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/

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