Walk Leader: Tricia Keogh-Hodgett
Northern Ireland’s first ever Jane’s Walk was held this year in its capital, Belfast, a unique, intriguing and frequently contradictory city. The walk began right in the heart of the city, on the west side of the City Hall, a building which first opened in 1906, and finished in the recently regenerated and rebranded Cathedral Quarter. This is an area which for decades had been left vacant, derelict and neglected, but which has recently been transformed into a distinctive part of the city centre with a dynamic mix of arts, heritage, business, hospitality and housing.
The walk thus took both a look back and a step forward and along the way the participants, drawing on their own experiences and observations, eagerly discussed how spaces had been used over the years and how those uses had frequently evolved in imaginative ways.
Near the City Hall, for example, we looked at the Scottish Provident Building built in the late 19th century for offices and commercial use with its stone carvings depicting the city’s industries, such as shipbuilding. From the same era, we also looked at the Robinson and Cleaver building, once an upmarket department store. Both these buildings have changed their function – the Scottish Provident building now incorporates a trendy bar and a supermarket; Robinson and Cleaver functions today as a restaurant and café – but both still survive in all their magnificence.
We also saw how public art is helping to redesign Belfast with eight huge sculptural masts and banners installed down one side of the city’s main thoroughfare, Donegall Place. Each is named after a ship built in the city’s once world-renowned Harland & Wolff shipyard, including the Olympic, the Oceanic, the Britannic and the tragically doomed Titanic.
Participants expressed their delight in being the first group to do a Jane’s Walk in Belfast, despite it being a very cold May morning. ”It’s always good to be a pioneer!” laughed one of the group which consisted of women and men, young and old, and both Belfast residents and visitors from out of town. When asked what adjectives they would use to describe the city they suggested “friendly,” “tragic,” “evolving,” “transformed,” “historic,” “eclectic,” and so on.
Many expressed the hope that this would be the first of a series of walks over the coming weeks – but they will of course have to wait until May 2016, for the second ever Jane’s Walk in Belfast!