After long consideration of the relative risks during the Coronavirus pandemic, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I finally swallowed feelings of unease and flew to Belfast to see Youngest Son (YS) and his Northern Irish girlfriend in their new home. We had a packed four full days there – so packed that I will use two blog posts to cover my thoughts on our trip. Here is the first.
Travel to Belfast by car and ferry was going to take a day and the fastest route involved travelling through the Irish Republic. We were concerned about possible quarantine restrictions being imposed there during our trip but the ferry direct to Belfast from Birkenhead took nine hours and we couldn’t face that. So we plumped for a short flight from Bristol, our closest airport, and a payment to Solar Aid to offset the carbon emission and to help people in Africa.
We had a wonderful time in and around a surprisingly sunny Belfast. Fundamentally, it was good to be able to see how YS now lives. Also, having shared a number of misgivings about his move to Northern Ireland while he had been staying with us during the Covid-19 lockdown, the visit indicated our validation of his move. Beyond that, we ate and drank well, got a good feel for Belfast, and managed a day on the north Antrim coast and a day in the Mourne Mountains. I’ll write more on those two trips another time.
LSW had the wise suggestion of starting our stay with a bus tour of Belfast. With our best face masks firmly fastened again, we rode around centre and immediate suburbs of Belfast. Much of the journey was through and past places that we recalled vividly from news reports of sectarian strife in the latter part of the last century: the Europa Hotel, Shankhill Road, Falls Road, Crumlin Road Gaol. The Peace Wall separating communities in the west of the city is now repurposed for genuine messages of peace but it was still shocking. The murals and the flags in many of the streets indicated the recent rawness of The Troubles. Coupled with the helpful bus tour commentary, we got a very good introduction to the city.
Early highlights of the tour were the famous Belfast shipyards and new Titanic Experience museum which we visited on the following day. My expectations of the visit weren’t very high – I thought that the exhibition would major on the sinking and the romance of the likes of Winslet and de Caprio in the award winning film; I was wrong.
The material on the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage and a cross-section of the people who travelled and survived was well presented. The exhibition also provided a lot of fascinating context such as the history of Belfast and, especially, the way industry built up around linen manufacture and then shipbuilding. The exhibits included interactive displays and a splendidly unexpected and well operated automated ride through part of the building. This was laced with audio and video that allowed us to get a better feel for the working conditions in the dry docks and the scale of undertaking to build the Titanic.
Our fortune with the weather made wandering the streets of Belfast pleasant. There are few pre-Victorian buildings and many central streets are a strange mix of run down warehouses and old office buildings, late-Victorian civic and religious buildings (such as the Customs House, City Hall, and St Annes Cathedral) and the usual modern mish-mash of shops and offices.
One of the most impressive buildings is Stormont which is now the home of Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary assembly. It was built in the 1930s next to the late Victorian Stormont Castle and sits in wide open grass and wooded grounds. It is surprisingly accessible and views of it and from it are impressive.
Apart from Stormont and the City Hall, the city did not appear elegant but there is huge potential and an emerging vibrancy. We saw the rumbustiousness of that vibrancy on Saturday night in the bar-laden Cathedral Quarter (not much social distancing there!) and in the presence of new hip coffee shops, cafes and restaurants. Of these we particularly liked Freight, Established, General Merchants and OX Cave (sister wine bar to OX restaurant which we look forward to trying next time we are in Belfast). Our centrally located hotel, The Flint, was also cool and comfortable. We felt safe from Covid-19 and everything else wherever we went and the people we met were very friendly.
Other highlights in the City were a mini picnic and coastal walk along the river Langan estuary to Helens Bay and visit to Belfast’s rather weary but endearing Botanic Gardens. The Palm House there is a scaled down, but rather more beautiful, version of the Palm House in Kew Gardens. LSW and I used to live in Kew and so it brought back some old memories.
On our final evening in Belfast, we went to dinner at the house of YS’s girlfriend’s parents. We had a lovely evening enjoying their hospitality and catching up with them for the first time since they visited Gloucestershire several years ago. It was an excellent finale to an excellent few days in Belfast.