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.
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.
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.
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.
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.