The Tropic of Ulster, Belfast

Northern Ireland

In which Richard Weston of Ace Jet 170 continues his explorations in Belfast, reaching a somewhat unexpected feature.

It’s an actual, real life tropical rain forest and it’s just, oh I don’t know, half a mile or so out of the city centre. Adjacent to the Ulster Museum in Belfast’s Queen’s Quarter, according to my secret source of information, The Tropical Ravine is the only one of its kind in the whole of the European subcontinent.

Construction was completed in 1889 to a design by Charles McKimm, bearded Victorian Super Gardener; it was considered to be his finest work. Not surprising then that it was opened by Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, bigger-named but the lesser-bearded 1st Marquess of Dufferin, best known for his irrelevant travels in the North Atlantic.

It was a big deal at the time but I’m not sure how sexy the Ravine is considered to be today. Nevertheless, it’s good that it’s still there.

There’s something special about a surprisingly tranquil place so close to a busy metropolis. The Ravine, which forms a significant part of Belfast’s small Botanic Gardens, is more than just that though; by its nature it offers more than just a quiet escape; it’s tropical; and with that comes a whole different set of atmospherics.

It may be cold and wet outside (Belfastians recognise “cold and wet” as being the city’s natural state) but inside the red brick and glass structure it’s always humid. When autumnal or winter-bare outside, here it’s always lush with its alien plant life dripping with steamy condensation.

The ravine’s outer is built into a slope so although you enter (via the top end) at ground level you’re actually on the first floor which means you’re in the micro-forest’s canopy. Looking down it’s easy to imagine wild beasts prowling while you enjoy the weird foliage stretching for the roof.

Now don’t ask me what any of the green stuff is. A lot of it looks like it’s been lifted from the pages of a Dr Seuss book but with that comes a real sense, when you first enter, of stepping into a different world. I love that. It’s a bit like when Mr Benn steps out of the changing room into his new adventure. Only there are no dragons or mermaids and you’re not in outer space or Ancient Rome. You’re just in Belfast, looking at a clammy banana tree.

Botanic Gardens Park, College Park Botanic Avenue, Belfast BT7 1LP
Tel: 028 9031 4762

Published 8 October 2012

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