Of all the periods to change careers perhaps these Covid-19 times are not the best, or perhaps they are! However, Barney Gribbin is hoping to switch from laying bricks to setting down stories of Belfast for holiday visitors. Enterprising Barney identified a walking tour subject that was not available from other guides and hence, set out to build a new business for himself.
Called “If Buildings Could Talk”, his two-hour tour around the city centre takes you around a series of buildings that help the tourist to better understand the city they are visiting. As well as orientating visitors to the general geography of the city, he also passes on a series of factual stories about the buildings, with insights into some leading and well known Belfast characters that are or were behind them. I found that the tour with Barney was engaging and was walked at a gentle easy pace. I clocked up around 7,500 steps and returned to the start point.
A short break in Belfast is anyway best enjoyed on foot. For as well as the likes of organised walking tours, the city is flat and well suited to shanks’ pony. There are many places of interest at easy reach of the City Hall, which is at its centre.
A must-do visit that you may want to grab a taxi or bus to is Titanic Belfast. This modern and amazing museum is dedicated to the ship that was built in the city. The museum is located beside where the Harland and Wolff shipyard once stood. There are a series of metal poles that stand next to it indicating where Titanic and Olympic were constructed at the same time. One has to ponder how history could have been different if Olympic was finished first, and she sailed from Southampton? Today we may have been talking of the ‘Olympic disaster’ instead?
Floor markings on the outside of the building also show the scale of the ocean liner. The four -pointed star shaped museum building itself was constructed to the same height as the ship. It is very imposing as you approach it. And to think that people jumped or fell from that height into the cold ocean on that dark night is unimaginable. I once met a survivor who did just that! Frank Prentice, who even went back to sea again and of all ships went on the Olympic! What a man.
Once inside there are nine galleries on three floors that tell the story of Belfast and the ship; its people, its industries and of course that fateful night in April 1912. The museum is engaging for all ages and there is excellent wheelchair access. There are many artefacts and touching stories to be discovered whilst there. I found the giant projection room where you can appear to be standing at the bottom of the Atlantic with the wreck literally at your feet!
Back in the city and it was a pleasant 20-minute walk to my accommodation in an area around the Queens University. ‘The Harrison’ is a new boutique style of apartments in a late Victorian building. It has been totally refurbished from old offices by its owner Melanie Harrison, who calls it a Bohemian bolthole. Literally every room tells a story, which seems to be a trait of the city! All the 17 rooms are named after famous people or characters who have had close connections with Belfast. ‘CS Lewis’ for example, where your room comes complete with a special wardrobe full of coats, but with no access to Narnia sadly! Other room are named after Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, Ruby Murray and the Brontës.
Melanie’s passion for auctions means that the rooms are eclectic and quirky. But the scale of them means they have a luxurious feel. The ‘Aristocrat’ rooms have large baths in the bedrooms. All the rooms have roomy modern showers as well, many with large beds too. Breakfasts trays are served in the rooms currently, with a dining room becoming available soon.
The Harrison is located almost in the university campus which means that the Ulster Museum is less than ten minutes, walk away. A new extension built in the brutalist style means that this national museum of Northern Ireland has around 8,000 square metres of display space. With items like the Downpatrick Hoard of Bronze Age gold jewellery and a collection of 11 gold bangles and a gold Iunula necklace found at Ballybay. There is a hoard of 19 polished stone axe heads from the Neolithic period which would have been prized by any stone aged person. There are a number of art collections, two of the most famous for me were by Sir Anthony Caro and Francis Bacon.
The museum’s fashion and textile collection is expanding again after their stored collection was destroyed in a fire 1976. Items by many top designers are now in the collection as well as items from the 18th and 19th century to replace those that were lost. The museum is located within the Botanic Gardens, where the magnificent Palm House is to be found. This wrought iron and glass version was built a couple of years before a similar one was built in London’s Kew Gardens.
With the guide and even the apartments all telling stories, any long weekend or short break visit to Belfast will have you very well entertained and informed.
The Harrison – www.chambersofdistinction.com
Room rates range from the Aristocrat at £150 per night, then in scale the smaller Bohemian at £120 and then the Gallivanters at £95 per room per night.
Titanic Belfast – titanicbelfast.com
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