What do C.S.Lewis, King William of Orange and Mrs Neville Chamberlain have in common? The answer, apart from the fact that most modern schoolchildren will know very little about the first two and absolutely nothing about the third, is that their past all impinges on the route of the current Belfast City Marathon!
In 1982, inspired by the example set by the likes of New York and London, Belfast City Council decided to organise a marathon race to promote the city. Over three decades later the event has developed and grown into a major festival of running and walking with tens of thousands of people of all genders,ages, classes, creeds, shapes and sizes converging on the city and covering at least part of the 26.21876 miles or 42.195 kilometres.
Over the years the route of the marathon has undergone many changes, both minor and major. Some of these were the result of runner power like the removal of the very unpopular Boucher Road; others were down to road works and then of course there were the last minute diversions to avoid what are euphemistically called ‘devices’ in Northern Ireland and bombs everywhere else. While runners will moan and gurn about twists and turns and boring industrial estates and dodgy water stations, in fact most things, what really pushes their buttons the wrong way is contours. While other major city events like Berlin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris are relatively flat, the topography of Belfast and its relatively small size dictates that gradients are impossible to avoid.
Stand around outside the City Hall on the morning of Marathon Monday and the air will be full of chat with topics like footwear, gels, hills, toilets, pacemakers and perhaps charities dominating the conversations. It is unlikely that you will hear the word ‘history’ mentioned unless it has the words ‘race’ or ‘injury’ in front of it. Yet the streets and roads which lie ahead are steeped in history and, while tourists to the city are happy to fork out their euros, dollars or yen to take a guided tour, the Marathon entry fee throws the ‘tour’ in for free. All it lacks is the guide and hopefully this will be provided in the pages which follow.
Where better to start the race or the tour than in the heart of the city and outside the civic seat of power, the City Hall. The magnificent Victorian building with its façade of Portland stone and an interior of marble began construction in 1898 and was completed in 1906. It was built to celebrate the conferring of City status upon Belfast in 1888 by Queen Victoria and her imposing figure gazes down upon the marathon masses with an expression which suggests she is clearly not amused by the scanty attire of many of the majority of the runners. The building cost, the then Belfast Corporation, the princely sum of £369,000 and such was the esteem in which Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas’s architecture was held that it was to spawn many replicas and in particular the City Hall of Durban in South Africa although it has to be said that the two can clearly be told apart by the palm trees which surround the latter.
While the morning of the race is perhaps not the best time to take a tour of the interior of the building with its magnificent dome and amazing John Luke mural it is certainly worth coming back the next day. Tours of the City Hall are, surprisingly, free and there is much to be seen with artefacts spanning the 20th Century and beyond. However those arriving early enough on Marathon Monday could do worse than take a gentle stroll around the grounds.
On the Western side lies the Belfast Cenotaph and Garden of Remembrance. The thirty foot ‘empty tomb’ was erected by the people of Belfast to honour the sacrifice made by the men of Ulster during the Great War of 1914-1918. It has since become the focus of annual remembrance in November each year for all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in World War 1 and all subsequent conflicts.
Close by on the narrow grass verge which separates the Garden of Remembrance from Donegal Square West is a smaller memorial which has travelled far from its original setting. Few visitors or viewers of the Olympic Games in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in ……… will have been aware that just three decades earlier British and Irish troops had fought and died in the ‘Battle of Happy Valley’ defending the city from communist aggressors during the Korean War. Prominent among those who formed the last line of defence were men of the King’s 8th Royal Irish Hussars, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Ulster Rifles. The Korean conflict claimed the lives of well over a million people from both sides of the conflict and the original monument was carved by a Korean mason and erected in July 1951 overlooking the battlefield. In 1992 the memorial was returned to barracks in Ballymena and finally made its way to its current resting place.
Queen Victoria dominates the front of the City Hall and she is surrounded by statues of former Lord Mayors of Belfast including Lord Pirrie of Titanic fame.
There is also a strong American influence with the arrival of the USA Second World War Expeditionary Force and the visits of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhour and Bill Clinton being recognised.
A further reminder of the heroism which war creates can be found in the long overdue memorial to Able Seaman James Magennis, the only Northern Ireland recipient of the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. Magennis achieved this highest honour for gallantry in the face of the enemy while being involved in planting limpet mines on the hulls of enemy ships in the Straits of Johor, Singapore.
Sadly for Magennis, while his achievement was heralded by many in his local community, the fact that he hailed from an inner city Roman Catholic background did not sit well with, the then, city fathers. It was not until thirteen years after his death in 1986 that Belfast officially recognised his bravery with the erection of the stone and bronze column which stands to the west of the main entrance to the City Hall.
The Eastern side of the building is appropriately primarily dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the Titanic disaster on the 14th April 1912. It is appropriate in that it was in Yard No. 401 of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast that the ill-fated liner was built. The original memorial which was dedicated in 1920 takes the form of an allegorical representation of the disaster in the form of a female personification of Death or Fate holding a laurel wreath over the head of a drowned sailor raised above the waves by a pair of mermaids. The Memorial was the centrepiece of commemorations for over 80 years before the Belfast City Council, in their wisdom, felt that it would look better with a Giant Wheel sitting over the top of it. Thankfully in 2010 the wheel’s owner realised they could get more money elsewhere and it was dismantled. In April 2012, on the centenary of the disaster, the statue was joined by a new memorial on which is inscribed the names of all those who lost their lives and for the first time no distinction is made as to the class, creed or occupation of the victims.
Suitably impressed by all you have seen it is time to make your way to the start line in Donegal Square North to join your fellow tourists (sorry, runners) perhaps paying a final visit to the portaloos in Donegal Square West on the way. “But”, you may well ask, “surely I am in Co. Antrim – what has Donegal got to do with anything and for that matter I thought Chichester was in England”!
Well this is ‘yer man’ Sir Arthur Chichester (‘Chi’ is chi as in chip not Chi as in China) and he hails from the lovely wee town of Barnstable in North Devon about 7 miles, as the crow flies, from where my father was born although that latter fact is not really relevant. More relevant is that he fought with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada and later came to Ireland where he didn’t exactly enamour himself to the natives. At the beginning of the 17th century he was awarded with the keys of the then Belfast Castle (more of which later) and some lands in Antrim and Donegal (thus Donegal Squares, Street, Place etc not to mention Arthur Street).
In 1613 he became Lord Belfast and his posterity within the city was assured. His ‘love’ of the city is shown by the fact that he lived in Carrickfergus and it is there in the Church of St Nicholas that he remains to this day.
So leaving the Chichester / Donegal family for the time being its time to start running. The initial charge heads for the junction with Victoria Street but not before some of the older competitors pass a wistful gaze to their right at a tall red brick building called the Plaza Building and tell anyone who happens to be in their vicinity that that was where they met the wife. Sadly there are fewer and fewer with such sentiments still running as the old Plaza Ballroom, which used to stand proudly on this site, closed for the final time in 1970. Before that it was a mecca for office workers at the lunchtime hops and for evening dances where many a romance took its first faltering steps. During the Second World War it became a first-aid centre for American forces and, four years before he disappeared into the English Channel, the famous band leader Glenn Millar paid a visit.
The first of two visits to Victoria Street provides the first of many constant reminders of the obsession that the city forefathers had with royalty. During the next 26 miles runners will encounter a host of Queens, (Bridge,Street,Quay) Alberts (Street,Clock,Bridge,Square) Victorias,(Street,railway station,Park) Elizabeths, (Bridge) and Prince (Dock) and Princesses (Street). More recently there have been signs of a more imaginative approach with artists and writers like John Luke and Sam Thompson having bridges named after them.
