Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

The Titanic Experience in Belfast

“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’

Two weeks after returning from Northern Ireland I went there again, this time to take my grandson who has a great interest in the story of the Titanic.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 fifteen of forty-six  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, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the current President Joe Biden).

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).

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.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

 

 

A Walking Tour of Belfast

After completing the Antrim Coast Drive and a visit to the Gobbins Coastal walk we arrived late afternoon in Belfast.  I have been there before and written a post about it previously…

… lazy I know but…

… Read The Full Story Here

The Gobbins Coastal Path

Before driving into Belfast we had an appointment at another Northern Ireland tourist hotspot – The Gobbins Coastal walk Experience. An odd name for a tourist attraction you might think but the explanation is that it comes from the Irish word Gobán meaning headland.

The Gobbins is a cliff face walk up and down difficult and uneven steps, across iron bridges and through a tunnel that at one point runs below sea level. It all sounded rather exciting.

So we arrived at the visitor centre at the appointed time and after being booted and suited were given the first of a series of health and safety lectures followed by a bus ride from the centre to the east coast and the starting off point for the adventure.

The Gobbins was created by an Irish railway engineer called Berkeley Deane Wise. He designed and built the path as a tourist attraction for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company and it first opened to the public in 1902 with visitors paying 6d to enjoy a ‘perfect marvel of engineering’.

Almost immediately the Gobbins drew worldwide acclaim, with one newspaper review extravagantly declaring that the varied beauty of this cliff path baffles all description’.

Because of its proximity to Belfast with convenient railway links for a while the Gobbins Path was even more popular as a tourist destination in Northern Ireland than The Giant’s Causeway.

Thousands visited The Gobbins in the first few decades of the twentieth century advertisements of the time declared ‘the new cliff path along The Gobbins Cliffs, with its ravines, bore caves, natural aquariums … has no parallel in Europe as a marine cliff walk’. High Praise indeed.  However, the railway company got into financial difficulties during the 1930s, essential maintenance slipped and the path was closed in 1936 and gradually fell into serious disrepair.

There was a restoration project between 2011 and 2016 which restored a part of the pathway. The cost was almost £8m with over half of the funding coming from the European Union. Who says Brexit was a good idea? Where is the money going to come from for these sort of projects in the future?

There was a long steep path down to the entrance and then the walk began. It was interesting but not nearly as exciting or dramatic as I had imagined it would be with long stops for explanations from the tour guide which were impossible to hear because of the wind and the pounding of the waves and these frequent stops made it rather tedious at times.

And then there was an unexpected rain shower, more of a nasty squall than a shower as it happened that lasted for ten minutes or so and being exposed as we were on the cliff face managed to soak us all right through. I enjoyed most of it except for the part where we walked through a tunnel of roosting pigeons and lots of bird shit to try and avoid.

An interesting experience but I wouldn’t do it again. The best bit was when Kim spotted a pod of dolphins swimming close to the land. There is something special about seeing dolphins.

From the visitor centre we drove directly to Belfast and to the Premier Inn Hotel. I like the Premier Inn hotels, they are reasonably priced and you know exactly what you are going to get – a quiet room, a comfortable bed and no nasty surprises.

Later we walked into the City in search of somewhere to eat but is was rater busy which shouldn’t really have surprised us because measured by population it is the twelfth largest city in the United Kingdom. We struggled to find somewhere that could accommodate us and without success finished up at a Wetherspoons bar where the food is cheap and includes a free drink but it is not what you would call by any stretch of the imagination a fine dining experience.

Bushmills to Belfast on the Antrim Coast

By the next morning the storm had passed through and the rain had stopped, the sun was out and burning, the mercury was urgently rising and the watery puddles were steaming.

Today we were driving the final section of the Causeway Coast and after turning south the even more picturesque Antrim Coast was laid out before us which goes all the way to Belfast and our final destination.

Three quarters of the four hundred miles of Northern Ireland coast are protected areas and as we made the next section of the journey it was easy to understand why.  Although the sun was shining brightly it was still quite cool and I suppose that the unpredictable weather 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.

We stopped first at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.  The travel guides make this sound like a death defying challenge to cross a swaying adventure with only irregular wooden steps and rotting rope handles to separate the brave visitor from certain death on the jagged rocks below followed by a swirling watery grave as the unpredictable currents carry a shattered and broken body out into the turbulent 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.

