Tag Archives: Belfast

Northern Ireland, Top Tips for Visiting the Giant’s Causeway on a Budget

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

“The National Trust is a wonderful organisation… but why does it have to be so very annoying?  It would be a kindness if they gave you a map when you paid for parking and admission but this is not the National Trust way.  They like to charge for every individual thing.  The day cannot be too far off when you pay for toilet paper by the sheet.” – Bill Bryson

It hasn’t always been free to visit.  In the 1800s, the Causeway was fenced off by landowners who saw its potential as a tourist attraction and so an easy way to make money but after a long drawn out case the High Court ruled that the public had an ‘ancient right of way’ to visit the Causeway and view the stones.

Now the National Trust wants to turn back the clock.  They haven’t exactly built a fence but they crudely misled visitors into paying the extortionate parking and visitor centre admission charge.

Here are my tips for avoiding the Giant National Trust Rip-Off:

1  Walk there.  This might seem rather obvious but as a word of warning it is about a mile walk and there are no footpaths.

2  Use the  Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills light railway.  It is a lot cheaper and you get a train ride there and back.  It only operates in the Summer however.

3  Drive to the Giant’s Causeway and park in the railway car park.  It is only £6.

4  Stay overnight at the Causeway Hotel and park for free.  If not staying overnight park up and have a cup of coffee and become a customer and get entitlement to free parking.

5  Use the National Trust Car Park but only buy one ticket to the visitor centre, a good solution if there is a family of visitors or if there are 4 adults.

6  Use the National Trust car park and just ignore the visitor centre completely.  National Trust say they may clamp cars when visitors haven’t paid but this is most unlikely.  Don’t worry about the clamped car close to the entrance, this belongs to a member of staff and is only there to try and frighten people.

7 Walk from the car park to the Causeway because if you take the bus then this costs another £1 each way.

The National Trust says:

“The admission fee includes: access to the Visitor Centre facilities (cafe, retail, exhibition and toilets including a Changing Places facility), use of a hand-held audio guide to explore the landscape outdoors with over one-hour of content, a guided walking tour led by a National Trust guide lasting more than 45 minutes, and visitor information leaflets and parking.”

Click on any picture in the gallery to enter the slideshow…

 

Also worth a view:

Views from a disgruntled visitor

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway

Northern Ireland, The Antrim Coast – Just Pictures

Antrim Coast Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, The Antrim Coast

Northern Ireland Blue Flag

Because it is a long journey, our driver on the Political Tour, Lawrence, had suggested that we should go straight to Larne before starting the Antrim Coast road drive.  We took his advice even though this meant missing out Carrickfergus and the castle and the harbour where William of Orange landed in 1690 before going on to victory at the Battle of the Boyne, the location of the last witchcraft trial in Ireland in 1711,  and where the RMS Titanic anchored up for the last time before setting off on its fateful journey in 1912.

So we drove directly to Larne and then rather rudely used the by-pass and circumnavigated the town without stopping but this didn’t trouble us because we were heading for the coast.  Along this stretch of north east Ireland runs the A2 road which is said to be the longest stretch of principal highway in the UK which clings so closely to the sea and indeed to create this road the hills were blown up and demolished to provide the foundations.

Ireland A2 Road Trip

The road here clings like Velcro to the base of the cliffs and swings around the headlands and bays in extravagant sweeps and roller-coaster twists and turns.  To our left were the glens of County Antrim decorated with dainty wild flowers and rolling gently down to the coastline and to our right was the Irish Sea and just twenty miles or so away the coast of nearby Scotland.

Along the route the road is flanked by gnarled hawthorn trees standing stoically alone by the roadside, it is, I later learn, because the locals are reluctant to cut them down for fear of disturbing the little people!

The going was slow because we stopped several times to admire the beaches and the uninterrupted views and by mid morning we had only covered a few miles north when we stopped for coffee at the walled garden of Glenarm.  It was a charming place but there was no time to stop longer than a cappucchino and soon we were back on the road.

County Antrim is one of the staunchest Protestant and Loyalist parts of Northern Ireland and we were left in no doubt about that as we drove through villages where the kerb stones and the lampposts were painted red, white and blue and a Union flag flew above the front door of almost every house.  Until that is we came to Cushendun, a harbour village abandoned by the A2 road and which is a catholic enclave emblazoned with green, white and orange.