In some respects St. George’s Market, reached after just over 600 metres, is perhaps the most appropriate landmark on the entire course because it was here, in 1907, that marathon running first made an impact upon the citizens of Belfast. It was here on the 22nd of June of that year that the runners set out on the great Belfast to Lurgan ‘Go as You Please’ a distance of 26.5 miles. The event sponsored by the Belfast Telegraph and numerous local businesses had caught the imagination of the public and as the runners set off in the reverse direction to today’s competitors the crowds thronged the streets.
“The streets of Belfast had come to a standstill and tens of thousands of spectators had congregated to see the runners off on their marathon journey to Lurgan. Every vantage point along the route taking in Chichester Street, Donegal Square North and East, Bedford Street and the Dublin Road had long since been acquired and those at ground level were squashed five and six deep on either side of the roads. The commercial life of the city made no attempt to compete with the spectacle and shop assistants and owners alike joined the good natured throng.
The procession of runners was preceded by three mounted policemen under the direction of Head Constable John McGuigan who were trying vainly to keep the crowds from encroaching upon the runners. Despite their efforts and those of lines of the Royal Irish Constabulary the tunnel through which the runners had to pass for the first mile of the race was barely wide enough for keep two abreast.”
The winner of the event and surely holder of the title of Northern Ireland’s first marathon champion was a local butcher by the name of Felix Furlonger. He had been born in Dublin the son of a British soldier and butcher who was also called Felix. The paternal family home had been in Surrey, England where the Furlongers had been farmers and butchers for many generations. Sadly the elder Felix died of cholera soon after his sons’ birth and the youngster eventually found himself shipped off to the army school in Colchester. Here he was to get a good grounding in physical activity which would stand him in good stead later in life. Having moved to Belfast, with his now remarried mother, Felix had no trouble following in the family tradition getting employment, first with Stokesberry’s in Corn Market in the heart of the city. His winning time on the day was 3 hours 8 minutes for a distance approximately 700 metres longer than today’s distance so he would have no problem holding his own over a hundred years later – he would however be astonished at the size of the modern field compared to the 406 who turned up that June day in 1907.
Hopefully inspired by the exploits of Felix our modern day hopefuls face their first incline of the day artificially placed in their way to allow the road to cross over the Co. Down railway line and the somewhat perversely named Central Station which is further from the City centre than Great Victoria Street Station! How it avoided some sort of royal nomenclature is anybody’s guess.
As the first mile mark approaches so too does the Albert Bridge – the gateway to the East and Ballymacarrett. One of eight bridges which now span the River Lagan within the city limits, this version was built in 1890 to replace a previous version which had collapsed four years earlier with one fatality. It was named (surprise surprise) after the grandson of Queen Victoria, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale who had laid the foundation stone in 1889. One of the greatest attractions of the Bridge is hidden beneath its arches for this is the home to thousands of starlings which, as dusk descends, provide one of the most fantastic murmurations you are ever likely to witness.
For the next mile everything to our left is part of the old village of Ballymacarrett which has been settled since the beginning of recorded history many centuries ago. The appearance and character of both sides of the road which face the first mile marker have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. During my boyhood in the fifties and sixties commerce abounded on this stretch of the road with shops selling every possible requirement for the residents of the local area. And for their entertainment they had the Picturedrome Cinema which closed its doors for the last time in 1970.
The area through which we pass during miles one and two is intrinsically associated with the Belfast Shipyard once the greatest in the world. It was in these streets that many of the once 30000 strong workforce lived and morning and evening the cobblestones would ring to the sound of steel toed boots making their way towards Queen’s Road to build some of the finest and largest ships on the sea including of course the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Ships of course required ropes and at the top of the Albertbridge Road was once the world’s largest rope-works.
Proximity to the shipyards and its ancillary requirements was a boon for employment but during the Second World War it was unfortunately to suffer greatly from Hitler’s, sometimes wayward, bombers for whom the docks, where Harland and Wolfe build 140 warships including six aircraft carriers,and the nearby Short and Harland’s which supplied 1200 sterling bombers, were prime targets. Three major raids took place in 1941 and many houses and shops were destroyed and lives lost. Thorndyke Street, on the route, was one of the worst to suffer. My own street, also on the route, did not escape and a firebomb landed in what was then my mother’s backyard with major distaster averted only by the quick action of a neighbour who was a local fire warden!
Leaving behind for a time these tales of woe we approach an area associated with tales of a very different nature, although come to think of it they all started as the result of a German air-raid as well. Just before the two mile mark the route takes a sharp left turn through The Arches or the Holywood Arches to give them their full title. Don’t waste time looking for any arches as they are long gone. The architectural items in question were those which carried the late lamented Belfast & Co Down Railway to Donaghadee and Newcastle which closed in 1950 and crossed the Holywood Road and the Upper Newtownards Road.
The real object of interest at this spot is to be seen on your left as you turn the corner, but you have to be quick! Standing at the back of the small landscaped brick area is a statue, called “The Searcher”, depicting a well-dressed gentleman attempting to open what appears to be an old wardrobe. It is not as one might suspect a tribute to the shipyard cabinet makers. No, this is no ordinary wardrobe for were you to gain entrance you would find yourself “in a country where there is always winter and no Christmas”. The man is Professor Digory Kirke and the statue is dedicated, in the words of the artist, to the “great ideas of sacrifice, redemption, victory, and freedom for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve”.
While many in this heartland of Ulster evangelicalism would lay claim to belonging to this category it is to the Pevensie children who populate the wonderful Tales of Narnia to which the artist refers. For this is C.S. Lewis country. It was within spitting distance (please don’t) of here that the world renowned novelist, theologian and soldier Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898. A Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University he was the writer of over thirty books but is best known for the seven wonderful tales of Narnia with their iconic hero Aslan the lion.
Lewis spent his early childhood in Little Lea on Circular Road in East Belfast and was for a very short time a pupil at Campbell College where, it is claimed, he got the idea for the lamppost which makes an early appearance in the first of the novels The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (yes that wardrobe!). He was baptised by his Grandfather the rector in St Marks Church Dundela on the Holywood Road (which you will pass shortly on your right) and the church contains many memories of its famous member including a stained glass window contributed by Lewis and his brother Warnie in memory of their parents. During the Great War Lewis fought in France and was wounded at the Battle of Arras. His place among the greats of Literature was finally recognised on the 50th anniversary of his death when on the 22nd of November 2013 a Memorial Service was held in Westminster Abbey and a memorial stone was laid in the South Transept commonly known as Poets Corner.
By the time you pass St Mark’s and head down the Holywood Road things are beginning to string out a little and you can get a better view of what is around you. Unfortunately you would need very good eyesight and a vivid imagination or perhaps memory to appreciate the athletics significance of the inauspicious soccer ground on the left of the road just beyond the 3 mile marker. A close inspection of the ground is rewarded with the faint imprint of what was in the past a 440 yards running track, the home of Shorts Athletics Club. It was on this track in the days before the appearance of tartan and mondo that International athletes from around the world came to perform on the old cinders, now long overgrown with grass. Not only did the athletes come but so did the crowds who marvelled at the exploits of greats like Olympic Champion John Aki Bua of Uganda, the giant Geoff Capes Britain’s greatest ever shot putter and of course our very own Dame Mary Peter’s dreaming perhaps of the Olympic glory that was to be achieved in Munich.