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 previously 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 United Kingdom.

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 barnacle like to the sea.

The road here adheres 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 the west were the glens of County Antrim decorated with dainty wild flowers and rolling gently down to the coastline and to our left 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.  Shades of Iceland here and the Huldofolk.

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.

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 south 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 coffee and a cake  and soon we were back on the road.  I declined the refreshment break for reasons previously stated. 

Next stop was the Gobbins coastal adventure walk…

 

The Dark Hedges and Something Unpleasant Underfoot

It seemed that we were staying ahead of the weather forecast which had predicted storms and heavy rain and after completing a strenuous walk at the Giant’s Causeway we returned to the unofficial and much cheaper car park and set of back along the Causeway Coast

First stop was the ruins of Dunseverick Castle which Kim and Margaret declared not worth getting out of the car for and then swiftly on to Whitepark Bay Beach where we stopped for barely five minutes because the girls were of the opinion that it was rapidly approaching coffee and cake time so we continued on to Ballintoy.

Here there was a charming harbour and an old limestone quarry and information boards that told us that the crushed limestone was shipped to England to pave the roads of Manchester and Liverpool.  Another told us that inevitably this was a location setting used in the TV programme “Game of Thrones”.

Ballintoy in September was rather sedate but it seems that it can get rather overcrowded in the Summer.  I read a newspaper report that on one day in July the local council dealt with so much illegal and dangerous parking that they ran out of car parking violation tickets.

Except for a rather nasty smell in the harbour it was all rather lovely but it really was time for coffee and cake now so we made our way from the harbour to the village and stopped off at a suitable establishment.  I rarely join in this mid morning coffee break because I resent paying £3 for a cup of coffee or £2.50 for a mug of tea when down the road in a pub I can get a pint of Guinness for £4.  It simply makes no economic sense.

From Ballintoy we drove south to the Dark Hedges.

The dark hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted in the 1750s in the grounds of Gracehill House a Georgian mansion built by the Stuart family, descendants of a cousin of King James who had been granted the land but who had died in a shipwreck. They wanted to create a compelling landscape to impress visitors who approached the entrance to the mansion.  The Manor House is still there but a private residence and the Stuart legacy is this fascinating avenue of spooky interlinking tree boughs.

I say spooky because of course, such an ancient stretch of road is bound to have horror stories linked to it and visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘Grey Lady’. Local legend has it that she haunts the thin ribbon of road that winds beneath the ancient gnarled beech trees. She is said to glide silently along the roadside, and vanish as she reaches the last tree.  I couldn’t help thinking that I wished some of the tourists might disappear so that I might get a decent picture, but I suppose this stubborn couple do help provide a sense of perspective.

It was a fascinating place and maybe we were lucky to see it because Beech trees reach maturity at no more than two hundred years and those making up the Dark Hedges are well past that.  The Dark Hedges came under threat a few years ago when highway authorities proposed to fell many trees for safety reasons but the avenue was taken over by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust – and is now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to protect the popular landmark but I suspect that there is only so long that they can remain on an environmental life support machine.

From the Dark Hedges we returned to the coast at Ballycastle where we walked on the beach and had a pleasant hour or so until I had an unfortunate incident with a pile of dog poo which required fifteen minutes or so of boot cleaning.  I might have mentioned this before but I completely detest dogs and their inconsiderate owners and I am in complete agreement with Bill Bryson on his matter…

“It wouldn’t bother me in the least…if all the dogs in the world were placed in a sack and taken to some distant island… where they could romp around and sniff each other’s anuses to their hearts’ content and never bother or terrorise me again.”  –  Bill Bryson

The weather was deteriorating now and the promised rain was beginning to threaten so we called an end to the day of beaches and beeches and headed back to Bushmills where we arrived back in pouring rain.

Tonight’s dining was no more successful than the previous.  We booked a table at a nearby hotel but when we got there the prices were way beyond our skinflint budget so we declined to order and went instead to a Chinese takeaway, took it back to the guest house and sat and enjoyed a well prepared meal and a glass of two of red wine.  Very satisfying.

Tips for Visiting Giant’s Causeway on a Budget

The Giant’s Causeway is well worth a visit but using the National Trust site is very expensive.  The expense can be avoided…

Read The Full Story Here…

The Giant’s Causeway

An early start was essential today for two reasons.  We were visiting the Giant’s Causeway which is number one visitor attraction in Northern Ireland and gets very busy and secondly the weather forecast predicted a storm and heavy rain.

