Boats could ply the River Lagan once again under ambitious new plans proposed by Belfast, Castlereagh and Lisburn councils.
Work has already started to restore some of the locks closest to the mouth of the river and the hope is that eventually vessels could make their way from the Irish Sea, up the river and canal system to Lough Neagh and beyond into the old Ulster Canal and the Shannon-Erne system which opens into canals throughout the Republic.
The Lagan Navigation was created in the 18th century and once formed a spoke in a network of canals including the Newry Canal, Coalisland Canal and Ulster Canal, centring on Lough Neagh and plied by lighters carrying coal, tiles, wheat, manure and turf across Northern Ireland.
More than half a million people have used the Lagan towpath over the last couple of years — more than use the Giant’s Causeway — and restoration of the navigation could open up the now disused canals to walkers and cyclists, while reviving settlements that first grew up round the waterways.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Jim Edgar of Belfast City Council revealed plans to replace the unsightly pen weir at Stranmillis with an iconic gateway lock, cascade weir and pedestrian bridge with mooring, slipways and jetties allowing access to a Visitors Centre.
If the funding can be secured, this scheme will get the go-ahead, along with a series of projects along the course of the Lagan that will see it re-opened to navigation from Lagan Weir up to Edenderry.
At the moment stonemasons are busy restoring the old lock chamber at Lock 3, just outside the Lockkeepers Cottage, which has been transformed into a cafe in Lagan Regional Park.
“It’s part of the heritage being restored in front of you and you can grab your coffee and go and watch them,” Mr Edgar said.
“The overall vision is the see the eventual opening up of the River Lagan and canal system right from Belfast and the Lagan Weir through to Lough Neagh and the old Ulster Canal. If we could open up our stretch and the Ulster Canal opened, you could link Belfast with Enniskillen, Limerick — all of a sudden you would have an all island network.
“We have to focus on what is do-able in the short to medium term — what can we do with our partners in Castlereagh and Lisburn which are part of a bigger restoration trust with the view that we restore the river right through to Lough Neagh.
“As part of that, we are taking the first step of carrying out an economic appraisal of opening Lagan Weir through to Edenderry — we see that as the first viable focus. Within that phase we have to look at proposals for having a lock at Lagan Weir, opening the old weir at Stranmillis, looking at locks 2 and 3.”
The proposals, outlined in a new glossy brochure, also propose restoring Lock 2 at Moreland’s Meadow in Lagan Valley Regional Park, by constructing a new control weir, refurbishing the lock and clearing the channel.
“We’re looking at all these little pieces along this stretch of river and we’re hoping they will be part of a domino effect that other things will begin to happen,” Mr Edgar said.
- Lock 1 at Stranmillis is known as Molly Ward’s after the 18th century Stranmillis tavern. The site of the house is now home to Stranmillis Boat Club and the ruins can be seen at Cutter’s Wharf car park.
- The ruins of the old lock house are still visible at Lock 7, known as McQuiston’s.
- A bleach green was |established in 1626 between the river and canal at Lock 9.
- Lock 10 at Hilden is the site of one of the last working mills in Ireland.
- The Union Locks (14-17) are a flight of four locks built to overcome a difference of eight metres in level between the Lagan and channel linking it to Lough Neagh.