Tuesday, 14 November 2017

BELFAST



Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, lies on the River Lagan, which empties into Belfast Lough, and which flows through some attractive green spaces on the outskirts of the city.  The majority of the city is in County Antrim, with the rest  in County Down.  There has been a settlement here since the Bronze Age, though the populated area was still small by the 12th century, when the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy built a castle on what is now Castle Street.  This modest conurbation put on a spurt in the 17th century when Arthur Chichester, 1st Baron Chichester of Belfast established a town which saw an influx of Protestant English and Scottish migrants.  By the 19th century the city had become Ireland’s most important industrial city, with industries including shipbuilding.  The ill-fated Titanic was built in Belfast, and the memory of her lives on to this day in the form of the Titanic Quarter.  It was in the early 1920s that Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland upon the partitioning of Ireland.

Just to the northeast of the central part of the city is the area known as Sailortown, so called because during its time as a working-class residential area from the 19th century until its redevelopment in the late 1960s it was frequented by sailors from all over the world.  The 1907 dock strike was started in Sailortown by trade unionist James Larkin, and it spread from there to the rest of the city, with carters and coal men getting in on the act.  The area has its own Facebook page with some old photos and other memories of past times.

Belfast’s more recent history has been dominated by TheTroubles.  Being the capital, the city has seen the lion’s share of the bombings, violence and general unpleasantness associated with that period.  However, I am not going to dwell on this unhappy time, rather I want to celebrate the magnificence of the city that has emerged from all this in more recent, happier times.  The aforementioned Titanic Quarter would be worthy of any modern, progressive city, with its glitzy apartment buildings, restaurants, hotels and so on.  Central to this area is Titanic Belfast, a museum which tells the story of the ill-fated liner in a realistic and interactive way.  I have not been there but I did visit a similar attraction in Cobh, Republic of Ireland, and found it fascinating, so I can only imagine that the Belfast one is even bigger and better.  

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Titanic Belfast. Photo by Ardfern, via Wikimedia Commons

For plant lovers, the Botanic Gardens in the south part of the city occupies 28 acres with features such as a Palm House and a Tropical Ravine House.  The Gardens occasionally host concerts and festivals.  Fans of the TV series The Fall may find the Gardens familiar, as they are one of a number of Belfast locations which feature in the storyline.  The Crumlin Road Gaol is no longer used as a prison, having ceased that function in 1996, but it holds tours and events.  One of the most familiar landmarks in Belfast is the Belfast City Hall with its green copper domes, which is open to visitors and offers tours.  The city’s St Anne’s Cathedral has lent its name to the Cathedral Quarter, probably the liveliest district in the city at night, with a host of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and hotels for night owls to discover.   The imposing Parliament Buildings, commonly known as Stormont, are in the Stormont Estate to the east of the city.  The Estate also houses Stormont Castle, a hefty pile reworked in the Scottish Baronial style in the 19th century which hosts meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive.

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Stormont. Photo by LukeM212, via Wikimedia Commons
This is just a sample of the attractions on offer in present-day Belfast.  Needless to say a vibrant city like this has lots going on.  The Cathedral Quarter has its own Arts Festival, and also hosts events such as the Festival of Fools and Belfast Pride.  For a list of events in the city follow thislink.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

HELEN'S BAY



Helen’s Bay’s two main assets are its beaches and its golfcourse, both of them well frequented by inhabitants of nearby Belfast.  Helen’s Bay railway station is the starting point for a walk along the Clandeboye Way to Whitespots Country Park, taking in leadmines and the Somme Heritage Centre (see Newtownards post).  Commenters on the walk have described it as a “real delight” and a “lovely walk with varied scenery and terrain”, although there are complaints about a lack of waymarking.  The village itself was established as a planned village named after Helen, Lady Dufferin, with the aim of creating a luxury holiday resort linked to the Belfast and County Down Railway.

Just outside Helen’s Bay is Crawfordsburn Country Park, which forms a scenic backdrop to the beaches as well as views across Belfast Lough.  The park’s attractions include a waterfall, wildlife such as rabbits, badgers, seals and herons, and Grey Point Fort, with its guns pointing out to sea and a military museum.  The fort is relatively new, having been started in 1907 to provide Belfast with a defence against naval attacks.


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Photo by Stubacca, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

BANGOR



In 2013 news reports carried the revelation that the town of Bangor had been named the sexiest place in the UK.  This was based on research by the Lovehoney website into where in the country people were spending the most on spicing up their love lives.  The research uncovered the startling statistic that the good folk of Bangor were spending 6.7 times the national average on erotic products.

