Monday, August 17, 2009

Reflections in the wake of the Tall Ships

I’ve a single memory of the Tall Ships being in Belfast the first time. I thought I was younger, but I’ll have to believe everyone who says it was 1991. I remember walking along a quay, in the middle of waste ground in a Belfast harbour I’d never seen before, and there were boats with tall masts tied up. I’ve absolutely no memory of getting on board any of the ships.

Tenacious - Tall Ship, Belfast

I fear that Littl’un’s memory of last Saturday’s visit to the Tall Ships will be strangely similar. She’ll remember walking along in a throng only equalled in density by the pre-Christmas crowds in Marks and Spencer. She’ll remember the mud. And although we were early and didn’t have to queue more than fifteen minutes to get on-board the Tenacious (well named for the characteristic of those waiting on the quayside) I’m not sure that wandering around the deck will have left her with an impression of the size and majesty of the tall ships.

The people that I’ve met with the most vivid experiences of the Tall Ships seemed to be the ones who wandered (or cycled) down to the Odyssey late on Wednesday or Thursday night. No crowds blocked their view of the assembled fleet. And the people who saw the vessels moving on the water, and not just moored.

Coming out of church on Sunday morning (well, a bit after 1pm – the tea and buns are good) and heading up over the M3 to join the M2 for Antrim, I caught a few seconds glance of the flotilla heading out of Belfast Lough. In the distance, ahead of a line of small boats, one of the tall ships was powering its way towards the open water. The hull rose out of the water, half way or more up the height of the yacht’s masts. It was enormous. Its scale was visible. The most impressive view I had of the tall ships.

Police helicopter flies over the Tall Ships site

Much was good about the Maritime Festival. Even with the teething problems of Thursday, the traffic management seemed to work remarkably well given the volumes of visitors. Thousands of people got parked in the three park and ride sites. Hundreds were unsuccessful each day. Keeping the M3 flyover passable for much of the day to get the Boucher Road overflow across to Airport Road was an impressive achievement in itself.

The Odyssey site was a mixed bag of activities. The Expo tent had some interesting stalls, but wasn’t signposted, and was due to the one way entrance/exit system mostly visited by people on the way out rather than the way in. In general, circulation around the site was haphazard. I saw some people carrying leaflets and maps, but have no idea where they found them.

The remains of the grass in front of the Odyssey

On Saturday morning, the fresh bark was quickly tramped into the mud that had replaced the grass of the Continental Market. Quote of the day came from one perfume salesman to the other:

“Are these people short of money or are they just tight?”

The ten pound bottles of perfume weren’t selling so well. At least Laverys had acres of seating – even if their burgers left something to be desired. (Mostly toilet paper in my case. Too much information?)

We didn’t get into the BBC science tent to see its show but no doubt liquid nitrogen was impressive. The cluster of Headroom tents were surreal – must try and figure out which part of the licence fee (if any) it fell under – and the deck chairs provided a welcome rest while some clay was fashioned into a princess. And nice to catch up with Campbell and the BBC Bus again!

Overall, despite the media build-up (mostly fascinating and well intentioned) and the general hype, I reckon my perception of the Tall Ships was coloured by not seeing them under sail. But if it did take our mind of recent difficulties and provide a focus for fun, food and a bit of queuing, then I’m still glad the Tall Ships came to Northern Ireland.

Cruise liner docked in Belfast the day after the Tall Ships have left

By the way, there was still one parked moored around the back of the Odyssey at lunchtime. Not sure when it’s due to leave, but worth a wander if you couldn’t get close with the crowds. And an enormous cruise liner had docked on the opposite side. An entirely different species of tall ship.

One tall ship remained behind after the rest left Belfast

Update - interesting commentary on the Tall Ships experience over at A Life in Northern Ireland blog.


Visitor said...

Alan, I am glad to see your comments, although I think in your efforts to be as positive as you could be, you have overdone it!

I went on Thursday, the first day,and it could only be described as a disaster. The crowds were such that I could see nothing, I didn't get on board a single ship, in fact I couldn't even find a decent spot to take a photograph of them, something which was totally ignored by the organisers.

I am not a 'begrudger', far from it. I was looking forward to this event and I am glad to see that so many people went. How many of them will come back? I know I won't. I felt as if I was being herded in every direction just to get me out of the way. I saw nothing of the stalls. Why did the Market have to be at the Odyssey and not at City Hall where it usually is? Surely spreading the crowd throughout the city centre would have made more sense and brought more custom to the shops which desperately need it?

The final insult was the exclusion which I felt when visiting Custom House Square which was turned into a feast of Orangeism by the so called 'Ulster Scots Agency'. What the hell had any of that to do with the Tall Ships?

This was an opportunity missed as far as I am concerned, and although apart from the weather things may have been better on following days, we should remember that the organisers have had at least 2 years to prepare for this.

Timothy Belmont said...

Nice photos, Alan. I'm afraid I didn't manage to make it this year. To be truthful, I'm a bit averse to crowds and congestion!

The Titanic Quarter is slowly emerging as quite a feature; and the PRONI's new GHQ will be a lot handier for those of us from the East!


On my edge sun said...

A nice post Alan, I think we had pretty similar experiences of the Tall Ships this year, as I'm sure did many others - I blogged about it too and reading back, my main memory was of queues :(

Hopefully next time they'll spread it out a bit more :)

John Self said...

We went on the Thursday too, and had a similar experience to Visitor above. We walked there (2 miles from our house via Sydenham) which took us less than 40 minutes even with Baby Self in tow. When we left, the queues of people awaiting Park and Ride buses were frightening.

We didn't really see much of the activities or the ships, as pushing a buggy around makes it harder to manoeuvre in such tight and packed spaces. In fact we felt it wouldn't have made much difference to us if the ships themselves hadn't been there!

Agree with Alan that there was little sense of direction or of how to find activities, or indeed of where they were (there was an Expo tent?). And what's this about a one-way system? Maybe they brought that in after Thursday, and a wise move it might have been, as we were caught in a directionless melee for most of the time. Lowlight was queuing for 20 mins for a crepe at the Continental Market because people at the front of the queue kept buying them for each member of their extended family! Also, there was an announcment over the tannoy on Thursday for people to avoid the continental market area for 10 mins, presumably due to overcrowding. Maybe that's why nobody could get near the perfume stalls...