Just beyond this the ghosts of athletes past are replaced by those of the world of soccer as we pass the Danny Blanchflower stadium named in memory of the former Northern Ireland international footballer and football manager, and journalist who captained Tottenham Hotspur F.C. during its double-winning season of 1961. Born in the Bloomfield area of the city Danny was for many the greatest player Spurs ever had. His brother Jackie was also a great player and was one of the Manchester United team to survive the Munich air disaster in 1958.
Soccer remains a recurring theme for the next couple of miles as the runners sweep sharply left to return towards the City along the Sydenham by-pass. For some of our visitors the sight of the George Best City Airport will be a familiar sight servicing, as it does, flights from all over the UK and many parts of Europe. In 1910 the airport celebrated 100 years of passenger flights with the first flight being piloted by the legendary Harry Ferguson of tractor fame. He was also the first Irishman to own and fly his own aircraft an achievement recognised by a recent sculpture which has been erected on the main Belfast-Dublin road near Hillsborough.
"Belfast Harbour Airport" was officially opened on 16 March 1938 by Mrs Neville Chamberlain, wife of the then British Prime Minister. Six months later her husband returned from a meeting in Munich (that’s three mentions within one mile) with Adolf Hitler with the immortal words ‘peace in our time’. Sadly ‘our time’ lasted less than a year as in 1939 Britain entered the Second World War.
On May 22nd 2006 the airport was re-named George Best Belfast City Airport, to commemorate the life of the international footballing legend George Best, who was born and grew up close to the airport. While Blanchflower may have been considered by many to have been the best player Spurs ever had, Best was by general acclamation the greatest player the World ever saw, an accolade which met with the approval with Pele who might also be seen as a contender for the title.
Unlike Blanchflower, Best was rejected by Glentoran, the team he supported as a boy as being too small and light. He went directly to Manchester United from school and the rest as they say, is history. But while Glentoran might have rejected Best we cannot reject Glentoran because the home of the greatest wee team in the country, the Oval, looms large on our left hand side towering over Victoria Park and its Saturday morning parkruns on the opposite side of the road.
Having run just five miles you can enjoy the sight of the stadium but you will no doubt be wishing that you were passing not their present home but entering their original domain. For the ‘Wee Cock and Hens’ were formed not at Sydenham but 21 miles along the road (as the marathon runner runs) in Ormeau Park, our ultimate destination. In 1892 they moved to their more private quarters and began to make history. In 1914, Glentoran won the Vienna Cup, becoming the first team from Ireland to win a European trophy, and in 1967 they achieved their zenith when taking on the mighty Benfica in the European Cup. The tie was played over two legs, the first being at the Oval. Glentoran scored a penalty early on and held out for nearly sixty minutes until the late football great Eusébio equalised. The match ended 1–1. The return tie was at Benfica's famous Estádio da Luz. Part-time Glentoran were expected to crumble under the pressure of the occasion, but again held out for a famous 0–0 draw. Benfica advanced to the next round on the away goals rule. Glentoran were the first team to lose out to this rule and the first team to stop Benfica scoring at home. ‘Oh for the days’!
From scenes of triumph we cannot leave the dual carriage way and the Co. Down railway which runs alongside it without reference to tragedy. The morning of the 10th January 1945 was shrouded in fog and as it was just around 7.50am it was still dark. The 7.10 Bangor to Belfast train was stationary at Ballymacarrett Junction in the vicinity of what is now the ‘Titanic Halt’ when it was struck from behind by the 7.40am motor rail set from Holywood. The carnage that ensued was terrible with thirteen on the passengers in the Bangor train killed instantly and a further nine dying later of their injuries. Happily the Inquiry into the incident reported that the smooth running of the line was back to normal by 5.00 pm!
With heavy hearts we can now leave the Sydenham by-pass with another artificial climb over the rail line which does at least afford a magnificent view of Samson and Goliath, Belfast’s iconic bright yellow cranes. The German giants built over 40 years ago are now largely redundant but were preserved in 1995, in an unusual show of common sense by our politicians, as National Monuments.
The first 10k have passed already and its goodbye to those just running the first leg of the relay. They can now go and lie down on the beach and enjoy the view across Belfast Lough. No, to be honest they can’t but their ancestors 300 years ago could have. You are at Bridge End and the bottom of the Short Strand, also known in Gaelic as ‘an trá Ghearr’, and shortly you will cross the mouth of the Lagan over the Queen’s Bridge. It was here in 1682 that the foundation of the first bridge linking Belfast and the townland of Ballymacarrett was built. The Long Bridge as it was called was 20 feet wide and had 22 arches spanning the crossing. It was finished in time to assist the Duke of Schomberg in getting the Army of King William safely on its journey towards the Boyne.
Having paid ‘homage’ to the East we are heading back to the City Centre where we will pass within 200 metres of our starting point. But there is much to see and contemplate before we reach that point exactly seven miles into our journey.
Down Anne (Lady Donegal) Street and into Victoria Street (need you ask – although it was previously called Cow Lane which begs a question) and on into High Street. But don’t miss (how could you) the Albert Memorial Clock (Victoria’s consort) Belfast’s very own answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Completed in 1869 the clock was, for almost a century, the traditional focus of New Year celebrations with many a bottle smashed against it’s façade. It was also, so I am told, a prominent meeting point for visiting sailors and the ladies of Belfast who plied their trade at night. When I was much younger I used to ‘walk out’ with a girl whose father was the man who wound up the clock and she went on to become the head of the BBC in Northern Ireland while I went on watch the BBC in Northern Ireland. But that as the Wizard said is ‘a horse of a different colour’.
Many a drunken reveller may have thought they had reached saturation point when they observed the lean of the tower but it is real enough due in no small measure to the foundations. Somewhat strangely in this city renowned for its evangelicalism, it was built not on rock but on the soft wet clay that surrounded the quays and the River Farset. And it is along the course of the River Farset, from which our city derives its name ( Béal Feirste, the Mouth of the Farset), that our runners are about to run having turned their back on the statue of Prince Albert half way up the clock tower.
As the runners turn sharp left into High Street there may be some who seek divine guidance or indeed assistance and they are in good company (some would say) as on their left is the church of St. George which began life as the ‘Chapel of the Ford’. A place of worship has existed on this site for over one thousand years and in 1690 William 111, Prince of Orange, paid a visit on his way South and listened to a sermon, the text of which was “Arise, great king….” The chair upon which he sat survives to this day. One hundred years later another great name in the history of Ireland, Henry Joy McCracken one of the leaders of the united Irishmen, paid a visit to be buried following his execution nearby in Cornmarket. He was later reburied in the historic Clifton Street graveyard.
Thankfully in 1786 the City fathers decided to cover over the Farset and enclose the river in a large tunnel and High Street was created, thus allowing the citizens of then and the marathon runners of now to proceed with dry feet towards Castle Junction. It was along High Street that the Sovereigns of Belfast, the precurrsors to the Lord Mayors, and the great and the good would process on the Sabbath to St. George’s. In more recent times it was High Street’s proximity to the docks which made it an easy target for German bombers in 1941 and most of the buildings, especially on the Bridge Street side, were obliterated.
There was little to defend Belfast in those dark days of the Blitz but this was not always the case. Passing through Castle Junction at seven miles, and heading into Castle Street towards the West, there is little evidence of any edifice remotely resembling any such building yet it was here that in the late 12th century the Normans built a castle to protect the city from attack. Unfortunately it was not a great success and in the centuries that followed it was constantly destroyed and re-built until in 1708 it was destroyed by fire. At this point everyone gave up and it was not until 1862 that the third Marquess of Donegall decided to have another go. He enrolled the help of architect Charles Lanyon and, clearly not wanting to be so close to McDonald’s and Primark, he decided to move the castle to his deer park on the slopes of the Cave Hill. Following his death it passed into the hands of Lord Ashley the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Later the ninth Earl became Lord Mayor of Belfast and Chancellor of Queens’ University and in 1934 the Shaftesbury family handed the castle over the City of Belfast in whose care it remains to this day.
