Thursday 30th July 2009, Ballyronan
Which Bally place is this? They are all Bally something - Ballymena, Ballyshannon, Ballymoney, Ballybunion, Ballynahinch, Ballykissangel, Ballywellis and Ballywellisnt! Tonight it’s Ballyronan and a bally nice little place it is, right on the banks of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles! The lake is truly huge and reminds us of Lake Ballyton in Hungary. We’ve just driven some 20 miles round the edge from Antrim to this delightful campsite where we sat with our usual glass of wine watching the sky reflected in the water as dusk fell. It looked like a delicate shot silk in all shades of grey/green/blue. Around the edge were flowering sedges while various water birds pottered in the reeds, squawking to their partners. A dozen or so small motor boats are moored up for the night in the little marina. Across the water the Antrim hills loom as dark shadows on the horizon. They are as distant on the far side of the lake as the Mull of Kintyre was from the Irish coast yesterday at Torr Head!

Lough Neagh seen from Ballyronan, County Antrim

We didn’t like the campsite in Antrim last night. It was too regimented and full of leprechauns. Now the school holidays have started they are everywhere on the campsites. Standing about four foot high they are usually seen around dusk, wearing shiny pink pyjamas and clutching tooth brushes in the ladies loos. They invariably have red hair, green eyes, pale skin, freckles and snub little noses. There is an intriguing lilt to their voices though what they say is quite incomprehensible. They are probably delightful but they seem to haunt the showers and I find them rather disconcerting.

So we checked out this morning, drove into Antrim, which did not improve on closer acquaintance, parked near the station and took the train into Belfast where Ian has walked me off my feet all day and the rain, as curious as the leprechauns, has hung around with us for much of the day. Meanwhile, having fine-tuned his sunhat losing skills in Southern Europe, Ian has effortlessly transferred the same technique to rain-drenched Ireland, adding generously to its lost umbrella mountain!

We didn’t really know what to expect from Belfast. We have found it an interesting city but obviously cannot do it justice in one short visit. The places of interest are so widely scattered that it was impossible to do more than explore the city centre, taking in as many of the notable buildings as possible. That meant we were unable to visit such places as the Falls Road and Shanklin Road housing estates, scenes of much of the sectarian violence that has taken place in the city. The atmosphere and murals would probably have been similar to those of the Bogside, though perhaps more pronounced and violent. Nor did we have time to get out to Stormont Castle, seat of the Irish Assembly - though probably currently in recession so we may not have seen much anyway. We did though visit the Linen Hall Library which has an extensive archive of Irish political posters and a vast collection of material on Irish history and genealogy. We were particularly intrigued to see so many shelves holding lists of all those people who had emigrated over the years. This private subscription library in the heart of the city is steeped in a pleasing atmosphere of a Victorian gentlemen’s club with newspapers to browse, permanently changing exhibitions and an agreeable coffee lounge serving delicious blueberry scones.

Harland and Wolfe Shipyard seen from the train arriving at Belfast Central Station

There are several major Presbyterian churches in the city. We stopped to admire the classical façade of May Street Presbyterian Church and were invited to look inside. The huge organ and preacher’s lectern were in dark mahogany wood while the boxed pews in the body of the church and the overhanging gallery were in deal, painted to look like oak. Its first minister, The Reverend Henry Cook, seems to have been a larger than life figure, at odds with everybody - Catholics, Church of Ireland and indeed anyone who held views that did not match his own. There is someone rather like that power sharing in Stormont Castle today. Perhaps all Irish Presbyterian ministers are the same!

May Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast

Interior of May Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast

Belfast’s covered market is supposed to be something special. We found it devoid of customers with only a few stalls open. Perhaps we chose a bad day but after those we’ve seen around Europe it was a big disappointment.

Covered Market, Belfast

Passing the courts of Justice we reached the city centre, dominated by City Hall, an elaborately ornate neo-renaissance building completed in 1906 but currently closed to the public for restoration. Beside it stands the Belfast Wheel, modelled on the London Eye, carrying visitors high above the roofs of the city. It also effectively hides both the frontage of City Hall and the monument to those men of Belfast who drowned when the Titanic went down on its maiden voyage. Constructed in the Belfast based Harland and Wolfe shipyard, the Titanic sailed from the city with the company’s best engineers on board, as was common practice on any maiden voyage, to ensure there were no problems that needed attention.

City Hall, Belfast

Belfast Wheel outside City Hall

Memorial to Belfast shipbuilders who went down with the Titanic, Belfast

Beside City Hall is Northern Ireland's cenotaph remembering those who fell in both World Wars.

