Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Our Trip to Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction in BelfastI would hazard a guess that there are very few people in the western world that haven’t heard the story of the Titanic. Not to spoil the plot if you haven’t but the basics are: Ship was built, people get on ship, ship sets off, ship hits iceberg, ship sinks, lots of people killed due to lack of life saving equipment, maritime lessons learnt, disaster captures public's imagination and spawns romanticised movies.

Titanic Belfast is a visitor attraction that opened in April 2012, it is located on the site of what used to be the main part of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in what is now known as Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The shipyards in Belfast produced many ships but undoubtedly the most famous (sadly for tragic reasons), as you might have guessed, was the RMS Titanic.

On the day we visited, approximately 5 months after the grand opening, there were plenty of typical Belfast sun-showers and the Titanic Belfast building glistened in the sun and rain as we got out of the taxi and walked the short distance to the main entrance. This was the first time we'd been inside and we were intrigued yet outside there were plenty of rainbows.

Rainbow over the old slipways

To tell the truth I was a little apprehensive in case it was just going to be another morbid cashing in of the disaster. Thankfully it wasn't. I found it to be something a little bit different to anything I’d expected prior to our visit. I had heard mixed reviews from people who had already been but it soon became apparent that the attraction was less about the drama and more about the history. I feel many who were giving negative reviews were really hoping for a theme park version of the movies or were so into their nautical or local history that they had their fussy blinkers on.

The main areas inside the attraction provide an insight into what it was like in Belfast at the time the ship was built, a guide to it’s construction, what it was like on board the ship and what happened after the disaster, from reaction at the time to examination of the wreck. It was very informative, revealing realities, dispelling myths and channelling the sensationalism that made the disaster so ‘popular’ in modern culture, turning public intrigue into a positive learning experience.

The best part of the experience for me were the visuals and the clarity of the information. These are the parts of the exhibits that I think stood out in an intriguing and good way:

- The scaled up - photos of Belfast in the 'Boomtown Belfast' section

- The life-sized scene displayed on a screen in the Shipyard ride of some actors showing what riveting was like.

- My favourite part of the entire attraction was in the The Fit-Out section – where there is a very clever 3 walled screen projection that took you on a journey of a part of some of the decks of the ship allowing you to gauge the scale with your own eyes. I hope the powers that be don't mind but just to try and illustrate what this is, here is a blurry photo:

- Stories of the realities in 'The Aftermath', the sort of things you don't hear about in the movies, the logistics of the rescues and the impact on land as well as at sea.

- At the end in the 'Titanic Beneath' section, it was very good from a marine archaeology perspective as you can watch a short movie about the wreck of the Titanic and walk over a projection of the ship resting on the seabed and explore the debris field on interactive maps.

- The sculpture outside the main door was rather impressive too, apparently it's called Titanica and was sculpted by a man called Rowan Gillespie.

Titanic Belfast Sculpture

The most disappointing bit for me was 'The Launch' section which for all the interactivity and moving visuals elsewhere, this was rather static and missing the moment of awe that it has the potential to. I think I'm probably singling this part out for criticism because of what I imagined it to be like, a projection onto the glass of the footage from the launch lined up so you feel like you're there and immersed into it. What is actually there are some replica wooden docking chains on the floor with a small screen hanging from the ceiling showing the launch of the ships hull, there is a filter on the windows which is a representation of the shipyard that fades in an out as the lights are lifted to reveal the slipways today. I'm probably just being picky and being a bit harsh but I just thought it could have been done better given the high standards set by the visuals elsewhere and the unique key significance of over looking the exact site the ship was launched.

Here is the promotional concept video showing how it must have hoped that section would look, it's very close and one of the only things I didn't see was a lifeboat simulation – seemingly similar to that in the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York. I guess if it was left out it was probably seen as potentially in bad taste though kids in general (and us too) would no doubt have loved it as much as we enjoyed tipping back and forth on the one on the Intrepid – which was lots.

The other mildly disappointing aspect of our visit was that we got left hanging on the shipyard ride for a few minutes just feet from the end due to some idiot people standing up in another pod and some other logistical problems with some folks with a buggy but we amused ourselves pondering if it was worth jumping given there was a fake bar to head to just feet away (though a long drop separating us)!

The other strange thing was the lack of physical material from the time or the ship being inside the building. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing as by all accounts the folks who made it didn't want to recreate the ship but rather interpret it.

So if you’re looking for a solid material connection to the time and place that isn't a model or a replica, the SS Nomadic and the old Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices, both of which are practically outside Titanic Belfast, are your best next stops.

