Belfast

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.

The 'Beacon Of Hope', Belfast (Also Known As: 'Nuala With The Hula' and 'The Thing With The Ring'

The ‘Beacon Of Hope’, Belfast (Also Known As: ‘Nuala With The Hula’ and ‘The Thing With The Ring’)

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.

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

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 Titanic Experience Building

The Titanic Experience Building

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.

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

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.

Stormont

Stormont

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.

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Belfast 3-D Street Art

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.

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

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.

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

 

35 Years Ago

Yesterday was Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) and my wedding anniversary.  We have been married for 35 years.  Now that is long-suffering!  Nah, I’m kidding; neither of us would have put up with a marriage of suffering for very long.  It has been a very successful union and the fact we are still united is a testament to that.

Our Wedding Cake

Our 1985 Wedding Cake

Of course, there have been some downs as well as ups.  Most of the downs related to the stresses of my professional work life or the strains of parenting three young boys.  The 1990’s, when those two stress generators came to a peak together, were certainly challenging.

My Family At Our Wedding With More Hats Than Usual

My Family At LSW’s And My Wedding (With More Hats Than Usual)

Overlaying all that peak stress with a move of the family from London to Gloucestershire in 1998 wasn’t easy but, with hindsight, was probably a critical success factor for the longevity of our marriage.  I continued to work in London and commuted weekly from the new family home.  That meant my work stress could be isolated from the family to a degree and maybe it’s true that (my weekly) ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.

Our First House In Gloucestershire From Which I Commuted To London Weekly

Our First House In Gloucestershire From Which I Commuted To London Weekly

As the boys have grown into adults so there have been times when we have been reminded of another old adage: ‘small children, small problems; big children, big problems’.  LSW’s emotional intelligence and parenting training and skills have been to the fore as we negotiated those challenging times together.  But as my professional life has wound down and then I retired, so I have been able to contribute to family life a bit more equally and become more relaxed.  We are still happy with our lot and each other.

LSW and I dined out at Calcot Hotel restaurant to celebrate our anniversary.  A meal out in a restaurant felt like a bigger deal than usual – not only because it was our anniversary – but because it was the first time we had eaten in a restaurant since we went to Bath just before the Coronavirus lockdown, well over four months ago.  It was a very pleasant meal and break from routine.  The restaurant had made social distancing arrangements and we felt safe.  The evening was a welcome change from testing out home cooking recipes from our shelves of recipe books and piles of newspaper cuttings.

Calcot Hotel And Spa At Night

Calcot Hotel And Spa At Night

Over dinner, as has been the case at such events for over 30 of those married years, we talked about our sons; how alike they are, how different they are, our hopes for them and how they are being realised.  We also talked about our respective families; how different our family traits are and how different our respective siblings are.  We also talked a bit – as we had on a recent local walk together – about how we have managed 35 years of marriage.

I read recently an article which postulated tolerance as the main driver for a successful marriage.  Certainly compromise is required.  However, there need to be boundaries to compromise and tolerance.  Constantly being tolerant, to the point of always giving in, builds resentment.  Poor or unthinking behaviour needs to be challenged even if change is only even likely to be partial and slow.  LSW’s thinking is that both participants in the marriage need to be confident in themselves so they know when to be tolerant, when to compromise and when to draw a boundary and stick to it.  That all sounds about right to me and is certainly true of LSW.

Onwards to another 35 years of marriage?  I’ll be 99!  I’m not at all confident I’ll be around to celebrate that but I’m happy enough living in the present in our road-tested marriage.  As one of our boys used to say – I forget which – ‘Good choosing Dad!’  But choosing is only the first step.  Sticking at it for 35 years requires luck, patience, tolerance, self-confidence, hard work and, no doubt, much more.

New Beginnings

Blowy Day In Our Field

Blowy Day In Our Field

Life in our home has become a little quieter since lockdown eased enough for Youngest Son (YS) to leave us for his new start in Northern Ireland.  The Monopoly Deal box has gone, the breakfast coffee isn’t quite so consistently good (YS is a qualified barista!) and there isn’t as much energy and enthusiasm in the house.  We miss him.

The upsides are that he is with his girlfriend again at last, is excited about a new career as videographer in Belfast, and my study is empty of all his stuff.  I have also taken on YS’s grocery lockdown delivery slot for the Village Shop which is making me feel more helpful and virtuous.

Otherwise, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I continue much as we have throughout the lockdown.  The main twist to our lockdown routine has been triggered by the gradual opening of the village pub, now, mercifully, under new management.  It has been great to re-integrate visits to our local pub into our activities once again.

We first tried the take-away arrangements, sipping beer on the kerbside from a bottle and glasses that we had brought.  Then, at the weekend, we paid our first proper visits, post-lockdown, to see the changes the new leaseholders have made to improve the pub and make appropriate social distancing possible.  Although the pub was busy, we felt safe and the changes that have been made to the interior – narrowing the bar and moving the kitchen – have made the pub look and feel like a local pub for the first time.

Approaching The Hog

Approaching The Hog Post-Lockdown

Critically too, the new leaseholders already know loads of people in the village and so I believe villagers will want it to succeed more than ever.  The pub has had a chequered history and now is a difficult time for anyone in the hospitality business, but, as we chatted to fellow villagers, it felt like a positive new beginning for The Hog at Horsley.

I am hoping for new beginnings and directions elsewhere too.  The coronavirus outbreak has forced massive re-thinking in government and in many families.  There is talk of building back the way we live and the economy in a better, greener way.  A recent YouGov poll suggested that only 6% of people want a return to the same type of economy as before the coronavirus pandemic.  Hoo-ray!

