Belfast Waterworks – The Days of Mermaids, Monsters and Sea battles

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Belfast Waterworks lower pond with Cavehill / Napoleon's nose
Belfast Waterworks lower pond with Cavehill / Napoleon’s nose

Belfast Waterworks Park

Despite its rather unappealing name the Waterworks is a very pleasant public park in north Belfast. It is situated on the junction of the Antrim Road and Cavehill Road, just over a mile and a half from the city centre. Belfast Waterworks is popular with families, walkers and runners, and those interested in wildfowl and nature. It also provides an excellent view of the Cavehill, especially the aspect known as Napoleon’s Nose.

Belfast Waterworks Map view © OpenStreetMap contributors
Belfast Waterworks Map © OpenStreetMap contributors OSM Licence

Belfast Waterworks Construction

The Waterworks came into being in the 1830’s when Mr Pinkerton of Solitude House offered his land to the Water Commission to provide water supplies to the north of the town. The construction of two reservoirs was complete by 1842 at a cost of £8,000. William Dargan was the designer. Dargan was one of the most successful engineers of the time. In 1833 he had planned and built Ireland’s first railway from Dublin to Dun Laoghaire.

Unfortunately, as the Marquis of Donegall had fraudulently sold water rights to both the Commission and local mill and factory owners, the early years of the Waterworks were far from trouble-free! As a result a series of legal battles ensued with a resolution achieved finally in the 1860’s. By this time the area around the Waterworks was built up with the Newington and Oldpark districts. The old location name Solitude no longer applied, although it remains in the name of Cliftonville football ground which backs onto the park.

Belfast Waterworks Swans
Belfast Waterworks Swans

Days of Mermaids, Monsters and Sea Battles

Belfast’s rapid growth meant that the water supply was no longer adequate for the growing city by the 1870’s and the Commission opened the dams instead for limited public events. The Waterworks hosted huge festivals for the entertainment of the populace, such as The Fete of the Mermaids, The Fete of the Aquatic Monsters and even epic sea battles brought to explosive life through the use of fireworks! Great days out for lucky visitors of the time!

The Water Commission increased the leisure facilities available at the site, although admittance was based on a key and ticket system. Key holders paid an annual subscription and could access the park at any time. Visitors could purchase tickets for daily visits. The upper pond, with a depth of 40ft, now featured rowing boats and a diving platform. It hosted fishing and diving competitions as well swimming galas. There was even speedboat racing in 1929. The smaller, lower pond was a favourite with model boat enthusiasts. A miniature railway carried passengers from one end of the park to the other.

Construction of an ice-house within the park grounds supported local butchers and fishmongers in the days before refrigeration.

Belfast Waterworks River Waterfalls
Belfast Waterworks River Waterfalls

The Modern Waterworks

In 1956 the Water Commission sold The Waterworks to Belfast Corporation for £4,000. They incorporated Queen Mary’s Gardens at the Antrim Road boundary into the larger park. For safety reasons the Corporation reduced the depth of the two lakes. They stocked the old upper reservoir with fish and constructed a man-made island to attract breeding birds. Many wildfowl including mute swans, mallards, tufted coots and cormorants have now made The Waterworks Park their home. Improvements to the lower section of the park include a landscaped river and mini waterfall and a popular children’s playground.

Scheduled Saturday “Park runs” of 3 miles around the Waterworks for walkers and joggers are fun events and attract lots of families and people of all ages and fitness.

The Waterworks provides a pleasant breath of fresh air in this now urban location. At the very top of the park the little stone bridge, built in 1835, is still in existence. Many adults of north Belfast still retain happy memories of long childhood days spent in the Waterworks, myself included.

Belfast Waterworks Photo Gallery

Click to enlarge photos

Short Youtube Videos of Belfast Waterworks

View the Waterworks Upper Lake on Youtube
Belfast Waterworks 360 View on Youtube

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Dennis · 7 April 2021 at 1:01 pm

The story I always understood is that they used the rubble created during the WW2 to reduce the depth of the ponds. Although I will concede that I have no evidence to support this story. Nice article and pictures.

    P&P · 7 April 2021 at 1:53 pm

    We had never heard that story. Thanks for the information Dennis.

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