As Horace Greeley once said “Go West young man” although the fact that it is also the title of an early episode of Only Fools and Horses might be more appropriate in the circumstances as those lulled into thinking that this is a nice flat course are about to be given a reality check.
Belfast developed at the mouth of the Farset but when it began to expand the topography of the area left little choice but to go upwards either into the Castlereagh or Holywood Hills on one side or towards Cave Hill in the North and Divis and Blackmountain to the West. It is clear that marathon running was not uppermost in the minds of the early settlers. So it is initially towards Divis that we must make our way for the next mile.
On a busy day the Falls Road resembles Maddison Avenue or Broadway (the one in America not the one further up the road) except the taxis are black not yellow. For this is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city and the taxi drivers not only transport the tourists to the right spot but also take on the role of ‘tourist guide’. When measuring the marathon course I generally attempt to get out on my bicycle just as dawn is breaking to avoid the traffic. On my most recent journey with my trusty Jones Counter I saw not a soul as I passed through the centre of the city but as I got to the International Wall at Northumberland Street the Spanish were already there admiring Northern Ireland’s version of Guernica.
Regardless of your political persuasion or none the art of the mural is big business in Belfast and attracts thousands to view them each year. Perhaps the most famous is that commemorating the death of the IRA Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands. Sands was the recognised leader of the protest in Long Kesh and was elected to Westminister while on Hunger Strike. Interestingly, in his youth he was a member of Willowfield Temperance Harriers. The mural is painted on the gable end of Sebastapol Street, which contains a certain irony as the street name commemorates one of the great sieges in British Military history during the Crimea War. After the victory the cascabel (the large ball at the rear of old muzzle loaded guns) of several cannon captured during the siege were brought back to Britain where they were used in the making of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the British Armed Forces!
Gallantry was certainly in evidence in Belfast on Easter Tuesday 15th April 1941 when Belfast was attacked by up to 200 German bombers. The human cost was terrible with nearly a thousand lives lost and the damage to property was devastating. The marathon route has already passed some of the hardest hit areas and there is more to come in the likes of Ballyclare, Ballycastle and Ballynure Streets on the Oldpark Road near the 10 mile mark and Hughenden Avenue at 11 miles.
Belfast was ill prepared for such a bombardment in terms of defences, fire and rescue equipment or indeed facilities to deal with the massive death toll. Help was sought and quickly received from the Irish Republic with fire appliances from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin and Dun Laoghaire rushing to the scene to be followed by others from Scotland. For the dead there was no alternative but to create emergency mortuaries and one of these was the Falls Road Baths. Now the modern glass fronted Falls Leisure Centre on the right hand side of the road, in the days that followed Easter Tuesday 1941 the empty pool held the bodies of in the region of 150 bodies many of whom were never identified and were buried in a mass grave.
Conflict is never far away from this area but nor is conflict resolution and as the course turns right into Clonard Street runners will pass a building steeped in the idea of peace. Indeed on that same night in April 1941 people from both sides of the community flocked to Clonard Monastery to seek and be given shelter.
Clonard Monastery, or the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard to give it its proper title is not a church as most people would define that concept. For here there are no christenings or weddings or funerals, these ceremonies being performed in the surrounding parish churches. The monastery is rather a mission house run by the Redemptionist Order a community of Roman Catholic priests and lay brothers which was founded almost three hundred years ago in Italy by Alphonsus Maria de Liguori a Neapolitan who dedicated his life to working among the poor.
The order first set up in Belfast at the end of the 19th century. The population of the city had during that century exploded from 22,000 at the beginning to 340,000 at the end with people pouring in to manage the growing industrialisation. The vast majority of the people working in the chemical works, foundries, ship yards and mills lived in extreme poverty and religion was a source of solace and promise of a happier after life. The Redemptionists soon set about establishing a permanent home and in 1908 the foundation stone of the present building was laid and subsequently built at a cost of £32,000. Since that time it has been viewed as a haven of peace and reconciliation and numbers among its members the late Alec Reid who played a prominent role in peace talks during the most recent troubles.
It is of course no coincidence that Clonard is involved in this work as it lies in the centre of what is known as interface country. It borders streets like Bombay Street, scene of one of the worst events of the ‘troubles’ in 1969 and one of the many so called peace walls built to separate the two communities. We are about to cross one of these interfaces providing of course that the automatic gates at the end of Lanark Way are not closed! For this is Belfast’s Brandenberg Gate, although admittedly not anything like so imposing, and leads the way from the Falls Road to the Shankill Road across the ‘great divide’. But worry not, those who have forgotten to bring their passports will still be allowed through, provided you are not carrying any liquids or gels. (Ooops sorry that sentence should have been several pages back at George Best City Airport.)
Having arrived safely on the other side we emerge opposite a graveyard! Some who have run the marathon in the past may think I have taken a wrong turning but not so. In 2012 as a result of complaints regarding a section of the course in South Belfast it was necessary to find some extra distance elsewhere and the slight detour on Lanark Way seemed appropriate as instead of by-passing the old Shankill Graveyard we emerge from Mayo Street and have the opportunity of running the length of its front boundary. Appropriate because this graveyard had a big part to play in the participation of one of the runners in the first Belfast City Marathon in 1982.
The runner in question was a man in his seventies called John Henning and this was no ordinary septuagenarian. John Henning was, in his daym one of the greatest long distance runners ever to come out of Northern Ireland.
Born in Lisburn on the 25th September 1908 he was to spend most of his life on the Shankill Road in Belfast. John was a legend in his lifetime and unlike many stars of athletics he was well known outside of the narrow athletics family.
John came to marathon running late in life. His first sporting success was as a boxer and at 18 he was runner up for the Ulster Flyweight title. He also dabbled at soccer with Linfield Swifts Football Club. His early athletics career was as an 18 year old sprinter with Ulsterville Harriers but he soon realized that he had not the necessary innate speed to be successful over the shorter distances so he turned to middle distances and cross country. With Ulsterville he won several team titles including the Malcolm Cup and the Northern Ireland Junior title and, in 1936, gained International honours at Cross Country.
In 1936 he was persuaded by his advisor Dick Murphy to run a long distance road race from Belfast to Whitehead a distance of about 16 miles. Despite his misgivings John won both the open in a time of 1:24.26 and the handicap races defeating in the process East Antrim’s Charlie McCooke and winning two identical clocks! A year later he prematurely retired from athletics because he thought that at 26 he was too old.
In normal circumstances one might think that John by his actions lost out on many international possibilities as a marathon runner. However it must be remembered that Britain was not far from being embroiled in a World War and subsequent cancellation of major events such as the Olympic Games. John turned his hand to greyhound racing, buying and training his own dogs with considerable success. Thus, although not running, he was still staying fit on long training walks with the dogs. His interest in athletics was virtually extinguished.
In 1944 however and at 35 years old John read an article in the local paper about the then Irish Marathon Champion Tom Orr of Willowfield Temperance Harriers. It seems that Orr had no opposition and so John decided, despite the obvious amusement of his wife, that he would challenge the Irish Champion. He resumed his running career with his local club Duncairn Nomads which was based at the corner of Twaddell Avenue and Woodvale Road about a mile from his Battenberg Street home on the Shankill Road.
