THE ROAMER IN act two scene one of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the Duke makes a short and memorable speech: “…our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
The Duke had found a truer and happier world away from the ‘haunt’ of society’s expectations, norms and pressures. The bard wasn’t seeking sermons in the Long Bridge Stone when he penned his inspirational words, but the old piece of rock ensconced on Belfast’s Albertbridge Road, and variously mentioned on this page recently, has certainly conveyed meaningful messages to News Letter readers. Wednesday’s old photo of the stone’s east Belfast location showed a house with trams and cars negotiating a busy road junction.
“If that white three storey building is what I think it is,” Ian Forsythe commented, “it could be my late father’s home as they had a fruit shop in Woodstock Street in the 1930’s.” Ian checked it out. “That is the very street I was talking about,” he has just told me, “I can now see my father’s family shop in it, so thanks for having the photo in the article.” The bard was right - there’s good in everything! Amongst the other delightful messages arising from the stone and its surroundings was one from Belfast reader John Currans about the adjacent Mountpottinger Road “formerly the private carriageway to the residence of the Pottinger family” of which Thomas Pottinger was Sovereign of Belfast in 1688. “The stone, which was part of a pillar of the Long Bridge, now covers a well from which the people of the locality obtained their water,” John recounted. “I am a regular reader of the News Letter,” wrote Wesley Thompson “and as a retired history teacher I always enjoy your column with its nostalgic look back to The Good Old Days.”
Wesley, an archivist with the East Belfast Historical Society, confirmed a number of readers’ accounts of the Long Bridge Stone, and added a lot of detail. The old bridge “crossed the Lagan between 1688 and 1841 and had been built by the Grand Juries of counties Down and Antrim at a cost of £8,000.” As Belfast expanded and traffic increased “as well as the fact that the bridge was damaged, it was decided to demolish it and replace it in 1841,” Mr Thompson explained. “The contract was given to the well-known 19th century east Belfast builder, Francis Ritchie, who lived on Mountpottinger Road between 1830 and 1860.”
Ritchie had already built two Lagan bridges, several well known east Belfast buildings, and many houses. Frank Street was named after his son.
“When he was demolishing the Long Bridge,” continued Mr Thompson, “Ritchie received a strange request from a friend of his, a doctor who lived at the junction of Castlereagh Street and Albertbridge Road.” The doctor asked if he could have a stone from the old bridge as a souvenir. “Ritchie obliged,” said Wesley, “and placed the rather large stone in his back garden sometime during 1841-42 where it has remained ever since! When the doctor died his house and garden disappeared but the stone remained and a pub was built on the site behind the stone.”
A member of the Historical Society told Mr Thompson “during the 1941 blitz the pub was damaged and part of the stone was blown away.” Francis Ritchie’s new bridge, which replaced the Long Bridge, was called Queen’s Bridge in honour of Queen Victoria who had ascended the throne a few years earlier. Some people refer to the last remnant of the Long Bridge as ‘the mounting stone’. According to Wesley there was a story locally that King William used the stone to mount his horse on his way to the Battle of the Boyne, but “King William was in Ireland (but not near the Albertbridge Road!) in 1690, 150 years before the stone was placed there! Interestingly, however, there is a connection with Ireland’s most famous battle because the reason the Long Bridge was damaged and had to be replaced was that King William’s lieutenant, Duke Schomberg (who was killed at the Battle of the Boyne), used the bridge to transport his heavy artillery on his way from Groomsport, where he had landed, to join William’s army at the Boyne.”
When Coleraine reader Molly Kennedy first introduced us to the stone last week, she recalled her bus journeys in the 1950s from the Mount past some of the shops in the area, and one establishment that she particularly liked which sold ‘pigs’ feet.’ (Limavady reader Christopher Wilson’s recipe for trotters was on Wednesday’s page, and more will be gratefully received!) “Molly might be interested in a poem written many years ago by one of the East Belfast Historical Society’s members,” suggested Wesley Thompson. “It was published in one of our journals and was entitled Memories of Castlereagh Street, which is just around the corner from The Mount.”
In it, the late Margaret Cormack recalled her childhood memories of the shops in the street. For the whole poem, readers will need to contact (or join!) the Society.
“From the Long Bridge Stone to the Farmers’ Rest,
Castlereagh Street was one of the best.
No need to go off down the town on a jaunt,
we had everything there that a body could want.
Furniture, bedding, linen and delph,
and Walker’s and Jackson’s for Do It Yourself.
The Willowpark Dairy for butter and cream,
while Elliot’s sweet shop was every child’s dream!
At Mr Pollys there was fruit galore
and groceries too from his wife next door.
Oh! haunt of my childhood with deep affection,
I bring you back to my recollection.
For gone is the Castlereagh Street I knew,
bombed and battered and burnt out too.
And the sight of that street reduced to a shell
has made something inside me die as well.”
Wesley Thompson told Roamer that The East Belfast Historical Society meets monthly on the Belmont Road and has well over 100 members. They’ve published 16 local history journals, several books, and a DVD entitled The Past in Pictures with over 2,000 images of East Belfast long ago. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any recipes for pigs’ feet,” he added. Their website is www.ebhs.org.uk