Our trip to Northern Ireland began with a very steep hill, the car gasping up a one in four steel ramp on the Belfast ferry and me hoping for all I was worth that the person in front didn’t stop. Nine hours later I was gingerly edging the car down the same ramp hoping the person behind me had good brakes.
After settling into our hotel there was an obvious need for a bite to eat… and a drink. The Mourne Seafood Bar was bustling and we were squeezed in for a quick feed. The cup of chowder sounded a good idea but when the seafood casserole arrived we realised we had a challenge on our hands – salmon, haddock, mussels, a big shrimp, crab claws, potatoes plus bread on the side. It was delicious though and somehow we staggered across town to the Crown Liquor Saloon, a glorious boozer built in the 1880s and actually owned by the National Trust.
It is a riot of stained glass, intricate carving, cosy snugs and slow service. After twenty minutes of thirstily sitting at the bar enjoying the architecture we popped across the road to the Europa Hotel – famous at one time as being the most bombed hotel in Europe. Today it’s sumptuously decorated and the whole place has a prominent but not unpleasant smell of rose petals about it. We sauntered up to the piano bar and enjoyed two decent coffees with little bits of cake for £4.50 a pop. There must be some pretty wealthy coffee drinkers in Belfast.
In the morning we headed off to the City Hall, which is a huge imposing building opened in 1906 that dominates the city centre. Inside is a very good free exhibition all about the history of Belfast. Like all the exhibitions you come across here it managed to take a straightforward but diplomatic line around the many tensions which have marked the history of Northern Ireland. How many drafts did the text panels go through until everyone was happy?
What was particularly striking to me was how very rapidly Belfast grew at the end of the nineteenth century. That growth was based on a technical education system which enabled the city to become a huge manufacturing centre. A centre making everything from kitchen stoves to ocean liners.
But some of the jobs! For example, a riveting gang at Harland and Wolff. One of them belted a red hot rivet through holes in two steel plates. On the other side, often inside a cavity within a double hull, two men – ideally one left handed and one right handed – hammered the other end of the rivet flat. In the dark. Inside a steel box. Going completely deaf was the least of their worries.
The middle of Belfast has some other impressive buildings. Most of the big stores are housed in big, solid architectural gems. Top of the list must come Marks & Spencer which occupies a gigantic Florentine palazzo opposite the City Hall that you enter through a small door at the top of a series of steps. It’s a shame then that inside it looks (and smells) like any other M&S.
Anyway, from there we walked across the river to the new Titanic Quarter which occupies some of the space the shipyards used to take up. The yards are still there by the way, if a lot smaller, and nowadays Harland and Wolff is busy making offshore wind turbines.
You can’t miss the new Titanic museum with its four shiny prows. Inside, you follow a serpentine route through the history of shipbuilding in Belfast and thence on to the story of the Titanic itself. Incorporated into the tour is part of the Arroll gantry, a gigantic structure that provided a frame enclosing Titanic and her sisters as they were built. It allowed material to be craned relatively easily from the dockside floor to where it was needed.
William Arroll & Co had just built the Forth Rail Bridge and although this thing was over 220 feet high, nearly 900 feet long and weighed over 6,000 tons it was a bit of a small job for them. This massive piece of kit survived until the late 1960s when it was replaced by Goliath and Samson, the famous yellow cranes which are the unofficial emblems of the city.
As you go round the Titanic exhibition at one point you’re invited to go on a theme ride. You climb into a black suspended car which would look at home at a Batman attraction and straightaway find yourself gliding four storeys above the floor giving you the impression that you’re beside the hull of the ship as it is being built. As you swoop and pirouette you hear about the blacksmiths and the platers and, of course, the riveters, and finish your trip gliding past a mock Belfast pub.
The overall exhibition is very good with a large computer simulated flight through the ship, mock-ups of the cabins and giant scenes showing footage from ocean floor vessels exploring the wreck – plus a minute by minute account of the disaster.
