Thursday 17th March
Growing up just outside of London in the early 1990s it was impossible to escape “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. I remember the bomb at Canary Wharf, I remember Euston being closed on a day in to Lomdon and I remember all those awful scenes on the news. Therefore, Belfast, the birthplace of Titanic a subject that has captured my imagination since the early 1990s (before the movie) was psychologically a no go zone even after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. I knew how important it was I put those childhood memories to bed and ultimately I decided what better time to visit than St Patrick’s day when (mostly) the whole city comes together.
My journey to Stansted was utterly uneventful and went so smoothly I actually arrived early. There was quite a bit of fog and whilst no delays were announced we were on the tarmac for 30 minutes which was mildly frustrating because I was hungry and looking forward to my Ulster fry up at Maggie Mays Café. We only arrived in Belfast slightly late and because I’d done passport control at London I pretty much stepped directly from the plane to the city centre bus.
When I arrived at Maggie May Cafe there was a small queue and as traditional Irish folk music pumped out it seemed like a number of locals had decided to start St Patrick’s Day with a cooked breakfast. The wait was worth it. I’ve eaten a lot of ‘traditional’ fry ups from each corner of the UK and this was definitely up there with the best. 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, beans, hash browns standard, soda bread, potato bread and finally…chips. Genius. I was treating the breakfast as lunch and planned to do a lot of walking which is how I (wrongly) justified my gluttony.
After breakfast/lunch I made my way back in to the city centre and planned to see the start of the St Patrick’s Day Parade. I’d passed the city hall 2 hours previously and saw the floats being prepared and the streets had been empty. By now they were unsurprisingly really crowded and although I saw a marching band containing some bagpiper’s practising behind the city hall I realised I’d have no chance of seeing the actual floats going down the streets.
Due to the crowds I couldn’t cross the road which I needed to do if I was to reach the Titanic museum in time for my tour. I was forced to walk in the wrong direction and slowly became a bit alarmed as the seconds and the then minutes ticked away. Worse I’d passed a taxi rank when I thought I’d been in plenty of time. I escaped down a side street away from the parade and eventually managed to flag a taxi down. We started to drive down one street when a policeman knocked on the window saying the road ahead was closed. The taxi driver wasn’t impressed but luckily the diversion didn’t add on much time and I just about arrived in time for my pre-paid for a guided tour of the old slipways.
The tour started off outside the old offices and I was slightly disappointed to learn that not only are the public no longer allowed in the historic rooms but they are being turned in to hotels. The whole Titanic Quarter site cost about £5 billion and I accept that hotels will be a way for the developers to make money back whilst ensuring the offices are restored. The guide also explained the symbolism of the museum building e.g that it is built to look like the bow of a ship and is as tall as the decks would have been. Perhaps I’m overly used to tall buildings but I’d always imagined it would be taller.
Next we walked on to the site of the old slip yard. Only the start was original and whilst historically it would have sloped in to the sea it had been levelled off. A line marked where Titanic and Olympic had been positioned under the Giant Arrol Gantry which had long been removed. Rather than rebuilding the gantry it was represented by metal poles. Back inside the museum we looked down from above, and the guide explained the benches are spaced out to represent the Morse code signals that were sent.
After the tour had finished I entered the Discovery museum which was separated in to a number of sections. The first part focussed on the history of the dockyards and had a ride which sought to demonstrate how Titanic was built. There were also recreations of a first class room and a 3rd class cabin. The part representing the sinking with voice overs from those involved in the tragedy was obviously moving and finally there was a under water film in a big auditorium. In hindsight I’d paid to much time at start but overall I was fairly impressed with the building though it was a bit light on artifacts, certainly compared to the travelling museum at the o2 a few years ago.