We were in the far north east now and these stretches of the road regularly appear in top ten lists of drives in the UK.  It only ever really makes it to number two in a list of coastal drives in Ireland however, coming in behind the Dingle peninsular and having driven that only last year I have to say that I am inclined to agree with that judgement.  In my opinion It is better than the Ring of Kerry by some considerable way.   It isn’t exactly the Amalfi drive, nothing can hope to compare with the Amalfi drive but it is well worth making the effort to get behind the wheel of a car and experience this wonderful part of the British Isles.

Can anyone suggest a UK top ten drive?

Three quarters of the four hundred miles of Northern Ireland coast are protected areas and as we made the next section of the journey to Ballycastle it was easy to understand why.  The sun was shining today but it was still quite cool and I suppose that the unpredictable climate is a bonus here because if Northern Ireland had the climate of the Spanish Costas then it wouldn’t be long before they were covered in sun loungers and the shoreline would be overrun with pedalos and water sports.

By mid afternoon we reached the seaside town of Ballycastle and as the parking was free we pulled in and went to explore the beach and the harbour.  The seashore stretched some considerable way and we took a stroll along the dunes and back at the car we transferred some grains of sand from our shoes to the car floor and although we didn’t know it now this was likely to become a problem later…

Resisting the temptation of a pub stop and a Guinness we carried on now to our next destination, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge Northern Ireland

The travel guides make this sound like a death defying challenge to cross a swaying rope bridge with only irregular wooden steps and rotting rope handles to separate you from certain death on the jagged rocks below followed by a swirling watery grave as the unpredictable currents carry your shattered and broken body out into the sea.

The truth is that this is not nearly so exciting as is made out and there is no Indiana Jones sort of danger whatsoever and visitors cross over the twenty metre bridge as though on a pedestrian crossing on any town centre High Street and make their way to the rather disappointing final destination on the walk.  It is as safe as being on a cycle path in the Netherlands, as safe as a bubble-wrapped Amazon parcel delivery!

Samuel Johnson is reported to have said the the Giant’s Causeway was worth seeing but not worth going to see and whilst I would take issue with him over that I think his assessment could easily be applied to Carrick-a-Rede!

If the bridge is a disappointment (especially having paid £6 each for the privilege) the coastal walks are not and the thirty minute walk there and back from the inevitable National Trust centre and souvenir shop provided splendid views along the rocky coast in both directions and today with the sun shining we could almost make out people waving to us from Scotland.

This part of the coastal drive was almost over now so back at the car we drove the final few miles towards the Giant’s Causeway and our hotel for the night, The Smuggler’s Inn.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

 

Northern Ireland, Belfast Street Images

Belfast  Beacon Of HopeBelfast Cathedral Quarter

Northern Ireland, The Troubles and the Political Tour

Belfast Political Murals

“Side by side, we stand like brothers
One for all and all together
We will stay united through darker days
And we’ll be unbeatable forever”

Ireland’s Call (The IRFU anthem) – Phil Coulter

The thirty year period between 1969 and 1998 in Northern Ireland is generally referred to as ‘The Troubles’ because during this period Catholics and Protestants, Loyalists and Nationalists waged bloody war on each other over the issue of the political status of the Province and in the process destroyed the political structure, the economy and the social infrastructure of the country.

During this time approximately three thousand, five hundred people were blown up, gunned down, assassinated or murdered and ten times more than that were wounded or injured.  To put that into perspective if this level of political violence had occurred in the rest of the United Kingdom then the number of casualties pro-rata to population would have been over one hundred thousand and if it had been in the United States it would have been six hundred and fifty thousand.

Given these statistics and considering the violence and destruction of property (by 1980 a third of the historic centre of Londonderry was damaged or burnt out) it seems to me that the term ‘The Troubles’ seems massively understated.  Troubles implies to me a little bad tempered spat, handbags at dawn or a bit of a playground punch up but this was much more than that, it was actually all out civil war.

