoured cyclist and pedestrian rapidly. A sunny day would have seen the flower beds shimmer, but the drizzle was no great disappointment. Cloud wrapped the hills that demark the far edge of the city. Away to the north, a lightening of the sky promised a dry end to the ride and shed the faintest glimmer on the Harland & Wolff cranes close to the Titanic Centre.
A local cyclist wonderd if I had punctured as I’d stopped to admire some old ironwork in the river. “Ah, yes,” he said, “I can’t see it happenign myself. Mind, they’ve started away back there, so who knoews. How many years?”
Leaving the bridges of the city centre, a seemingly long run through the old docks, often accompanied by the long dock wall, eventually delivers one to a cycle track by a motorway. A little further on and Belfast Lough gives views of ships and ferreis and the far Bangor shore. Inevitably, we wish,, at this point, the sun starts to shine. thsi time, my wish was granted.
By now I was on NCR93, a stub route, at present. Delightful cycling, but an extension along the coast beyong Greenisland waould be welcomed - though I suspect far from easy to engineer. The main road is unpleasent to cycle aong, in my opinion, as opposed to threatening. Others might disgaree, especially between Carrickfergus and Larne where it becomes narrow and twisty in places. The alternative is a hillier ride inland.
So for me, after the lovely loughside stretch through Whiteabbey, it was away to Whiteabbey railway station and took the train to the harbour., prettily skirting the Lough. Sad to leave Northern Ireland though it was, there can be few better ways to do it.
For the NCN in Northern Ireland;
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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2018