A grand new entrance to one of Belfast’s biggest parks was unveiled yesterday.
The footbridge across the Connswater River was declared open at a gathering attended by the First Minister and other grandees, helping to link the Syndenham neighbourhood of east Belfast to the up-and-coming Titanic Quarter area, via Victoria Park.
At around midday, crowds gathered on the park side of the gleaming white-and-chrome Sam Thompson bridge.
A countdown began, and on the stroke of zero the new bridge was officially opened, as a band struck up a tune and a fire truck fired its watercannon into the river for effect.
A string of cyclists, residents and parties of schoolchildren then engaged in a mass bridge-crossing scheme, as a giant illuminated road sign counted up the hundreds who were passing over.
Among those attending the opening was 91-year-old cyclist John McKeag.
The Dundonald man routinely runs 5km in the park on Saturdays, and said: “This is great. I’m very impressed with it, and the people that have turned up. Having been a shipyard worker, I think it’s interesting (it’s named after) your man Sam Thompson. I didn’t know him personally, but I am interested in him.”
Mr Thompson was a Belfast playwright, who penned the work Over the Bridge, detailing sectarianism at the shipyard. The name for the bridge was chosen in a public poll.
Also present was east Belfast resident Peggy Bowden.
The 71-year-old retired nursery worker said: “Hopefully this will make people more aware of this park.
“The number of people that haven’t been to this park is astronomical – even through they live in Belfast!”
Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson was also present, plus social development minister Nelson McCausland, and current Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, who said branded it a “powerful metaphor for the city”.
First Minister Peter Robinson said: “It’s a shorter walk than the (Peace Bridge) in Londonderry, but it’s no less significant”.
A park user himself, he said: “I look forward to using the bridge – perhaps it’ll my journey shorter on occasions.”
The bridge forms part of the Connswater Community Greenway which is intended to create totally traffic-free route between Braniel, an estate in south-east Belfast, and the city centre.
Steven Patterson from Sustrans, an organisation campaigning for better pedestrian, bike and public transport networks, said the whole project is about halfway through.
The whole greenway project is costed at about £35m, and is run by the East Belfast Partnership a body largely created and funded by the Department of Social Development.