By Paul – Director IH Belfast
The Lagan has always been a massive part of my life, from childhood right up to today. Family walks along the Tow Path and the surrounding forests hold great memories for me and I now take the same walks with my own wife and kids. My grandparents (both sets) “courted” along the Tow Path when they were young, before they were married and long before dating existed! My dad’s father saw a Banshee on the Tow Path days before his mother died… but that’s another story.
Today I run along the Tow Path and take in its beauty every morning. We are so lucky to have such beauty running through our city. You can walk all the 11 miles from Lisburn (a city to the South of Belfast) right to the centre of Belfast without setting foot on a road – through Lady Dixon’s, Barnett’s and Belvoir Forest parks. Coming closer to the city you pass the Lagan Meadows, a protected wildlife sanctuary… and yes… there’s even a pub where the Tow Path brings you into the city centre where you can enjoy a well-deserved pint in the sunshine.
The River Lagan played a major part in making Belfast one of the most important cities in Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s. If the docks were Belfast’s heartbeat then the Lagan was its arterial flow. The river flows over 70 km from its source in the Mourne Mountains down to the weirs at the docks. During Belfast’s expansion the Lagan tied together the industries that Belfast was built on, shipbuilding and linen. Horses towed ships up to the Linen Mills at Dunmurry, Lambeg, Lisburn and beyond at transported goods all the way inland to Lough Neagh where they were in turn distributed throughout the rest of Ireland.
The Lagan ultimately paid a heavy price and industrialisation made the waterway an aquatic death trap. The last record of a salmon population in the river dated back to 1744. From 1950 – 1990 water quality in the river slowly improved through greater controls and improved sewage systems. In 1989 the Laganside Corporation was established to redevelop the areas surrounding the Lagan in Belfast.
Even in my memory (I was born in 1973) you could smell the Lagan all across the city at low tide as the river bed was exposed. Indeed, one of the first and most important undertakings of the lagan Corporation was the Lagan Weir. The weir allows the level of water upstream to be controlled and kept constant. Dredging of the river also greatly improved the quality of the water and the environment around the Lagan. Salmon and trout returned to the river. In 1991 the river was stocked again with fish and the first adult salmon returned in 1993. Since then the regeneration and rejuvenation of the Lagan has been massive and wonderful much like that of the City of Belfast itself.
In the last fortnight, on my morning runs along the river I have seen a seal, a hunting cormorant, herons, a Kingfisher (all following the salmon and trout up stream) a mating couple of buzzards, geese, ducks and ducklings, coots, wild horses living on the river bank, foxes and wildlife galore… runners, cyclists, people walking their dogs and generally out for a stroll… tourists! There is even a family of sea otters now calling the Lagan home. All this beauty within a few kilometres of a major city is truly incredible… and certainly worth looking after with all the energy we have.
Now it is our own actions we need to be aware of rather than the pollution of industry of a hundred years ago. Industry no longer pollutes the Lagan. We, ourselves now have to be self-aware and conscious of how or purchasing habits effect our surroundings and environment. The speed of life that we now lead mean most of us are not consciously thinking about where that plastic water bottle we buy will end up… or why we should try to support local producers and buy locally. When you buy that bottle of wine do you really need plastic bag to put it in. Do you need to buy ornages in a plastic net bag or could you just buy them individually, place them in your basket and pay for them before putting them in your “bag for life” that you bring to the shop with you always so you don’t have to ask for yet another plastic bag. Can you reuse your plastic water bottle and refill it rather than buying a new one.
Not all our plastic ends up in landfill. After heavy rains or snow melt on the mountains the high waters in the Lagan (and all rivers) flush out the rubbish that has ended up in its nooks and crannies. The high waters cause plastic bags to collect on low lying branches which are disgusting and harrowing to behold when the water levels drop.
Part of the problem is the frantic speed we lead our lives at. Most of us move along so fast that we are not taking time to make conscious decisions about our buying habits. You run into the station to pay for your gas/petrol/diesel , you grab a few supplies off the shelves as you go never once considering – where did this product come from – how much packaging with each product – how much waste is produced –is any of the packaging bio-degradable – are any of the products produced sustainably and ethically – could I actually buy similar products somewhere else and reduce my impact on the environment…
We need to start being aware of our decisions and their impact, begin to think consciously about our purchasing and consumerism, slow down and make the correct or better choices. Go and read one of my favourite books – Slowness by Milan Kundera. Think about how richer and rewarding our lives are if we slow down and consider.