I have been to the Causeway before and wrote about it then and as nothing much as changed in sixty million years or so I will avoid repeating myself here.

Read The Full Story Here…

Derry/Londonderry – A Walk Along the Bogside

We have visited Ireland, North and South, five times and never once have we experienced bad weather.  Kim refuses to believe the stories about how wet it can be.

It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  As I mentioned before we were staying in the Nationalist Bogside area of the city which has a controversial and unhappy past.  It was peaceful enough this fine morning  but has had a recent bloody and violent contribution to the Troubles.  Indeed some historians identify Londonderry/Derry/Stroke City as being the very crucible of the bloody civil war.

In the 1960s Catholic Derry considered itself to be suffering religious and political persecution (quite rightly as it turns out) and the city became the flashpoint of disputes about institutional discrimination. Despite having a nationalist majority the city was permanently controlled by unionists due to the partisan drawing of electoral boundaries. In addition the city had very high unemployment levels and very poor housing. Overcrowding in nationalist areas was widely blamed on the political agenda of the Unionist government, who wanted to confine Catholics to a small number of electoral wards to effectively restrict their influence.

In August 1969 following the annual Protestant Apprentice Boys Parade Nationalists clashed with police in an incident remembered now as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ which directly led to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and the intervention of the British Army.

Worse was to come on Sunday January 30th 1972 when during a Catholic civil rights march thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers, another thirteen were wounded and one further man later died of his wounds. This event came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

This incident remains an open wound between the two factions and the British Army but the current official verdict was delivered by the Saville Commission which was published in June 2010.

The report concluded, “The firing by soldiers on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control” fatally shooting fleeing civilians.  The report states, contrary to the previously established belief that no stones and no petrol bombs were thrown by civilians before British soldiers shot at them and that the civilians were not posing any threat.”  Not the British Army’s finest hour!

Just outside the city walls and only a short walk from our guest house was the very place where the Bloody Sunday confrontation took place so walked down the hill from the fortress walls and saw three famous monuments, ‘You Are Entering Free Derry’, a message painted on the gable end of a row of terraced houses, long since demolished, the Bloody Sunday memorial itself and a third monument remembering the Maze prison notorious now for internment without trial, hunger strikes and the death place of the most famous hunger striker of all, Bobby Sands.

There are guided tours of the Bogside but we chose to do this by ourselves and although it felt quite safe on the busy main road I do admit to  becoming uneasy whenever we strayed into the side streets where signs invited the British to ‘Get Out Now’ and others encouraged local people to join the IRA.

We weren’t put off by this however because we wanted to see the murals, works of urban art really.  These were less political statements but a visual telling of the story of the Bogside troubles.  The political statements were there too but these were smaller information boards which told a sectarian and I have ro say a very one sided story.

I am glad that I walked down to see this but after thirty minutes or so I was happy to leave and walk back now to our car, pack our bags and head east for a drive along the Causeway Coast.

 

Derry/Londonderry – A City Tour and a TV appearance

On our second day in Derry/Londonderry our plan was to take a guided tour of the city walls.  So after an excellent full Irish breakfast at the Amore Guest House we set off in unexpected sunshine into the city.

Derry/Londonderry has the distinction of being the last walled city to be built in Europe and it is one of the most complete with an uninterrupted walk of just about a mile completely enclosing the old city within.  It is one of the few cities in Europe that never saw its fortifications breached, withstanding several sieges including one in 1689 which lasted for one hundred and five days, hence the city’s nickname, The Maiden City, three times besieged but never taken.

The tour began at midday so with time to spare we strolled inside the walls and through the  centre looking for a mural depicting the characters in the hit TV show “The Derry Girls” where we stopped to take pictures. 

A man with a camera approached us and introduced himself as a cameraman from BBC Northern Ireland who was doing a piece about the announcement of a third and final series of the show and asked if he could take a shot of us visiting the mural.  With stars in our eyes we naturally we agreed and that is how we appeared later that night on TV on the local news programme.

Next we crossed the Peace Bridge which is a snaking structure that crosses the River Foyle and connects the east and west banks in a symbol of hopeful fraternity and took us to the predominantly Protestant/Unionist side of the city where we were careful to remember to call it Londonderry.  Here there were the abandoned British Army barracks which have been gifted to the city by the British Government and where there was a frenzy of building/restoration work.