The Nomadic was one of the Tender ships that carried passengers boarding at Cherbourg from the docks to Olympic and Titanic. We can only imagine how big a tourist attraction Olympic would have been now in her own right if she’d been preserved but in 1935 scrap metal was in demand and the preservation movement barely existed. Nomadic was a lot smaller and survived to 2005 as a restaurant on the Seine in Paris. To cut up something of historical significance is now almost unthinkable and thankfully the Northern Ireland Government brought her so she could be put on display in the Titanic Quarter which was then still just a concept to rejuvenate Belfast. Every now and then I’d check on progress and by 2014 I realised Nomadic had finally opened as a museum.
I had held off visiting Nomadic until it had been fully restored and I wasn’t disappointed. Located in the Hamilton dry dock the boat looked splendid in the late afternoon sun and as I stepped on board I could still smell the fresh paint, much as it would have tickled the senses when it was first used for Olympic. Like with her big sisters no detail in the first class section had been left forgotten. The interior oak panel’s and furniture featured designs similar to those used on Olympic and Titanic and it was the first tender boat to use electric lighting with small ceramic light bulbs. I looked up through one of the portals and imagined how someone must have felt leaving Cherbourg approaching the giant liners.
Next I stepped up on to the deck, and explored the Stern and Bow though refrained from having a “I’m King of the World moment”. The staff were particularly friendly and I could sense their pride and enthusiasm at having the boat back ‘home’ and fully restored. The Hamilton Dry Dock also included something I initially thought was a part of rusting boat. It was actually the iron caisson which was used to stop sea water entering the dock so the nearby pump house could control whether to empty or fill the dock.
After I left Nomadic, I decided to take time to walk around the area which had once been the old slipways. It was a very sombre experience. The Titanic slipway had the ships main features marked out for example the funnels and lifeboats whilst the Olympic slipway had a memorial garden. For each category of class on board, including crew there was a section of grass representing those who passed away and concrete representing those who survived. From the Bow end I had a minutes silence as I looked across the Lagan. As I was leaving the site I chanced upon a sign called Titanic Dock and Pump House so walked up Queens Road with the old Harland and Wolff office’s on my left. By the time I arrived the Pump House museum was closed and the site was locked up so I booked a taxi to the Guest House.
The driver was very friendly and as we approached the city I saw the lines of people to get in to the pubs and bars. I arrived at the guest house and the owner was also very friendly. My twin room was surprisingly nice and as a bonus I was told it included breakfast. I hadn’t paid any more than I did for an Australian hostel and it was nice to know I’d be in a comfortable bed and have no annoying room mates. After freshening up and getting changed I called a taxi to take me back in to town.
I decided to start at the Duke of York which had been recommend to me. I thought some London pubs looked old however just walking down the cobbled Street I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn’t disappointed due to the mirrored whiskey bar and historic advertisements. The only drink to start with was a Guinness however it seemed to be full of locals and I was slightly more introvert than I had hoped. I was standing near a group and just as I was considering moving on we got chatting so I ordered the Guinness lager “Ice Harp”, a Jameson whiskey and some packs of Taytos due to the minimum spend.
I made my excuses and after failing to call a taxi due to the number being constantly engaged I found the website for Belfast’s transport system. I had a look and it contained a “journey planner” to rival Transport for London. I should add I would normally use Google Maps to get me around but it doesn’t currently provide information for Belfast and neither does City Mapper. I walked towards the City Hall which was lit up in Green and after successfully navigating my way to the bus stop was home for 1/4 the price of a taxi.
Friday 18th March
I woke at a fairly modest 7.45 and after getting ready made my to breakfast. A coffee, orange juice and a fry up later and I was ready to roll. I caught the bus in to town and waited at the bus stop. I quickly identified 6 other people waiting and all seemed in relatively good spirits despite what had probably been a late one the night before.
We thought maybe it was just us but once the large Paddywagon coach arrived we realised it had come all the way from Dublin. They’d been on the road since before I’d woken up and unsurprisingly most looked very hung over especially the person adjacent to me who needed two seats. He had to relinquish one when another couple joined and I volunteered to move so they could sit next to each other. Coincidentally this meant I was moved to the seat at the front which gave a great view but before we departed the driver joked saying I was the new tour guide so I jokingly played along and introduced myself.