Harland and Wolff Buildings and Cranes

Our visit to Titanic Belfast was on a Friday afternoon and it was quite busy. I think we'll go again at some point but I'd like to go when it's very quiet so I could take more time to read and absorb it all. Also, a quiet time might limit the chances of going around the museum at the same time as an idiot, in our case a 50+ old man - aka someone old enough to know better, who in blatant disregard to the signs and the staff who told him not to, wandered around the exhibitions using flash photography, annoying everyone as he did so. After being blinded in dark rooms on more than one occasion, I gave him a glare I'm not entirely proud of.

Some other good things about Titanic Belfast are very helpful and friendly staff. The building also has some great views of Belfast and the River Lagan and surrounding area. There are toilets throughout which is handy and they were very nice and clean too. I also loved that they had somewhat incorporated into the attraction the route Norngirl and I take in all museums, that of heading to the top and working our way down.

The restaurant downstairs on the far left from the main entrance looked to have nice food and the prices are about on par with the likes of an inner city café. The gift shop prices were a little Titanic but not unusual for a visitor attraction gift shop. We didn't buy anything and to be totally honest, I thought it was all a bit much in the shop, to say the exhibitions interpret the Titanic story with consideration and understanding, the shop was more like a Titanic themed Disney Store. I mean where would you wear a Titanic sailor hat? In fairness though I did try it on... I know!

The exhibits were very educational about their subject matter and I'd recommend it to anyone visiting Belfast. I think you'll get a lot more out of it if it's quiet as people got in our way a lot of the time (blocking views, stopping suddenly in front of you when walking in the dark, that sort of thing), but if you are patient it's worth playing with all the interactive exhibits and reading everything through, I thought it was very well done. Given the subject matter, I also thought the exhibits kept good balance between holding my attention and teaching - I learnt a lot! Not so much about the headline event that booked the ship’s place in history, but about the time it was built, the place it was built, the people who built it and the ship itself.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Synchronised Olympic Viewing

Belfast City Hall Celebrating the OlympicsOK, I'm a couple of months too late with this post, ah what's new! I had planned to follow up my 'Just Days until the Olympics' post with an in-depth review of all I watched, how the games and events I saw played out and what I thought of them, the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the overall experience of watching it on TVs everywhere around Belfast - including the big screen. As it turned out, plenty of time has passed and other than the ins and outs of the games I watched, anything that might be of general interest has already been said in the media. So I'll just show a few photos and a quick paragraph summary of what I thought of the sports I chose to watch.

With Handball, the sport I'd decided to give a try before the games started along with synchronised swimming, it really did grip my attention and threw me in it's net.
I watched several games in full and the highlights of a good 75% of the rest of the games across both the mens and womens games. The thing I liked most about the sport was it's speed and not being faffy like Basketball. Even when the play is stopped as an attacking player is kept at bay, it's usually only a matter of seconds and then it's back under way. I liked that all goals were worth the same score. The scores were often close and a number of games very exciting, the slim difference sometimes made by a fine goalkeeping performance or a clever move by a forward - much like Football and Ice Hockey. Sometimes it got a bit rough too, not in a terrible way but plenty of collisions, in one game there was a series of players being send tumbling, the goalie even ended up in the advertising hoardings and being hit full force in the face by the ball. I couldn't believe I hadn't given this sport a chance before and I can see why it's so popular in the rest of Europe. If the sport ever made it to the Odyssey area or any arena close to home then I'd be sure to do my best to be there.

There was also plenty of other sports we watched a bit of, I really liked the way they had all the sports on the extra channels so you could pick and record whatever you wanted to watch. A few times from the novelty of the big screen in the grounds of Belfast City Hall... along with many other people!

Belfast City Hall Grounds Big Screen Olympics 2012

Also in the grounds for the summer were the brightly coloured cows of CowParade 2012.

CowParade 2012 Belfast City Hall Chilled Cow

CowParade 2012 Belfast City Hall

The other sport that we'd chosen and watched all of was Synchronised Swimming. I knew nothing about the sport before watching it other than the dancing in water part. We soon found ourselves getting pretty good at understanding the rules behind what we were witnessing but unlike Handball it was more of a learning curve as it was more of a performance art rather than a sport in the conventional sense. It was quite a spectacle at times and really amazing how they do it. Often I found myself dipping my head sideways to watch it upside down for they had some half and half over/under water shots and watching it upside down was like watching someone dance with perfect precision the right way up... but the baffling thing was they're doing it upside down in water. I was very impressed. The downside to the spectacle happened to be the excitement (or lack thereof) in the scoring. The scores the nations were getting became very predictable. A lot of the performers had no hope of a medal from the start as their routines just didn't have enough complexity to them. Never the less, it was enjoyable and it's admirable how much the athletes put into it (a years practice for the routines). I'm afraid I doubt I'll be looking out for 'synchro' meets near me, like diving or figure skating, unless you're really involved/absorbed by it on a personal level it's not a sport that would easily be followed by casual interest as a viewer. I would guess participants get more out of it on the whole. On that note, in watching on TV I think we got more of an understanding and insight into the skills used compared to if we had been there. Apart from the movement around the pool, a lot of the details would likely have been lost viewing it from high up in the stands at the poolside.

