This week exploring Belfast could be the subject of an entire book. From the moment of our arrival, the chatty sociability and curiosity of the locals suggested we were in for a full-on, in-your-face experience, and so it proved.
Our mooring was in Abercorn Basin, right in the heart of the fast-growing Titanic Quarter with its multitude of famous sights. The Titanic Experience was our first point of call – a high-tech tour-de-force display of Belfast’s history, centred on the ship-building industry and the heroic story of the famous liner. The neighbouring Titanic Hotel includes a beautiful conversion of the original Harland & Wolff drawing offices, there are historic ships on display in dry and wet docks, and a new ‘Great Light’ with its rare Fresnel Hyper-Radial lenses. Two-tiered and seven metres high, they weigh about the same as yacht Nova.
Next we hopped on the open-topped tour bus – a risky endeavour in this weather. It had been rightly recommended to us as an excellent way to see the city in a short time. The tour guides are as funny as stand-up comedians, and the two we heard were both former youth workers with genuine passion for Belfast and its future. We stopped at CS Lewis Square for a while, then walked down Newtownards Road, shocked into silence by the freshly-maintained murals and flags on houses. (There’s a little more about this on our Facebook page, because these symbols were visible on both sides of the city, and formed an unavoidable part of our Belfast experience, but we chose to dwell on other things).
We also came across a huge ‘Pride’ rally which brought the open-top bus tours to a complete standstill as its noise and colour passed through the city centre. Reflecting on our day, it made me think that it is probably better to encourage many diverse expressions of things that matter to people, rather than trying to suppress any of them except the most divisive, and to encourage loud and colourful celebration of positive things.
It was a pleasure to see Catriona again (from Chrome Media) as she chases us #AroundTheseIslands researching and recording for the podcast series that is gradually taking shape. It is proving a hugely positive and interesting project – people quickly warm to the idea of positively celebrating the maritime past, present and future of significant ports. New connections were made at the impressive Belfast Harbour Board, the Titanic Foundation who so brilliantly curate the historic Titanic Quarter, the Linen Hall, Harland & Wolff, the Lagan bout tour, and the Ulster Scots Agency (who amongst other things enjoy celebrating wonderful Scots words like ‘Flooser’ ‘Fleety’ and ‘Drooth’). We also enjoyed lunch at the remarkable Dock Café, an ‘honesty box’ coffee house and community hub, where you pay what you feel is right. And of course a drink and live music in one of the many popular city-centre pubs – the cathedral quarter is buzzing with music and voices these days.
It’s strange to leave after such a colourful experience, but leave we must. Out down the Victoria channel, guided by the port authorities over the marine VHF radio, leaving behind the silent cranes of the shipyard Harland and Wolff, away from the hills which flank the city on either side, and towards the sea again.