Hopefully the re-build of the UK will involve increasing home working, walking and cycling and an improved electric car charging network to reduce carbon emissions and reduce air pollution.  Perhaps Treasury money will be found to create an enlarged skill pool (re-trained baristas perhaps) for the retrofit of homes through improving insulation and replacement of oil and gas boilers; that would create jobs and reduce our carbon footprint.

Maybe too, we will see promotion of renewable energy, more sustainable and diverse food production, and a continuation of the local community support groups that have taken off during the lock down.  I’m still hopeful that something positive will come out of the mess the virus outbreak got us into.

The Way To Go?

The Way To Go? Local Wind Turbines Near Forest Green Rovers’ Ground

In our small village climate action group we are looking at how, amid the virus disaster, we can help to perpetuate some of the positive side-effects of the lockdown on the village’s carbon footprint and its resilience to the climate emergency.  We are trying to promote our existing community assets such as the pub and shop, encouraging local and sustainable food production, and investigating community energy schemes and better, greener local transport solutions.  We have a plan – indeed, just last night, I presented it to the wider Stroud District Climate Action Network – and we just need more time and energy (probably a little more than we actually have) to implement it.

Our Horsley Climate Action Network Logo

Our Horsley Climate Action Network Logo

My involvement has been focused on trying to help sustain the revenue growth the Community Shop has seen during lockdown.  I am reluctant to become a full blown volunteer (beyond my new weekly delivery duties) or Committee Member.  That is because I fear that, on top of other regular commitments LSW and I already have (and will have when the football season starts again!), signing up formally might be an obstacle to the sort of travelling we want to do – once that is unencumbered by the current coronavirus fears and constraints.

However, I am anyway getting increasingly involved in trying to understand how we sustain the popularity of the shop as lockdown continues to ease.  It’s interesting and more complex than I thought and I think that I can help – we’ll see how this participation develops.

Another recent new beginning is that LSW and I are re-starting outings away from the local vicinity.  The easing of the lockdown has allowed LSW to see more of her old workmates during tours of local, recently re-opened gardens.  Then, this week, we drove several miles south to Old Sodbury.  There, we took a break from the numerous local walks from our house to explore one of the many Cotswold Way circular walks.

It was a lovely blustery walk that took in big views and an impressive Iron Age fort, and it was fun simply because it was new to us.  We will try some of the other parts of the Cotswold Way – it is something I have long wanted to traverse – but we will have to get used to meeting more people on the way than we are used to in our equally attractive local walks.

Old Sodbury From The Cotswold Way

Old Sodbury From The Cotswold Way

We are very spoilt for lovely, quiet walks where we live.  Amid all the current change – positive and negative – those remain consistently enjoyable.

Another Chapter On The Roller-Coaster

Late Evening Sun In The Garden

Late Evening Sun In The Garden And Meadow

Life can seem like a roller-coaster with its ups and downs.  Also, it often seems comprised of episodes or chapters, as in a book, where the start and end of each section is triggered by a significant event.  Maybe I am mixing metaphors but I have thought of both roller-coasters and multi-chapter books as retired life has progressed this week.

A year ago, our family life was upturned by Middle Son (MS) being run down on a pedestrian crossing by a police fugitive in a car.  He has made a good recovery (though I bet he will be stopped at every X-Ray machine at airports).  Finally too, just this week, the police arrested the culprit.  MS’s accident was a deep low on the roller-coaster but, although the court case and insurance claim is still to come, he and we have moved onwards and upwards.  It was great to see him looking happy this last weekend when he, Eldest Son (ES), and ES’s lovely girlfriend visited us for the day to celebrate Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) birthday.

Birthday Banners And Delicious Homemade Birthday Food

Birthday Banners And Delicious Homemade Birthday Food

We had a highly convivial day marking LSW’s (big-with-a-nought-on-it) birthday with all our sons.  There was even some probably ill-advised hugging!  The sun shone, there was great food and, mid-afternoon, LSW had a visit from the family of her younger brother and her mother.  We observed social distancing outdoors with them but the atmosphere of sociability and exuberance pushed away the disappointment of having had to cancel LSW’s our original plan birthday holiday plan due to the Covid-19 crisis.  It felt liberating just to have a lot of people in our garden again; a lovely slice of (almost) normality…..

Of course, a birthday can mark the start of a new chapter of life.  This one did so, especially, because Covid-19 lockdown has eased enough that Youngest Son (YS) was able to leave us, a couple of days after the birthday celebrations, for a new start in Northern Ireland.  That has left a hole in our days that will take a while to re-seal with other interactions and activities.

Watching Youngest Son From Our Bedroom Departing In The Wee Early Hours

Watching Youngest Son From Our Bedroom Departing In The Wee Hours Of The Morning

YS had been with us for three months and his can-do enthusiasm and almost constant positivity (so different from me) will be sorely missed.  As parents, it was a privilege to have him at such close quarters for so long.  I suspect our first post-lockdown trip will be to Belfast to see how he is settling in there and we are looking forward to that hugely.  Not only will we see him again then, but a trip away from home will be a welcome break from our re-trenched lockdown routine, and a chance to see a part of Britain I have not seen before.  Four years ago – almost to the day – we were waving YS off to what turned out to be three years in Australia; Northern Ireland is not so far!

Until we are able to make such a trip we are more than making do outdoors with the enjoyment of our garden and the seemingly endless variety of local walks.

A Selection Of Garden Flowers

A Selection Of Garden Flowers

The garden is full of flowers, the meadow is gradually revealing increasing plant diversity in response to our benign management, and both garden and meadow are full of bees, butterflies and other insects.

Marbled White Butterfly - Stationary Just Long Enough For A Photo

Marbled White Butterfly – Stationary In Our Field Just Long Enough For A Blurry Photo

My life chapters may be moving at a more sedate pace than YS’s but my roller coaster is nicely located for a contented retiree 🙂