Belfast on foot

It’s one month since I moved to Belfast from Oxford. After nine years dotting myself around the globe I was pulled to live in Northern Ireland, where I grew up.

I’ve never lived in Belfast before but I felt I knew the city well. I went to school here and my feet instinctively know the way to anywhere I want to go. However, I quickly realised that, for me, Belfast had previously only ever been a place to come to shop, go out and meet friends and that I didn’t know it as well as I thought.

Firstly, Belfast is a much bigger city than I gave it credit for. When I was leaving Oxford and friends were asking me about Belfast I would sagely say things like, “It’s not that much bigger than here.” That was naive. Despite some disparity between how city size is measured, Belfast comes in at slightly less than twice the size of Oxford. Belfast is made to feel bigger too by the fact that cycling is an unpopular transport choice. Whereas 28% of adults speedily nip around Oxford on two wheels the same is true for only around 4% in Belfast. I knew I’d miss cycling when I moved to Belfast. I was a proud and intrepid Oxford cyclist. Currently my Dad’s fancy hybrid is parked in my living room after I borrowed it full of good intention but I’m not confident in the infrastructure for cyclists here, many people cycle on the footpath for safety. As if to coincide with me moving back, Sustrans in Belfast is running a 6 week campaign to get more women in the city cycling. The first week’s session covered “Tips for hair and make up when cycling”. I gave it a miss.

Without pedal power, I walk a lot more here than I did in Oxford and as my daily life takes me on routes and down streets that you don’t necessarily frequent unless you actually live in Belfast, I relearn some parts of the city and discover other parts. Belfast is full of stunning buildings and interesting architecture. It’s hard to fully take it in because other buildings usually crowd the view or shop-fronts distract you from looking beyond the ground floor, but the city is an ode to Victorian design.

St. George’s Market (left) built in 1890s, now extremely popular at weekends for food traders and artists. Construction on Belfast City Hall (right) started in 1888 when Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status.

Too often my walks take me past derelict buildings and abandoned land sandwiched between houses or shops. Many have been empty all my life and it’s a sobering reminder that not all of Belfast has come on as much as I would like to believe. These spaces hold my imagination as I think about what once happened there but even more so as I get carried away coming up with ideas of what could happen there now and hoping that the words “offices to let” or “retail space” do not cast their shadow.

(Right) Previously Belfast Children’s Hospital and then a RUC (police) barracks, this building has been vacant for nearly 19 years. (Left) This 16 acre site was home to the Sirocco Ropeworks, which was at one point the largest rope manufacturers in the world. The site was acquired in 2000 and will become shops and apartments.

For it being one of the UK’s biggest cities, Belfast isn’t well known but as I rediscover the city myself I’m keen to share what I find and to bring a 3 minute spotlight on this corner.