John Kyle is a 61 year old GP and has been a Belfast City Councillor for just over 6 years. John talks about his love of cycling which gets him out for leisure and between his places of work..
I’ve cycled all my life, but more so the past 10 years since my knees decided they had had enough of jogging. I cycle partly for health reasons but I love the freedom cycling gives you, the sense of speed, the proximity to nature – you see so much more than when in a car. I really love the buzz I get from physical activity, and definitely love being able to bypass traffic jams.
Diarmuid is a teacher at Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast, a father of 3 and a wheelchair user for nearly 30 years. He talks about how handcycling has revolutionised his daily routine to the point where he’s sold his own car. His unique experience of travelling around Belfast challenges many myths about cycling as a viable form of transport, for people of all abilities..
While in university in 1984 I suffered a spinal injury in a hill walking accident. I was at university preparing to go into teaching, so I was lucky that after taking a year out the adjustments I had to make in life didn’t throw me off my career path. I’ve been teaching in Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast for about 20 years now. It’s really encouraging to see Grosvenor trying to get a cycle to work scheme organised for the staff.
The North Down Coastal Path, and the surrounding local economy, is one major project away from fulfilling its tourism and leisure potential. A new high quality traffic-free link is needed to address the current disconnection from Belfast. This will integrate with the growing urban greenway network, encourage Belfast residents to visit North Down more regularly, and open up a new seam of tourism opportunities. Considering the current options for route development, an intriguing new greenway project is proposed.
. The North Down Coastal Path begins at the north end of the George Best Belfast City Airport runway, with a gate to the road running past the Kinnegar Army base. From here, Belfast City Hall is 6.5km away with no direct traffic-free route. When the Connswater Community Greenway is completed as far as Victoria Park the shortest distance to this pathway network will be 4.5km, but accessible only by busy main roads.
This is a particular problem for leisure cycling; families with youngsters, inexperienced cyclists, tourists based in Belfast. These are already significant distances before the relaxed ‘leisure’ part begins, and poses a barrier to many people who would otherwise love to tootle along the coast for a day and spend in the local economy.
At present there are just two options available for travelling by road. Both routes are quite direct, but also have severe drawbacks for cycling and walking.
The A2 / Sydenham Bypass
The road ‘benefits’ from separate cycle tracks on both carriageways, but you’ll seldom see people choosing to take this route. This is quite a horrible place to be on a bicycle; a heavy traffic urban dual carriageway, with vehicles travelling above and below the 50mph speed limit.
An apparent lack of sweeping leaves the cycling surface strewn with road grit and glass. Not a happy start or end to a leisure trip, and not somewhere suitable for children or inexperienced riders to cycle. Great if you like cinematic thrills, but not fit for purpose as a modern cycle route.
Pedestrian access to the bypass is slightly easier with the footbridge at Sydenham Station and subway by Victoria Park, but the drawbacks of the traffic noise and fumes make this a less than appealing environment. Popular with joggers and power walkers, but lacking in great utility.
Future development of the road will include widening to three lanes each way. There will be just one 3.5m shared cycle/footway on the Victoria Park/Airport side – finally to include a physical barrier which should improve safety perception – but designing a mixed footpath on this fast cycling commuter route is a real backward step.
While it’s important to retain cycling and walking space in major road developments, this appears to be an ideal time to seek better accommodation for sustainable journeys on this corridor.
The Airport Road
Favoured by many cyclists at present, the Airport Road tracks the western side of George Best Belfast City Airport. By comparison with the Sydenham Bypass, the traffic flows are greatly reduced. Yet heavy goods vehicles and oil tankers dominate the road here, and again this poses a frightening dilemma for the novice cyclist. The pathways suffer from high kerbs and no dropped access at the many side roads; unsuitable for cycling, so the road is the only option at present.
Yet there is another issue which makes this route currently unattractive – the isolation. There is one way in and one way out, with some limited added value with the commuting link to the Bombardier site and businesses based in the Heron Road Complex. But workers here will tell you the dirt left by heavy construction traffic makes cycle commuting conditions less than ideal.
The Airport Road option also narrows the usefulness of the route to cyclists only. Very few ‘additional’ walking journeys would be generated along this stretch, being set so far away from residential areas.
But is there another way to accommodate sustainable transport in this part of the city, and link the greenway networks, away from the compromises of being tied to major roads?
A Sydenham Community Greenway?