The weather the day before had been wonderful and whilst it had been expected to continue there was a mist which was determined not to shift. Our first photo stop was at the “Dark Hedges” which were planted in the 18th century and over the years the branches have grown over the road an entangled which give them a mystical appearance. Our guide explained that they have since become famous due to Game of Thrones however I hadn’t seen enough of the show to recognise them. Perhaps the crowds from other coaches on their way to the causeway meant the scene lost some of its magic which meant pleasant as they were, they just looked like a row of trees.
Despite the low fog I enjoyed my undisturbed panoramic view as we drove along the Giants Causeway coastal route. Our first main stop of the day was the Carrick-a-Rede Swing Bridge. Fortunately the mist wasn’t so bad so the views were good and although it was overcast it didn’t rain. The walk to the bridge took longer than I expected and there was a large queue.
Once I was on I started filming my journey across and looked down. I saw the waves crashing on the shore below and even though I have no issue with heights normally even I was made to feel slightly nervous as the slight breeze caused the bridge to creek and sway. There wasn’t anything to see at the other end so I made my way back across the bridge and up along the cliff back to the coach. As I was on the front seat there was no point in me getting on until everyone had boarded which was mildly annoying because the guy who had taken up two seats that morning (and the group he was with) were 15 minutes late back.
The highlight of the day was of course the Giants Causeway. It is a relatively unique Natural Phenomenon with the only other example in the world in Scotland and both were part of a great volcanic plateau and was caused by a lava cooling rapidly. Our driver told us the legend that it was originally a bridge connecting Ireland to Scotland and that the Causeway is the remains of a feud between the Irish giant Fionn and his Scottish rival Angus
As mum is a geologist I decided I’d start my listening to the Geology commentry but perhaps in hindsight I should have listened to that on the way back. I saw the Camel and the Shoe, which looked particularly random and walked along what I thought was the Giants Causeway. The site is most famous for the Basalt columns however aside from the Giants Gate, the best example was the Organ which I could see in the distance but didn’t have time to walk to.
On our way back to Belfast we passed through Bushmills, famous for the Irish Whiskey and had a photo stop at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. After arriving back in Belfast I made my way to The Crown Liquor Saloon one of the famous bars in the city. Work hadn’t quite finished so I was able to find a seat at the bar and enjoyed a pleasant Guinness in the former Gin Palace. After leaving “the Crown” I made a reservation at “Made in Belfast” which had been recommended to me before continuing on to the Morning Star. By now there was the usual Friday after work energy and I enjoyed another Guinness whilst watching some horse racing highlights.
By the time I returned to Made in Belfast there is a possibility I was mildly drunk so declined another Guinness but I was certainly hungry. After searching the menu I decided on fish and chips which I’ve said before would be my food choice if I was a food critic. I was not disappointed in my decision and along with the mushy peas it also included a boat of curry sauce. I returned home via Tesco where I brought 3 multi packs of Taytos for work without thinking how I’d actually get them in my hand luggage. I considered going back out but had failed to meet anyone on the tour who was staying in Belfast and content with the day I’d had opted for an early night.
Saturday 19th March
I managed to get all the Taytos in my hand luggage but I still had another backpack for the day and as EasyJet only allow one piece I knew at some point (once I was at the airport) I’d have to address the issue properly. First I went to breakfast and then waited for my Black Cab Taxi Tour to the political murals and Peace Line.
As we drove along through the city centre my driver Tom showed me a black and white picture of a large building which had been bombed out and pointed to a building just to our right. He continued to tell me that because when he was growing up he’d never left Belfast he thought the constant threat of bombs was normal daily life. Staring out of the window and at the book my brain couldn’t comprehend the scenes and I was lost for words.
Our first stop was to the loyalist murals in the Shankill. The first was made up of small pictures and simply said “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” referring to the Good Friday Agreement. The next we saw was a depiction of William of Orange who has become a symbolic figure for the loyalists and my driver Tom told me the tensions the infamous Orange Parades can still cause. The final mural in the area was dedicated to Stephen McKeag who was responsible for many Republican deaths but considered by the Unionists to be a hero and regardless of the rights and wrongs a sign referring to him as daddy made it more personal.