But where it falls down for me is on the aftermath of the disaster and its consequences. The pace went out of the story at this point (surely the most important bit) and the accounts of the inquiries were disjointed and hard to follow.
After a stop in a B&B at Carrickfergus we tripped over to Antrim to visit the Castle gardens. Parterres, decorative canals, ruins, and an excellent art exhibition if you like that kind of thing. The history room tells the story of Antrim Castle and the various eccentrics who owned it. The most extreme was Clotworthy Kellington, Second Earl of Massereene.
When his beloved dog died in 1799 at his Dublin residence he was distraught, and ordered that the remains be accorded the same privileges as any other family member who had died. The dead dog lay in his wife’s bed during the wake and when it was returned for burial at Antrim Castle, all local residents with pet dogs were ordered to dress them in a black scarf and follow the procession to the burial service. Cue comment about being barking mad.
The Antrim Coast Road up from Larne is reckoned to be one of the greatest drives in the world, twisting and turning round the cliffs and bays with waves breaking below. It’s the kind of road demands something like a vintage Bentley to really enjoy it, but the Skoda estate was adequate enough.
The road brought us to Glenariff Forest Park at the head of a glen that incises the landscape. The weather was changeable, with bright sunshine and heavy showers, and after a walk into the forest we came back just as a heavy shower was working up the glen producing the most astonishing double rainbow that spanned the entire valley.
You can’t go very far in Northern Ireland without bumping into something to do with Game of Thrones. It feels like every corner in the province featured in Series X Episode Y. We pulled into a little coastal village called Cushendun in search of a cuppa to find that a spooky cave by the harbour had been where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow assassin – whatever that means.
The tea room was shut so we retired to the pub for our pot of tea. We soon discovered it possessed one of ten specially carved Game of Thrones doors placed around the country, made from a fallen tree in the so-called King’s Road (Series 2, Episode 1). Slight shame that they had installed is as the entrance to the toilets.
We spent the night at the Marine Hotel, Ballycastle (where we got upgraded to a very nice suite because our telly didn’t work), and took a pre-breakfast stroll around the foreshore. Next to the hotel was an ice cream parlour that was evidently going to be shut for the day. But instead of having a mundane card saying “Closed due to family commitment” in the window, it said instead “Today we dance at a wedding”. That’s class.
The North coast of Antrim seems to largely be in the hands of the National Trust, who own two of the major tourist magnets of all Ireland.
The first is Carrick-a-Rede, a rope bridge dangling eighty feet over the waves that joins a headland with a tiny island where salmon fishermen used to stretch out nets. The challenge for many tourists seemed not to be whether they would be struck with vertigo as it swayed in the still breeze, but the one kilometre walk they had to make from the car park to reach it. Too many Ulster fries perhaps?
However the mega-attraction is a few miles further on – the Giant’s Causeway. You are shepherded into a large car park and then enter a black glass bunker built into the side of the top of the cliff. There’s lots of snazzily presented information that tells you all about the history and legends and myths of the Causeway and when you’re ready you can walk or get a bus the half a mile down the edge of the cliff to the stones.
The Giants Causeway is a complex of volcanic basalt columns which cooled as crystals millions of years ago, and you are perfectly at liberty to wander over all them along with dozens and dozens of other people.
I immediately felt a little uneasy about this as I did my share of trampling and began to think that what nature had taken millions of years to create might be irreparably damaged by millions of human feet in a few decades. After all, you can’t traipse all over Stonehenge or clamber up the Pyramids any more. It is certainly amazing; platforms of hundreds of interlocking columns – some perfectly hexagonal, others having four, five, even seven sides.
More fascinating to me though were the cliffs just beyond the Causeway where the basalt columns shoot up almost a hundred feet in gigantic colonnades that look like the facades of mysterious temples.
Next morning we woke at Portstewart, further west along the north coast. The sea was crashing and pushing a strange sandy coloured froth up to the shore. I don’t know whether it has some mysterious health-giving properties, but at the end of the promenade a group of older looking people were braving the autumn chill and pounding surf to take dip in it. Or perhaps they were in their twenties and they were addicted to the thrill even though it was rapidly putting years on them.