Looking to the southeast side of the airport, across the A2 and railway line, there is another option worth exploring which ticks many more boxes:
space for full mode separation where needed
integration with rail network
greater number of access points
weaving through residential communities
integration with existing leisure facilities
new commuting and shopping access
Starting from the Connswater Community Greenway link to Victoria Park, this route would make use of Inverary Drive. This traffic-calmed and relaxed residential road is an ideal start, running for almost a full kilometre. There is an existing bridging pathway between Park Road and Inverary Drive which can be upgraded to greenway standard.
Inverary Drive is a wide and calm street environment with very little through traffic. It’s possible to accomodate cycling on the road (with a 20mph limit) but space exists to provide a fully separate track by the railway fence for a ‘continuous’ route feel, and providing the highest safety standard to separate pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles for this short stretch.
There is an important link with Sydenham railway station on this route, and a greenway route on the doorstep opens this station up as a jumping off point for journeys towards the Connswater/Comber corridor, and north where we’re headed.
Continuing on, the road turns east into Inverary Avenue at the Inverary Community Centre, but this proposal would run a traffic-free path behind the centre and through Alderman Tommy Patton Memorial Park. This popular urban park has recently upgraded its play facilities, and is another lesser-known gem in Belfast. Passing by the football pitches, the new path would approach a patch of woodland. There is an existing looped forest pathway which runs along the boundary with the train line; this could be carefully and respectfully upgraded for the purposes of a continuous greenway route.
Viewed from the woodland path, the potential local benefits of the next section start to snowball – the main terminal of George Best Belfast City Airport is but a stone’s throw away. The greenway would continue to follow the line of the railway fence, across the back of Shorts Recreation Club and Blanchflower Park.
The roundabout at the airport tunnel leads off to an abandoned access road. Today this is used for fly tipping and is a favourite spot for taxis wanting to beat the waiting restrictions within the airport car parks. This is ripe for conversion to a walking and cycling-only route into the Harbour Estate at Holywood Exchange as part of the greenway. The proposed path would cut left alongside the airport boundary fence and into the retail complex at IKEA’s massive sign. There is already a natural land buffer between the airport boundary fence and Airport Road West, ripe for a separate cycle track all the way to the North Down Coastal Path.
Hundreds more local workers travel to the large businesses situated here: IKEA, Decathlon, B&Q, Sainsburys, Next, BHS, Harvey Norman. Commuting options are increased for locals, but also new options for shopping trips..
Cough cough .. stop right there! Shopping at IKEA? By bike?!
The separate cycle pathway would continue along the airport boundary fence until passing out of the Holywood Exchange complex, before turning under the flight path at the end of the runway. This is another one of those little treasures of Belfast – standing under a landing aircraft seemingly at touching distance.
Getting from the airport side to the Kinnegar gates requires a road crossing – the only one on this entire 4km route. The bulk of traffic on the road only goes as far as the retail park, so a pelican crossing beyond B&Q could be an appropriate solution. Once the confusing access issues with the Habour Tillysburn gates are ironed out, a continuous link to the North Down Coastal Path is now achieved.
Local value of a long-distance greenway
Running the connecting greenway through a residential community rather than the Airport Road must be carefully weighed. The main local benefit would be the potential displacement of some regular private car journeys to cycling and walking.
The 3 wards surrounding this proposed route, Sydenham, Island and Belmont, have just over 16,000 residents. Census figures bear out that these ‘greenway wards’ are not much different from the rest of Belfast; just shy of a quarter of all commuting journeys are under 2km (1.2 miles) and nearly two thirds within 5km (3 miles) range. Yet motorised trips are higher here at 56% (48% all Belfast) and walking journeys lower at 17% (22% all Belfast). One third of households in the greenway wards have no access to a car, which is a high figure in itself, but less than the Belfast average (40%), so the area is possibly more car dependant that it needs to be.
While the footprint of the proposed greenway is on the periphery of the residential area in these wards, it would still open up new linkages into the harbour estate and enhanced traffic-free sections for many parents and children on the school run to Victoria Park Primary School, Ashfield High Schools and Sandbrook Nursery School.
A potential new community greenway for Belfast, linking the city with the North Down Coastal Path, providing viable commuting, shopping and leisure alternatives to private car travel. On the face of it would seem a very cost-effective option should Belfast City Council, Northern Ireland Government departments, Sustrans or others wish to take it forward with a feasibility study. With just a few wrinkles to be ironed out on access, this would seem to provide excellent value for money – a 4km Sydenham Community Greenway as the final piece of a fully connected Belfast Metropolitan Area greenway network. Is it possible?
