Belfast – Twelve City Walks | Fluorescent Brick
“Fluorescent with history, ingenuity and potential” is how Declan Hill describes Belfast, though after an extended conversation with the man, I note that the same words could be applied to his life and work.
Bred and born in Belfast, he studied architecture at Queen’s prior to plying that trade in London, Hamburg and then back in Belfast. He worked at Todd Architects for eleven years leading the housing team and co-founded the Forum for Alternative Belfast. He was part of the team that set up The Black Box and sits on the management committees for both Belfast Exposed Photographic Gallery and Flax Arts Studio. Not long ago, he established the Belfast Urban Studio CIC, and for his recently launched, Belfast – Twelve City Walks, he not only wrote it but also did the photography and sketches.
I interviewed Declan Hill in a coffee shop near the centre of Belfast – not City Hall – but the place from which all distances are measured in Belfast, which is the ‘Four Corners’ where Waring, North, Rosemary and Bridge Streets meet. This is the ‘real’ and historic centre of Belfast. I know this now because Declan told me. Indeed, he knows a great deal about Belfast and has an obvious passion and love for the city. Fortunate for us, he has decided to convey much of that in his new book.
“I want to share the streets, spaces and places through which the life of the city flows”. Declan explained that the idea for the publication came to him in Buenos Aires. He had always wanted to go there and when he finally did, he was looking to get to know the city in more depth than he was getting from the usual guides. By chance, he stumbled across Gabriela Koran’s Buenos Aires: 16 City Walks which became his trusted amigo and compelled him to do something similar for his native city. He composed a rough outline in a cafe there and now visitors to Belfast as well as its life-long residents have a fascinating guide to take them on twelve walking adventures and one city bus jaunt.
Declan extols the virtues of walking though he by no means is averse to driving or any other mode of transport. Nevertheless, when you’re walking, “you can stop and look around and take in the sights and sounds and smells; it engages all your senses”.
He is in agreement with Paul Scott Mower who said, “There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast”. Declan holds that, “You need to walk to get the scale of a city” and fortunately the scale of Belfast lends itself perfectly to a number of good walks. Belfast – Twelve City Walks is focused on providing access, and each walk has a map with numbered stepping stones of buildings and places of interest to guide people around. They are designed to suit all levels of accessibility and he not only gives suggested times for each walk, but more importantly recommendations on where to stop for a pause, refreshment and conversation/contemplation after completing the journey.
When I asked if he had made many discoveries for himself about Belfast while compiling this work, he said wistfully, “There is the big loss of traditional red brick terraced housing … decisions that were made during the 50’s when industries were in decline and people were encouraged to move out into surrounding towns where new industries were being established in towns with greenfield sites. The Lower Shankill and Lower Falls, Sandy Row, Donegal Pass, the Markets, Short Strand and Sailortown – all these places lost so much of their red brick, two-bedroom housing, and that’s the housing people are looking for today. Where that housing survived – the Road, Cregagh, Springfield Road – the local shops and areas are vibrant today”. Despite neglected and abandoned areas of Belfast, Declan Hill is not pessimistic about the city; indeed, he sees great potential and hope.
“This is a historic city, a revitalised city, a city of invention and creativity …”. Contained in the walls of his book, the reader will find new ways of seeing the familiar along with intriguing gems and insights. I am partial to the section on ‘The Entries’, those narrow alleyways off Anne Street, High Street and Donegal Street where, as Declan writes, “we can still feel the sense and noise of their previous activity”. Dip into this pocket-sized production and start your stroll onto the stepping stones carefully surveyed and served by this sagacious citizen. Copies can be purchased at Waterstone’s, Visit Belfast, the Wickerman and PLACE. For further information, contact email@example.com.