So yeah, like most people who have since spoken about it and the general reaction from the media, I thought it was great and I really enjoyed the Olympics, a lot more than I expected prior to the games. I loved the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony not so much. The BBC did an amazing job with the multi channel coverage, combined with Tivo it was a breath of fresh air to just be able to record any sport on any day and watch it back whenever we liked. The local nations did amazingly, especially Team GB who kicked ass - belated congratulations to them all and good luck to anyone planning on competing in Rio in 4 years time. Hopefully Belfast will be as on-board with the games then as it was this year, it was great :)

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Visiting Enniskillen and the Marble Arch Caves

Path Through the Marble Arch CavesIn May we headed to County Fermanagh, home, amongst other things, to some lakes, Enniskillen, Ballinamallard Football Club and the Marble Arch Caves.

"Go on, you've got to pick something to do for your birthday" they urged in a coffee shop.
"I dunno, how about the Marble Arch Caves". That decided, the day came and Norngirl rang ahead to make sure the caves were open and not flooded, we got picked up by our friend and we were on our way.

Yeahhhhhh, it didn't quite go to plan at first as we ended up in Portadown. Never worry though, we soon realised the mistake, not being in the right town and all that, and made our way back to the M1. As we made our way along the road I may have been a little excitable and have spent time annoying everyone else in the car by making farm yard animals as we passed by the relevant creatures in the fields. In my defence, being mentally three I was acting my age. Our next stop was the village of Augher, which was, for the most part, shut. Thankfully the quite nice public toilets were open, as was the convenience store so we did get some drinks and snacks.

Up the hill from Augher came Clogher and then Fivemiletown, a thousand or so fields later and we were in Enniskillen. Here we went for a wander, found a bar and had lunch. I don't know much about what is in Enniskillen other than what I've since read about the place. Sadly we didn't have chance to stay for very long but we saw the high street:, a monument to a former Earl of the town and part of the River Erne.

Urban Enniskillen

On the way out of town we also saw the castle, a Cathedral and a couple of churches. It'd be nice to head back at some point in the future and maybe have a better look around the area as it was just a lunch stop on this occasion.

So we had some caves to find and they were out in the County Fermanagh countryside. The Marble Arch Caves themselves are not too far, about 12 miles South-West from Enniskillen. Once we had arrived at the visitors centre and bought our tickets (£8.50 each) for the guided tour of the caves. In the centre there are lots of information boards to read as well as a cafe and a gift shop.

Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre

We waited on the benches by the door where the tours leave from and before long it was our turn to be counted and head down the forest path to the caves.

After a bit of an introduction to the scenery in the forest and the geology underfoot.

Bluebells at the Marble Arch Caves

Woods surrounding Marble Arch Caves

We descended down the steps cutting through the karst scenery and admired the limestone rock faces.

Limestone Cliff

Entrance to Marble Arch Caves

It's at this point you head underground into one of natures little wonders, the Marble Arch show cave. To begin with there is a short ride on an electric boat along a part of the underground Cladagh River.

Electric Boat Ride on the Cladagh River

Underground Cladagh River

Then the rest of the journey was on foot. I really liked the little boat ride as it was a nice spectacle, but being a nerd I preferred the walking part as it allowed me to straggle behind a little and take more time admiring the pretty cave structures (Sorry tour guide lady, I must have been a nightmare!).


Spotlighting in the Marble Arch Cave

Limestone Solution Cave Feature

Marble Arch Cave Scene

The caves are full of all the usual favourites of a solution cave, from stalactites, stalagmites and columns, to slimey looking flowstone features.

Cave Features

Reflections of Stalactites

Marble Arch Caves

When we got to the part of the cave where they've built a submerged walkway through part of the river, I did feel a little like I was in the queue for a ride on the Valhalla at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It's just for access though and as we reached the far end of the section of the caves that are part of the tour it was obvious as to why they were eager to gain access to show visitors this part:

Solution Cave Features

Stalactite in the Marble Arch Caves

After cutting back to the steps we made our ascent back up a lot of stairs (thankfully with a bench to rest on half way) and back to the gift shop where we promptly bought a fridge magnet to add to our collection.