The Northern Ireland of 1945 was not just a different time it was, to our 21st Century minds, a different planet. It was also a planet that was still engaged in a war which, although moving inexorably towards a conclusion, was none the less claiming the lives of Ulstermen, the obituaries of whom appeared with daily regularity on the pages of local newspapers. As sport in the Province and elsewhere attempted to reinvigorate itself Field Marshall Montgomery was fighting the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, Field Marshall Sir Harold Alexander from Caledon in Co. Tyrone was leading the offensive in Italy and on the other side of the World the Japanese would fight on until August. At home, as well as the local military, the Province was host to not only Allies but also German Prisoners of War.
Alexander, had circumstances been different, might also have been donning his running gutties and putting in some training. The man who was hailed by many as one of the greatest soldiers of all time and was the last Commander to leave the shores of Dunkirk, had in a previous existence been an outstanding athlete. Along with a fellow soldier Major General R.F.B. Naylor, who was Irish Long Jump Champion in 1914, Alexander had represented Ireland Internationally against England and Scotland and had won the Irish Mile title in 4mins 33 secs.
As the new year began and Henning started knocking out his daily 20 miles training runs, Belfast slowly prepared for the victory which was expected in Europe and began to look to the future. Plans were published promising massive investment in improving the city and its infrastructure including a new bridge across the River Lagan alongside the Queen’s Bridge. In Roden Street a new secondary school called Grosvenor Public Elementary was opened to be renamed within a few weeks as Grosvenor High School. The Headmaster was William Moles Esq. MA and the said gentleman was still the incumbent of that position when I took up residence as a pupil thirteen years later when Grosvenor High School moved into a new purpose built building in Cameronian Drive in East Belfast.
In the shops food was scarce but oranges began to make a re-appearance and Ice-cream which had been banned in its pure form was re-introduced but at a greatly inflated price of 6d (2.5 pence). On a Saturday evening John Henning took his wife to his local cinema “The Stadium” which in 1946 opened the year with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon starring in “Madame Currie”. Belfast at this time was awash with cinemas and by the early 50’s the country had gone dance crazy with numerous venues like the Ulster Hall in Bedford Street, the Plaza in Chichester Street the Floral Hall at Bellevue not to mention Betty Staffs, the Opheus and the Mayfair. More likely respite for the Hennings came from the Wireless with its choice of three stations, The Home Service, General Forces and Radio Athlone (an unlikely choice on the Shankill Road.) The dial in Derry Street and later Battenberg Street was most likely on the Home Service of the BBC with “Music While You Work”, “Bleak House” and “Children’s Hour” which lasted forty minutes!
John Henning however had little time available for frivolous entertainment. A strict teetotaller and non- smoker John worked for the Belfast Corporation Cleansing Section doing the night shift from 10.00 pm to 8.00 am five nights a week. His afternoons alternated walking with running between ten to fifteen miles per session. Two evenings a week he coached basketball at Manor Street Boys’ Club and other evenings would find him at the ‘Tech’ furthering the education which he missed as a child or attending meetings of the Linfield ‘Blues’ Supporters Club. The Sabbath was sacrosanct with morning and evening worship at St Mary’s Parish Church on the Crumlin Road with a ‘Sunday School’ class in the afternoon.
The daily evening newspaper, the “Belfast Telegraph”, like most papers of the time reserved the front page for classified adverts. Even the surrender of Germany at 2.41am on the 8th May and the subsequent announcement of the end of War in Europe followed in August by the surrender of Japan did not merit sufficient importance to break with that convention.
John Henning would have celebrated the news of Hitler’s death on the 1st of May as no doubt he would have welcomed the tentative return of the 12th July celebrations later in the year, but his main concern was preparing for his return to competitive running. His return to the sport was not without pain as for months he experienced injuries to ankles and other leg injuries but he persevered and the old form of a decade before began to return. He duly entered the Northern Ireland Marathon Championship and despite not challenging Tom Orr who won in 2:48 John put in a remarkable debut in 2:53.50. A month later he narrowed the gap to three minutes in the AAU (Eire)/NIAAA All Ireland Championships. From that point on John Henning was invincible.
1946 brought Irish and Northern Irish titles with the latter being covered in a new Irish Record time of 2:46.15. He also took the opportunity to test the waters further afield finishing 5th in the Sheffield Marathon. A year later he again won both Irish titles with Irish Records in both events reducing his best to 2:39.51. Sheffield again produced a 5th place but his place on the International scene was cemented on the 3rd May 1947 through the streets of Manchester.
By this time John was covering what, in those days, was prodigious distances in training often doing 140 miles a week. This, it has be said, on six days a week training as, being a committed Christian, Sunday training, let alone competition, was out of the question, a situation which cost him not only valuable training time but many competitive opportunities. Where the modern runner paces him or herself to the sounds of their I-player John recited nursery rhymes and sang hymns especially his favourite “There is a Green Hill Far Away”. His regime consisted of a ten hour night shift at work followed by breakfast and a short sleep before a training run around lunchtime. His runs from his Derry Street home took him far and wide in the city and up into the ‘green far away hills’ above Glencairn and Ligoniel.
The Manchester Marathon in 1947 was held in conjunction with the English Schools Track Championships and John lined up with 35 other starters. Reaching 20 miles in 2:01.35 with three time ‘Poly’ Champion Leslie Griffiths, John soon forged ahead and finished nearly 12 minutes clear of the opposition in 2:45.37.
‘Across the water’ success was to continue the following year with victory at the third attempt in Sheffield and a further victory in Liverpool. At home he won the third of an amazing nine consecutive Northern Ireland Titles and the scene seemed set for John to don a British vest in the London Olympics of that year. Disaster however was to befall him in the Olympic Trial held in conjunction with the ‘Poly’ Marathon.
John’s preparations for the Olympic trials were hampered somewhat by the austerity of life in Belfast still reeling from the war and still getting by on ration books. Initially he was helped by his family supplying him with extra eggs which he eat raw and this was later supplemented by food parcels from Australia. The era of specially designed distance running footwear was still a long way down the line and John, like his competitors, wore rubber plimsoles with wafer thin soles purchased from Woolworths and costing two old shillings. These shoes wore out easily and often resulted in burning feet and blisters.
Marathon preparation and participation in the modern era has no shortage of gurus offering all manner of advice on every aspect of what they perceive as the ‘science of running.’ In 1948 life was more simple and was based primarily on the ethos of hard work. Certainly John Henning had never heard of the concept of tapering and the week before the London trials he prepared for the big event by running the Isle of Man TT course, a distance of 38 miles including the climb over Snafell. He then returned to a week’s work before making his way to London.
There was to be no Easy Jet fright to Gatwick nor indeed an HSS from Dublin to Holyhead. On Friday night John would walk up the gangplank of the overnight Liverpool Ferry and spend an uncomfortable few hours in a four berth cabin before embarking at the Docks, opposite the Liver Bird, in the early hours of Saturday morning. A walk up to Lime Street Station was required to catch the train to the Capital and further public transport to the start at Windsor Castle where he arrived just 90 minutes before the start!
For the first hour of the race Henning followed the advice of his then coach Sam Ferris and kept a relaxed pace. Just before the halfway mark however disaster struck. John, who had always suffered from poor eyesight, found himself off course having followed an unofficial cyclist. There were of course no crowds stretched along the course and no competitors around him to warn him of his error. By the time he realized his error and returned to the course the leaders Jack Holden, Tom Richards and Stan Jones were well clear.
Undeterred John took off swiftly trying to close the gap knowing that only the first three would gain automatic selection. Amazingly, as he approached the White City Stadium, another errant cyclist led John to the wrong entrance. Yet even then when he rectified his error he entered the stadium to find Welshman Jones still on the track with half a lap to go. The gap was too great and John Henning finished in the dreaded fourth place. Despite pleading from several sources the selectors refused to consider the extenuating circumstances and John Henning’s Olympic hopes were dashed. He returned home to Belfast devastated and the disappointment remained with him for the rest of his life.
