Forgot to come back to this. Me and the lad had an absolute blast, fantastic trip. Ended up going on the train to Dublin. You can book these sail/rail tickets. Mine was £37 single from Manchester to Dublin, kids half price. Changed at Llandudno Junction. Decent trip on the ferry, about three hours, got some grub and a couple of pints. At the other end got a bus into the city. On the few nights previous I'd kept an eye on the Booking.com sight and there were some real bargains for the same night hotels late in the day, £250 rooms going for £60 or so had didn’t booked until I got on the bus. Couldn't understand why there was barely anything to be had. Booked one in the end towards Aviva Stadium and yomped out there. Once we checked in we chilled out for a bit and once showered and freshened up decided to go out. Opened the front door and the car park was packed with scousers. There were beer stands and burger stalls all put up while we were inside. Through the pumping music and sea of red it then dawned on me that Liverpool had been playing Bilbao in a friendly at the Aviva. Which is why we were screwed for digs. Pissed up Irish scousers everywhere. Had a walk down to the ground which looks impressive but couldn't get in for a proper look.
Had a mooch round in the morning. Went to the little St Stephen's Green Park in the morning with takeaway coffee and fresh pastries from the deli to watch the world go by and my lad to burn off some energy, climbing shit and clambering and running about. Lovely wide Georgian streets round there, all quiet on a Sunday morning. Got the train to Belfast, couple of hours, 20 odd quid. Nice trip up the coast. As we were getting near Belfast, the train guards, couple of charming ladies, walked up and down the aisles asking if everyone was ok when they got there, knew where to go etc. So nice, personal touch. They showed a group of Americans the way to their hotel. Just can't imagine the same treatment coming in to King's Cross.
I'd booked a Premier Inn and got a good deal. Paid for breakfast and kids eat free so worked out ok. There are 3 in Belfast and we were at the one closest to the city centre. Walked the 15 mins from the station. Again, the hotel was so friendly, the woman on reception calling me by my first name for the whole time we were there. They had a decent bar, good food and was opposite St Malachys church which we went in one day, all very nice.
First night we got our bearings by having a wander round for a while. It's not too big, sort of Leeds size, so all pretty manageable. We ended up at Victoria Square which is a bit like The Trinity in Leeds, half in, half out. Had a big Five Guys burger. A couple of days later we went back and you can climb up some spiral stairs or take the lift up to a big glass dome where there's a viewing platform and you can see for miles. The two yellow cranes of Harland and Wolff seem to be forever in your eyeline wherever you're looking in Belfast.
I took Humphreyplugg's advice and booked on the Belfast City Sightseeing tour. We got a 48 hour ticket which they let us split with a day in between. This lets you see everything, there's commentary and there are about 30 stops where you can get off. Once you've visited whatever it is you just wait for another bus at a set time, pretty regular service. For me and the lad it was perfect. The guides don't shy away from mentioning the troubles and we went down the Falls Road and the Shankhill which was eye opening. The murals and peace wall are still much in evidence. Seemed to see, as a general rule, a lot more red, white and blue and red hand paraphernalia than the Republican side. But then you'd turn a corner to be greeted by Bobby Sands murals or paintings, balaclava clad IRA members surrounded by tricolours. It was strange explaining it all to my lad, untainted with memories of growing up with news of car bombs and recognised codewords and how if you told someone 30 years ago you were going on holiday to Belfast you'd have been certified insane. The building work, regeneration and relative prosperity is tangible. We were told that for the first time in a generation buildings could be designed to incorporate glass.
Stormont - Lovely setting. From the gate it's a mile to the building. Six pillars at the front representing the six counties of Ulster. There are 365 windows. Plus a few other quirks that I've forgotten now. We had to go through airport style x-ray machines to get in. Inside it's stunning, all fashioned from Italian marble. In wartime it was an obvious landmark for German bombers looking for the docks - an enormous white building stuck in the middle of nowhere on top of a hill. So they painted it with a mixture of tar and manure to disguise it. 70 years later and they're still cleaning it off. The top section is still dark and covered in horse shit.
As the Northern Ireland assembly is obviously devolved right now we could visit the chambers and sit in the member's seats. Wierd sat looking at where McGuinness used to be. We were on the DUP side apparently. In the other house, their version of the Lords, it was all set up for the renewable heat inquiry that had caused the devolution of the assembly.
Crumlin Road Jail – Ace. Fascinating tour round the Victorian Jail, closed in 1996. We were shown round by a former warder who had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that had ever happened there. Across the road is the courthouse which was regularly targeted by car bombs. Now fallen into disrepair but is being tarted up as a hotel. The prisoners were escorted there through a tunnel under the road which you can walk halfway along, all dark, cold and damp. The warder had seen plenty of political figures come and go, Adams, Mcguinness, Sands, Paisley etc. He said you knew when you were getting a bit too heavy with any of the political prisoners as a couple of days later there’d be an envelope sent to your home address containing just a single bullet.
