Friday, 26 September 2014

Public Art beside Lagan & Lough Cycleway

It has been some decades since I last cycled in Belfast. As a teenager I regularly cycled into Belfast to my summer job during the school holidays. Many things have changed, the heavy security presence has now thankfully been consigned to history, but many of the older once familiar buildings have been swept away, in the planner's vision for a brighter, more modern city. One of the new things that stand out as unfamiliar to me was the public art which is displayed either on cycle route NCN9/93 or close to it, as it traces it's course along the northern bank of Belfast Lough/River Lagan into Belfast.

The first piece of sculpture I came across by accident, when I cycled down towards the Harbour entrance from the direction of Fortwilliam roundabout. There is a large silver seahorse displayed on a plinth. 

The seahorse is represented on the city of Belfast's coat of arms and is a testament to Belfast's maritime role as a major Irish seaport, as well as a former centre of shipbuilding. Anyone familiar with the old Belfast Corporation trolleybuses/buses will remember the seahorse from the crest on the side of the vehicles. Belfast by the late 19th Century boasted three shipyards, with one, McIlwaine & Coll having closed by the turn of the 20th Century. The second to close was Workman Clark in 1935, with Harland & Wolff still surviving today as a ship repair and marine engineering business. Part of the former shipyard Harland & Wolff shipyard is now probably more famous for the production and filming of the TV series 'Game of Thrones'.

The next sculpture is also beside the Dock Street entrance to Belfast Harbour in Princes Dock Street. It is located at the side of the Harbour gate and represents the bow of a ship complete with a figurehead. 

It is easily missed and I have to say that I didn't notice it on my ride into Belfast. I only really noticed it on my ride back. Another interesting feature of Princes Dock Street is that there is also another tangible reminder of Belfast as a major port. There are still some of the harbour railway lines in the road surface. 

Many of the harbour roads also had rails, as much of the freight going in and out of the Harbour was moved by rail. These lines would have been originally worked by the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway on behalf of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Those on the other side of the River Lagan would have been worked by the Belfast & County Down Railway. Princes Dock Street leads down to a gateway giving access to Clarendon Dock.

At the back of the Clarendon Dock building and twin graving docks stands a large sculpture of a set of ship's dividers formerly used in navigation in the days of paper charts. The sculpture stands in square between the two entrance gates to the the old graving docks. 

The older buildings are cheek by jowl with new corporate development. This modern style of architecture in my humble opinion lacks any of the panache or architectural statement of the older Victorian buildings.

Beside the Lagan Weir and near the Custom House is the last and biggest sculpture along the cycle route into Belfast -  Belfast 'Bigfish'. This was the first piece of sculpture that I was aware of and has been there since 1999 and even has it's own Wikipedia entry! 

The most striking new sculptured building to appear in Belfast is the Titanic building on the south bank of the River Lagan. The building when viewed from certain angles is meant to represent the bow of the ill fated White Star liner RMS Titanic and is probably the best Titanic exhibition in the world and a fitting memorial in the city in which she was built and launched. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Taking your Bicycle by train

How easy is it to take your randonneur or touring bicycle on a train? If the cycling press in Britain is to be believed, not that easy. You need a ticket for a non folding bike and even with that, space is limited and a ticket doesn't guarantee it will travel on the train you believe you are expecting to travel on. Train travel in Britain is awkward and very expensive when compared to other European countries.

France is very different. If you are travelling through Paris, there is no central railway station. You can check via the SNCF website before you go to France to get some idea of which Paris railway station you need to travel from. Train travel is cheap and the electric trains very efficient. Most of the Grand Lignes express style trains I travelled on did not stop for the first hour or so of their journey. The destination board at the platform ends will list the stops, so if the station you intend to travel to is listed, it will stop there. You will require a ticket for your bicycle, whether on the TGV, Grand Lignes or the local trains. There are limited places on the TGV trains, but so far I have not had a problem and that includes travelling on a French public holiday.

