Off work last week, various plans came and went when the weather turned damp. But the Titanic Made in Belfast Festival had put the idea of a bus tour around Belfast into our heads.
The Titanic Bus Tour looked good ... but the “not suitable for under sevens” in the leaflet was discouraging. But not - as it turned out - as discouraging as the pricing of the normal Belfast sightseeing tour prices!
If you’ve every fancied taking one of the bus tours around the city, here’s what you need to know. At least, here’s what we found out on Saturday afternoon.
- Most of the tours will allow you to get off the bus (alight!) at stops of interest and then hop back on the next bus that passes and has room for you.
- There are twice as many red City Sightseeing Belfast buses as Allen’s Open Top tours, so you’ll only wait half an hour for the next bus when you tire of your stop if you buy a ticket for the red bus.
- Allen’s Tours claim four extra stops and exclusive access to Stormont estate.
- If you carry around a leaflet for one company, a sales guy for the other will offer you a discounted ticket!
Anyway, wandering into the Belfast Welcome Centre proved a good move, as although the afternoon Titanic tour was sold out, the folk at the festival desk suggested queuing up outside the City Hall to see if some folk would not use their free tickets and we’d be able to fill the spaces.
And sure enough at a minute past two, we were amongst the seven extra souls to slip onto the bus and set off on the two hour tour.
Basically, it’s a great tour. Assisted by Denis at the wheel of the Ulsterbus, local historian and author Stephen Cameron guided us around Belfast, stopping to look at the Titanic Memorial under the shadow of Belfast’s Big Rickety Wheel, before heading off down towards the harbour Commissioners Office, the Abercorn Basin, the dilapidated Drawing Office, the slipway before finally reaching the Thompson Dry Dock and the Pump House.
I suspect that Stephen could comfortably fill a week-long tour with details about the Harland & Wolff ship yards and stories about the building of the Titanic and her two sister ships, Olympic and Britannic. It was a fascinating insight into the scale of the venture, the world-class expertise that Belfast was able to apply, and the innovation that was dreamt up to overcome the obstacles in the way of building such a large family of ships.
Sitting in church on Sunday morning, there was another reminder of the impact. Westbourne Presbyterian Church in East Belfast is sometimes known as the Shipyard Church, with the twin yellow cranes clearly visible from the door of the church. It was community Sunday, and a wide invitation had gone out to local residents as well as community representatives. Some of the church’s history and involvement in the local area was regaled, including the effect of the Belfast Blitz.
But having only been on the titanic tour the previous afternoon, perhaps the hardest hitting moment was to consider the atmosphere that there must have been amongst the congregation on the first Sunday after the Titanic has sunk. Packed with men from the ship yard and their families. Knowing that three years of hard labour (and over three million rivets) between the keel laying on 22 March 1909 and the departure from Belfast on 2 April 1912 had been for nothing. The effect on the community is hard to comprehend.
The once prestigious Drawing Office and Directors Board Room are now decayed. The once industrious slipway is waste ground. The dry dock still holds out the water, but is unused.
Yet there is construction in the area. Just over the fence from the Drawing Office, Titanic Quarter is being built at a phenomenal rate. The first phase of the office blocks and apartments will be ready for occupation later on this year. The Science Park is a hive of activity.
If you get a chance next April to hop on one of the bus tours, I’d recommend it. The itinerary may change slightly, as the building work will have started to excavate the old slipway and there may even be renovation work to the Drawing Office if any of the development plans come to fruition.
Although I’ve been in Northern Ireland all my life, I either paid too little attention during history lessons (and gave up after third year anyway) or we didn’t cover a lot of local events. So it’s interesting to place some of these key influencing events in an NI context. Oh, and did I mention that the H&W on the yellow cranes stands for Hello and Welcome!