Today we were going to find out more about it and back at the hotel we waited for our taxi to arrive to begin a tour of the troubled areas of West Belfast.  Some taxi tours remain rigidly sectarian and will only do either the Protestant Shankhill Road or the Catholic Falls Road areas so we had chosen Ken Harper Taxis because they promised to do both.  Bang on time our taxi arrived and the driver introduced himself as Lawrence.  He began by confirming that we were serious about taking the tour and asked if any of us were frightened.  We replied yes to the first and no to the second and the tour began.

We went first to the Protestant/Loyalist working class area of the Shankhill Road and pulled into a social housing estate where Union Flags were displayed prominently on every house and where Queen Elizabeth looked out from front room windows into the street, surveying her Realm and here on the gable ends of the terraces were the famous political murals of Belfast.

They paid homage to the Loyalist heroes of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, a deadly sniper pointed his rifle directly at us and here of course was King William III of Orange and a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne of 1690 which effectively established Protestant domination in Ulster and which has been celebrated every year since in the provocative Orange Day Marches on the 12th July*.  Being only a few weeks away preparations were already in place and on one corner of the estate was the wooden pallet base of what was soon to become a one hundred foot high bonfire.

In one place there was a rather discreet memorial to Oliver Cromwell and I asked about that.  Lawrence said that there used to be a full mural but it was taken down because it was considered offensive to Catholics.  Excuse me, all of these murals are offensive to Catholics and this explanation only confused me.  But then Ireland is an enigma, there is bad blood between the Republic and the North but when it comes to sport for example everyone gets on together.  Rugby Football, Hurling, Hockey and Cricket are all organised on an inclusive basis and only football retains a distinction between the south and the north.  Maybe the people who run the Ireland Rugby Football Union should be in charge of the political peace process?

Northern Ireland Belfast Peace Line

We left the Shankhill Road and drove now towards the Catholic/Nationalist Falls Road but our way was blocked by an ugly concrete and steel wall topped with razor wire which Lawrence told us was the ‘Peace Line’ built to keep Nationalists and Unionists apart and with steel doors which are closed at night to prevent fighting and confrontation.

There is currently an agreed objective of removing the Peace Line by 2023 – Another eight years!

I was genuinely shocked to see this, I really had no idea and in this moment I came to understand that the troubles are not over and that I was not on a tourist pleasure drive but I was seeing first hand the gritty reality of life in working class Belfast.  The wall is covered in graffiti and peace messages and Lawrence handed over some marker pens and invited us to make our contribution.

We passed now into the Falls Road and stopped in a memorial garden to fallen heroes of the IRA**  next to a row of houses where back gardens were protected by cages to prevent damage from missiles thrown over the wall and then to the offices of Sien Fein and the instantly recognisable face of hunger striker Bobby Sands staring out from perhaps the most famous Belfast mural of all.  As the tour came to a close we stopped one final time by a wall of murals all declaring solidarity with other worldwide political protest movements.

This was a highlight of our time in Belfast, it was both educational and entertaining and anyone visiting Belfast should not hesitate to take the tour.  Like a lot of people I had thought that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but Lawrence had demonstrated just how wrong I was.

http://www.harpertaxitours.com/

It was late afternoon now and we needed to lighten up a bit so after being dropped off back at the hotel we followed a walking route to a famous Victorian pub called the Crown Bar Liquor Saloon where we drank Guinness and made plans for the evening.

Later we returned to the Cathedral Quarter and a restaurant called ‘Made in Belfast’ where we had an excellent meal and watched a party table next to us overloading the table with alcohol.  I think that they were planning a very big night!

We didn’t stay long enough to get involved because we were planning an early start tomorrow and a drive north along the Antrim Coast.

 

* The Orange Order is an international Protestant fraternal organisation was founded in County Armagh in 1795 as a Masonic-style brotherhood with the principal aim of upholding the Protestant faith. Its name is a tribute to the Dutch-born Protestant King William of Orange. Its members wear Orange sashes and are referred to as Orangemen. The Order is best known for its yearly marches which take place not just in Northern Ireland but also in the USA, Canada and almost anywhere in the World where people from Ulster have emigrated to and settled.

** The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is any of several armed movements in Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries dedicated to Irish republicanism and the belief that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. The first known use of the term “Irish Republican Army” occurred in the Fenian raids of the Fenian Brotherhood an Irish Republican organization who were based in the United States on British army targets in Canada.