Cenotaph, Belfast

We later chanced upon a war memorial museum which explained so much we have not understood about Ireland's situation during the Second World War. There was no conscription in Northern Ireland as there was in the rest of Britain, though many thousands signed up or were involved in war work. Interestingly, though Southern Ireland was neutral many in the south were sympathetic towards the cause of the Allies and overall there were more volunteers from Southern Ireland than there were from the North! The curator explained that the then Irish leader, De Valera, while hating Britain, also realised how vulnerable Ireland was to German invasion. If Germany tried to invade Northern Ireland it would first have to take the South. He agreed to permit British forces based on Northern Ireland to use Irish air space across Donegal to enable them to protect sea ports and control shipping. There were three German raids on Belfast. Normally out of range from Germany, it was attacked from the French coast in 1941 once France had surrendered. Germany also attacked Dublin despite the neutrality of Eire, as it was then called. Presumably it was attacked in error for Belfast. After 1942 Germany left Ireland alone, concentrating its efforts on mainland Britain. Meanwhile, thousands of American troops arrived in Northern Ireland where they trained for the D-day invasion of Normandy.

City Hall is the natural centre of Belfast. The wide grassy area known as Donegall Square is surrounded on all sides by impressive 19th century buildings including the Scottish Provident Institution and the Linen Warehouse.

Donegall Square, Belfast

Scottish Provident Institution, Donegall Square, Belfast

Nearby in Great Victoria Street we discovered a Victorian drinking tavern that seemed caught in a time warp. Now owned and restored to its original splendour by the National Trust it is a cornucopia of chandeliers, bevelled glass, dark polished wood, bright ceramic tiles and secluded dining booths shielded by prettily painted glass partitions. It stands opposite the Europa hotel which has the dubious privilege of being the most bombed hotel in Europe having suffered some 40 attacks! Next to that stands the Belfast Opera House.

The Crown Dining Rooms, Belfast

The Crown Dining Rooms, Belfast

Europa Hotel, Belfast

Grand Opera House, Belfast

Already footsore we made our way past the Royal Belfast Academical Institute, an interdenominational boys' school dating from 1814.

Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Belfast

Our next stop was Tescos. For once I wasn't looking for reduced price sandwiches. It was the building that intrigued us. It must be one of the most elaborate supermarkets in Europe. What it was previously we don't know but surely something more elegant than a supermarket check-out area and trolley park!

Tesco supermarket, Belfast

Tesco's check-out, Belfast

From here it was a short walk to the Cathedral Quarter, now developing as an arts area with open air concerts and plays, art exhibitions in shops and book fairs. Here we visited the cathedral of St. Annes, built over a period of more than a century, starting in 1899. Inside it is all marble and mosaic while from the outside the most notable feature is a recent spire irreverently described as a knitting needle.

St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast

Down near the river front we sought out an Italianate church constructed in 1856 and dedicated to seamen. We were frustrated to find it locked as our guidebook indicated it should be open and the interior is supposed to be amazing with a pulpit shaped like the prow of a ship and a binnacle used as a baptismal font. Next door stands the handsome building of the Harbour Authority.

Seamen's church, Belfast

Harbour Authority, Belfast

Another curiosity is the crooked Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower with a list that results from it being constructed on unstable boggy ground that has gradually subsided. It has apparently now been stabilised.

Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower, Belfast

Eventually we discovered a brand new shopping complex covered by a very modern geodesic dome with a glass lift that took us right up to the roof with its covered viewing platform with vistas over the city to the hills beyond and out across the river to the ships and the Harland and Wolfe dockyard - no longer building ships but still carrying out repairs and refits. The lift was free and the views probably as good as from the Belfast Wheel.

Arty shot upwards into the geodesic dome showing the viewing platform, Belfast

View of the yellow gantries of the Harland and Wolfe Shipyard seen from the geodesic dome of Belfast's newest shopping complex

View from the viewing platform in the new shopping complex towards the Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower, Belfast

By now we'd absorbed all our ageing brains could cope with and apart from our coffee this morning and a couple of excellent all day breakfast bagels near the cathedral, we'd been walking around since 9.30am. Time to head back to Modestine. First though, a quick shop in Marks and Spencer. It's far too cold for shorts and far too wet to do any washing and I'd run out of clean jeans. While I chose a pair, Ian sat on a bench at the entrance happily poring over his map and forgetting all about his umbrella on the seat beside him. He only remembered when we were on the train returning to Antrim.

Really it is impossible to do any justice to Belfast in a day. We could easily spend a week exploring all the different quarters, its castle, its museums and galleries, the botanical gardens, the curious beauty spot known as Cave Hill. There are also the Catholic and Protestant housing estates with their chilling murals of hooded gunmen – one apparently is known as the Mona-Lisa as no matter where you stand, the barrel of his gun is pointing straight at you!

Once we'd rejoined Modestine, patiently waiting near the police station, we decided to drive on round Lake Neagh in the hope of finding a nicer campsite. This we have done. It's so nice we'd quite like to stay tomorrow night as well but have been told it's a bank holiday weekend in Southern Ireland and everyone is flooding north so the campsite is fully booked for the next three nights. We ought to be pressing on anyway really or it will take ages to finish exploring Ireland. There is still so much to see before we return home.

Finally, we unwrapped a fresh loaf of bread this evening to discover the local Irish bakery had been employing Mother Kelly on the slicing machine.

Mother Kelly's doorstep