A lesser man having reached the age of forty would have called it a day but although bitterly disappointed John carried on and looked for greater challenges. In 1949 he repeated his Sheffield win running the final six miles in bare feet and finishing in 2:38.15. As well as six more Northern Ireland Titles and three Irish more titles, including an Irish National and All Comers Record of 2:33.22 in 1950, John also achieved major honours in London, Liverpool, and Bristol.
Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of John Henning, not even Northern Ireland Railways. One of his Northern Ireland Championship courses crossed the railway line close to Ballyclare. The crossing was controlled by barriers and during one of John’s victories he was ahead of schedule and found the gates closed and the train approaching. Undeterred John climbed the gates and continued on his way. Nowadays he would inevitably be arrested!
In 1952 John decided that the 26 miles 385 yards was a bit on the short side so he entered the ‘other world’ of the Ultras. He began with the famous London to Brighton race from Big Ben to the coast, a distance of 53 miles. Once again John put himself at the mercy of the Irish Sea and sadly little mercy was shown. After a very rough over-night crossing John eventually arrived in London at 2.30pm on the afternoon following his departure from home. The runners left Westminister Bridge on a cold and windy morning to the chimes of Big Ben striking 7.00 am. Despite the weather conditions and the strong winds which buffeted the runners over the final 15 miles D. E. Reynolds of Blackheath Harriers broke the course record in 5 hours 52 mins 22 secs.
Despite being a novice at this discipline Henning finished in third place in 6 hours 9 minutes 50 secsonds nearly nine minutes faster than the winning time the previous year. . Thereafter John was a regular on the Isle of Man TT Course, – without a motorbike - winning the veterans title for the 40 miles hilly course on nine occasions.
While the athletic world was well aware of his exploits John was also to become a legend with supporters of his former soccer club Linfield. Not only was he a regular supporter at Windsor Park, Linfield’s home ground, but he travelled to all the away matches – on foot. In 1954 he ran to Derry (80 miles) in 10 hrs 20m; to Coleraine (60 miles) in 7 hours 30m and to Cushendall (50 miles) in 5 hour 45m timing his runs so as to be able to do a lap of the ground before kick off. He also created a link with the past by taking on a solo attempt at breaking the time set by Walter Furlonger for the Belfast to Lurgan run. Setting out from the Belfast Variety Market John reached the War Memorial in Lurgan in 3 hours and 1 minute erasing seven minutes from the ‘record’.
It was not only on the roads that he was running prodigious distances. At Motspur Park in London he took part in an ultra track event and broke the existing World Record figures for 40 miles (4:21.38) and 50 miles (5:35.19). A remarkable performance made all the more astonishing by the fact that he ran 200 laps of the track totally unaware of lap times and completed the entire 50 miles without any hydration!
Although the end of his International career this was not the end of John Henning’s remarkable achievements. In 1960 he decided to celebrate his 50th birthday by running to Ravenhill Grounds, now the home of Ulster Rugby, from the Mansion House in Dublin a distance of 108 miles! His plan as he left O’Connell Street at 11.00 pm on that Friday night in August was to reach Ravenhill the following afternoon during the Belfast Highland Games where he would be greeted by a large crowd of thousands. This was in the days before energy gels, water stations and Lucozade Sport. During his 16 hour 20 minute journey John simply stopped at Dundalk for a cup of tea.
By the time I joined Duncairn Nomads in the early 1960’s John Henning was in his late fifties and, as far as I was concerned, an old man. I was a budding middle distance runner who did a bit of cross country but at the Nomads the training was simple. The training run began up Twaddell Avenue and went up to the Ballysillan Road – climbing all the way. Then it was a switch back run over the Ballysillan with various distance options available for the return journey. The ten mile run took us down to the Antrim Road and out towards Glengormley before a quick turn at the Hazelwood Steps to the Belfast Zoo and back the same way.
My baptism of fire on this course was in the company of the ‘old man’ John Henning so I expected an easy ride. As we turned back onto the Ballysillan with three miles of hills to go John inquired after my health. “How are you feeling ‘Maxie’” (his term of address for all and sundry). “I’m feeling a bit rough”, I gasped, the pace being way beyond what I had anticipated. That was the last I saw of John until I staggered back to the club-house a chastened young man!
However, once again, I digress. Back to the graveyard. Because it was here in 1982 that John Henning did his training for the inaugural Belfast City Marathon. By now living in Battenberg Street just down the road John took advantage of the landscaping that was taking place to revitalise what had become a very run down graveyard. A lap of about a quarter of a mile was possible and by the end of his preparation for the big day John had progressed to doing 50 laps. He duly lined up with the other 3011 participants and unlike nearly a thousand of that number he kept going to the end. Three years later he lined up again, this time at Buckingham Palace to receive the MBE from Queen Elizabeth. I often wondered if he told her he had met he her Mum back in 1948 at the start of the AAA’s marathon.
But before we leave the graveyard behind there are a few other items worthy of notice. Running alongside the site is one of the few places where it is still possible to see the Farset River which we ran along a few miles back in High Street. The graveyard has served as a last resting place for nearly a thousand years before burials were stopped in 1866 and over the next century the graveyard became overgrown and neglected not to mention vandalised. It was taken over by Belfast Corporation (now the City Council) and turned into a Garden of Rest. There remains evidence of some who lie here including the founder of the Belfast Telegraph, William Baird: John Brown of the 17th Lancers who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade and died in Belfast 6 years later; and a poignant reminder of the horrors of War can be found on the gravestone of Private 2nd Class Walter Ambrose of the Royal Air Force who died in November 1918 at the age of 14 years and seven months having lied about his age to gain entry to the First World War!
We spend a very short time on the Shankill as we head North along Tennent Street and past the third Police Station on the route. Onwards through the mêlée of the relay changeover and towards the Oldpark Road which splits an area known formerly as the Marrowbone or still locally as the Bone. It is here that we pass those unfortunate streets mentioned earlier pounded by Hitler’s bombers. This is a time for being in the zone and girding your loins as this is the steepest climb on the whole route taking you to the ten mile mark at the entrance to the Marrowbone Millenium Park and glorious views of Divis and Blackmountain.
For a while you can relax and roll down to the Circus but don’t be looking for any clowns for this is Cliftonville Circus, as in Picadilly not Duffy’s, and the only clowns are likely to be relay runners in fancy dress. The Circus is the home of one of Belfast’s oldest Harrier clubs, North Belfast, which has and does produce its fair share of top marathon runners.
The course continues to drop down Westland Road from where, should the spirt move you, you could pay a visit to the Belfast Waterworks. Nowadays it is best known as the home of Northern Ireland’s original and largest parkrun which follows a course around the two tiered reservoirs. In the latter part of the 19th century these were for a short time the source of Belfast’s water before the increasing population demanded a much greater source which was to be found in the Mournes.
Despite this it was still seen as a major target for German bombers and is no doubt responsible for the massive destruction in the surrounding areas due to ill aimed bombs. Thankfully tranquillity now prevails and the loudest noise is that of the large collection of wildfowl, including a black swan, demanding food from the many daily visitors.
Hopefully revitalised by the downhill mile it is time once again to get out the crampons, breathe deeply from the oxygen mask and search in vain for the cable car because it is climbing time again and for the next two and a half miles it is ‘onwards and upwards’ all the way. There are however compensations on the way for the observant and the imaginative.