Weekly Photo Challenge: ROY G BIV, Belfast Street Art

Belfast NI Street Art

A wall painting in the Cathedral Quarter of the City of Belfast.  I think it captures all of the colours of the Rainbow!

Northern Ireland, Belfast and The Titanic Experience

Titanic Museum Belfast

The Unsinkable and the Unthinkable

“Certainly there was no sailor who ever sailed salt water but who smiled – and still smiles – at the idea of the unsinkable ship” –  Charles Lightoller (Surviving Officer) in ‘Titanic and Other Ships’

The Titanic Museum and Experience has been built on the site of the previous Harland and Wolff workshops  right in front of the slipways that were built for the construction of the Titanic and the sister ship Olympic.  This area which has become the Titanic Quarter was previously called Queen’s Island but twenty years ago it was a no hope area of rotting buildings, dereliction and silted up docks and the transformation is truly remarkable.

Borgo 9.jpg

Inside the building was equally as impressive as the exterior and after collecting our pre booked tickets (10% saving) we made our way through to the exhibition which started with a history of nineteenth century boom town Belfast before taking us to the top floor for a shipyard ride with various displays of the construction process and then descending through various galleries that dealt with the launch, the fitting out, the maiden voyage, the passengers and the sinking.

The exhibition has a good mix of exhibits, interactive displays, full size reconstructions and plenty of information and facts.  My favourite was the story of the riveters who worked in a five man team and were expected to fix six hundred white hot metal rivets in a day.  One man heated it in a furnace before throwing it to a second man called the catcher who collected it in a bucket before passing it to the three man finishing team who hammered it into place.  All of those jobs sound dangerous to me but I imagine the catchers to be the most so.

Titanic Belfast

By the time that we left the final gallery about the search for the ship we were all happy to declare this to be among the best experience museums that we had ever visited and what good value at only £12.50 and I would certainly be happy to recommend anyone to visit this place.

There are many theories about the reason for the sinking.  The Captain has been blamed for being reckless, the White Star Board for trying to set a speed record despite the danger but currently the most popular is the rivets.  Apparently those used at the bow and the stern were made of iron rather than steel and contained high levels of impurities.  They only had a 5 mm tolerance and as a consequence of the collision they shattered and popped their heads and the steel plates of the hull undid like a giant zipper.

From the very day that she was designed she was almost doomed…this (the use of iron rivets) was the Achilles heel of the Titanic.” – Paul Louden-Brown, White Star Line Archivist.

Steering the Titanic

So, everyone knows that the Titanic sank but as we came to the end of the visit I began to think about what if it hadn’t?  To begin with the three millionaire U.S. businessmen who died that night, John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Strauss might have gone on to be even more successful and who knows what they might have achieved.  Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship might have built something even bigger and better and Captain Edward Smith could have carried on crashing into other ships.

For sure I wouldn’t have met the American visitor who was looking at a list of the victims and comparing pictures with a faded photograph that she was holding.  She told me that it was her great uncle who was one who drowned that night.

Titanic (1)

Just maybe someone on board emigrating to the New World might have gone on to be the U.S. President and this isn’t as unlikely as it sounds because thirteen of forty four Presidents (30%) claim ancestral heritage from Ulster (Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton).

We certainly wouldn’t have had that awful film ‘Titanic’ with Leonardo DiCaprio and we would never have had to endure Celine Dion singing ‘My heart will go on’.  As a point of interest there have been twenty-two films that are directly or indirectly based on the story of the Titanic and if you want my opinion (you are going to get it anyway)  the best of all was ‘A Night to Remember’ made in 1958 and starring Kenneth More playing Second Officer Charles Lightholler (see quote above).

IMG_3571

Before leaving the exhibition we had a good value Titanic themed lunch in the ground floor restaurant and then after visiting the slipway overshadowed by Samson and Goliath in the Harland and Wolff shipyard which are claimed to be the two largest free standing cranes in the World and have become a canary yellow symbol of the city.