I really wanted to have a go on a Northern Ireland train and decided we should travel by rail into Londonderry. The best station for us to join the train was Bellarena. Like a lot of Irish stations it was in the middle of nowhere but was simple and smart and (astonishingly) had been opened by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh only a year before.
Part of the reason for taking this particular route was RAF Ballykelly. This air base was opened in 1941 and it soon became clear that the runway wasn’t long enough. The trouble was the railway line passed the end of the runway and couldn’t be moved. The solution was to extend the runway but have the railway run across it.
And trains had priority; so unless there was a Cold War emergency Shackletons tracking Soviet subs had to wait for the 9.38 from Coleraine to Derry to chuff through before they took off. The base has closed but you still have the odd sensation of being where you shouldn’t be as your train rumbles across the tarmac.
From Derry station we walked across the Peace Bridge into town. It is a walled city and the walls are very much intact. That means that the modern centre is squashed into a surprisingly small area, with hundreds of buildings shoe-horned into what space there is.
We had a look around the Guildhall, which is a magnificent Victorian building and full of fine wooden carvings and stained glass. All of this is pretty new because the place was bombed during the Troubles and has been restored at considerable expense to its former glory. If there is a good side to that it is that there are still people with the skills to do such intricate carpentry, joinery and stained glass window making.
We didn’t spend too long in Derry because it was a soft day (i.e. chucking it down with rain) but in the Tower museum we learned a bit about its complex history. It is called Londonderry because the London livery companies were persuaded (probably with their arms up their backs) by James I to invest in and colonise the north of Ireland, following the flight of the Gaelic earls in the early seventeenth century. That meant English and Scottish settlers coming over to organise the countryside into plantation farms, and the displacement of many of the native Irish inhabitants.
It was sobering then to walk around the walls and look across to the Bogside to see all of the defiant murals still painted on the ends of blocks of flats and the memorial to Bloody Sunday. And also to pass through many villages and suburbs across the province where Union Jacks and Ulster flags fly from telegraph poles and lamp-posts.
Dotted about the trip were visits to three other National Trust properties. (You have to work hard to get the wear out of your annual fees.) These properties do tend to blur together a bit. Which was the one with the ghost story? Which was the one where the first in line always had the same Christian name? Which was the one where the house had descended into a dilapidated ruin when the Trust took it on in the 1950s, with the last inhabitant still living somewhere in the west wing? Answer: all of them.
We headed down the main road to Amargh in pouring rain and I pulled in sharpish to pick up a man hitching in the deluge. As soon as he jumped in I realised that if he hadn’t been dancing at a wedding he had been drinking quite a lot somewhere else, but he was friendly and grateful. Apparently Irish drivers don’t stop these days like they used to. When I said we were headed for Armagh he was astonished and wondered why any tourists would want to go there.
We got a room in the Armagh City Hotel which was very nice, next door to the police station, which still had a tall compound wall, lots of barbed wire and cameras, and a pill box-like look-out post (although there never seemed to be anyone inside it). That night we got lucky because Teresa Livingstone was on at the theatre in town . She was superb and we had a great laugh with the locals. Look her up on YouTube.
Sunday morning, go to church. In this case St Malachy’s across the road from the hotel. Eight o’clock Mass was very busy and it was conducted in traditional Irish fashion. Seminarians over here must take special classes in speed talking for the whole service was over in 28 minutes, including homily. If you have been to a Catholic Mass you’ll know that is going at quite a clip.
Armagh is the religious capital for the whole of Ireland, with two cathedrals – one Protestant and one Catholic – both called St Patrick’s. To be honest neither is that outstanding as a building, although the interior of the Catholic one has elaborate encaustic tiled floors and staggering walls of patterns and friezes made up of millions of hand-placed tiny tesserae tiles.