Just beyond the impressive stone pillars at the entrance to Fortwilliam Park and before you reach the ‘windy gap’ of Bearnageeha or St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha, we catch our first, almost, uninterrupted view of Napoleon’s Nose, or the Cave Hill, 370 metres above sea level. Long before ‘Bony’ was Emperor of France and anyone knew about his big hooter the hill was known as Madigan’s hill or Beann Mhadagain in the original Gaelic. Thus the plethora of Ben Madigan references as we progress up the Antrim Road. What was once the deer park of the Donegall’s is now the Cave Hill Country Park with the Belfast Castle as the centrepiece. The view of the Castle see in old photograph is now enveloped in houses and trees.
It is at two of the Ben Madigan’s (Park and Park South) that we see the welcome signs of the timing mats that signify the half way point and the even more welcome knowledge that there is less than a mile to go before we start to descend. There is very little to see during this dark tree lined twisting section of the road. But use your other senses for beyond the trees and high stone wall on your left lies danger and the sounds and smells can be a giveaway. For within 200 metres of where you run live lions and tigers and bears.
The Belfast Zoo was opened on 28th March 1934 at the cost of £10,000 and was an instant hit with the population, Access was gained via a steep and long flight of steps which, although no longer in use, can still be seen today (just). During the years that followed the animal population was increased many of them arriving by ship from England. One of the large arrivals via the Heysham steamer was Daisy the elephant who had the opportunity of previewing the marathon route as she was walked from the docks to her new home!
Sadly for some of the more dangerous animals their stay at the zoo was short lived – literally. The destruction caused by the air-raids in 1941 caused the authorities to panic that a mis-placed device might result in dangerous animals escaping. Their solution was to order the execution of 33 animals! Several elephants survived the cull and one, a baby named Sheila, was surreptitiously taken home each evening by a lady zoo keeper. The story of the ‘elephant in the garden’ was later to inspire a novel of that name by Michael Morpurgo, most famous for his World War 1 story of “War Horse”.
As with the first couple of hundred metres of the course this is also an area for romantic septuagenarians who can still remember their youth and once again you may hear a wistful ‘I met my wife up there’. Although it is possible, it is unlikely that the reference is related to a romantic encounter outside the elephant enclosure. More likely is that runner down memory lane is referring to the Floral Hall which still stands in the grounds of Belfast Zoo although now a sad and desolate shadow of what was once the “Ballroom of Romance.” Thousands flocked to the Floral to smootch under the large glitter ball in the centre of the ceiling listening to the bands of the time including the great Dave Glover Showband and Muriel Day. In later years the twirling around the floor got quicker as the Flo became a roller skating rink where you could literally fall for the one you loved.
The area surrounding the zoo is known as Belleview and the ‘beautiful view’ in question will soon become apparent as we take a sharp right turn and head for the shore. Set out before you is a magnificent (depending on the weather) view across Belfast Lough to Bangor and Holywood and further beyond, if you are lucky, to Scotland. Below in the distance is the spire of Star of the Sea Church, just one and a half miles away as the crow flies. Unfortunately for us the M2 motorway which opened in October 1966 will cause us to detour which will add a mile to that distance. The good news is that it is all downhill – the bad news is that the first part is very steeply downhill.
Before reaching the Star of the Sea and the turn for home the runners will pass the ‘ringfort of the secluded place’ or the Rathcoole Estate as it is more commonly known. Built in the 1950’s and once the largest housing estate in Europe it has produced its share of local personalities, most prominently a string of leading soccer players like Jimmy Nicholl, Alan McDonald, Billy Hamilton and Jonny Evans. But 16 miles have passed and the smell of the sea beckons.
A sharp right hand turn takes us into Whitehouse Park and immediately across the railway line which connects Belfast and Scotland via the Larne to Cairnryan Ferry. The road slopes gently down and passes as the name might suggest the White House. No longer white the stone walled building is the result of a dedicated restoration project which finally got underway in 2008. The new building is just the most recent structure on the site which has seen habitation for at least 450 years.
It made its first appearance on a map entitled “Cragfergus Baie” in 1569-70. The ‘Baie’ in the title is what we now refer to as Belfast Lough but in the 16th century Carrickfergus was a much more important and strategic town. So strategic that it was here in June 1690 that William Prince of Orange landed and prepared to make his journey south to Drogheda and the Boyne. The first point of call on his journey was at the White House to rendezvous with his Generals including General Schomberg who had landed just across the water a year earlier and after having captured Antrim proceeded to rout the castle in Carrickfergus making way for King Billy. On reflection it seems a long way round but I suppose he had time to spare.
We are not quite finished with remembering 1690. As we pass the White House and swing left we enter Gideon’s Green. Given the Evangelical fervour of many of the locals one could be forgiven in thinking that small parkland area is a tribute to Gideon the son of Joash, the Great Destroyer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is however named after one of William the Third’s scribes, Gideon Bonnivert. Bonnivert was a Huguenot and a cavalry soldier who would a month later write an account of the Battle of the Boyne, a rare insight in those days of war seen through the eyes of a private soldier. Before that however he described the journey into Belfast which our gallant runners are about to follow. It is unlikely on this narrow and somewhat isolated section of the course that the runners will encounter many spectators and one can only hope that if they do the females will display a little more decorum than that experienced by Bonnivert.
“We landed at the White House, where we saw on our arrival great numbers of poor people. The women are not very shy of exposing to men’s eyes those parts which are usual for the sex to hide. We went that night to Belfast which is a large and pretty town, and all along the road you see an arm of the sea upon your left and on the right great high rocky mountains, which tops are often hidden by the clouds, and at the bottom a very pleasant wood, and very full of simples of all sorts.”
The arm of the sea still lies on your left and having run along waterfronts in several marathons in Europe it has to be said that the two miles or so alongside Belfast Lough compares very favourably with any of them. Looking straight ahead it is evident how Belfast is situated in the valley of the River Lagan and on a good day the source of the river on Slieve Croob is clearly visible. Whether you will agree with Bonnivert’s assessment of the Cave Hill as a ‘great high rocky mountains’ is questionable and as for his assessment that the population living on its slopes are ‘simples of all sorts’ – it does seem a bit harsh!
Leaving the cycle path at 19 miles the next couple of miles are best ignored. Suffice to say they wend their way through some of the most dreary and soul destroying roads in the city with the dreaded, if generally mythical, 20 mile marathon ‘wall’ in the middle. If the area has a redeeming factor it can only be that it is the main thoroughfare to the ferry terminals so at least you can dream of holidays past or future.
Civilisation is reached again as we approach the melee which constitutes the final change over for the relay runners. Welcome to Sailor Town! This is the heart of dockland from where for centuries men and women have serviced the export and import of goods from and to all parts of the globe. Like many other ports around the world however the dockland has lost much of its original purpose and has undergone a transformation aimed at encouraging up-market and trendy office buildings built in and around the massive Clarendon Dry Docks. If some of your fellow runners appear nervous approaching the entrance to the area it is likely that they are teachers fearful not of the short stretch of cobbled roadway around the corner but the proximity of the Northern Ireland Examinations body (CCEA) Headquarters containing the coursework of their pupils parcelled and ready for marking.
Leaving the short detour into Clarendon Docks the runners pass the magnificent headquarters of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Harbour Office. Opened in 1854 this building, built in the style of an Italian palazzo, houses beautiful marble mosaic floors and impressive stained glass windows depicting industry, commerce and enterprise, together with the coats of arms of many ports and cities with which the City of Belfast has traded in the past. Just beside it is a building of a similar vintage but a different purpose. While the harbour Commissioners looked after the safety of the ships the Sinclair Seamans’ Presbyterian Church looked after their souls. The interior of the church is designed to make visiting seamen feel at home with the pulpit the shape of a ships prow and among the maritime artefacts is the bell of HMS Hood a pre First World War Sovereign-class battleship built in the 1890s and which suffered the indignity of being sunk as a blockship in Portland harbour in 1914.
