Here we are in Belfast! United Airlines did their best to make sure we never got here, but we persevered, and triumphed in the end. Therein lies a tale, but I’m not going to tell it until I can laugh about it.
Belfast has proven to be wonderful. A great deal of the credit for that goes to Claire and Denis Nightingale. Claire and Denis are fellow Titanic Cruise passengers. If you aren’t on the cruise, you may not know that many of the passengers have hooked up with each other via Facebook or other forums. We’ve been talking to each other for years and now we are beginning to meet in person. Claire and Denis live in Belfast, so offered to show us around.
Our first day, they kindly ferried us to sites famous in Shipbuilder – the Botanic Garden and Queen’s University.
The university is beautiful. My favorite building is the Lanyon Building – very stately and Victorian. Seeing everything live should hopefully add to the authenticity of Bridgebuilders. There’s at least one scene on the campus, and I’d gotten it wrong in terms of layout and blocking. I’ll have to revise that scene based on how the real place is laid out.
After 24 hours with almost no sleep, Rick and I were nearly asleep on our feet by the time we’d looked over this much of the city. Since we were nodding off in the middle of their tour guide spiels, Claire and Denis dropped us off at our hotel, with a promise to do more on Tuesday, the next day.
Tuesday (today), we did something that I could only dream of for so long: we toured Dunallon, the home of Thomas Andrews, as well as Harland & Wolff Shipyards. Our tour guide for this was Susie Millar, whose great-grandfather helped build Titanic, then sailed on her as an engineer. He died with the ship. Susie runs Titanic Tours, and graciously scheduled us for a private tour during our only full day in Belfast. A few days earlier, Susie had asked if we minded if a film crew for German TV came along on our tour, as they were shooting a documentary on Titanic and Belfast. We were happy to accommodate them, so we’re in a documentary. How about that? Let us know if you see it on German TV.
Our first stop was Dunallon. Let me tell you, that was surreal. While writing Shipbuilder, I had seen a picture taken of Dunallon, showing the front of it. My vision of the inside was my own invention, and I had so often imagined Tom, Casey, and Sam wandering its rooms, that I felt as if I knew it.
Of course, reality was nothing like my imagination. Dunallon is more beautiful than I could ever invent. Its current incarnation is as the headquarters for Northern Ireland Football Association, so it is furnished as offices rather than as a home. But the architecture and design inside are simply amazing. Most dramatic, is the stained glass windows at the top of the stairway. They cover most of the wall of the landing, with designs of flowers and trees that grow on the property, as well as birds, a sunrise, and the moon at night. I never knew that was there, or you can bet it would have shown up in my book!
I can see that I will have to put out a new edition of Shipbuilder, acknowledging some of my errors, to set the record straight. My book is fiction, but I want to be honest about the places that are real, and show how my book differs from reality.
I felt giddy at being in Thomas Andrews’ home, where so much of my story takes place. I will always be grateful I got to see it.
Dunallon was only the beginning of our adventure, though. We made a brief detour so the film crew could shoot some footage of one of the many Peace Walls in Belfast. I’ll talk about those in another post. Because our next stop on the tour was the new Titanic Quarter, and Harland & Wolff Shipyards.
What can I say? The new building designed for the centenary is as unique as any building I’ve ever heard of. And while many unique, dramatic buildings make you wonder, “What drug was that architect taking?” I think this one is gorgeous. It’s certainly dramatic.
There’s no mistaking that this building has something to say. It’s as tall as Titanic, so gives you a good idea of how big the ship was. The walls are shaped like the bow of a ship. Inside, there are holographic displays of how they built the ship, and a ride that takes you through the building from bottom to top. We got to peek inside for just a moment, for the construction workers were working very hard to have everything ready for the grand opening on March 31. Sadly, we will be leaving Belfast before then, so won’t get to see it in action. Saturday’s opening is going to be a grand gala event, and half of Belfast will probably be there. Our guide, Susie, has a big role to play in that event as well, and she’s very busy getting ready for it all.
At the base of the building, are the slipways upon which Titanic, and her sister ship, Olympic, were built. From March 1908 to May 1910, the shell of Titanic grew from the original keel to the elegant liner we all immediately recognize in photos. Walking along this slipway, for almost 900 feet, you get another good perspective on how large Titanic was. She took up the entire space, lengthwise, and all the air space above, to the height of the new building just finished. My mind cannot quite comprehend it, but even what I can grasp, is astonishing.
We walked to the very end of the slipway, to stand at the edge of the lough where Titanic’s stern ended. Then we imagined the day when thousands of people gathered to watch, as Lord Pirrie and Thomas Andrews directed the workers to clear the scaffolding away from Titanic, and she slid steadily backwards into the water, all 882 feet of her, in just over one minute.
I knew all this from my research, but seeing the space made it so much more real.
I’m saddened to report that we weren’t able to gain access to the building where Thomas Andrews worked. Workers were busy restoring parts of it for the big grand opening on Saturday, and we just couldn’t go in. But we walked by the building and Susie pointed out where the drawing room was located. It would have been wonderful to actually see it, but I’m happy to be as close as I was.
We finished our day with a quick trip to the Belfast Folk and Transport Museum (trains! BIG trains, as well as some Titanic stuff). Claire Nightingale played tour guide for this, too, then she and Denis showed us a couple of their favorite watering holes – Robinson’s Pub for a quick drink, then over to the Morning Star Pub for a wonderful dinner made from local ingredients. You know I liked that!
Along the way, we walked by City Hall and got some surreptitious pictures of the old Titanic Memorial. Like everything else, it was locked away for repairs and cleaning before the centenary. But we found a hole in the wooden fence surrounding it and got a couple of shots.
So, what do you think? Did I exaggerate when I said I would see some marvelous sights on this trip? Tomorrow, we’re off to London. There will be less about Titanic going on there, but, hey – it’s London. We’ll find something to do!