The Dark Horse – Belfast

A couple of weeks ago I was in Belfast attending a conference – the first one for a few years. Being good, sitting through the conference sessions and catching up with people I hadn’t seen face to face for some time, I didn’t have much time for exploring the city. However, on the second night of the conference one of the major equipment suppliers traditionally hosts a free shin dig and this year was no different, so with just about everyone one else attending the event I made my way to the Cathedral Quarter and the Dark Horse.

Inside it’s a very traditional Irish pub with lots of glass and polished brass.

But one of the main attractions is the courtyard behind the pub where all the walls are a gallery of street art depicting scenes of Irish history and culture – with a good helping of Irish humour too.

SS Nomadic


SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line ship, sits in the dry dock facing the Titanic Belfast building. The entry ticket to the Titanic exhibition allowed us to visit the vessel, so we went to have a look.

The small ship was a tender that used to ferry first and second class passengers out to the White Star liners at Cherbourg, where the port was not deep enough to take the big ships. A smaller companion vessel, SS Traffic, used to ferry the third class passengers, after all we couldn’t have the great unwashed coming into close proximity to their betters! Both the NOmadic and Traffic transported passengers to the Titanic when it arrived at Cherbourg from Southampton at the beginning of its fateful voyage.

There are scale models of both vessels in the main saloon on the Nomadic.


Visitors can wander around the ship to see the passenger lounges, crew’s quarters and the working areas.

There were separate lounges for the first and second class passengers where they could relax during the short journey out to their liner.

Like in the main Titanic Experience exhibition, the latest technology was being used, including video projections of the captain and this barman.


My favourite parts were the crew quarters and working areas


It was interesting to see the riveted hull up close


And up on deck we could get close to the funnel


and pretend we were steering the vessel out at sea!



During World War I and until 1919, Nomadic was requisitioned by the French government and she saw service as an auxiliary minesweeper and patrol ship and for ferrying American troops. After the war she returned to her role as a tender. The Second World War she was requisitioned again and on 18 June 1940 took part in the evacuation of Cherbourg. After the fall of France she was taken over by by the Royal Navy and based in Portsmouth harbour, and operated as a troop ship, coastal patrol vessel and minelayer for the remainder of the war.

After the war she returned to tender duties and was retired in 1968 and then spent a number of years moored on the Seine  in Paris being used as a restaurant and nightclub. In 2006, faced with being scrapped, the Northern Ireland government Department for Social Development bought the vessel at auction. She was returned to Belfast and restored her to her original 1911 condition.

A Titanic Experience


Belfast has a proud history of shipbuilding, alas, like heavy industry elsewhere in the UK, no longer the major force and employer it once used to be.  Harland and Wolff still have operations in Belfast, but not on the scale of the 20th Century when it built ships intended for companies such as the White Star Line. Today it mainly focuses on the offshore oil and wind industries.

Source :Wikipedia *

The most famous ship built in Belfast by Harland Wolff was the RMS Titanic, and in March 2012 Titanic Belfast opened to take advantage of this to boost tourism and as a focus for the regeneration of the city. it’s been extremely successful becoming the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland and it has also been named Europe’s top visitor attraction. It’s actually located beside the Titanic Slipways, the Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices and Hamilton Graving Dock – the very place where Titanic was designed, built and launched in 1912. So we thought we should go and take a look and after our visit to Stormont drove to the city centre and the Titanic Quarter.


The building, clad in 3,000 individual silver anodised aluminium shards, is quite striking. It’s design takes the form of four ships’ prows, with its main “prow” angled down the middle of the Titanic and Olympic slipways towards the River Lagan. It’s 38 metres high, the same height as Titanic‘s hull. Some people have suggested that the “prows” look more like icebergs and it’s been nicknamed it “The Iceberg” by some locals. This short video explains the inspiration behind the building

The entrance fee wasn’t cheap, £17.50 for adults. But we stumped up. It was certainly busy but not so crowded that we couldn’t see the exhibits during the self guided tour.

There are nine galleries, that tell the story of RMS Titanic, from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her famous maiden voyage and tragic end. The exhibition also provides context with information about the history of Belfast and shipping in the city as well as social and political background in Ulster at the turn of the 20th Century.


The galleries are innovative and interactive employing all the latest tricks and technology – including interactive screens, holograms, a chariot ride through a “shipyard”.

The main focus of the exhibition was the design and building of the ship rather than the tragedy of it’s sinking and the aftermath (although these were covered too). This made it particularly interesting for me.






One of the most hazardous jobs in the shipyard – riveting. The heavy metal rivets were heated so they were red hot and then literally thrown up to the riveting team up on the scaffolding, one of whom had to catch it. The hot rivet was then inserted in the rivet hole and it was then hammered by a worker on the other side of the plate.