And so back to the confines of the city and the potential of spectators. But first Queen’s Quay and Custom House Square and a chance to see the Albert Clock from the reverse side and at the near end the Calder Fountain the oldest watering hole for horses in the city. In between is a more modern reminder of the existence of the Farset River and one which is a great favourite with children and late night revellers. A line of 84 water jets, all individually controlled, provides a dazzling display of very increasing and ever more frenzied funnels of water which just demand an attempt (usually unsuccessful) to run through unscathed.
A more sedate work of art is on display on the river side of the road and it is one which deserves more than the passing glance possible at this stage of a marathon.
The big Blue Fish has become, since its appearance in 1999, a modern icon of the city. Sculpted by World renowned Belfast born artist John Kindness, the surface of the fish is covered in ceramic tiles depicting snippets of Belfast’s history from Tudor times to the modern day. And if modern art is your thing then you need only look ahead and up for your next fix for just as you re-cross the road at Queen’s Bridge, where 15 miles ago you were feeling hale and hearty’ you cannot fail to see the Thanksgiving Statue gazing across the Lagan towards Ballymacarrett. If you decide to try and find your way back for a closer look later on don’t however ask for the sculpture by its proper name as few in the city will know what you are talking about. Mention the ‘Thing with the Ring’ or ‘Nuala with the Hula’ and the World and his Ma will send you in the right direction.
For those former citizens of the City of Belfast who have returned recently either on holiday or to resume life in this home city it perhaps this area which best captures the changes that have transformed Belfast in the last two decades. Lanyon Place, which contains the Waterfront Hall, the Hilton Hotel and various major office blocks, is the jewel in the crown of the Laganside Development Corporation. Those with longer memories however will always remember the name of Oxford Street as the focal point of the maelstrom that struck Belfast on the afternoon of Friday 21st July 1972. In a period of 90 minutes the city was ravaged by upwards of twenty separate and major explosions the worst of which centred on the Oxford Street Bus Depot where six people lost their lives including 15 year Billy Crothers recently ‘discovered’ by Bob Bishop the same scout who recommended George Best to Manchester United.
Runners could be forgiven in thinking they have entered a maze as the next half mile requires no less than seven right angle turns, past what used to be the site of the Belfast Mortuary, before emerging from beneath the railway bridge and on to the bank of the River Lagan. For the next mile the course follows the meandering river upstream with the silence only broken by the sound of the U105 broadcaster encouraging the runners up to the finish line. Sadly, for our runners, although the welcome sign of the gantry is only 200 metres away, the river is in the way and, although a bridge is planned for the future, another three miles 365 yards is required before the medal is draped around your neck.
Meanwhile you can at least be thankful that the air is clear and fresh and there is not a smell of gas to savage your olfactory senses. Gas you say, what is the man talking about? Well growing up in East Belfast in the 1950’s gas played an important part in life. Directly outside my house was a gas manlted lamp which required turning on at night and turning off in the morning by the gaslighter. In the house we always had to have money on hand for the gas metre and the horns of the lamp-post directly outside my front door provided an excellent anchor for a rope which allowed you to swing round and round the post, occasionally coming to an abrupt and painful stop if you went in too close.
But what has this to do with our current recreation of running alongside the River Lagan? The answer is that this is where the gas came from. On our right the Gasworks Business Park was the former site of the Belfast Gas Works and housed the massive black gasometres which overshadowed the entire area. The gasworks began life in 1822 and 30 years later a new manager was appointed to save the company from financial difficulties. His name was James Stelfox. Amazingly the name of Stelfox is still associated with the new gasworks area. Better known as Dawson Stelfox the world renowned architect and the first Irishman to stand on the top of Everest has his offices in the same area as his illustrious great grandfather.
Belfast is, as you will have already discovered on your journey, awash with street art and in particular art which uses as its canvas the gable end of houses. The vast majority of these are of a political or sectarian nature but the Belfast Marathon course offers runners perhaps the most esoteric of the city’s thought provoking art works. Situated just before the runners leave Cycle-path 9 the artist poses a question which will allow serious and extensive cogitation for the remaining two and a bit miles.
It is useful at this stage to have something to take you mind off final challenge, the sting in the tail of the climb up the Ormeau Road. Formerly known as the Old Ballynafeigh Road the road climbs gently for nearly a mile with a final short and steep stretch, just after the final police station of the course, catching out those who have been over optimistic in the early part of the race. Thankfully what goes up must come down and following an almost 360 degree turn the Ravenhill Road stretches straight and true before you, dropping all the way almost to the finish.
The race and the history lesson are almost over, for both of which you are undoubtedly thankful! However I am sure you would not want to miss out on a passing reference to Sherlock Holmes and Ian Kyle Paisley. The latter connection is easy enough to figure out as you cannot miss the Martyr’s Memorial Free Presbyterian Church at the corner of Ardenlee Avenue. Built in 1969 it was the largest Protestant church built in the British Isles in the 20th Century and was. until very recently. the spiritual home of Northern Ireland’s former First Minister and most controversial clergyman.
But what of Sherlock Holmes? Well for that we need to look not to the church but to the golf course directly opposite. Ormeau Park Golf Course is one of the oldest courses in Ireland founded as it was over a century ago in 1893. Over the years this nine hole course has played host to many famous personalities including the 1947 British open Champion Fred Daly and, more pertinent to this potted history, Arthur Conan Doyle the author and creator of the world’s most famous detective.
And so to the Ormeau Embankment and final ‘sprint’ into Ormeau Park. Although as the proverbial crow flies we are three quarters of a mile from our starting point it could be argued that historically we have travelled full circle. Those of you who are still awake may well remember that back at the start I mentioned the importance of the Chichester/Donegall family to the history of Belfast. The land on which the finish line is situated was formerly part of the family estate and became their home in 1807 when they moved to Ormeau Cottage from their home in Donegall Place. The building was extended by George Chichester, 2nd Marquess of Donegall who lived there until his death in 1844. Unfortunately for the family George’s recreational activities while of a sporting nature were more a case of expending money rather than energy and his inveterate gambling left behind massive debts. Thus in 1869 the estate was purchased by the Belfast Corporation and two years later was opened as a public park.
The area has seen significant changes over the years and in particular in the area close to the main gate. The land on which the Ozone and Tennis Centre now stands was originally a boating lake and more recently the area behind the centre was an enclosed athletics track. The Ormeau Park track had a cinder surface and in the 1960’s and seventies it played host to a variety of events ranging from local school’s Sports Days through to full International meetings featuring some of Britain’s leading athletes. It also hosted the first ever Steeplechase event in the country attracting a large crowd and considerable press interest hoping for a ‘what happened next’ disaster at the water jump. To my extreme embarrassment they were not to be disappointed!
The track was also the finishing point for one of the Province’s annual highlights, the Lagan Valley Relay. This event, which started at the Albert Clock in the City, involved teams of twelve runners wending their way for over sixty miles through Lisburn, Moira, Banbridge, Hillsborough and back to Belfast via the Hillhall Road to finish with a lap of the track. The event sadly succumbed to the proliferation of the internal combustion engine but the spirit of the event remains today in and around the Park which provides a venue for a multitude of running events like the Joe Seeley, the Laganside and, most recently the Ormeau parkrun.