The Mountains of Mourne do indeed sweep down to the sea and the bleak landscape of these peaks is a complete contrast to the gentle farmland that surrounds them. In the centre are three huge reservoirs restrained by dams that were built largely by hand between the 1920s and the 1950s.
Their catchment area is defined by a 22 mile long dry stone wall, made of boulders, that runs over the top of fifteen peaks around the range including the tallest, Slieve Donard, which tops out at 2,790 feet. We did the popular hike up this peak from the jolly seaside town of Newcastle. Well, popular with masochists for sure.
After a fairly steep tramp up past waterfalls and through woodland you eventually get to a saddle between two peaks. Turn left and you are presented with an unrelieved thousand foot heave up what is practically a cliff to get to the summit. Worth it though, especially on the fine day we had, for the views are spectacular – about fifty miles all round, taking in the east coast of Ireland, Strangford Lough and the rest of the Mourne range.
Our footsteps (or tyre marks) turned back towards Belfast and the ferry home and on our last day we took in Mount Stewart, said to be one of the ten best gardens to visit in the world – which I wouldn’t argue with – and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
The museum sounds pretty parochial but it is vast, stretched over two sites either side of the Belfast to Bangor highway. The folk part consists of replica and genuine buildings representing the history of Northern Ireland, the genuine ones having been moved brick by brick and stone by stone from their original homes. There are workers’ terraced houses from Belfast, houses little better than hovels from the countryside, shops, a bank, a police barracks and a number of churches.
And you can explore the inside of most of them. What is strange is that whether lowly- or highly-born everyone in this part of the world in the nineteenth century didn’t think their house was complete unless it had a chaise longue it in, plain and simple or fancily upholstered.
All these buildings are arranged in a village setting with a pleasant old world café but, interestingly perhaps, no pub. Out of the village are acres and acres of fields dotted with old farm and industrial buildings of various kinds.
In one of them was a linen loom, once a major part of Northern Irish industry. Unlike wool and cotton, linen likes a really damp atmosphere for trouble-free spinning and weaving. Many looms were in cottages so to make a living the poor inhabitants had to put up with earth floors and often worked with their feet in cold water.
Over a road bridge is the transport part, which is housed in a series of modern pavilions stretching down a hill towards Belfast Lough. You’ll want to know about the buses but there are only two, a 1970s Daimler Fleetline and a very handsome 1948 three-axle Guy trolleybus – both done out in Belfast Corporation’s fetching dark red and cream livery. The real highlights for me though were a train and a car.
When the railway from Omagh to Enniskillen was built in the 1850s it proved impossible to run it through Fintona so a junction was built at the bottom of the hill on which it stands, and a rail link was made up to the village. Trains would stop on one side of the junction platform and passengers would cross over to get into another train (one carriage plus one wagon) pulled by… a horse. The horse was always called Dick and this bizarre arrangement lasted until 1957. The carriage and wagon are in the museum and so is Dick although sadly only in fibre glass.
The car is not the DeLorean which is on show. We all know that John Z. DeLorean, a one-time superstar car designer in Detroit, convinced a desperate British government to give him the money to build his stainless stain status symbol sports car in a new factory in West Belfast in the late 1970s, and the catastrophe that followed.
No, the real gem is the wonderful DAWB 6 Touring Car. In 1949 Dave Woods, who ran the Belfast Tool and Gauge Company, convinced his motor cycle racing pal Artie Bell that they should design and build a one-off special car. No expense was spared; only the best parts available were used. It took five years to design and eight years to make and looks like the car Sean Connery’s James Bond should have driven instead of the Aston Martin DB5. But once it was built DW hardly used it – was it because the thrill was in making it, or was it because it was just about as reliable as a DeLorean?
So there’s lots and lots to see and do in Northern Ireland. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming, and getting around is easy. The weather is the weather – you don’t need endless sunshine to enjoy it.
And there is of course that Ulster fry: eggs, bacon, sausages, black and white pudding, potato cakes and a bit of tomato so you can feel good about yourself. The perfect start to any day so long as you work it off with a little light mountaineering.
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