I loved the whole underground adventure but then I was totally in my element (seemingly my element is Calcium, who knew!). I'm not too sure if everyone else enjoyed the caves as much as I did (apparently not everyone has nerdgasms about rocks, I know right, what's wrong with 'em?) but everyone did say they enjoyed the trip.

I'd highly recommend a visit if you like this sort of thing, it's a bit of a way to travel from Belfast (give a couple of hours to get there by car) but as far as being worth the trip, I thought that it really was, I only wish I could have spent longer down in those caves. I shall have to go back one day!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A Day Trip to Rathlin Island

Rathlin Express Life Buoy RingBack in July, from a short-list of day trips to places we hadn't been before, we chose to visit Rathlin Island. Rathlin is a small island shaped like a reflected letter 'L' that is located 6 miles out to sea from Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast. The lure of taking this day trip was the chance to see somewhere new, enjoy the scenery and take a ride on a ferry. Personally I also liked the prospect of having something interesting to take a photo of.

The trip for us that day was an Ulsterbus tour and so we boarded the coach bright and early from the Europa bus centre in Belfast. It was all down to chance but taking the tour bus was our one big mistake of the day - the coach itself was actually very nice, very comfortable and modern and the travel itinerary (apart from maybe being a little short in time on the island itself) was fine, as was the price - you see the mistake wasn't the coach itself, it was the people sat behind us when we got on it.

It's hard to phrase this in any nice way but the issue was simply that these two people just would not stop talking inanely. The thing being they weren't talking that loudly and there was no bad language so we felt like we couldn't complain, it was just a persistent and mundane running commentary of anything they saw or thought, and I mean anything that went through their heads. These were people seemingly missing some barrier or internal filter, I'd have understood had they been drunk but they were sober and they just went on, and on and on and on and on and and on and on and on and...

Apart from driving us temporarily insane, the absurdity of it all did give us a few laughs later, I think it's fair to say that if we didn't laugh, we'd have cried because it was unrelenting all the way to Ballycastle and all the way back later in the day.

As I've probably mentioned before, one of the big downsides with going on a coach tour tends to be the random stops where very little choice is provided and I get the feeling I'm being herded like a sheep into a consumer-like pen for a set period of time. On this one we all had to get off the bus at a bridal/boutique shop with a cafe at a place called Logans which is half way between Ballymena and Coleraine. We didn't really mind this stop as it gave us a respite from the onslaught of jabbering we were being subjected to on the coach. Thankfully we did make it to Ballycastle without having to resort to confront the these clueless folks on their destruction of bus etiquette and possible infringement of international treaties of psychological torture - though reaching out to the European Court of Human Rights was getting close to being a viable option.

From here on in I really enjoyed our day trip. We waited for a short time until the Rathlin Express - a small catamaran passenger ferry launched in 2009 - was ready and then we boarded. It was still overcast at that point in the day but it was still warm enough to sit upstairs in the open air. The journey across on the ferry was great fun and relaxing, like being on an adult version of one of those children's rides outside amusement arcades that gently rock you back and forth. From the side of the boat we could see diving sea birds and the odd jellyfish going about their business, on the horizon we could make out the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

Distant View of Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge from the Sea

It felt like we were on holiday, which is strange given we were on a passenger ferry in the middle of a section of the North Channel.

After the short but pleasant ride we arrived in Church Bay, the main port of the island, disembarked and waited for the next 'Puffin bus' to visit the Rathlin Island RSPB nature reserve.

Side of a Puffin Bus on Rathlin Island

At first glance, looking over at the rest of the bay, there was very little in this small port, a couple of B&B's - one of which is an old Manor House, a few shops, a few houses and a bar. We were aiming to visit said bar later but first we were going to see the sea birds. Looking back from near the bus stop we could see the North Antrim Coast in the distance.

View of North Antrim Coast from Rathlin Island Harbour

With so many people getting off the ferry at once all with the same plan, we didn't all fit onto the first of Bert's Puffin Buses. But a guy who we believe to have been Bert himself came along with another bus to collect us stragglers.

The bus bumped it's way along like postman pats van up the hill and around the tight bends. The only road to the west of the island is very narrow, like a small country lane. But the scenery was brilliant. On one side, purples of heather, wild flowers and grasses, to the other houses, gardens and fields broken by brilliant views looking out to sea and over towards the North Antrim Coast.

