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An Eden in Belfast's Holyland... Wildflower Alley was the first, now regenerated entries are springing up all over city

Brid Ruddy on why these peaceful, green spaces are a godsend... particularly in these times of lockdown

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Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Wildflower Alley

Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Wildflower Alley, a gated entry in the Holyland area of south  Belfast

Wildflower Alley, a gated entry in the Holyland area of south Belfast

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Eileen Captain in Ardoyne

Eileen Captain in Ardoyne

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Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

BELFAST'S alleyways have had a bad press down the years - but all that is changing with a growing number of residents turning them into gorgeous outdoor spaces.

And with stringent coronavirus restrictions in place again amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, they are increasingly providing safe, green havens where people can socialise safely in the vicinity of their own homes.

Talk to people of a certain vintage and they remember alleyways fondly as innocent play areas during the war years and in the decades that followed, overrun with kids and their pretend shops, 'selling' stones in jam jars wrapped in sweetie papers.

But those recollections have long since given way to a darker perception of alleyways as magnets for squalor and crime.

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Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Strewn with rubbish and glass, disfigured by graffiti and left to rot, they've provided cover for the more undesirable aspects of city living; of shady drug deals, underage drinking and even prostitution.

Moreover, during the Troubles, they suffered yet more reputational damage as a place where loyalist and republican vigilantes meted out beatings, kneecappings and murder.

But as the conflict years recede ever further into the distance, many people feel it's time to reimagine and make better use of these hitherto unloved spaces.

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Wildflower Alley

Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Wildflower Alley

People like Brid Ruddy, whose Wildflower Alley off the Ormeau Road, complete with apple and pear trees, is the benchmark for this brand of inner-city regeneration.

"If you ask about the entries, you will get a lot of people, especially older people, talking about how the kids loved to play wee shops in them," explains Brid.

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Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Brid Ruddy at Wildflower Alley

"So I knew from playing my wee shop all those years ago that they can be very social and communal spaces.

"I've been involved in regeneration for 20 years and I was thinking of a regeneration project, how would you regenerate the area.

"So anyway, we did ours five years ago. We had an alley running behind our three streets in the Holyland, and we're the area in the Holyland that residents actually live in, rather than the HMO (student housing) area.

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Wildflower Alley, a gated entry in the Holyland area of south  Belfast

Wildflower Alley, a gated entry in the Holyland area of south Belfast

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Wildflower Alley, a gated entry in the Holyland area of south Belfast

"The alley was like a dumping ground. There was everything going on there, dumping, drug-dealing, prostitution, so I started to lobby for gates.

"That took four years, eventually we got gates, (we were) one of the very first to get gates, and once we got gates, I went to the statutory bodies and said, 'Look, there's a whole lot of reclaimed land here, it's quite a big area, what could we do with it?"

Brid began looking around for inspiration and found it on the far side of the pond.

"The council came back and said they'd no idea so I started to have a look around and there are green alleyways in Chicago," says Brid.

"Apparently Chicago is one of the most green cities around, so I was wondering would that be possible in our alley.

"We have a residents' association, I put it to them and we literally just got our brushes, spades and shovels and cleared out all the rubbish that was there and developed it with flowers, hanging baskets, anything in the house that you didn't want and could be used outside, old chairs... it's important to have chairs to sit on so people can go out and have a natter.

"During lockdown, we can do social distancing in a private environment. Also, we've had people who were seriously ill and they could come back after having radio or chemo and just sit out in a quiet space.

"You have no idea how quiet it is; people say they can't believe this is in the Holyland and you wouldn't believe it's in a city.

"So with the streets so congested and too busy for kids to play out on the street, they can play in the alleyways now, it just creates a whole new green environment where people can relax, it's such a simple thing and it's just taken off like wildfire.

"It's just a lovely relaxing space and when the sun is shining, we didn't really need to go anywhere during lockdown."

Brid insists this can be done on the cheap so it's not a class thing, merely an exercise in improving the quality of life for the people who live there.

"We did ours, then the lower Ormeau did one, then Ardoyne did one, that's where I'm originally from, they did a couple of alleys, then there's one in west Belfast, the Three Sisters, and now they are popping up all over the Ormeau Road," she says.

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Eileen Captain in Ardoyne

Eileen Captain in Ardoyne

Eileen Captain in Ardoyne

"People just find it very satisfying, it's what you call in sociological terms, defensible space. You've got your gates, you've got your safety, strangers can't really get in, everyone has got a key."

Indeed, gates are central to the success of this, and to that end, SDLP councillors Gary McKeown and Séamas De Faoite are urging City Hall to get behind the initiative by cutting red tape.

"There might be nice areas where people don't get anti-social behaviour but we had drug-dealing, robberies, all that," adds Brid.

"The gates are actually called safety gates, they are for your safety and to cut down crime." For their part, Gary and his Alliance colleague Séamas are pushing for greater buy-in from the council. "All the alleys have been used for is storing bins, and it can attract anti-social behaviour, so it's about revitalising and revolutionising how these alleys are used," says Gary.

"So we are working very closely with residents and supporting them and trying to do everything we can to encourage it because it's fantastic.

"There is an existing alley-gate programme, which is there to stop anti-social behaviour and crime, which is fine, there is a waiting list for that.

"But what we are trying to do is set up separate arrangements for people who are taking over their own alleys and improving them, to meet them halfway because if they are developing this sustainable space for their community, I feel we should be giving them the protection they need to enhance it further.

"If you have a nice space out the back, you can meet people and it's good for your mental health, your physical health and it's good for the environment and reduces the impact on council because there is less cleaning up to do.

"You don't need big money to do it, you just need a bit of creativity, leadership and get-up-and-go."

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