The Natural History of East Belfast

'Elbow room for the growing city'

For centuries, the Dundonald Gap offered a route from County Down and the Ards to the ford at Belfast, providing, as EE Evans notes, ‘elbow room for the growing city as it stretched out of its cradle on the Lagan’. The rivers and streams that flowed from the higher ground to the south and east supplied water for corn mills, and later for linen and chemical industries.

Wells bored into the sandstone that underlies the muds, sands and gravels of inner east Belfast also supplied water for local distilleries. The woods that covered the Castlereagh and Holywood hills were being stripped for timber and land clearance in the seventeenth century.

Before urbanisation and industrialisation in the second half of the nineteenth century, much of what is now inner east Belfast was parkland attached to a few large houses. Outlying areas such as Knock and Ballyhackamore retained their agricultural character well into the late nineteenth century, previous the development of their characteristic suburban villas.

Contemporary east Belfast is one of the most heavily urbanised districts of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, a number of large parks and open spaces remain, often as reminders of the private estates of some of historic Belfast’s most prominent citizens. 

Ormeau Park, once the grounds of the Donegall family’s residence, lies on the area’s westernmost boundary, while the Stormont estate marks its easternmost edge. Victoria Park sits on reclaimed land near Sydenham and Belfast City airport. Not far away, towards Holywood, is the Knocknagoney wildlife reserve, while Beersbridge nature walk follows the course of the disused Belfast and County Down Railway track to Comber.

Further reading
Belfast: The Making of the City, 1800-1914 (1983) by EE Evans.