This archive video is from the John Brown’s shipyard, Glasgow in 1949, but shows how it would have been done during the building of the Titanic.

And people wonder why we need “elf and safety”

There were reconstructions of the different types of cabins on the ship after it had been fitted out.


The wreck of the Titanic was discovered and explored in 1985. After sections covering the tragedy and the subsequent enquiry the exhibition finished with a film of the wreck on the seabed shot from a submersible. DSC00186

I had expected that Titanic Belfast would have been something of a “tourist trap” but this was definitely not the case. Although inevitably commercial, it was well done and by concentrating on the local connection – the construction of the ship rather  – it was relevant to the city and interesting. It took us a good couple of hours to work our way through the galleries and it was time well spent and worth the entrance fee.

We hadn’t quite finished, though. Moored outside in a dry dock was the last remaining White Star vessel – SS Nomadic.



* The original uploader was Stavros1 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by LittleTony87 using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,



Our last day in Northern Ireland. Our ferry to Liverpool didn’t leave until 10:30 in the evening for an overnight sailing, so we took the opportunity to visit Belfast. Driving into the city we passed Stormont, the home of the Northern Irish Assembly and decided to stop to take a look. We parked by the entrance to the estate, at the bottom of the mile long, tree lined, Prince of Wales Avenue which runs from the Upper Newtownards Road to the Parliament Buildings. We walked up the avenue right up to the foot of the steps of the building, passing the statue of Lord (Edward) Carson by L.S. Merrifield.  Carson was leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921,and led opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. The statue was financed by public subscription and unveiled in June 1933.


It’s an impressive building, completed in 1932. The architect was Sir Arnold Thornely, who was based in Liverpool. He designed the building with perfect symmetry and symbolism, such as the building being 365ft wide representing one foot for every day of the year; having six floors and six pillars at the entrance, one for each county in Northern Ireland.


It originally was home to the Parliament of Northern Ireland which was created under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, after 6 of the counties of the Irish province of Ulster had voted to remain part of the United Kingdom when Ireland was given independence from British rule. The Parliament was dissolved with the imposition of direct rule from Westminster March 1972 at the height of “the Troubles”. It was also home to the short-lived Sunningdale power-sharing executive in 1974.

Following the Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, a new single chamber Northern Irish Assembly was established. Elections were held on 25 June 1998 and the New Northern Ireland Assembly met for the first time on 1 July 1998 . Politics are complicated in Northern Ireland and the new Assembly was suspended in October 2002 but after negotiations it was restored on 26 March 2007.


Today, the Assembly is responsible for making laws on transferred matters in Northern Ireland and for scrutinising the work of Ministers and Government Departments.

There are free guided tours of the building Monday to Friday at 11.00am and 2.00pm and during Summer recess tours are  available every hour on the hour from 11:00am to 3:00pm. So we decided to to take advantage of this.

After passing through security we walked round to the front entrance of the building and entered the Great Hall which is clad in Italian travertine marble.


We met up with our tour guide who gave us a history of the building and pointed out some key features of the hall. For example he told us that the very grand blue, red and gold painted ceiling of the Great Hall hasn’t been touched since it was first painted in 1932 as a special paint, formulated by Heaton, Tabb & Co. of London, was used.


Hanging from the ceiling is a grand chandelier, originally hung in Windsor Castle, where it had been a gift of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. It had been sent to Belfast for safe keeping during WW1 and it had never been returned! Two smaller versions, produced in the Harland and Woolf shipyards, hang to either side.


Next we moved through to the Senate chamber, passing through an ante-room where there are portraits of two of Northern Ireland’s literary greats – C S Lewis and Seamus Heaney – painted by Ulster artist Ross Wilson


Each portrait bears a famous quotation from the respective writers which have particular relevance to the Northern Irish peace process.

We then moved into the Senate chamber itself, with its red leather adversarial seats in two parallel blocks of benches remains as it was originally designed.


As the Northern Irish Assembly doesn’t have a higher House, the Senate chamber is now used as a committee room.

There are two notable painting hung in the room. One by William Conor of the opening of the Northern Irish Parliament in 1921 which took place in Belfast Town Hall.


The other is by Belfast artist Noel Murphy. ‘The House will Divide’, shows all the Members elected in 1998 to the Northern Ireland Assembly.


There were several well known faces – in the painting, that is.

We then moved across the building into the Assembly chamber


In the ante-room, this sculpture commemorates the historic Hilsborough agreement, that allowed the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive.


It’s much more modern than the Senate chamber, having been reconstructed and refitted following a major fire caused by an electrical fault, on 2nd January 1995 which destroyed the Assembly Chamber.


There are 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), 6 from each of the 18 electoral constituencies in Northern Ireland.