The local trains of the Nord-Pas de Calais have bicycle racks in one carriage in the multiple unit, very much like Translink in Northern Ireland. The carriage has a large bicycle icon on the outside, so it is easily seen. You are expected to move quickly onto the train as the trains are very punctual!

The local trains I travelled on in Nord-Pas de Calais were of the double deck carriage type, with the bicycle racks in one corner of the carriage. The bikes are suspended and hang by the front wheel. Again bicycle space is limited, but the service is frequent, so if no room on one train, there should be on the next one.

The TGV service south to Paris Gare du Nord from Valenciennes was the next service that I used. It was an ambition realised to travel by TGV and the fare prices were not much different to the standard Grand Lignes service. Bicycles are carried at one end of the train, within a luggage compartment in one of the driving ends. Each carriage and seat is numbered so your ticket is for a specific seat unlike the Intercity service. The bicycle space is limited in a TGV and your bicycle may be hung on a rack, but the space is also shared with bulky luggage or children's buggies, etc. This will have an effect on how quickly you can disembark from the train, so bear this in mind if you are rushing to catch another service from either the Gare du Nord or any of the other Paris railway stations. The TGV service from Valenciennes runs on local lines to Arras and then runs on the high speed line to near Charles de Gaulle airport where it slows down and uses the existing rail network into the Gare du Nord.

I was catching another train from a different Paris railway station which required a cycle journey from the Rue de Dunkerque outside Paris Gare du Nord to the Gare St Lazaire. There is a cycle route using the bus lanes, but in my opinion requires some knowledge of the street layout between the two destinations. There is some signage but it is not as good as it could be, but again, it is a lot better than nothing. The biggest problem I had on the route was when I got to the Place d'Estienne d'Orves, where it crosses in front of the Eglise de la Trinite. There are a number of tourist buses which stop in front of the church and the road goes round the front of the church and then forks. The map I had was confusing, because it directed an immediate right turn on entry into the Place d'Estienne d'Ovres which is wrong and will take you onto Rue Blanche. You need to go round the front of the church and take the first left up the hill, (there was no street name visible at the end of the road), which is the Rue des Londres. From this junction you need the first road (as opposed to building entrances) to your left which should be the Rue d'Amsterdam which leads onto a tree lined square. There is a taxi rank along the side of the square and the entrance to Paris Gare St Lazaire is under a modern office block on the right hand side of the road. This is the best entrance to use as it is fairly level unlike the main entrance at the front of the station building which will require carrying your bicycle up flights of steps. The entrance from the Rue d'Amsterdam leads straight onto the station platform concourse.

I took the train to Cherbourg to catch the Rosslare Ferry. The first stop on the route was at Caen and we stopped at Carentan. There was a huge Stars and Stripes as well as the French Tricolour flying from the Hotel de Ville in Carentan ahead of the 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration. I will certainly return to explore the Cotentin Peninsular by bicycle at some stage. The railway station at Cherbourg is some distance from the ferry terminals. It is easily cycled but you will have to negotiate all the ferry traffic especially the heavy goods vehicles. If you don't have a ticket, one has to be purchased from the ferry office.

An overnight sailing got to Rosslare at 15.30 in the afternoon. I disembarked with the vehicular traffic and had a friendly greeting from the Gardai before exiting the ferry terminal. The railway station is now located outside the port boundary. There is a limited train service from Rosslare northwards to Dublin and the service is often delayed by the suburban Dublin Dart trains enroute to Dublin Connolly station.

I was able to make the connection with the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise and got the last 20:50 service north. Rail fares like France are very reasonable, E27.30 to Dublin Connolly , and £50.85 first class on the Enterprise Express with a bicycle. The railway staff in Ireland were as friendly and helpful as their French counterparts. An onward ride home from the railway station In Belfast to my overnight accommodation was problem free using the dynamo lighting before travelling home the next day. I will do it again soon.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Visit to Le Quesnoy, Nord - Pas de Calais

2014 has marked a significant change in my life, hence the absence of entries on the blog since February. Cycling has had to take much more of a back seat than I would like, due to these altered circumstances, but hopefully as things change there will be much more opportunity to use the bicycle. 