We were shown to the cell where those condemned to hang spent their last fortnight. It was a big cell, they could play board games with the warders, have visits, better food, read books etc. On one side was a bookcase. The guide, in hushed tones told how, after a couple of weeks and on the appointed day the prisoner was suddenly told to stand facing the bookcase and WHOOSH!!! - the bookcase shot sidewards on wheels revealing a room behind. When he did this everyone shit themselves. The room behind revealed a noose swinging from a beam, the trapdoor was open but with a glass floor over it, below was a table with a coffin on it. It was genuinely fuckin scary. For the prisoner, from being told to stand up to the noose it was over in no time. We were told some really interesting tales, The Pieerpoints hung a few there. The hangman always had to attend court to be charged with murder and pay a nominal shilling fine.
The Crown - beautiful old tiled pub. First time we went in it was dead busy. I caught the barman's eye and pointed to my lad and mouthed, 'Ok in here?’ He shook his head and pointed upstairs. Upstairs was the restaurant and it was full. We went to Wetherspoons. A couple of days later we tried again when not busy. Got talking to the girl serving, she said it was bollocks, anyone's welcome, all ages. Had some ace scran, lad had Irish Stew and at Wetherspoons had champ just to tick all stereotypical touristy boxes. It's near to The Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe apparently, some honour.
Belfast City Hall - Few mins from our gaff. They do a few free tours a day. Well worth it, really enlightening wander round. Only about 10 in our group. Beautiful building, tiles, marble, carved wood. The guide dressed my lad up in the robes of a member of the city council in the robing room (?). Good fun anyway. Some lavish, sweeping rooms and chambers and halls. Well worth a couple of hours.
Titanic - Huge exhibition/museum on all things Titanic related. The first parts are all about Belfast's history and development and how it became so important. Seems it was the third city of the British Empire after London and Liverpool. Absolutely thriving at one time of day. Sat on a little car that ferries you through the shipyard with all the clanging and welding. Later on the telegraph signals, letters and messages home are quite heartbraking. It’s easy to get wrapped up in myths and legends but it was only a hundred years ago and every victim had a story. The inquiry after reveals cover ups, excuses and the kind of shams we're still experiencing today with large scale disasters. The architecture is stunning too. The front of the building being the ship breaking through an iceberg which viewed from the top carries the five points of White Star Line, the ship's owners.
W5 - one of Humphrey Plugg’s recommendations. Brill for kids. In the Titanic quarter. Science and Discovery centre that seems to go on forever, loads of stuff to do and pull, push, bang, climb, steer, smash etc. My lad loved the robot that you can have a conversation with. There's a small lecture theatre where they did a show with loads of chemical bangs and blasts, ace fun. Ended up staying about 4 hours.
Botanic Gardens - out by the university. Chilled out place, nice for a wander round and sit back and watch the world go by.
Giant's Causeway and Antrim Coast - did a coach trip for this. The Coast is about as stunning as anywhere in the world. Some of it genuinely jaw-dropping. Walked across the Carrick a Rede rope bridge which isn't nearly as scary as I imagine it probably once was. Called in at the Bushmills Distillery but didn't bother with the tour. The Giant's Causeway was ace. Would love to be on there during a storm in winter in the early hours of the day, can imagine it being fucking scary. Had the guides occasionally whistling when someone got a bit too close to the edge. Great just tramping around it with the lad, always wanted to go there.
One of my favourite things we did, and I thought sod it, we're here now, was head out to Van Morrison’s birthplace. I asked my lad if it was ok with him, like I needed permission or something. It was the day we'd been to W5 so he'd had his treat, this was mine. Got a taxi there. I had butterflies walking up the street, just a normal respectable terraced street in the middle of the afternoon. The house has a little plaque and nothing more. It's hardly Graceland but it worked for me. From there we walked the twenty minutes or so that I'm sure Van walked a time or two to Cyprus Avenue. We took pics, had a wander round and it all made me incredibly happy.
Belfast is pretty compact, everything with walking distance. Dead easy for getting around. It's cheap too, or normal prices anyway. Went to the pics one day for a film just out, £4.90. Food, beer, transport, accomodation all the same. Flew back from George Best into Leeds, taxi was about £6.50.
Anyway. One of the best weeks I've ever had. Me and the lad had a scream, saw all sorts, did all sorts and would go back in a heartbeat.
Call me up in dreamland. Radio to me man.