The bus dropped us off at the destination of the nature reserve that holds the RSPB sanctuary and we paid our bus fare (if I remember correctly it was five pounds for an adult return) and were given our return ticket.

It's a short walk down some stairs and a long ramp to get to where you can see the bird colonies on the cliffs and a few flights of stairs to get to the main viewing platform which is seemingly part of the lighthouse structure.

Viewing area

The sight and sounds were quite something. Big cliffs, vast expanse of sea, the Scottish and Northern Irish coasts, the usual sights of the coast as well as the beauty of this location plus lots of different varieties of sea birds perching precariously.

Here is a medley of photos of those sights:

Rathlin Island RSPB Seabird Viewpoint at West Lighthouse

Thistle by the Sea

Rathlin Island RSPB site

Sea Fence

Grass Sea and Sky

Thistle on the Grassy Slope by the Sea

Cliffs and Seabirds at the Rathlin Island RSPB Site

Nesting Seabirds at Rathlin Island

Cliffs at Rathlin Island RSPB site

Western Cliffs on Rathlin Island

Many of the birds had chicks which they were protecting feeding, seemingly very happy in this little corner of the world away from their predators - like this Kittiwake.

Seabird and Chick

The rest of the birds were flying around and heading out to sea to feed, such as these sea birds flying off from the nesting sites in formation.

V of Seabirds

Getting some sunbathing time on rocks at the base of the cliffs were a seal or two, probably waiting for a snack to come to them.

Seal by the Sea

We were there about an hour but it was soon time to leave as we had a ferry to catch and still wanted to grab some food back at the harbour.

Getting the next Puffin bus back we were taken down a little way from the harbour first to see a small section of low rocky outcrops that slid into the sea like ramps. This area is apparently a seal favourite and it certainly was, at least 7 just loitering on the rocks. Here are a few of them:

Seals Basking on Rathlin Island

Seal by the Sea at Rathlin Island

I'd love to go back and spend more time down at that beach watching the seals but we had food to get and so headed to the big bar via a quick stop at the visitor's centre.

We very much enjoyed our pint of Guinness and sandwich whilst chatting and watching the world go by from the window looking out to the harbour. There were also some picnic tables outside by the beach that looked to be a nice spot if you planned ahead with a packed lunch or bought a take out.

Picnic Table

Soon we were back in the queue and re-boarding the ferry.

Church Bay Harbour at Rathlin Island

Back on the boat, Norngirl decided we were going to sit on the seats downstairs, outside, along the side. After thinking out loud that it was probably a prime place to get wet if we hit a wave, we both ignored the chance, it didn't happen on the way to the island and it looked calm and the sun was out.

Rathlin Island Panorama

The first part of the journey was bliss, swaying through the water gently with the sun on our faces looking back towards the island.

Panorama from the Rathlin Island Ferry

Then, out of the ocean greyish-blue, we encountered a bit of a choppy swell. It was still lovely and sunny but then we came face to face with the water. After a few waves worth of being soaked we were dripping wet and clambering towards shelter at the back of the boat and looked back laughing at the choppy water we'd passed through.

Waves in the wake of the Rathlin Island Express

Though cold and salty it was still awesome, we laughed manically and dripped all the way back to Ballycastle. Thankfully we'd stopped dripping by the time we'd walked back to the bus. People must have thought we were nuts as we were still laughing at ourselves as we took our seats and waited for everyone else to make it back.

Part of the coach trip included a short stop in Ballycastle itself, we used this time wisely to find a bar where we took in some liquid refreshment to prepare ourselves for a potential repeat performance of the crazy inane chatting people. Sadly for us, the repeat performance was as torturous as the first time around, this time the highlight was, amongst other things, a second by second account of the blossoming relationship with fellow travellers that had filled their day, sweet mercy came when I managed to fall asleep for a while. Belfast couldn't be upon us soon enough, I've never been happier to get off a very comfortable coach.

If there is good weather, I'd really recommend a visit to Rathlin island and I do hope to go back there before too long to see more as we ran out of time to see all the island has to offer. I think next time I'd have to prepare better with ear cancelling earphones and a well charged phone/radio (just in case) or head to Ballycastle another way. One thing for sure is that Rathlin is a very picturesque island, especially when the sun comes out. So much of the natural world to see in one small place, and a real sense of being somewhere remote whilst only taking a day trip. Obviously tourism to a place like this is a double edged sword, the more people go, the less people get to see and the more environmental damage might be done but hopefully it's future development will go hand in hand with conservation. It's quite the uncut gem of a place to visit, especially if you like to see wildlife wild and enjoy your journey as well as the destination.


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