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 Northern Ireland 2012

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Flying or Coaching?

To fly to Ireland takes approximately one hour. To go by coach takes about 17 hours, but in many ways coaching is the better option. Travelling by air has become an infuriating process from booking in hours ahead of the flight to having to go through security and all the other bits and pieces including standing around carousels waiting for luggage. On coaches you dump the cases in the hold and then just sit back and sleep/eat/read/listen to music or whatever. Now we hear that people are waiting in line for hours on end to get through passport control and back into the country at airports. This is not acceptable and once again shows a total lack of respect for the very people who obviously keep so many in work. Perhaps there is something in those stay at home for your holiday advertisements after all.

I know that no passports were needed for our trip to Northern Ireland but we did land at Dublin in the Republic. We had to set out from Norwich at 4 a.m which was a difficult time as it was neither here nor there. A midnight start and we could have stayed up and slept on the coach. But with a 4 a.m start the question is to go to bed or not to go to bed. So I went to bed and grabbed a couple of hours before getting up again at 2.30 a.m.

One of the problems with coach tours is the way they zig zag across the country picking people up. So we had to go from Norwich to Downham Market and then Wisbech and Peterborough before setting off for the ferry at Hollyhead in Welsh Wales. That was followed by a three hour ferry journey to Dublin. That in itself was interesting. The on board pizzas were decent but it was the weather that was of particular interest. It was announced that the winds would be gale force eight or extreme gale force nine. I'm sure a number of years ago that would have seen the passage cancelled. But stabilisers were employed and the journey was pleasant enough.

Interesting journey from Dublin to Belfast as well. There were no border controls, no apparent "welcome to Northern Ireland" (unless I missed it) and the only indication that we had moved from one country back into the UK came when distances in kilometres were replaced by distances in miles and signs stopped being repeated in Gaelic alongside the English.

It seemed to take forever to get to our destination the La Mon Hotel and Country Club 15 minutes out from Belfast and in open countryside. I think we had about five minutes between getting to our rooms and the evening carvery where the asked for small portion of meat turned into a massive wallopper. So everyone wore the clothes they had travelled in but, after 17 hours of travelling, the lure of food seemed more important than sartorial elegance.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Whiskey a Go Go - Giants and Rope Bridges

I studied Irish history at A level back in the late 1960s. Since that time Northern Ireland has been ripped apart by what is referred to as "The Troubles". Travelling round the country now that the Troubles are over (permanently I hope) there is a kind of sadness but feeling of history in the place names. I will return to this theme over the next few days.

Today was more a day of sightseeing than history. We started at Bushmills whiskey distillery. As it's Irish whiskey it has to have an e in it whereas Scottish whisky is without an e.  I went round Bushmills about 12 years ago when I worked in Media and PR for Norfolk Constabulary. They were very different days but in order to show our respect to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the National Association of Police Press and Public Relations Officers' annual conference was held in a hotel in Port Rush. Throughout the three days the hotel was surrounded by armed police who also sat in the reception area with machine guns. One of the primary reasons was that key speakers included RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan along with Sir John Stevens who, at the time, was undertaking a top level enquiry in Northern Ireland.

I remember Flanagan as a very charismatic man who talked movingly about some of the atrocities taking place in Ulster. He showed his sense of humour by telling us that he lived with a hooker - actually it was his son who played in the middle of the scrum for one of the top Irish rugby union sides!

So just being at that event was nerve-racking enough and we were told not to mention to anybody what we did for a living. Now thankfully all that seems to be past. Anyway I'm sure Bushmills hasn't changed much over the past 15 or so years. I haven't changed all that much as I still don't like whiskey (irrespective of whether it's Scottish or Irish). At the end of the tour there was a generous measure of Irish which I immediately tipped into a cup of coffee which was probably sacrilege.


Then it was onto Carrick-a-Reide which is owned by the National Trust which is scarcely surprising as we were on a National Trust holiday. It's a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow rope bridge suspended over 100 ft above the water, Not one for anybody frightened of heights. Once you're halfway across you have no alternative but to carry on to the end and even less of an alternative to taking the same bridge back. Lovely views once you get over it (and I mean that in two senses). So plenty of photographs in the high winds which didn't make getting across the bridge very pleasant.


Then onto Northern Ireland's top tourist attraction The Giant's Causeway. Lots of legends here mainly surrounding the giant Finn McCool who took on the giant of Scotland Benandonner and used the causeway to walk across to meet him for the battle. The real reason for the formation of the Causeway is much less romantic. They are about 40,000 Basalt columns formed by a volcanic eruption. It is a world heritage site and apparently has been voted the fourth greatest natural wonder in the UK by readers of the Radio Times. It was good to have free access to the columns to climb on them and take photos. A good day all round.


Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mount Stewart and a Famous Race Horse

 Hotel Le Mons
 Today we visited Mount Stewart, an impressive house overlooking Strangford Lough. I say the house is impressive but when you go to web sites about Mount Stewart it is the gardens that seem to take the eye and they are stunning. So relaxing - not that we relaxed as we had to walk round them all. It really felt like an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life.


