With just minutes to spare we made it to the Belfast Welcome Centre to pick up our free tickets for the Titanic Bus Tour. Running down the escalator, tickets in hand, we just made it in time and boarded the translink bus that was to take us around Queen's Island for the Titanic Bus Tour and drop us off at the 2011 Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival.
This was a rare spare Saturday for us where we hadn't anything planned. On the spur of the moment, Norngirl had booked us onto the trip the day before when our idea for trying to roller-blade was put off due to a lack of much required safety equipment. So there we were, on a trip to see if we could learn or see anything new. And learn and see new things we did. Even opening the leaflets we'd been handed when getting on the bus was full of information about the Titanic Belfast that is due to open next year.
Our bus set off from next to the Britannic signature lighting mast and slowly rolled past the lighting sculptures bearing the names of those other famous Olympic class White Star Line ships, The Olympic and Titanic.
After the bus got under way, we were taken past the monuments at the city hall where the detail and symbolism of the Titanic Memorial statue were explained.
Our tour had the same structure as the Titanic Bus Tour experienced by Alan Meban in 2009 and was also given by the very same guide - local historian, author and Belfast Titanic Society secretary - Stephen Cameron. As we headed through the one way system past Clarenden dock and down to Queen's Island we were told some more nautical history of the local area we were passing.
The Maritime Festival was in full swing and the traffic was a little heavy. Luckily though, everything seemed to be happening outside the windows of the bus for us to see. It wasn't long before we were all rubbernecking from the top deck of the bus at the people zip lining over the River Lagan before passing by the Odyssey where we were checking out the scene to see if anything different was happening compared to the years before. It was then past the Odyssey where hundreds of far too dedicated teenage girls were queuing (several hours early) for the JLS concert later that evening.
Before we got to the old Harland and Wolff Drawing office, the bus stopped and we learned of the working conditions of the staff employed on the ship yard and what life was like back then. It sounds like it was a very tough life for the workers of the late 1800s ship yards. 60+ hour weeks and tough regulations and terrible working conditions - makes me very thankful for technology! Put it this way; if I was a riveter back then, pretty much deaf after a few years of poorly paid hard labour and even having to pay to replace any imperfect work from my own pocket - I'd have been well p*ssed off to hear that the ship had been allowed to run into an ice berg let alone for the loss of life. We were shown photos as well as being told the history and stories and being there and seeing the same scene in 2011 really helped bring it to life.
Our first stop off the bus was at the Drawing Office. We'd been by a few times before in the past but then it had been closed. For the tour, and in this case the festival too, the doors were open and we went inside.
This is where the plans for the Titanic and it's sister ships were created.
After gathering in the main hall we were told more about the place and given a grasp of the scale of the operational logistics at the time using a scale model of the area. It was quite eye opening and gave us much more of an understanding of the site and the docks then I ever had before.
Because of the festival there were stalls and information stands all set up and we even got to try on some frilly hats. Sadly, the building looks to be in a poor state on the inside at least. Our guide told us that there had been plans at one point for it to be part of the redevelopment of the area and turned into a niche luxury hotel. It's easy to see how fine a building it must have been back in its day. The crumbling décor aside, like the images of the wrecked Titanic on the sea bed, you could just imagine looking at the likes of the main room and the stairway that it must have once been rather grand.
The next stop wasn't far and was quite a surprise. We were heading down to the actual slipways of the Olympic class ships. Before we even got to the site of the Titanic and Olympic slip way, we happened to see the back of the Paint Hall studios where these days the painting is only of movie sets. Out back was a bunch of Wild West themed props.
We'd seen the Titanic/Olympic slip way up close before on the boat tour but it was great to be on the site having just seen all the photos and models, it really gave a sense of scale. Contrary to the hoped development plans Alan mentioned, the economic downturn seems to have slowed things somewhat as the slip way still hasn't been excavated. The current site of the slipway was covered over to provide flat storage space a long time ago so one day the hope is that the surface shown here will eventually be dug up and once again slope down to the water.