Bangor lies on the southern shore of the Belfast Lough, just 12 miles from the capital of Northern Ireland.  The town’s history goes back to at least 558, when Bangor Abbey was founded by St Comgall, and the town went on to become a great centre of learning.  It was in Victorian times that the town became a popular seaside resort, with Charles Dickens among the first to take to the beach there, during a lecture tour of Ireland in 1858.  In 1937 an outdoor pool named the “Pickie Pool” was built, complete with diving boards.  Sadly, unlike many such pools from the period, this one fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1980s, to be replaced by the Pickie Fun Park. 

During the latter part of the 20th century the town suffered a number of tragedies relating to The Troubles.  There were a number of bomb attacks, including an incendiary bomb attack on the main shopping centre by paramilitaries in 1974.  In 1975 a female Royal Ulster Constabulary officer was killed while on foot patrol in the High Street, the first to be murdered on duty.  Things were still tense in the 1990s, with two bomb explosions on Main Street, one in 1992 and another a year later, the latter causing £2 million of damage and injuring four RUC officers.

Happily, things have been quieter since, and the regeneration which saw the end of the Pickie Pool also spawned the Bangor Marina which, along with the usual facilities for leisure craft, also boasts hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and cinemas, as well as a leisure centre, golf and tennis.  The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and is nearby, while other attractions in the town include the North Down Museum, which tells the history of the area since the Bronze Age, and the Castle Park, incorporating the Bangor Castle Walled Garden, designed by the Ward family.

For a list of events in Bangor follow this link.


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Photo by Ross, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 20 October 2017

MILLISLE AND DONAGHADEE



Millisle makes a good spot for a nice safe swim for families, with the beach forming a natural lagoon and a large open-air pool alongside.  There are also rockpools to explore and a picnic area and playground at the back of the beach.  Just inland is the Ballycopeland Windmill, built around the late 18th/early 19th century and restored to full working order after a period of disuse.  There is a small visitor centre at the windmill.

Donaghadee is a harbour town with a long history and seafaring tradition.  The Normans left their mark in the form of a motte which is a main feature of the townscape, now topped by a 19th century building formerly used to store explosives.  In 1662 a sea crossing from Donaghadee to Portpatrick in Scotland was established, a distance of just 22 miles, making it the shortest distance between Ireland and Scotland.  The town’s port was the most important in Northern Ireland before being overtaken by Belfast. The harbour, which was started in at least the 17th century, was enhanced by the addition of a lighthouse.  Construction of the lighthouse with its limestone tower was started in 1836 and it was the first lighthouse in Ireland to be lit by electricity.  Though the sea crossing is no longer used, the town is a popular destination for visitors who want to enjoy the leisure facilities such as angling or walking along the shore enjoying the views across to Scotland.  Donaghadee boasts a pub, GraceNeill’s, which is reputedly the oldest in Ireland.    

In January 1953 the brave lifeboat men of Donaghadee were called out to the aid of a ferry called MV Princess Victoria which had left Stranraer, emerging from the relative safety of Loch Ryan to find itself confronted with severe gales.  This awful weather was part of the same disastrous weather system which was responsible for the flooding and loss of life in other parts of the UK, notably the east coast.  Initially the captain was going to return the vessel to Stranraer, but after being hit by a large wave he changed his mind and headed for Northern Ireland.  The subsequent nightmare journey culminated in the Princess Victoria going under just five miles from the County Down coast.  The crew of the Sir Samuel Kelly from Donaghadee were able to save the lives of 34 of the passengers, all bar ten of the survivors.  The 135 people who lost their lives included Maynard Sinclair, the deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland.


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Photo by Ross, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

BALLYWALTER



Ballywalter used to be called Whitchurch, and there is still a church known as the White Church, believed to have been built during a period starting from the 13th century, with transepts added later.  Medieval coffin-lids can be found outside the northeast corner of the church.  The beach is long and sandy, and there are rock pools for the kids to investigate.  During the winter the beach is frequented by over-wintering birds such as Ring Plover, Golden Plover and Manx Shearwater.

Ballywalter Park is a Georgian house built around 1730 and altered signifcantly during the following century by Sir Charles Lanyon.  The house is surrounded by 270 acres of grounds including a lake and woodlands, and the flora include an extensive rhododendron collection.  Visits to the house can be arranged for groups only.  The house has been used for filming a number of times, in one case doubling as St Petersburg, and in another with the grounds representing the World War I trenches in Flanders.  Productions have included The Wipers Times and Wodehouse in Exile.


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Photo by Sue Adair, via Wikimedia Commons