 One of the highlights of the year so far for me, was a trip to France at the end of April. I travelled via Paris and took the train from Gare du Nord to the Nord – Pas de Calais,Department. It was a pleasant journey through the countryside, but as the train neared the Belgian border, between St Quentin and Aulnoye-Aymeries a small British military cemetery was seen amongst the gently rolling arable fields. A stark reminder, if needed, of the terrible carnage of a century ago. I travelled to a town near the Belgian border, near to the Forêt de Mormal. The Forêt de Mormal offers some excellent off road cycling and is popular with the locals. After the kindness of a superbe lunch, a local dish of sausage and potatoes served with a fresh side salad, I was able to collect my bike and change into my cycling gear. Loading my handlebar bag (sacoche) with a present of two apples for the journey, I set off in the spring sunshine towards Le Quesnoy. The road was undulating, reminding me a little of County Down, but the fields were much larger and without the destinctive pattern of hedges found in that part of Ireland. The local houses, built of rustic red brick with pantile roofs and their painted wooden shutters, are un-mistakenly French. The trees were showing much more foliage than at home in Ireland and the dry soil and growing crops in the fields told their own tale, of a much drier winter . The temperature was much higher than I expected and I had to stop to peel off some of the clothing layers. I feel overdressed. 

On the road I am passed by some local cyclists out for a training run in their lycra club jerseys and carbon fibre machines. Each rider acknowledges me with a friendly 'Bonjour' as they pass by. It is in such marked contrast to the experience of riding my bike at home, where few if any speak, or acknowledge you, especially as I am riding a steel frame. I continue my leisurely journey towards the walled town of Le Quesnoy, as I want to visit the New Zealand War Memorial. I have been advised to purchase my train ticket at Le Quesnoy today for my onward journey to Paris in the morning, as this is a public holiday in France and most places will be closed. I reach the edge of the town of Le Quesnoy and take a wrong turn. This route brings me round the town on a ring road to a roundabout. I am finding riding on the right counter-intuitive, but of necessity quickly adjust. A right turn into the town brings my first experience of 'pavé' for which the region is famous. Even 650B tyres cannot iron out the effect of the cobbles completely, but thankfully the road surface is dry and even the steeper camber of the road surface is manageable as I am forced to the side of the narrow road by passing cars. I cycle through one of the ancient town gateways, through the walls fortified by Vauban in the 17th Century. This is contested ground and has been fought over for centuries. I enquire in the tourist information office for directions to the New Zealand War Memorial and about accommodation for the night. After sorting out where to stay, I ventured up onto the walls of the town and follow the path which will take me to the war memorial. 

The afternoon sun is warm and a family with two young children are on the path ahead. The joyfull, excited shouts of the children bounce off the towering brick and earthen walls of the old town, breaking the late afternoon stillness. I cycle leisurely towards my destination. 

I find there is a low narrow passageway from the gravel path through the walls up to the viewing area overlooking the memorial. I have obviously taken the wrong route, but the passageway is wide enough for the bicycle, and I have to adjust, by stooping down to pass through. The passage emerged onto a small square which overlooks the New Zealand War Memorial. The memorial is fixed to the town walls on the opposite side of the moat from the viewing area. 

There are a number of floral tributes in front of the memorial. One bouquet, of exotic flowers and foliage, particularly marks the sacrifice and commemoration of the loss of life of their sons in 1918 in a far way country. The town was recaptured from the Germans on 4th November 1918 without a single civilian loss of life. The New Zealanders were not so fortunate, but they opened up the Sambre Gap in November 1918 to allow the allied armies into Belgium and Germany and force an armistice. In this foreign field they are still not forgotten. I linger awhile with my thoughts, before quietly taking my leave. 

Lest we forget. I'm glad I made the effort to visit.