With warbling Celine Dion ringing in our ears we retraced our steps now back towards the hotel and found the thirty minutes of time that we needed to visit the St George’s indoor market which happened to be a craft fair today before making our way back to the hotel to rendezvous with a taxi and a driver guide who was going to take us on a completely different sort of experience – a tour of the politically troubled areas of West Belfast.

Titanic Experience Belfast

Northern Ireland, Belfast and the Titanic Quarter

Titanic Experience Belfast

Building and Sinking of the Titanic…

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” – Captain Edward Smith

“You could actually walk miles along the decks and passages covering different ground all the time.  I was thoroughly familiar with pretty well every type of ship afloat but it took me 14 days before I could, with confidence, find my way from one part of that ship to another.”  – Charles Lightoller, Titanic Officer.

Everyone knows the story of the RMS Titanic.  When it was launched in 1912 it was the largest ship ever built.  It was the biggest thing ever built that moved. It weighed sixty thousand tonnes and its two thousand one inch thick steel hull plates were held together with three million rivets.  It was proudly proclaimed as the safest ship ever built.

It might have been considered unsinkable but on its maiden voyage the unthinkable happened and it sunk after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and Captain Edward Smith was obviously absolutely hopeless at making accurate maritime predictions.

Edward Smith

He may not also have been much of a sailor either.  In January 1889 approaching New York on her final White Star sailing, he managed to run RMS Republic aground.  In 1890 he ran the White Star RMS Coptic aground in Rio De Janeiro and in 1909 he ran another White Star liner, the RMS Adriatic, aground also in New York.

In 1911 as Captain of the White Star ship RMS Olympic he nearly crushed a tug in New York harbour and on the only voyage of the Titanic there was a near collision in Southampton with a steamer  which by strange coincidence just happened to be called the New York.

To be fair collisions in the Atlantic Ocean and in the sea ports were quite common because as the cruise author John Maxtone-Graham wrote, “There were many more close calls on the western ocean than passengers ever heard about”.  This was the case because the Atlantic Ocean was significantly busier than it is today.  Cruise fans today well might tell you that it is the only way to travel, but in the first half of the twentieth century if you were travelling to the United States, it was.

Given his unfortunate record of running into things and damaging company property it might seem odd therefore that White Star Line trusted Captain Smith with the biggest ship ever to take to the seas.  It may also not have escaped reader’s notice that most of these incidents involve New York in one way or another and that was exactly where the Titanic was heading.  Even a raging sceptic would have to admit that these were bad omens.

Anyway, what was a disaster for the White Star Line, the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the one thousand five hundred people who died that night, every cloud has a silver lining and the new Titanic quarter in Belfast is a runaway success story as the city continues to regenerate itself and become a serious tourist destination.

It was cool this morning but the sun was shining as we left the hotel and made our way to the banks of the River Lagan.  This is another area that has been seriously improved.  Twenty years ago this was by all accounts a desperately unsightly area with vast mud banks that were unattractive, smelly and dirty but massive investment has funded the construction of waterside embankments and a new weir controls the levels of the water in the river to keep it permanently full and attractive.

Belfast Beacon Of Hope

On the way we passed by the Beacon of Hope Statue and then Belfast’s Big Fish which commemorates the Lagan regeneration project and then we crossed the river and made our way to the museum.  From the outside this is a magnificent structure designed in such a way that captures perfectly the spirit of the shipyards, ships, the sea, ice and the White Star Line’s logo.

This wasn’t the first time that I had visited a museum about a ship that sank on its first time at sea because in 2004 I visited the  Scheepvaartmuseum or Maritime Museum in Amsterdam which has a full sized replica of the three masted ‘Amsterdam’, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, which in its maiden voyage sank in a storm in the English Channel in winter of 1749.

Actually, it isn’t that unusual for ships to go down on their maiden voyage and Wikipedia lists dozens of them it is just that the story of the Titanic has caught the imagination of the World and after one hundred years shows no sign of running out of steam.

Titanic Experience Belfast

 

Northern Ireland, A Walking Tour of Belfast

Victoria Square Shopping Centre Belfast

Must See places in Belfast…

“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.” – James Nesbitt

We started our walking tour at the restored Victorian St George’s indoor Market and as soon as we went through the doors I knew that I had been there before.  In 2002 I attended an Environmental Health conference in Belfast and one evening there was live entertainment and a lot of drinking in this place.

