Tuesday, 29 May 2018


Compared to most other forms of physical exercise, walking must have a sound claim to be the least complicated, the most spontaneous and best value for money. 

To go out for a walk, all that is needed is a reasonable pair of walking shoes (or, depending on terrain, sturdy boots) and, at this time of year, shorts and a tee-shirt.  
Whereas to go out cycling, I have to search for a panoply of kit including specialist jersey and shorts, sun visor, water bottle, supplies like a spare inner tube and related tools.  In addition, before setting out, it’s necessary to run mechanical checks on tyre pressures and brakes.  This preparation uses up precious time and effort.

In the recent process of recuperating from injuries sustained when knocked off my bike in a hit and run accident, I added walking as an activity to my regimen of rehabilitation during the spring.   
Ambling along at will is so joyful and so simple, safer too and closer to nature because of the more sedate pace.  A green gym without entrance fees.  And what a pleasing way it is to begin the day when spring dawns bright, it is invigoratingly cool and birds are singing in full voice.

Recommendations for good walks all across the UK are a regular and a favourite feature to read in my Saturday newspaper.  They usually follow a theme, such as 20 coastal paths in diverse parts of the country, upland walks, mid-summer danders – all of which sound enticing and interesting without fail. 

As far as I am concerned, a good walk should satisfy certain criteria.  
It should provide a reasonable challenge sufficient to raise the heart rate and also allow for recovery; it should have a variety of terrain and pleasant scenery; the route should be mostly away from road traffic instead using paths, greenways and public rights of way; and, ideally, it should include features of interest both natural and archaeological or historic.

Arising from my plodding about in recent weeks, I want to trumpet a beautiful walking route not far from where I live – conscious of the need to minimise one’s carbon footprint.  Whereas the distance that I normally cover is approximately 4.5 miles and takes me 65-70 minutes from start to finish, this is a walk which has options aplenty either to extend or reduce distance-wise. 
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Route map screenshot from GPS tracker Endomondo, starting & finishing at the Crowne Plaza (or adjoining car parks)

For the most part, it falls within the 4,200 acre Lagan Valley Regional Park, Northern Ireland’s top designation in the hierarchy of public open space (as, unfortunately, it has no National Parks).  
A remarkable feature is that this particular route is close to Belfast city centre, being only 2-3 miles away at its closest point.  Its naturalness and rural tranquillity, however, completely belie the frantic urban context.

The first feature of interest a short distance from the starting point is a reminder of Victorian engineering at its inventive best. This is a set of lock gates across the disused eighteenth century Lagan Canal[i].  
It was originally a 27 mile transportation link from Lough Neagh to the east coast. The site includes a restored lock-keepers cottage and a barge. The latter structures are manned by volunteers and fitted with information panels explaining the rich industrial legacy of the canal as well as its natural surrounds.

Proceeding northwards across the nearby River Lagan, a look upwards to the right will reveal an archaeological structure known as a rath.  The word rath is an Irish Gaelic term meaning a circular enclosure surrounded by an earthen wall.   
The enclosed space is usually 25-50 yards across.  Raths are the most common ancient monuments to be seen in the Irish countryside, dating back to the Iron Age and early Christian eras.  They would have been used as dwellings and strongholds.   
This example at Clement Wilson Park is sited next to one of the city’s busiest roundabouts and arterial routes into the city centre.

From this northerly point, the route continues southwards through Clement Wilson Park and across the River Lagan to Shaws Bridge, a popular local beauty spot and the scene of various water sports including white water rafting.  
The next two miles brings a diverting contrast.  It takes you away from the active exercisers into an almost meditative and relatively more peaceful trek continuing at first on flat terrain along the river’s edge. 

At approximately a mile and a half into the walk, a new sign points leftwards away from the river in the direction of the Giants Ring.  This is the start of a steady upward climb which could be situated anywhere rural apart from actual its urban setting.

After a series of twists and turns the path narrows considerably – part of its charm - emerging eventually at the gated rear entrance to this five thousand year old monument.  The Giants Ring[ii] consists of a circular enclosure as the route-map displays, it is 200m in diameter, it is surrounded with a 4-metre high earthwork bank with 5 entrances, and it contains a dolmen which is a Neolithic passage grave.  
It was built at the end of the Neolithic or beginning of the Bronze Age around an earlier Neolithic passage grave.  The tomb is believed to date from about 3000 B.C. and the bank slightly later.  

Whatever about these fasts and figures, this site has the unmistakable aura of a sacred place and, mysticism aside, it is just the most pleasant place to visit, perhaps for a picnic. When I used to train as a marathon runner, this was a frequent place to include with the options to run round the raised banking or alternatively to track round the inner lower and flatter ground level.  Inspiring for both body and soul.  