Unlike Westminster where the Government and Opposition face each other in the Northern Irish Assembly chamber a Scandinavian model has been used with the benches in a horseshoe in an attempt to reduce adversity and conflict.


Mount Stewart – A Walk round the Estate and to the Temple of the Winds


Mount Stewart has fairly extensive grounds to the south of the house and gardens. It was a pleasant day so we decided to take a walk around the grounds. The NT have set out three marked trails. We decided to take the red route which is just short of a mile and a half in length.

We passed through some pleasant woodland and then climbing a hill we reached the Temple of the Winds, an octagonal building the 1st Marquess  had constructed and which was inspired by Classical building he’d seen during the Grand Tour he took in his youth, like many wealthy young aristocrats.


The National Trust rent it out as wedding venue and it wasn’t open during our visit. We stopped for a while, though, as there’s a good view over Strangford Lough.


We carried on through woodlands and fields



Diverting off the route slightly to take a look of the ruined folly


Carrying on back on the route we passed sunflowers in the verges. They must have been cultivated in the fields at one time and seeds have drifted and germinated along the side of the paths.


Back into woodland, some woodcarvers have been creating sculptures using chainsaws. They’d finished for the day by the time we arrived, but we saw the evidence of their handywork..



Mount Stewart Gardens


The gardens at Mount Stewart are exceptional. So good that they’ve been included on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage tentative list.

The design is largely the work of 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry (although I’m sure she had plenty of help!) The National Trust have some good information on the planning and design of the garden which can be downloaded here.

Here’s a few photos

The Italian Garden

The Spanish Garden


The Shamrock Garden

The Sunken Garden


The Informal Gardens

Mount Stewart


Mount Stewart used to belong to the Anglo-Irish Marquesses of Londonderry. They were fabulously rich, their wealth accumulated largely through astute marriage arrangements, and had several homes including a palatial house in Park Lane, London and estates (and coal mines) in County Durham. They effectively used Mount Stewart as a summer “holiday home”.

It has extensive grounds including magnificent formal and informal gardens and woodland walks.


The house has recently re-opened after a 3 year long restoration project costing £8 million. It’s arranged to represent how it looked when it was home of the 7th Marchioness Edith, Lady Londonderry, a noted and influential society hostess in the between  the two World Wars, and her family in the early 20th century.

This is the central hall. Although in the middle of the house, it’s brightly lit by the glass dome above.


During the restoration of the house major work was carried out on the balcony above the central hall which was in danger of collapse. It’s been restored removing heavy iron balconies and redecorating in the original style.



The Morning Room


Lady Edith’s Drawing Room, her “personal space”



The NT website tells us

The vast drawing-room, with ionic column screens at each end, remains much as it was after being decorated in the 1930’s by Edith, 7th Marchioness, who like her mother-in-law before her was one of the great political hostesses of the time. The furnishing comprises quite a mixture of pieces from different periods, including Carrara marble urns and vases, tripod candlesticks, carved standard lamps, sofas, armchairs, occasional tables – all grouped informally as if the house guests were expected to return at any moment.

The family Chapel.


Probably the most famous member of the family was the 2nd Marquess , better known as Viscount Castlereagh. His portrait is hung in the house

Robert Stewart (1769–1822), Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, KG, GCH, FRS, PC, MP

Robert Stewart (1769–1822), Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Source: National Trust)

As British Foreign Secretary, from 1812 he was central to the management of the coalition that defeated Napoleon and was the principal British diplomat at the Congress of Vienna. Castlereagh was also leader of the British House of Commons in the Liverpool government from 1812 until his suicide in August 1822. Early in his career, as Chief Secretary for Ireland, he was involved in putting down the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and was instrumental in securing the passage of the Irish Act of Union of 1800.(Wikipedia)

He was honoured by many foreign governments as this collection of medals demonstrates



Depending on your point of view, he could be considered as either a hero or a villain. The poet Percy Shelley certainly falls into the latter camp – Castlereagh features prominently at the beginning of his poem, The Masque of Anarchy which was written in response to the Peterloo massacre

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Ferry ‘cross the Lough


On the Thursday of our break in Northern Ireland we wanted to visit Mount Stewart, a National Trust Property at the other end of the Lough from Killyleagh and on the opposite shore. We had two choices – drive along the west shore or take the ferry across the narrow straight at the mouth of the Lough that sails between the villages of Strangford and Portaferry and drive up the Ards peninsula on the east side of the Lough. It’s a short trip –  approximtely 0.6 nautical miles -and it only takes about 8 minutes to cross. But it seemed more fun than driving the longer way.So we drove to StrangfordDSC00041


looking over to the village of Portaferry


and waited for the ferry to arrive


Crossing the straight


Arriving at Portaferry.