It looked quite different today laid out with market stalls selling all sorts of food and traditional produce.  We would have liked to have stayed and looked around but Saturday it seems is early closing and all of the stall holders were in a rush to pack up and get off home or down to the pub.  The information board at the door told us that it was open again tomorrow so we were obliged to postpone our visit for twenty-four hours or so.

From the Victorian Market we made our way to the modern Victoria Square shopping centre which is much like any other UK shopping centre and sent the same sort of shivers down my spine that I get in Grimsby or Nottingham but happily we weren’t there for shopping we were there to find the steel observation tower set under a glass dome with good views across all of the city and we climbed the spiral staircase to the to the top platform for a 360° panorama of Belfast.

I might have mentioned before that I don’t really like shopping centres and arcades but this one impressed me.  Not because of the merchandise but simply because it exists. Twenty years ago Belfast city centre was a soulless place with army patrols and check and search points but now it is a vibrant and colourful city centre with a healthy beating heart and shops and department stores that would never have considered locating here during the times of trouble and violence.

Getting away from the centre proved a little difficult because shops have tractor beams that draw women inside and we had to stop regularly as Kim and Pauline were unable to resist the shoes and the sparkly things in the shop windows.  I am completely unable to understand the need to shop but here it was even more confusing.  We were in the UK and these shops were exactly the same shops that you can see in any UK town or city so where was the need I wondered to go inside and touch things.  And that is another peculiarity of shopping, women need to touch things even if they have no intention of buying them.  I raised this point and asked for an explanation but all got was a ‘you wouldn’t understand’ sort of look in response.  Too right I wouldn’t!

Queen Victoria Birmingham UK

A feature of cities is that they give different areas quaint touristy names and now we made our way to the Cathedral Quarter, so named for no other reason than this is where the Cathedral is.  We stepped inside but there was an admission charge of £5 so put off by this we just stayed in the entrance area and looked at the interior from a distance.  This might sound a bit mean but I am always reluctant to pay to visit an Anglican Cathedral on account of the fact that they are always disappointingly dull.

Now somewhere called the Cathedral Quarter sounds as though it should be rather well worth visiting but all in all we found it a bit of a let down and then I found this on Wikipedia:

“The Cathedral Quarter is a developing area of the city. While it has considerable good attractions it is also true that its designation as a cultural quarter may easily lead to an apprehension of a busy and significantly developed cultural area, which may bring some disappointment to visitors.”

Turning back now to the City centre we did stray into one rather lively street with a courtyard of entertaining murals and a street of lively and colourful pubs;  It looked like a street that was trying to become a sort of Temple Bar (Dublin) but it has to be said that it still has some way to go.

As we walked it began to get rather cloudy and soon there were spots of rain.  Kim and Pauline used this as an excuse to shelter in a shop, Richard went looking for a guide book and I decided to wander back to the hotel.  The weather changes quickly in Ireland however and I hadn’t gone very far when the clouds broke and the sun was poking its smiley face through again.

This conveniently coincided with my arrival at the Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square.  This is without doubt the finest building in Belfast commissioned in 1888 after Queen Victoria awarded Belfast city status and as a mark of gratitude her statue stands proudly outside the main entrance.

There were no flags flying.  In 2012, the City Council voted to limit the days that the Union Flag flies from City Hall to no more than eighteen designated days. Since 1906, the flag had been flown every day of the year. The move was backed by the Council’s Irish nationalist Councillors but was opposed by the unionist Councillors.  On the night of the vote, unionist and loyalist protesters tried to storm City Hall and they held protests throughout Northern Ireland.

Later we met in the bar for a Guinness and a debate about where to eat.  We took the word of a helpful young barman who recommended an Italian restaurant called the Cheeky Cherub which personally I didn’t think that sounded all that promising but we went there anyway and after a first class meal we all agreed that we were glad that we took that advice.

Next day we were going to see the Titanic Exhibition.

