Getting a beady eye on Belfast

Pam Cooley

Visitors can now study the bustling activity around a river which until recently was shunned by Belfast city. The Lagan Lookout is a round building with conical roof and wrap-round windows with spectacular views. The river is the Lagan and in the Lookout, which is an exhibition centre as well as a viewing point, they can learn about its history and its future. They can also go under the river for an atmospheric trip along one of the service tunnels to the new Lagan Weir.

It is an experience which Edith Shaw, the education officer, hopes to offer to an increasing number of schools. She is mailing schools in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland (Stranraer is only a 90 minute ferry ride away). It will be possible to combine a visit to the centre with a trip to Carrickfergus Castle, just outside Belfast, one of the best preserved Norman castles in Ireland.

The changing face of Belfast's Laganside Docklands is one very noticeable sign of the city's growing economic self-confidence. Once a wasteland dominated at low tide by ugly and smelly mud flats, this is now a hive of regenerative activity. From it is rising a new road and rail bridge, a bus station, hotels and a mixture of business and residential buildings with landscaped parks and playgrounds and other buildings and amenities.

It will include the Waterfront Hall, a Pounds 29 million circular conference and concert venue, to open in 1997, with an auditorium for staging anything from boxing to opera.

That this regeneration is happening is due in no small part to the building of the Lagan Weir. Officially opened in 1994, the weir maintains a constant water level upstream ensuring that the rank and unsightly mud flats are no longer exposed at low tide. It can also protect the city from flooding in dangerously high tides.

Its building, which took two years, was accompanied by improvements to the sewerage system and the installation of a river bed aeration system to oxygenate the saline and river water. Water quality needed to be improved both for cosmetic reasons and for the sake of the creatures who were finding life difficult in waters where sea water was affecting oxygen levels.

Display panels and interactive models in the education centre explain the workings of the Weir. There are also panels on alternative (discarded) solutions, shipping, the aeration system and sea life, including interactive computer programs on wildlife in its waters. In the "fish test" visitors can see what happens when fish swim into areas of water which have different levels of oxygen. Other displays feature stories and songs about Belfast people.

Schools are shown round by the enthusiastic Edith Shaw who can supply worksheets for different key stages. Also available are information sheets on subjects including the Weir, Belfast and its Port and "The Titanic", which was built in Belfast and the surrounding area. Edith Shaw will also take them part of the way along the service tunnel which runs under the Lagan.

Carolyn O'Grady Lagan Lookout Visitors Centre, 1 Donegall Quay, Belfast BT1 3EA. Tel: 01232 315444 or 311944 A Day in Belfast school group package which takes in the Lookout and includes a bus tour around the Laganside area and a cruise on the River costs Pounds 4.25 per person.

* A trip which includes the Lagan Lookout and Carrickfergus Castle costs Pounds 2.15 per person (teachers free)

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Pam Cooley

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