We had only been there an hour or so but already I knew that I Iiked the place.  I was expecting it to be rather more like the cities of Southern Ireland, I thought it might be like Galway or Killarney but it wasn’t.  It may not have had street entertainers and brightly coloured buildings but it had a unique identity which made me regret the fact that we weren’t staying a while longer.

Back within the city walls we joined out Tour Guide, a gregarious fellow in a canary yellow hoodie with a lifetime of amusing stories and anecdotes shared in an extravagant narrative and he set off on an entertaining walk around the top of the walls and on the way told the story of the city and how it was now continuing to recover after the Troubles of the late twentieth century.

The walk took us along the battlements, past fortified bastions and over the various gates of the city where carefully restored cannon still posed threateningly at every corner.  We passed by St Columb’s Cathedral and came across the Protestant quarter called the Fountain surrounded by brick walls and wire fences in a part of the city where the Protestant Unionists refuse to give in and move outside the walls.  Courageous maybe, stubborn certainly but I cannot imagine that it makes for a comfortable life.

It was late afternoon now so we split up to go our separate ways for an hour or so.  I choose to visit the Tower Museum which had a useful walk through history of the city and the province.  It was here that I learnt of the plantations and the settlement of Ulster by protestant Scots, the displacement of the native Catholics and the possible root cause of the centuries of tension that culminated in the troubles of the 1970s and 80’s, but I sensed a whiff of optimism here and I hope it is a beginning rather than an end.

Back together we visited the City Hall with an alternative but equally informative history of the city.  After a stop for a late afternoon Guinness we made our weary way back to the guest house to open a bottle of wine and settle down to watch our anticipated appearance on BBC news.  We scraped in there but only just with no more than a two second shot of us posing in front of the Derry Girls mural.

Later we dined out, drank more Guinness and made plans for the following day.

Staycation in Northern Ireland

After eighteen months of Covid 19 and lockdown restrictions we were desperate to get away. Going to Europe remained an assault course of paperwork and additional expense so we opted instead for a semi-staycation and planned a week in Northern Ireland. We got to go on a flight which made it feel like a real holiday even though  we were staying in the United Kingdom.

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

So we set off from East Midlands Airport to the city of Belfast and to the Province of Ulster.

Ulster is made up of 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 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. Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when modern Ireland was established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the idiosyncrasies of the country without offering a detailed explanation.

The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…

… Ulster has no political or administrative significance and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland. The other three are Connacht, Leinster and Munster. 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 vehemently campaigned to remain part of the Unionby all means which may seem necessary’ which inevitably included violence and civil disobedience.

Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway. County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry which now has a majority catholic population. Donegal is so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland.

How complicated is all that? No wonder the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.

From the airport we drove to the city via the market town of Antrim where we stopped for a short while at the castle grounds before continuing west to Derry/Londonderry which is the most westerly city in the United Kingdom. To complete the geography the most northerly is Inverness in Scotland, the most easterly is Norwich and the most southerly is Truro both of which are in England.

The city might be Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry and we were confused about what we should call it because we didn’t want to offend anyone.

The name Derry became the accepted name of the town around the sixteenth century but it was at this time point that the prefix of London entered the equation. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population here.

The various lands were handed over to different guilds of London traders to develop and manage. In recognition of their financial investment in 1613 by Royal seal the city was renamed Londonderry.

The names of the city, county, and district of Derry or Londonderry continue to be the subject of a naming dispute between nationalists and unionists. Generally nationalists favour using the name Derry, and unionists using Londonderry. Legally, the city and county are called Londonderry while the local government district is called Derry. There have been attempts by the nationalists to officially ditch the London bit of the name but only the Queen has the authority to permit this and so far she has declined to do so.

Confused? We were. My favourite solution to this problem is the name given by a Northern Ireland radio broadcaster called Gerry Anderson who christened the city with the alternative name Stroke City and residents have increasingly embraced the unofficial name skilfully circumventing the linguistic minefield of Derry vs. Londonderry.

We were staying in the western majority catholic/republican Bogside area of the city so on arrival we considered it prudent to be careful to call it Derry.

It was mid afternoon and after approving our accommodation we set off immediately to explore the city.