Friday, 23 September 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - Ulster Hall and Parliament Buildings

After we finished our European Heritage Open Day tour of BBC Broadcasting House, we had a bite to eat across the road at Wetherspoons. Then, since we were nearby anyway and the Yorkshireman had never been inside, we popped into the Ulster Hall for a quick nosy around.

The Yorkshireman took some photos and explored the main hall, while I took to the stage and then randomly joined a small group who were being shown the pipe organ by someone who was hopefully an organist but could have alternatively been an overly-eager visitor. It was fun hearing the effects of all the different buttons on the thing resonating around the room.

Eventually we tired of the main auditorium and wandered out the side door and around to the backstage area. However it seems you're not really supposed to do that, as we were promptly escorted away by an indignant-looking security guard. We probably disturbed his coffee break or something. Or perhaps he was watching The Sky At Night. I implemented my innocent look (not very successfully) and said we were just looking around, implying we had gotten lost. I might have been more convincing if I wasn't smirking when I said it. Although it was even funnier when, while we were being shown out (clearly marked as trouble-makers), we came across an elderly couple who had also "lost their way" and were heading backstage. Hehehe. Well they should have put 'no entry' signs up or something!

After the Ulster Hall, we stopped by Apartment, which is my favourite city centre takeaway coffee spot (well, except for Starbucks) and between us went for their coffee and freshly-baked pastry takeaway offer (£1.50 for both - a bargain!). Needless to say I had the coffee and the Yorkshireman enjoyed a delicious-looking chocolate croissant. Then we hopped on the number 20 Metro bus up to Massey Avenue, as our next stop was Parliament Buildings.

I work quite close to Parliament Buildings but had never ventured inside. I wasn't too sure what exactly there would be to see but my curiosity won out and so in we went. Well, first of all we had a bit of a rushed, uphill power walk to get there on time for the last tour at 3pm, but we made it just on time. And then had to wait around for ten more minutes. Typical government inefficiency, eh? Just kidding. Our tour guide was a member of staff who actually works there and it was really interesting to hear his thoughts and anecdotes as we went around.

We started our tour in The Great Hall, which is essentially an ornately decorated lobby. Apparently the centrepiece, a huge German-made golden chandelier, was unofficially gifted to us by the royal family back in wartime (when it was probably not all that appropriate to have German stuff hanging around in the British monarchy's residences) but when they did an inventory after the fire at Windsor Castle back in 1992 and they realised it was missing, they got all huffy about it and wanted it back. The cheek! Eventually it was decided that it could stay in Belfast for now so long as we knew it wasn't for keepsies. Honestly! Like you can't afford to officially gift us a chandelier you didn't even know you had! Bah!

Our tour also covered the Assembly Library, one of the Committee Rooms, the Senate Chamber (which apparently acted as an RAF command centre during World War II!), the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's offices, the Speaker of the Assembly's office, the Assembly Chamber and finally a little café called The Long Gallery, where I happily got another little caffine boost. It was actually a really interesting tour and I learned all sorts of things I didn't know before. For example did you know that during World War II, they painted Parliament Buildings with a mixture of tar and manure to try and conceal it in the darkness and prevent it being bombed in an air-raid? Also that it took seven years to scrape it off, little by little? Imagine if that was your job!

I would highly recommend the tour to anyone who is even vaguely interested in Northern Ireland policitics. It's a great way to see where all the action (or lack thereof) happens and actually, despite the fine dining rooms and unnecessarily ornate offices, it actually serves to humanise government a little. When you see where they eat and sit and walk, it makes the politicians seem like real people rather than media-created characters spouting official lines like a robot. Some of these real people might be fairly up themselves and their opinions may make me cringe, but they're just living, breathing people like the rest of us. That's a pleasing thought but bearing in mind I avenge perceived injustices at the hand of the Yorkshireman by biting him and the fact that my colleague thinks that court cases should be decided by a magic 8 ball, it's also a bit scary.

Anyways, after the tour we made our way down through Stormont Estate, wandering through the trees (and trying not to slip on the mud), down past Mo Mowlam Children's Park and out to the Upper Newtownards Road where, predictably, we just missed a bus. Some time later (when two 4As arrived at once, as is the tradition on the Upper Newtownards Road), we finally made our way home, tired from our exertions but feeling like we'd learned lots and looking forward to learning even more the next day.

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