Peter Donnelly, Editor
The ‘Lagan Gateway’ project in Belfast has been described as a “historic” achievement, after it reached its final stages at the end of last month, edging closer to its completion deadline of April 2021.
A long-time in the making, the ‘Lagan Gateway’ will see a fixed link, over the River Lagan, connecting the lower Stranmillis area, in South Belfast with the Annadale Embankment in East Belfast.
The focal point of the project is the 3-span, 70 metres-long bridge which, once opened, will allow walkers and cyclists to travel over the River Lagan from Stranmillis in the south of Belfast to Annadale in the East. On the South Belfast side, the ‘Gateway’ will also function as an offshoot to the existing Lagan Towpath, which follows the River Lagan through the picturesque trails linking Stranmillis with the Lagan Valley Regional Park and then on to Lisburn.
A new canal lock, (at the site of the old ‘Lock No.1’ at Stranmillis weir), is also in the process of being constructed. It is said that the lock will be the first of its kind on the Lagan Navigation corridor in almost 250 years and will facilitate smaller boats and vessels sailing from Belfast to Lisburn; as it had been up until one century ago.
The Stranmillis stretch of the Lagan is notable from its original Irish translation, An Sruthán Milis (the ‘sweet stream’), which is thought to refer to the point at which the River Lagan ceases to be tidal.
The ‘Lagan Gateway’ is one of a number of long-term regeneration initiatives and structural enhancements focused on the wider Lagan Navigation network.
Belfast City Council have also stated that the overall ‘Lagan Gateway’ scheme further includes:
- the development of a navigation lock;
- refurbishment of the existing weir and;
- new, high quality landscaping and path connections on each side of the River’s banks
The Lagan Navigation Trust has amonsgt its core objectives the preservation and improvement of the walkways and locks along the River Lagan. The Trust has said the ‘Lagan Gateway’ will go some way to recreating one of Ulster’s arterial working waterways which opened in the early 1760’s.
The surrounding area, where the construction site is currently located, had once been plagued by anti-social behaviour for many years. It is anticipated therefore that the ‘Lagan Gateway’ project will go some way toward meeting the objectives of revitalising and boosting investment in and around the Stranmillis/Lockview Road area.
A large-scale, bulk excavation operation was initially undertaken on the Annadale embankment side to remove the dense, overgrown foilage which hindered access to the river bank. From the latter months of 2019, up until November of last year, lorries and plant machinery, including heavy duty trackmachine diggers, could be seen entering and exiting the construction area, opening the new routes which now lead to the current site of the bridge.
In most recent months, the reduced sight of diggers and the appearance of cranes have provided a welcome signal that the project is finally reaching its concluding phase.
Many Rivers To Cross
The £4.8 million project, which received planning permission in July 2017, had itself many rivers to cross, experiencing its own fair share of stumbles and setbacks, after its completion date was initally planned for Winter 2019. The Lagan Group successfully bidded for the contract and continued with the project despite its predecessor, Lagan Construction, going into administration in February 2018.
The Lagan Group’s specialist civil engineering arm, Charles Brand; a name synonyous with some of Northern Ireland’s most iconic marine engineering projects, including the Ben Crom Reservoir in the Mourne Mountains, near Kilkeel and Belfast City’s Queen Elizabeth II bridge in the 1960’s, oversaw the ‘Lagan Gateway’s’ construction from commencement to its currently nearing conclusion. Subcontractors included County Tyrone firm McMackin Contracts Ltd, Woodburn Engineering Ltd from Carrickfergus and Quigley Crane Services Ltd from Limavady.
Up to half of the project’s investment came from Belfast City Council’s Belfast Investment Fund. The Council’s partners and sponsors of the project included the Department for Communities, Department for Infrastructure, Ulster Garden Villages and the Lagan Navigation Trust.
A “Historic” Occasion
The final, delicate stages of the bridge’s setting into place on the afternoon of February 18th, were exclusively captured by veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie. He filmed the cranes lowering the bridge structure on to the new piers; a moment Mr. Mallie lauded as being of “historic” significance.
Nigel Quigley and Steven Tate, who were centrally involved in the project, became the first two people to walk across the ‘Lagan Gateway’ bridge.
Mr. Tate, a site manager at the Lagan Group, told Mr. Mallie that the end result was “a culmination of a lot of hard work” by all the public agencies, contractors and stakeholders involved. Revealing that the ‘Lagan Gateway’ was the first bridge construction, in which he was involved with, Mr. Tate said that the project also included the first canal lock to be established in the whole of Ireland for some 150 years.
Speaking to The Gown, Belfast City Councillor Gary McKeown, said that the foot and cycle bridge “will connect the existing towpath with the new routes planned for Belvoir Park Forest.” The funding for that project was announced by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon in September 2020.
“Alongside the other planned bridge across the Lagan from the Gasworks to Ormeau Park,” SDLP Councillor McKeown said, the Lagan Gateway “will create an interlinked network of safe, segregated cycle and pedestrian routes from the city centre out to some fantastic locations in the south of the city.”
Belfast City Council expects the final stages of the bridge’s construction to be complete by the Spring, for public opening and access at some point in April.
The Editor extends his appreciation to Mr. Eamonn Mallie, who kindly supplied the photographs used in the feature, as well as the interviews with contractors responsible for the ‘Lagan Gateway’ project. The Gown is also grateful to Dr. Patrick McKay, formerly a research fellow at Queen’s University for his encyclopedic ‘A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names,’ which includes the original Irish name and translation for Stranmillis. Thanks are also owed to SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown of Belfast City Council who agreed to make a statement on the project to The Gown, as well as DUP Councillor Tracy Kelly.