The North Down Coastal Path remains a gem in Northern Ireland’s tourist and leisure offering. The section from Holywood to Bangor stretches 10 miles along rocky shores, fine sandy beaches, quiet coves, country parkland, busy promenades and moments of perfect isolation. This post celebrates the importance of the North Down Coastal Path, and looks at the work ahead to release its full potential.
As a kid growing up in Troubles Belfast, there was always a little bit of magic about day trips to North Down. Whether it was the chocolate box train stations, the many fun activities, or just the sharp change of scenery just minutes out of the city, it was an easy place to fall in love with. Finding out that there was a ‘secret path’ that went for miles around the coast added to the mystique. It later became a favourite adventure to cycle* from Belfast to Bangor and back.
The attraction of the Coastal Path today is just as great. Starting on the Belfast side, the path begins around Holywood, starting its close relationship with both the sea and the railway as it passes close to Holywood Station. There are 8 railway stations from Holywood to Bangor and most are with 500m of the Coastal Path, making short trip options wonderfully flexible. The section at Seapark, according a recent tendering process, will shortly be upgraded to enhance walking and cycling* access. Striking out from the urban environment the path passes playgrounds and millionaires’ retreats, mixing shared footpaths with residential roads.
The first stop of major interest is at Cultra. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum covers a large area on both sides of the busy A2 road, and the two sites have enough of interest for a day trip each. These museums cover a vast timeline of Irish cultural and engineering history. Unfortunately there is no direct access from the Coastal Path into the Transport Museum site, with a long trip up the nearby Glen Road and back down to the main entrance the only option.
Onwards to Station Road, marking the end of the residential sections of the route, and a fierce contrast to the smooth promenades and streets so far. Crossing the boundary of the Royal Belfast Golf Club, a tight mud/gravel path clings to the shoreline, between crass fencing and artificial sea defences.
Some sections near here are due for upgrade, but a comprehensive look at improvements to weak links in the chain is necessary. Comments on Twitter suggest commuters to Belfast from Seahill and further would benefit from a realistic option to cycle* somewhere other than the main A2. Improvement works have been seen in recent years, especially as we move on past the Rockport School.
Approaching Seahill there is a rocky inlet which is traversed by two flights of steps and a high narrow path. This effectively cuts the Coastal Path in half for wheelchair users and anyone pushing a bicycle* who may be unable to lift and carry a bike up and down the narrow flights.
A leisurely stretch brings us to Helen’s Bay, and as the path turns southeast towards Bangor, the Grey Point Fort dominates the headland. Sighting Scotland for the first time, a steep climb and a quick nip onto the local road finds us dandering down towards Crawfordsburn Country Park.
On sunny summer days the beach and surrounding fields come alive with day trippers tucking into picnics and the sounds of delighted kids. Secluded woodland walks, waterfalls and spectacular railways arches lie in wait away from coastline. In days gone past the railway halt at Crawfordsburn allowed day trippers the option of a train directly to the beach path. Today the Helen’s Bay Station is still close, but the vast majority of visitors to Crawfordsburn Country Park still arrive by private vehicle.
Passing the impressive Crawford House complex (read more about the history of Crawfordsburn Park on the Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland website), wide promenades have taken us across two beaches. Reaching Swineley Bay, the path stops abruptly and it’s a dander over the sand to the other side of the beach. Not too much of a problem for ramblers, joggers and dog walkers, but another difficulty for anyone with self-propelled transport*.
The Coastal Path and railway line finish their game of hide and seek as the outskirts of Bangor are reached at Carnalea Golf Club. Leaving sandy beaches behind for more rocky shores, the path twists and undulates towards Smelt Mill Bay, naturally regulating any speeding wheels*. Turning round to face Bangor Marina, the Pickie Pool may no longer stand proud on this side of town, but today’s Pickie Fun Park shows how investment in new facilities can reap great rewards for a local economy.
Tourism has influenced the development of Bangor since Victorian times, and although slow to respond to the changing holiday habits from the 1960s onwards, the town is beginning to thrive on smart investments such as the Marina complex and integrated transport hub. The North Down Coastal Path may be a small part of the overall package for Bangor, but with Belfast just a couple of leisurely hours away by bike* and tourism becoming more important to Northern Ireland as whole, the North Down Coastal Path should be given greater marketing prominence as a high quality active travel corridor.
While mixing cyclists with ramblers can be difficult, the North Down Coastal Path for the most part naturally calms the top speed of leisure cyclists – either by tight twisting passages or the relentless glorious scenery to be savoured. This is not a welcome nor coveted environment for faster road cyclists or Strava junkies, especially as many sections are still suitable for a mountain bike only.