As you can see below in the photo, it's easy to imagine it'll be quite a sight looking up the slipway with the new Titanic Centre that is still being constructed sitting at the top of it all.
Plans on the Belfast City Council website say the development of the centre (at least of the visitor centre) should be completed for April 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Titanic. The building has been called 'Titanic Belfast ' but I'm sure that like the rest of Belfast's landmarks, it won't be long until it has an apt nickname.
We were told about the construction of the ships and the feelings about the liners at the time and the accounts of how the rivets of the ship were put in really brought the setting to life and I really was riveted.
Eventually though we had to move on from the spot where all 3 Olympic class White Star Line vessels touched the ocean for the first time to allow a walking tour their turn. We were then taken to the Thompson dry dock where the ships had then been taken out of the water for the first time.
It was intriguing to hear about how the ships were towed in, the water pumped out slowly by the red bricked pumping station and the workmen jumped into the shallow water to spear any trapped fish for their dinner and then to hear how the ships hung over the ends as only their keel was required to fit into the dock.
It really was a very good tour. A game you might want to try is to count the amount of times 'Presbyterian' is said but other than that, it was very informative and set at just the right pace. Best of all it is free, as Norngirl put it - 'A Titanic Bargain' the tours operate during the months of April and May and also during the Maritime festival like this time. For up to date information and more details I'd recommend contacting the Belfast Welcome Centre site or checking out the Belfast city council website for this and other Titanic themed tours.
The bus driver kindly dropped people off at the Maritime Festival by the Odyssey on the way back. We got off and had a walk around, the now regular stalls from the continental market were there as well as other stalls and family entertainment such as a merry-go-round and lots of ice cream vans.
Along Queen's Quay were 3 of the tall ships and one royal navy ship then around the corner at the Abercorn Basin were another 3 tall ships and a lot of smaller vessels.
I hadn't actually walked down to the ARC before - this is the part of the dock behind the Odyssey arena in front of the new apartments and hotel of the Titanic Quarter. I quite liked it, it was bright and open and 'The Kit' another piece of art to add to Belfast's list was good fun to have a look at. As a kid my dad and I used to make lots of Airfix models and I can tell you for nothing we're a bit of kit missing from a fully complete Titanic there. If someone can find the box this came in, maybe it got stuck in there. Joking aside, it's pretty cool like!
Looking over to Titanic Belfast and the Harland and Wolff Drawing office you can also see the site where the SS Nomadic is being restored. The Nomadic Preservation Society site has a lot more information about the Nomadic, it's relationship with the Titanic and it's reunification with the site of it's own construction.
After taking a walk around the activities on offer, looking at the stalls and listening to the band who were on stage, we heard the bad news that the Yakovlevs Aerial Display had been grounded due to the murky weather. We had a nosey at the Exploris touch tank but decided then to make our way back into town.
We weren't the only ones there and it was pretty busy. Each year, the Maritime festival runs over a few days so it's pot luck with the changeable Belfast weather. Katie and her hubby over at Mere Frivolity headed down on the Sunday and got much better weather and by the looks more active pirates too!
Instead, we took off and slowly strolled back along the boats, taking in the atmosphere as we headed back towards the other Boat in town and on past it, back to get the bus home.
It was a fun afternoon out and about and I have to say that the area is looking very well indeed and I can't wait or everything to be finished and open. The Maritime festival was good and people were having fun. After quite a few years of the same ships and the same continental market stalls there is only so much excitement I could muster about the quayside festivities (the Belfast Maritime Festival in 2009 with the Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge was probably the height of these Maritime Festivals so far for me) but the Titanic tour and seeing the developments in the Titanic quarter up close was just the spicy twist needed for a great afternoon out.
As far as tourism and heritage go, it looks like our awesome wee city is finally onto a winner. I can't wait for next year now to hopefully see more and to visit Titanic Belfast for the first time. The leaflet we got on the bus tour states that there is going to be an interactive element to the glass frontage looking out over the slip way from Titanic Belfast that will show the Titanic being launched.