We continued to the huge wall dividing the communities known as the Peace line and drove through one of the gates/barriers which are kept locked at night so no cars or people can get through. The attitude of locals it seems is the wall and gates remain whilst people want them and ultimately both are still required to help people feel safe. Again as a tourist I couldn’t comprehend it because I was sure people of both sides must mix in the city centre. I sincerely hope that future generations will be able to overcome the physical and and theological barriers.
Our final stop was the Republican area around Bombay Street. On our approach I noticed a number of Tri colour flags and stickers in windows expressing support for Palestine which the driver explained was the locals supporting any group that is repressed. Tom told me that despite the height of the wall, bottles are still thrown over by Loyalists and I could see each house had a metal mesh backing on to the wall to protect the garden. He then showed me the Memorial Garden which gave the name of Republican victims (listed as Martyrs” and Civilian Casualties. Those in the latter category far outweighed the others and he pointed out a few names of individual stories he’d told me about including the Chemist Philomena Hannah. We continued along the main road where there was an International Wall where murals supported issues outside of Northern Ireland and saw the first stages of a new mural dedicated to 1916 Easter Rising.
I was feeling quite sombre when Tom dropped off at the town centre. It would have been thought provoking enough in a group but a one on one tour had been particularly intense. Once I’d collected my thoughts I made my way to the Titanic Pump House and Dry Dock which had been closed by the time I realised it existed on my first day. On the way I looked at the display boats trying to imagine how the Queens Road looked just over 100 years ago. I also saw the Navy ship HMS Caroline which was mostly covered under a tarpaulin in preparation for a multi million pound restoration however despite being of such historical importance I’d initially mistaken it for an asbestos filled ship awaiting the scrap yard.
From the outside the pump house looked like a typically grand Victorian building. Inside the machinery was all in place and there were various displays and videos showing how the massive pumps could drain the dry docks in 100 minutes. The Dry Dock itself was huge, I walked from one end to the other – over 800ft before reaching the Caisson. The original from over 100 years ago is still in place but has been retired and a modern one now protects it from the sea. I climbed down the steps and stood next to the keel blocks which alone came up to just below my head. I thought it was really good, and I arguably enjoyed it more than the Titanic Quarter Museum but it seems to have been forgotten by most of the crowds.
Returning to the City I walked past the gently leaning Albert Memorial Clock and on to St Anne’s Cathedral. Continuing on to the City Hall I saw a Loyalist protest which included BNP flags which I just found very odd. I was starting to feel hungry and so decided after some internal deliberation to walk to St George’s Market where eventually I opted to have a beef burger with spinach, cranberry and brie which the person serving agreed was a good choice. It was a good atmosphere and someone was playing some live music and I found a seat so that I could watch them perform whilst I ate.
After leaving the market I caught a bus to the Botanical Garden so that I could have a quick look around Ulster Museum. I had a look at the display on “The Troubles” which handled the period delicately and neutrally. I then continued to a section on the sinking of the La Girona during the 1588 Spanish Armada which contained treasure that was recovered from the wreck.
I returned to my Guest House and after grabbing my bag I said goodbye to the owner. Once back in the centre I had one stop before making my way to the bus station. I returned to the City Hall to see the Titanic Memorial Gardens and then made the short walk to the bus station. I arrived at the airport and squeezing the contents of two rucksacks in to one, I was forced to wear my trousers over my jeans as they had an elasticated waist a T-shirt, jumper and shirt which meant I resembled the Michelin man.
I’d had an amazing time in Belfast, I’d been made to feel welcome and whilst i’d done a lot, I would have liked to have climbed Divis Hill and to have visited Crumlin Road Gaol. Despite its rather horrific recent history Belfast seems to be on the right path and I felt safe which gives me hope that future generations will be able to live peacefully regardless of religious beliefs.