Ever wondered what lay behind the austere exterior of a building you walk past every day on the way to work? The annual European Heritage Open Days are a great chance to get inside buildings that are not normally open to the public as well as to see areas normally kept private in more familiar buildings.
The number of participating buildings increases each year, and on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 September over 260 buildings across Northern Ireland will be flinging open their doors and welcoming you in ... for free!
The NI Environment Agency provide handy PDF guides for Belfast as well as Co. Antrim, Co. Armagh, Co. Down, Co. Fermanagh, Co. Londonderry and Co. Tyrone. Note that not all buildings will open both days, so you’ll need to click through to check the NIEA website for exact details.
Belfast City Hall runs tours six days of the week all year round, but will have extended opening this weekend. Open Day regulars enthuse about the guided tour around the normally private parts of Belfast Central Library – there’s only one tour and it’s at 11.30am on Saturday. Linenhall Library is running tours at 11am and 2pm on Saturday, and have a children’s story reading event at 11.30am in the Kid’s corner.
Any number of churches are open ... though sadly many are not welcoming visitors on Sunday. The oldest church in Belfast is 1st Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street. The most unusual church is probably Sinclair Seaman’s in Corporation Square (just next door to Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s Office which is also open) complete with its pulpit in the shape of the prow of a ship and lifeboat-shaped collection boxes. Open for only 15 years or so, St Brigid’s Church on Derryvolgie Avenue is beautiful inside. The Antiochian Orthodox Church & Icon Exhibition (Cliftonville/Antrim Road) is open both days, and you’re welcomed to join the Vespers service on Saturday 6pm-7pm or the services on Sunday at 10am and noon. The distinctive First Church of Christ, Scientist (University Avenue/Rugby Road) designed by Clough Williams Ellis, the architect behind Portmerion (the backdrop of the original Prisoner series) is open on Saturday.
The Lock Keeper’s Cottage (beside the well known Lock Keeper’s Inn café) is running short tours of the restored building. I’ve always fancied a wander around Freemason’s Hall (19 Arthur Street, beside the Squiggle – they even have a website). BBC Broadcasting House is open, though you’ll need to book the hourly tours by phone. Stormont Castle is open, along with Parliament Buildings. Guided tours are available on both days. Vehicle access via the Massey Avenue gate only.
Update - some photos and reflections from some of the Belfast buildings participating.
Lisburn readers may want to know that there will be tours of restored Castle Gardens on Saturday (11am and 3pm) and Sunday (3pm only). Across the road, Castle House – former home of Sir Richard Wallace and now part of the “Tech” – is open on Saturday. The Hat Shop (8 Bridge Street) was rescued from ruin and restored with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund (amongst others). It’s open on Saturday (9.30am-5pm). Lisburn Orange Hall (on Railway Street) is open on Saturday if you ever wanted a peek at what happens inside.
Town City churches opening their doors on Saturday between 10am and 4pm include St Patricks Church (Chapel Hill), Christian Workers’ Union (Market Street, beside McCalls), First Lisburn Presbyterian and Railway Street Presbyterian.
Friends Meeting House in Hillsborough’s Park Street is open on Saturday. Crumlin’s Gartree Parish Church and The Balance House (2 miles outside Glenavy) are both open on Sunday afternoon. St Patrick’s Church at Drumbeg (on the bad corner between Bob Stewarts pub and the entrance to Lady Dixon park) with its unusual Lych Gate and yew trees is open too.
Worth noting that Scrabo Tower just outside Newtownards is open between 1pm and 5pm over the weekend. And most National Trust properties (including Mount Stewart and Castle Ward) hare open free of charge on Saturday.
The timings of open days seem to be staggered across different regions, so outside Northern Ireland some areas were open in August, while some are still to come. To find out what is (or was) happening in your area, click for Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, London or find out the dates across Europe.