Belfast City Hall

Northern Ireland, Preparation and Research

Ulster and Northern Ireland

Eire, Northern Ireland and Ulster

In 2014 we visited Southern Ireland, Eire, The Republic and had such a wonderful time that we planned an immediate return to the Island for the following year.  Not to the South though on this occasion however but to that part of Ireland that still remains part of the United Kingdom – Northern Ireland or Ulster.

Not so long ago most people would no more of thought about visiting Northern Ireland than North Korea, it wouldn’t have crossed their minds to go to Ulster any more than go to Uganda and Belfast would be in a travellers wish list that included Beirut and Baghdad.  Now things are changing and Northern Ireland is reinventing itself as a tourist destination.

The Province of Ulster is nine counties in the north of Ireland and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.  The map above shows the geographical split. The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had ferociously campaigned to remain part of the Union ‘by all means which may seem necessary’ which inevitably included violence and civil disobedience.

Northern Ireland Map Postcard

As Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom I found it difficult to carry out my usual areas of research but I have managed one or two interesting facts.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that in 2014 Northern Ireland was the happiest part of  the United Kingdom and the top four places based on a residents survey were the counties of Antrim, Fermanagh, Omagh and the city of Dungannon*.  The least happy areas are all in England at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, Dartford in Kent, Torridge in Devon, Maldon in Essex, and South Ribble in Lancashire.

Let’s turn to Blue Flag Beaches.  The United Kingdom has one hundred and thirteen Blue Flags and ten of these are in Northern Ireland.  It is more impressive when you think of it like this – The UK has twelve thousand, five hundred miles of coastline and Northern Ireland has four hundred so it has just three percent or so of the total seashore but seven and a half percent of the Blue Flag Beaches.

Northern Ireland Blue Flag

I always like to take a look at the Eurovision Song Contest and Ireland competes as part of the United Kingdom.  Belfast born Ronnie Carroll came fourth in the contest in 1963 with “Say Wonderful Things” and in 1967 the Northern Irish songwriter Phil Coulter wrote the winning UK entry “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.  He also wrote the following years runner up “Congratulations” by Cliff Richard.

Quite a lot of famous people have been born in Northern Ireland, in Literature there is C.S Lewis, in music there is Van Morrison and James Galway, in golf there is Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, in snooker, Alex Higgins and in motor racing Eddie Irvine.  Leaving Best till last is George who is generally reckoned to be the finest player who never played in a World Cup finals and makes it into everyone’s top ten greatest footballers. I saw George Best once when he gave an after dinner speech, later I shook his hand and got his autograph and believe me it was a very special moment!

When it comes to actors there is Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson and Sam Neil who I always thought was Australian but turns out he regards himself as a New Zealander.

We arrived at Belfast International Airport around about lunchtime and still being in the UK there was no tedious border control procedure so we skipped straight through and made for the Sixt car hire rentals office on the other side of the airport car park.  I completed the paperwork and paid for fully comprehensive insurance which more than doubled the cost of the rental at a stroke.  Still, better to be safe than sorry we all agreed.  We were allocated a brand new silver Honda Civic Tourer and eased out of the car park satisfied that we were fully covered for all eventualities.  I should have read the small print – more about this later!

Belfast International Airport isn’t exactly in Belfast and there was a twenty mile drive to the city and I overruled the SatNav and avoided the motorway and took a leisurely drive through the small towns and villages along the way eventually arriving in the capital after about forty minutes.

Rather unusually we found the Premier Inn hotel with a minimum of fuss and presented ourselves at the check in desk where the lady on reception asked if we were with the Stag Party. OMG, there was a twenty strong bunch of staggers at the hotel all intent on getting gloriously drunk and having a riotously noisy  evening.  The receptionist scratched her head and fiddled with the keyboard and then happily announced that she had found us two rooms a couple of floors away from the merry makers.  We celebrated with a Guinness.

A Premier Inn Hotel is always a safe choice, hardly luxury but always reliable.  Last year I took my granddaughters to  a Premier Inn for a night and the youngest, Patsy, declared it to be the best hotel she has ever stayed at in her life – but she is only four years old!

Satisfied we found our rooms on the fourth floor, left unpacking until later and stepped out into the sunny street for a walking tour of the city.

Welcome to Belfast

*What is interesting is that although there is still a desire for many Catholic Nationalists for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Republic, three of these areas are predominantly Catholic.