After a late night of planning how we use the next couple of days, we made an early start today making good use of the first time we were able to get breakfast at 7:00am. We decided to spend two nights in Antrim and use today to see Belfast. Didn't quite work out that way as no rooms were available at the hotel. They located one at another hotel they owned just down the road at Dunadry, so that's where we are tonight. Poor decision we now realise, as we had to change hotels anyway, we should have booked ourselves and stayed the other side of Belfast.
On the road by 8:30 we headed to Belfast in the usual rain, heavy if it wasn't between showers. The idea was to just park the car for the day and tour Belfast on an on/off bus tour. Found the parking station and the bus and the nicest tour guide you could possibly find. Plenty of help for us to make best use of the tour to see the most, to get a good idea of the city and see what we wanted. Only problem was that it was a double decker bus with two thirds of the top deck open so it was a bit cold and wet even though we were just under cover. As a result, limited photos of the day but very informative anyway.
In the centre of town, you can see the Albert Clock Tower, Built in 1869, built as a memorial to Queen Victoria's late Prince Consort, Prince Albert, the foundations were built on timber which had started to decay and the tower eventually gained a lean of about 1.2 metres from vertical. Built for 2,000 pound, the restoration and underpinning cost 2 million pounds.
Past the Customs House, the basement windows of which still have the bars where unruly people were locked up at night; on the bank of the River Lagan is a big blue metal fish, "The Salmon of Knowledge" which has all sorts of information written on the scales. Apparently, the tale is that if you kiss the salmon, you will gain all the knowledge; I suggested you would have a chance of gaining a lot more than that.
At this point, the river has a weir/barrage in place to control the tidal flow, this was done to reduce the smell of the ocean through the city. Continuing on past the SSE Arena, we were told how as part of the Millennium celebrations, the city decided it needed a sporting team. Ice Hockey was chosen and US and Canadian players assisted in establishing the team. Named the Belfast Giants, the guide told a yarn of a suggestion that the team be called the Belfast Bombers being rejected.
Some of the other sights included the Belfast Titanic Visitors Centre which opened in 2012, The centre is in the old ship yards of Harland & Wolff, right beside where the Titanic was built. This whole area has been recently developed around the history of the Titanic. On the tour we passed the Titanic Studios where apparently the Game of Thrones show is filmed. The centre itself is a magnificent aluminum clad structure with the four corners each looking like the prow of a ship. The building looks the same from any side. We spent two hours going through the displays in the centre and looking at the ship, SS Nomadic, in dry-dock beside the centre. This ship was a tender for the Titanic and later the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. She is the only remaining ship of the White Star Line. As well as an attraction, the ship is being restored. Such is the changing of the times and the loss of the ship building industry, Harland & Wolff are a heavy engineering firm and were the builder of the Titanic and its sister ships and many others. Once employing around 30,000 people, they now employ about 800.
There are some majestic old buildings in the city, as with most Irish towns, the old jail with the old court house across the road. There is a tunnel below the street from the court house to the jail and following a conviction, the prisoner was taken down into the tunnel and across to the jail. This is believed to be where the saying, "Being sent down" came from. The jail building houses a number of activities now and the court house is about to be restored for commercial use. Belfast has embraced its heritage and most old buildings are now protected from destruction preserving the facades.
Up into the surrounding hills past an area that was once a large park estate. This is now a residential area but the old gates and one of the gatekeeper's houses still remain. At the top of the estate, the castle, commenced in 1811 still stands in the beautiful grounds and the estate was given to the Belfast Council in 1934. Refurbished and reopened by the council in 1988, the council hosts conferences, weddings etc,
The tour then went through a sadder part of town and those of our age would probably recall the "Troubles" in Belfast that continued for many years only ending in a peace about 30 years ago. A major sign of the times is what is called the Peace Wall. This is the wall that was built, in some places 7 metres high, to separate the fighting parties. The wall including the gates still stand and the gates are still closed at night. Another reminder of the "Troubles" is the sight of the Police Stations still have the heavy fortifications in place.
With the rain coming on and off during the day tour, we headed back to our accommodation, through the rain of course, and took a detour to view Lough Neagh, This is the largest fresh water lake in the British Isles, a surface area of 392 square kilometres. It was still raining when we arrived and the associated wind was creating waves of about 300 - 400 mm high. the rain stopped long enough to allow a few photos across the Lough but clarity was not high due to continuing rain elsewhere on the Lough.
Tomorrow, we head back through Belfast then continue the journey south towards Dublin.