The exit from the Giants Ring is the main public access to the site by public road.  The next section of a few hundred yards leads to a stile and a short walk across a field leading in turn to a laneway access to Minnowburn Terrace Hill Garden site.  It was originally developed in 1936 by one of the city’s leading retailers at the time (Robinson and Cleavers, famed for its Irish linen products) as the garden of the adjoining family home.  This site is about three and a half miles into the route.  It is meticulously maintained by the National Trust and its volunteers.  The garden commands a beautiful view across the valley to one of the city's finest properties, Malone House[iii].  This building is owned by Belfast City Council and serves as a popular venue for weddings and corporate functions.

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Malone House (in white) is set in the extensive parkland of Barnett’s Demesne[iv] with its own extensive walking paths and mountain bike trails.

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One of the modern wood sculptures in the Minnowburn park area.
The exit from the garden involves a descent along a series of steep steps.
At the bottom exit turn right onto a short stretch of public road with a subsequent left turn across a narrow bridge. 
This leads back to the lock keepers complex along the opposite side of the canal compared to the outward trip.

Here a previously unmentioned asset awaits. 
Beside the Lock Keeper's cottage and the offices of the company which looks after the Regional Park[v] sits the Lock Keeper's Inn. 
It sells a delectable array of cakes scones among many other edible delights, a suitable reward after an exhilerating hike.

©Michael McSorley 2018

[i] A Guide to the Lagan Canal, Lagan Canal Trust
[ii] https://voicesfromthedawn.com/giants-ring/
[iii] http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/tourism-venues/malonehouse/mhhistory.aspx
[iv] http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/leisure/parks-openspaces/Park-6606.aspx
[v] http://www.laganvalley.co.uk/

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Best of Six Nations

The UK’s resident party of Government is synonymous with two themes.  
One is its advocacy of free markets to ensure economic growth and wealth; the other is its espousal of One Nation as a means to foster community cohesion.

It was the occurrence of the final round of matches in this year’s Six Nations rugby tournament, of all things, which prompted me to consider the wisdom of these two pillars of socio-economic philosophy.  
The prospect of Ireland playing England in London on Saint Patrick’s Day so whetted patriotic instincts that the possibility of attending the showdown in Twickenham stadium was an imperative that had to be considered.

Unlike in England whose media expect their sporting teams to win everything, the task of taking Europe’s premier rugby competition and beating all comers has almost always eluded Ireland.   
That is apart from the year before my birth and on one other occasion.  This once in my lifetime feat occurred as recently as 2009. It had taken 61 years of trying.  On that occasion, I managed to get a ticket at the very last minute in Cardiff after a day and a half of shameless begging on the city’s streets.  

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This social media post from a Worcester Warriors fan three weeks before England played Ireland says it all
In the penultimate round of matches this month a week before our encounter with England, Ireland had done enough to win the Six Nations tournament regardless of the final day’s results. 
The bigger prize, the Holy Grail, was to achieve a clean sweep - a grand slam - defeating all five other countries.

The rarity value for us of such an achievement heightens anticipation significantly.   
And having been in the shrine of Welsh rugby on the one available opportunity nine years ago, symmetry was compelling me to attend the London showdown.

I began attempts to find tickets by contacting friends in Britain about five days before the game.  
As I waited impatiently for replies, a newspaper article[i] reported a predictable sequence.  This is the inevitable consequence of demand outstripping supply, resulting in a black market for tickets. 
The article quoted England’s Rugby Football Union as urging people not to buy tickets on offer at well above face value.  Free market economics takes full rein, I thought, in spite of RFU words.

According to the article, “the RFU...is doing everything in its power to curtail unofficial sales... as well as internet sites such as Viagogo, eBay, Seatwave and GetMeIn.”  
I wondered what sanctions or other authoritative actions they might be taking, if any.  
The newspaper gave an example of tickets priced at £3750 on a site called Stubhub. 

Despite warnings of this kind from the sport’s governing bodies, buyers might feel confused and perplexed.   These sales outlets are legally constituted companies and seem to be tolerated by the regulatory authorities.   
They are witness to the untrammelled working of the free market.

Six days before the game, I had discovered that I could fly over and back for about £80. Not extortionate and an argument in favour of travelling.   
Exasperated by the lack of progress from approaches to various friends and contacts, I decided to think about examining the ticket sales websites myself.  This was against my better judgement but out of curiosity.  
Eventually, four days before match-day I succumbed to have a sneak peep at the ticketing websites.  