We had a guided tour of the house from a delightful Irish man. I couldn't help thinking about the comedian Jimmy Cricket. He had the same mannerisms and accent. Come to think of it he was a bit like Roy Walker as well. He kept asking questions and our answers were met with a "that's good but it's not right or "I like that but it's not right." You have to say those phrases in a Northern Ireland accent with a smile and mischevious twinkle to get it right. Anyway George the Guide made it a very enjoyable hour in the house, continually making interesting asides. The main points about the house seem to be the fact that it was the former home of political leaders and society figures, it has embroidered chairs from the Congress of Vienna of 1815, it has views across Strangford Lough and it has a painting worth millions by George Stubbs over the main staircase.

Apparently some visitors came all the way from the USA to sit on the staircase and stare at the painting of Hambletonian. There are plenty of other clues to the fact that the house was owned by racehorse enthusiasts.

Above is the painting of Hambletonian by Stubbs which is literally worth millions of pounds. Below it is the paiting in situ at Mount Stewart. The horse itself was one of the top thoroughbreds of the 1790s and he was a winner of the St Leger in 1795. The painting is very large being 12 feet across and seven feet tall and the artist was well into his 70s. Apparently the power of the painting lies in the fact that the horse is stationary but has been painted to evoke power and movement. Can't see it myself but there you are. All you can say is it is worth a bob or two.




After leaving Mount Stewart we had a coach drive around Strangford Lough. No matter how many times we were told about its temperate climate it was difficult to see this on a cold and subsequently wet day. Ended the trip around the Ards peninsular.


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A Day in Belfast

  Belfast is in many ways an astonishing place as today's visit illustrated.


Our coach tour started with the Northern Ireland parliament Stormont which in a strange way illustrates perfectly the way Ulster has changed. Today it is a place of relative peace. Stormont is set in its own grounds and the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The important thing is its accessibility for the public who can drive into and enjoy the grounds. No stuffy security. Apparently the whole place was opened up by MP Mo Mowlam when she was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. So we were able to wander around the parkland and woodland with time being the only constraint.

We then had a fascinating coach tour of Belfast, showing that divisions still do exist but more from the living museum point of view than any other. And that's what Belfast has become. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way. By having a nodding acquaintance to the past, the future seems more assured.

In East Belfast Union Jacks still fly, but in West Belfast its the Irish Tricolor you will see. The murals are all still there but they no longer seem to be threatening but just a relic of the past. The centre has been re-developed to some extent and once again visitors are encouraged to wander round sections of the City Hall. It has a coffee lounge and display about industrial Belfast (I forgive them using the word meters to represent length).


What comes across very strongly (possibly as a public relations ploy) is an underlining that the strength of Belfast comes in its people. The turbulent times seem to be in the past and the there is a huge drive to attract tourism to Northern Ireland as a whole.

We found another intriguing building in the public linen library where I could have spent hours looking through books, historic documents and a display of posters from the Troubles. We had a few hours to walk round the centre but the time went all too quickly. It is somewhere we would like to return to in the future. We had lunch sitting on a bench in one of the pedestrian streets close to where two elderly guys were chatting. I was intrigued to think about the stories they probably have trapped inside of them. These were people who had lived through the troubles, experienced the heartache and who probably had strong views on many issues. I will probably never know what those stories were but I can imagine.


The afternoon was spent at the new Titanic Museum which is likely to become one of the United Kingdom's top tourist attractions over the next five years. It's strange that the museum should boast about a disaster but as our guide pointed out there was nothing wrong with the ship when it left Belfast. It was an amazing piece of engineering for 1912 but I will let you into a little secret - it sank!


It's also strange that we still use the word Titanic to emphasise something spectacular as in a Titanic effort. Once again that is in recognition of the wonderful engineering rather than the fact it sank after hitting an iceberg. Mind you it almost had a collision when setting out from Belfast. Apparently its captain Edward Smith was also in charge of another vessel the Olympic which had a contra temps in New York Harbour. So as they say in certain areas he had previous.

It's an excellent inter-active museum which includes a ride which takes you into a simulation of the Harland and Wolff shipyard where you can watch the work going on. The museum visit rounded off an excellent day.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Houses and Gardens

The final day of our short break in Northern Irleand (apart from a day of travelling tomorrow) saw more visits to National Trust properties. Can't complain because it is a National Trust holiday but I would have liked more history and less gradens. That's only a personal view of course.


Today we started with a visit to the Argory which was built in the 1820s and was the home of the MacGeough–Bondfamily. We had a knowledgeable if rather taciturn guide who pronounced McGeough as McGill rather than McGoff. Perhaps that's the Irish way. I find it quite difficult to get interested in semi historic figures I have never heard of and which don't mean a lot. Didn't have too long to explore the gardens before moving on to our final destination - Rowallane Gardens. problem here was the house was under renovation and the tea rooms were shut. So we had to make do with an ice cream! The gardens consisted of woodland and farmland. Plenty of walking but not of huge interest.

Returned to the hotel and added the following:

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Long Road Home

So we left Northern Ireland behind. The people are warm and friendly and there is history at every turn. Some of the  accents are impenetrable but it is ourselves that really have the strange accents.

The return journey took 16 hours and returning to England saw a return to the wet weather. Not much to say about the journey other than it was long and the ferry was delayed  for an hour by low water levels in Hollyhead - apparently this only happens a couple of times a year. I am impressed by the short amount of time you now have to wait to get on and off the ferries. Whether we were just lucky on our two crossings I don't know.

The day seemed to go on and on and it was 1 a.m before we were back in Norwich and past 2 a.m before we got home and to bed.