A Walk in the Park, Down Memory Lane
On Friday 12th September 2015, between appointments, I took a stroll through Alexandra Park, in north Belfast. It was a poignant, nostalgic break in an otherwise mundane day, for I hadn’t gone to this park to exercise my legs, but to exercise my memory. My grandparents, Bob and Jeannie Kirk had lived in this park, in the gardener’s house, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Bob Kirk had been the foreman gardener at Glenbank Park in Ligoneil (where I was born) and his move to Alexandra Park as forman gardener would have been seen as a promotion. He took up residence in the Park Lodge, and remained there until retirement in 1965. While they lived there, I spent many happy days and evenings with them, travelling over by bus, down the Falls Road, and catching the No.77 Belfast Corporation Bus, (That famous bus route that wound through the streets of Belfast from the Gasworks to the Waterworks) alighting at the Waterworks.
So, – another trip to the park, now fifty years later, to see how things have changed. Unlike Glenbank Park at Ligoniel, the park house is still there, and still occupied. It had lain empty and boarded up during the worst of the ‘troubles’ when north Belfast was the scene of much terrorist activity, and many ruthless, pointless murders. But it’s not the same. The trees and hedges around the house are now much more overgrown than they were fifty years ago. The house rests on a slight rise, and back then the lawns that surrounded it were manicured to bowling green perfection and trellises of climbing roses arched across the front of the building. Yet as the images show, it’s charm remains, an old Victorian black-stone building – a fitting complement to the park’s grand entrance and tree-lined avenues.
I didn’t like to knock the door! But I well remembered the back yard, with its outside toilet, and its ‘meat-safe’ – a wooden box with a muslin covered door, which before the days of the refrigerator was the repository for food that needed to be kept cool, butter, cheese and milk were stored in there.
Fifty years ago, I enjoyed being the ‘main kid’ around the place. I got to know all the workers, the Park Ranger, who enforced the council bye-laws, and allowed me to blow his whistle, and the labourers, who let me ride on the lawn mowers, and help to empty the grass, and the apprentice gardener, a young man called Clive, who rode on a bicycle to work, apparently over a great distance. One of the greatest pleasures of all was to get to ring the bell. The Park Bell was sounded every evening around 15 minutes before the gate closed, and I was the one who got to ring it. Such authority for a wee boy around 10 years of age! So it was good to see that the bell is still there, albeit no longer surrounded by bushes and shrubs, and without the handle that was used to make it ring.
One of the features of the park was its duck pond. Fifty years ago it was full of swans and ducks, and the swans would sometimes get themselves stranded on the grass, and because of the fence, couldn’t get back to the water. It was then that I learned that swans can only fly if they can take-off on water! So it was our job to catch the swan, cover it with a sack, for I also was taught that swans are vicious, and return it to the pond. Distress calls weren’t just for birds, though. People would get into trouble on the pond too. Even though it was fenced off, there was a part of the lake which was ‘tidal’ and were the silt was more dangerous than it looked, and from time to time people who tried to cross it soon got that sinking feeling! It was then that we needed to go out with planks and ropes and a tractor and pull them from the sand that was gripping them and dragging them down. But despite the fact that I was well warned to stay away from the water, I did fall in – when I tried to jump across the Milewater Stream which flows along the lower glen at the back of the park, and found that it was much wider than I had imagined. The current in that stream was fierce, and I gripped a rock, fearful of being swept down the stream and into the foamy water that gathered at the bottom of a small waterfall. I imagine I must have been screaming, for a man jumped the fence and pulled me out, and a soggy young boy had to explain to parents and grandparents how foolish he had just been.
The modern ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland began in 1969, and everything in the park must have changed rapidly. At that time we were no longer living there, so I didn’t witness at first hand the effects of sectarian division in what had been my childhood idyll. The flock of people who were using the park for leisure must have relocated, as whole families and communities were decimated, and moved to other parts of the Province for a more peaceful life. The park became dangerous as the community became more polarised, for the park sat right on an interface between the two warring communities. Soon the bowling green had vanished (now replaced by the council recycling centre), and so had the tennis courts, with their pavilion, and their green-keepers, who drew such straight white lines on the grass (I was never allowed in the tennis courts, but I do recall the green keeper would come every evening with the days takings, which all had to be counted and accounted for) and the band concerts in the summer evenings were stopped, with even the bandstand falling victim to the march of time and the onslaught of the hatred and mayhem. The park lost its happy atmosphere, and the gloom was accentuated by the erection of the ‘peace wall’ (now covered with graffiti) dividing the two sections of the park, just as its users were divided by suspicion and distrust of each other. The northern part of the park, opening out by its main gates onto Jellicoe Avenue was for nationalist use, and the southern part, opening onto Deacon Street for unionists! At least nowadays the gate in the wall is opened for a time every day, to allow people to pass through, and a new playground has been built in the area where the tennis pavilion once stood.
So, how was my walk in the park? It was surreal. The park seemed huge to a ten year old, and a place of adventure and dreams and imagination, filled with people and workers. Yet to a 60-something, it all seems so small and so grubby, and its only inhabitants were a couple of people walking their dogs, and a group of men smoking and drinking and throwing stones at the water-rats near the pond. Everything has changed. My grandparents who lived there have long departed this life, and there is little at Alexandra Park to remind me of them, only little echoes of what used to be. Everything changes.
My ‘Image of the Day’ has to be the shot of the old house. It has a rural charm that belies its inner city location. I loved it 50 years ago, and I still admire its Victorian charm and character…
Victorian Park situated in north Belfast. It is named after Princess Alexandra and was opened in 1888. As is typical for parks of the period, it has a formal layout that includes tree lined avenues. It also contains play areas for children.
Alexandra Park is believed to be the only park in western Europe to be divided by a three metre wall.] The barrier was erected in 1994 and is one of a number of “peace walls” built across the city in attempt to prevent violence between Nationalist/Republican and Unionist/Loyalist communities. The wall’s foundations were laid on 1 September 1994, the day of the first IRA ceasefire. The northern part of the park was accessible only from the Republican Antrim Road whilst the southern part could only be reached from the Loyalist Shore Road. In September 2011 a gate linking the two communities was installed in the wall. The gate will be open on weekdays from 9am to 3pm for a trial period of 3 months.