As a child of the 1970s my early knowledge of Belfast came from watching news reports of the Troubles. But the Good Friday agreement in 1998 changed the political landscape and today my children have little concept of how different things are. That’s not to say that the city has forgotten its past, or even eschewed all violence. Yet it has moved on and our brief visit was well overdue.
Our trip coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising. Stepping out of the hotel on our first morning we heard pipers from an Easter Parade and decided to tag along to watch. It was a small parade, with several children taking part, but nevertheless accompanied by riot vehicles and a police helicopter. An interesting introduction to the city.
Onto the sightseeing. Top of my list was a visit to the Titanic Belfast. This is Belfast’s flagship museum, charting the building of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard through to its demise. It’s in an impressive building, built in the old shipyard, about a 20 minute walk from the city centre.
Before we visited, our hotel receptionist mentioned there were no actual artefacts from the Titanic wreck site in the museum. Whilst initially disappointed the museum states this is for ethical reasons. Instead much of the focus is on the shipyard itself and the industries that went hand-in-hand with the building of the Titanic.
The museum consists of 9 interactive galleries, covering the life cycle of the Titanic from build, to launch, fit-out, maiden voyage and eventual sinking. It’s a modern museum, with some stand-out exhibits including a scaled down replica of the Arrol Gantry and the Shipyard ride. This is like a theme park ride in slow motion although the warning signs might make you worried you’re about to experience zero gravity. Instead it’s a gentle tour through the heat and noise of the shipyard, suitable for almost everyone.
One of my favourite exhibits illustrated facts and figures about the Titanic’s launch. When it sailed from Southampton it was provisioned with 40,000 eggs, 75,000lb of fresh meat, 8000 cigars and 6 Steinway pianos. It also included 18,000 bed sheets as there were no laundry facilities on board!
We really enjoyed the Titanic Belfast. It’s not cheap but along with the visit to SS Nomadic we spent much of the day there and felt we got value for money.
A visit to the SS Nomadic is included in the price of the Titanic Belfast ticket so it would be amiss not to visit. SS Nomadic is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world and was built alongside the RMS Titanic back in 1911. It was initially used to transfer passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic before seeing action in both World Wars.
Once inside you can visit both the luxurious bar area and the distinctly less luxurious crew’s quarters. Our kids enjoyed dressing up as first class passengers; there’s even clothes for the adults too. We should have spent longer on board, but we were all very hungry and a late lunch was calling.
The plan on our second day was to walk from our hotel to the Crumlin Road Gaol, via the predominately republican Falls and loyalist Shankill Road areas. These roads are now part of the tourist circuit, primarily for the political murals that decorate many of the buildings in both areas. Both are easily accessed from the centre of Belfast but there are also numerous black cab and bus tours.
Walking towards Falls Road it’s hard to ignore the high-rise Divis Tower, the sole remaining building of the notorious Divis Flat complex. In the 1970s the British Army installed an observation post on the roof and took over the top two floors; these were only reinstated as residential accommodation in 2009.
We spotted murals as soon as we reached the Falls Road. Most depict the political and religious differences between the communities, although some focus on other conflicts around the world. One of the most famous is of Bobby Sands. Bobby died whilst on hunger strike in protest against the British government’s treatment of IRA fighters.
We visited a stretch of the wall between the Falls and Shankill Roads. I was surprised to learn there are actually 109 walls in cities and towns across Northern Ireland, built to separate the loyalist and unionist areas. Originally erected as a temporary measure in the 1960s, they’re still in place almost 50 years later. Despite plans to remove them many residents believe the walls (and gates, which close nightly) keep them safe.
The walls are covered in murals and graffiti, including lots from tourists who sign the wall and proclaim peace. It’s hard not to compare it to the Berlin Wall although given all the wire on top I doubt you’ll find David Hasselhoff up there.
It was only after we passed through one of the large gates that I realised how incredibly close the two communities are to each other yet with such strongly held opposing viewpoints. The divide is still visible today; just check the colour of the flags and painted kerbstones and you’ll soon know which area you are in.
Shankill Road seemed to have even more murals than the Falls Road. The road itself was quieter with few shops open and some parts looked pretty run down. Once again we found ourselves walking through recent history; ten people died in the Shankill Road bombing in 1993.
From Shankill Road we made our way through a housing estate to Crumlin Road, passing even more murals. I do not understand all of the different factions involved in the Troubles but from reading the poignant dedications on some murals it’s clear that people are missed whatever their political or religious viewpoint.
Crumlin Road Gaol
Crumlin Road Gaol was another of my Belfast highlights. Although the gaol dates back to 1845 it only closed its doors in 1996 and many of its recent inmates, including Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, will be familiar names.
Our guided tour covered the prisoner holding cells, underground tunnel, the Governor’s office and C-Wing before heading outside to see the burial grounds and exercise yard. Along the C-Wing we were able to look into several cells, including a recreation of the padded cell and the condemned man’s cell. The tour also takes you through the execution room but this can be avoided if you wish.
The tunnel links to Crumlin Road courthouse which is on the opposite side of the road. Prisoners were taken between the courthouse and gaol through the 84 metre long tunnel to ensure they were kept away from the public gaze. The tunnel was built in 1849, but has been reinforced under the road section due to the amount of traffic overhead. This obviously wasn’t an issue when it was constructed!
Sadly the courthouse cannot be visited. Originally purchased by an investor for £1 back in 2003 it’s a crying shame that the magnificent building now sits decaying, partly destroyed by fire.
The gaol appears to do a good sideline in paranormal events and tribute acts, from an Elvis ‘Jailhouse Rock’ gig to a Johnny Cash concert. It’s worth keeping an eye out if you’re visiting as I’d imagine they’d are pretty unique events.
Despite excellent reviews I hadn’t planned to visit W5, an interactive science centre. I thought the kids were a little old, plus we’ve been to several similar places before. However we were meeting my other half’s sister and two children so this was an obvious place to head to.
W5 was very busy and generally aimed at primary school children. However the cousins loved their surprise meet up and it was the perfect place for them to explore on their own. There are several science shows throughout the day and three floors of exhibits so plenty to keep children occupied.
As always with such a short visit we missed things out. Another day in Belfast would have allowed us to visit the Botanic Gardens, Ulster Museum and perhaps Stormont. But it was time for our roadtrip along the Antrim coast!
- Titanic Belfast is open daily apart from over Christmas. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children aged 5-16) costs £43 and allows entrance to both the Titanic museum and SS Nomadic.
- Crumlin Road Gaol is open 7 days per werk. Entry is by guided tour; these run between 10am-4.30pm and last 1 hour 15 minutes. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.
- W5 is open 7 days per week; hours vary according to the day. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.50.
- We stayed at the Belfast City Centre Premier Inn. It’s a typical Premier Inn, good location, cheap rooms and friendly staff; we’d happily use it again.