The first one I examined was e-Bay.  
It showed two tickets with a face value of £124 each.  Quite expensive, but probably worth it in the circumstances.  Their resale and somewhat inflated asking price, however, was for a total of £2400 (“free postage” included, presumably to lessen the severity of the knock-out blow).  
In response to the site’s invitation to make an offer, I posted a bid of £300.  An instant reply declined the offer with an invitation to make another offer.

Rather than react instantaneously, I sat down with a cup of tea and read some chapters of a crime fiction thriller novel in an attempt to think rationally and to restore my faith in human nature.  
I also wanted to avoid giving the impression of being very ready to yield easily to a seller’s greed.

Before going back onto eBay, I looked at GetMeIn website which advertised tickets from £605.  However, when I clicked on the actual purchase price, it displayed a figure of £988.  Worse still, when I proceeded to the check-out stage, the total price for two £988 tickets (with the addition of unspecified fees) became £2326.94. 

Disappointing can be used as a polite word to express masterly understatement.  
I know well, however, that free market advocates will defend the exploitation of supply and demand by arguing that that is how market forces (and apparently Government) work. 

Ninety minutes after having an initial offer rejected on eBay, I increased my bid from £300 to £500 for the two £124 tickets.  At almost four times their face value, this constitutes a generous bid by that yardstick.  
In a message aimed squarely at the seller’s social conscience, I wrote in a helpful textbox that I am classified as elderly living on a pension.  
For extra pathos, I added that I am recovering from hip and pelvic injuries sustained in a hit and run road accident.

Almost before I had pressed send, another instant rejection message came back.  It slapped me in the face with such alacrity that I slumped in shock, stunned.  
It would have been impossible for the seller to have read and considered my circumstances. The reply did, with magnanimous fairness, invite me to make a third and final offer.  

Despite being urged to bid again, I did wonder if there is any point in dealing with a mercenary seller even if his feedback rating is perfect with, somehow, a 100% positive rating.  This is further empirical evidence of the free market’s truthful working.

The one other site I examined was called StubHub as it offered tickets at £875. 
Going through the same process, the total for a pair worked out, not as £875 x 2, but rather as £2126.25.   
Hardened in attitude against this free market, and forewarned by the advice from the toothless RFU, I declined this further opportunity to deal with extortion.   
Meanwhile flight prices remained dynamic but reasonably constant, with minor daily variations.

Despite the signal failure to repeat doing my patriotic duty, this is a story with a happy ending, as everybody knows.   Our team achieved the clean sweep; national pride, civic pride, rural pride, gay pride - every pride you can think of - all were restored.  
I was left wondering if it is too much to suggest that this sporting occasion might be a metaphor for how things could be.  Is it fanciful to think that elected representatives could learn from the sporting model? 

All of this coincides with the uncertainty of a time when seemingly irreconcilable differences deprive Northern Ireland of regional governance for well over a year.    
And it’s also a time when questions continue over Westminster’s policy to implement the popular campaign-winning, if oxymoronic, pledge to take back control of its borders which it wants to be invisible. 

In numbers, the rugby grand slam victors in 2018 are the one of the Six Nations teams which accumulated the most points (26), an island (quoting its anthem) of “four proud Provinces” partitioned into two constitutionally distinctive jurisdictions.   
And despite adversity, such as years of disappointment and underachieving in the quest for success, it has succeeded as One Nation on the field of international play.

Best of the 6 Nations
This is not a romantic idyll to be dismissed lightly.   
The publicity and boost for our image internationally goes a long way to counteract pictures of division and recidivism.   Success has come off a modus operandi which has been developed patiently over time.  
This method is based on solid principles of life and on standards for diplomatic behaviour. 

These include developing a specific strategy for each encounter, moving forward from past failures and building on progress, adoption of a positive and can-do mind-set in the interests of the greater good, co-operative working across seamless borders without friction, players united in taking risks calculated to achieve a big objective and, crucially, employing creative leadership which inspires.

On the eve of the St Patrick’s Day fixture, this very example of sport providing a role model bringing people together was eloquently envisaged by “Northern Ireland’s daily newspaper.”[ii]    
Happily on this occasion, our team delivered[iii].  
Don’t say there are no parallels or lessons to be learned.

©Michael McSorley 2018

[i] Belfast Telegraph 13 March 2018 page 3 Ian Begley:  https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/rugby/six-nations/tickets-for-irelands-grand-slam-bid-on-sale-for-4k-36698954.html
[ii] Belfast Telegraph 16 March 2018 p 12 Martin O’Brien:   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/tomorrow-ireland-will-come-together-as-never-before-for-st-patricks-day-and-the-rugby-wouldnt-it-just-be-great-if-it-was-like-this-all-the-time-36710160.html