Tropical Ravine


This article appeared in The Irish Times on August 14, 2018.

The restored and reopened Tropical Ravine in Belfast's Botanic Gardens means that the future of one of the best relics of Victorian Belfast is secured. But in the much praised restoration has something been lost?

My fist memories of the Ravine are of trips to Belfast from our home in Lisburn in the desperately depressing years of World War 2. These outings were rare treats; first the GNR train into Great Victoria Street, then the tram up Stranmillis to the Museum where the Mummy and the stuffed tiger topped the bill, then out into the Botanic Gardens and a scamper through the Palm House until finally we reached the Ravine.

It was best on cold wet days, when it offered delicious warmth, and mystery. The glass panes were misted up, adding to the gloom already provided by the coats of green slime on the outside and the encroaching foliage of the overhanding trees. It really was a dense jungle.

The first task was to peer into the greenery to try to see a banana. There were no bananas in war-time Belfast, and children of my age had no memory of them. Great was the excitement when some eagle eye spotted a tiny cluster of green fruit among the vast broad leaves. They were far from the yellow they should have been, but they were bananas, real bananas.A

Then there were glimpses from the walkway above the ravine of a narrow trail along the floor beneath, seen one moment, disappearing the next. This was a forbidden trail, with the small gate giving access to rough steps down to it securely locked. But our imaginations could slip easily through and conjure up an ape here and a snake there, and even, perhaps, Tarzan himself.

Then there was the lily pond at the back, with the giant green pads sitting serenely on the water and sparking off heated debate as to whether they would bear your weight. Beside the lily pond there was a shallow pool, home to a small army of what we called tortoises or turtles but which were surely terrapins. Not monkeys or tigers, but wild life all the same.

Then the tram back to the city centre and if we were lucky, some chips at the Cafe Royal in the Wellington Hall, before the GNR took us safely home to Lisburn.

I wonder if today's young visitors can imagine apes or tigers stalking along the neatly tiled floor of the new Tropical Ravine. The front page of the latest edition of City Matters, Belfast City Council's magazine, is given over to a great photograph of the Tropical Ravine. It shows clearly the immaculate paving of the floor, and the tidy brick walls surrounding the well-behaved plants.

It reminded me, may I be forgiven, of an-upmarket garden centre, not a tropical ravine. The ultimate insult - the picture showed a couple strolling along the forbidden Ravine floor. Not Tarzan and Jane, but a well-dressed pair, with highly polished shoes.

I am told that one is not allowed to wander down into the bottom of the Ravine for 'safety reasons' yet the couple in the picture are hardly dressed for a perilous descent. The City Council advertises pre-booked guided tours which include access to the ravine floor at restricted times. A pre-booked guided tour does not sound right for a tropical ravine.

It may sound mean spirited to be criticising a restoration project carried out with such a high standard of workmanship, but I feel it is a 21st century creation, not a faithful restoration of the Victorian original.

I will still enjoy visiting it, perhaps nursing a quiet hope that the Ravine will reassert itself, and the plants themselves will soon overpower the neat brick walls, and that roots will thrust their rebellious heads up through the rectangular paving slabs, restoring something of the proper jungle air of anarchy and mystery.