There is perhaps a more fundamental tension at work here between the interests of local users and those wishing to develop a route capable of attracting and handling higher usage. The same complaints play out on the Lagan Towpath and Comber Greenway, but everyone must face the reality that these routes are being developing as mixed use to maximise the numbers and range of users.
Consideration and respect is necessary for a harmonious environment; prohibition is a blunt instrument which isn’t working and holds the path back. The local economy can only benefit from increased usage of the path by day tripping cyclists from Belfast, whether resident or tourist.
Tillysburn gates confusion
Getting to the North Down Coastal Path from the Belfast side is challenging, and there is a need for a new traffic-free route into Belfast. From The Esplanade in Holywood there is a quiet coastal road which leads to the entrance of the Belfast Harbour Estate at the end of the George Best Belfast City Airport runway. The road is private, owned by the Ministry of Defence as part of the Kinnegar Barracks, yet walking and cycling is so common and accepted that the gates onto the Harbour Estate are now permanently open.
This is very welcome for local users but is only one hurdle to a continuous, fully accessible greenway route. Just 100m from this opening are the Tillysburn Harbour Gates, operated by the Belfast Harbour Police.
A sign here suggests overnight closures during the week and shut gates all day Sunday. In conversation with the Harbour Police, these hours were confirmed as open from 6.30am Mon-Sat, closed around 11pm each weekday, causing few problems for commuting and leisure. But the Sunday closure was also confirmed, with the gates locked at 7pm on Saturday night and not opening again until Monday morning – prime time for leisure use.
This could be achieved either by setting the whole security barrier back by 150m to give a clear route through to Kinnegar, or developing a separate ‘greenway’ path away from the road near to the edge of the lagoon. With the main A2 road unappealing for leisure cycling or rambling, making full use of this section for sustainable travel is essential for the future of the North Down Coastal Path.
Many thanks for input on both posts from the following Twitter bods: @_Helmholtz_ @BrianLatewood @chasingsilver1 @oceanbump @chris0ward @RichardJeffrey1 @AndrewMuirNI @StripyMoggie @andyboal @10ON12 @collapsibubble @ye_Bhoy_ye @rinkyrinky
With numbers of regular cyclists in Northern Ireland rising, especially in Belfast, 2013 should be a year of steady progress on cycling issues. However ongoing government spending cuts, alongside the natural disinterest of the authorities to transport and utility cycling, mean radical ‘big ticket’ cycling projects are unlikely to be pedalling up the agenda.
But instead of being deterred, we need to organise and innovate! Since I started blogging about Belfast cycling I’ve seen amazing resourcefulness and passion among local people who choose to get around by bike. New community connections are being built every day, and spawning innovative action such as Reclaim Belfast’s Cycle Lanes 1 and 2. It is among the people who ride our streets every day that we will find creative solutions to change the experience and perception of cycling here.
Leisure and tourism in County Tyrone could be boosted by reopening a former railway line as a cycling and walking route. The Great Northern Railway branch line ran from Cookstown, through Coalisland and into Dungannon. Built in 1879, fully enclosing the Lough Neagh basin with railway lines, this branch was closed in 1959. Creating a new Greenway for walkers and cyclists, local ramblers and active tourists, can create new economic possibilities and health benefits in the region.
The towns of Cookstown, Moneymore and Magherafelt were once linked by a railway that now lies derelict. The old line, which winds through the Mid Ulster countryside, could be regenerated to provide a high quality 11 mile walking path and cycle route. This could be an important part of an orbital pathway around Lough Neagh, and a key tourist route west of the Bann.
Nestled between the River Bann and the Sperrins, a disused railway line snakes between the towns of Magherafelt, Maghera, Kilrea and Garvagh. The line was built and operated as the Derry Central line, which fully closed in 1959. The route is still visible today, and presents an opportunity for regeneration. A new cycling and walking path, or Greenway, could be opened on the former trackbed, providing a healthy infrastructure for the Mid Ulster area and a boost to tourism.
Magherafelt, Draperstown and Desertmartin are linked by the former Draperstown Railway, which shut in 1950. Local communities could benefit from regenerating this route and creating a new Greenway to allow walking and cycling into the County Tyrone countryside. This Greenway proposal is part of a wider network over 600 miles across Northern Ireland which, if realised, could bring activity tourism spend to the Draperstown area.
I wrote to the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) to highlight this blog. They are currently seeking responses to 9 Issue Papers which will feed into the development of a Northern Ireland Outdoor Recreation Action Plan 2012-21. I received a very encouraging response, and I would urge anyone with an interest to contribute to the debate. The issue papers can be viewed on the Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland website.