Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - Grand Opera House and Hidden History Tour

After the success of our European Heritage Open Day tours the day before, we were very much looking forward to what was in store for us on Sunday. We started the day with breakfast at The Allotment on Upper Queen Street. I had a bacon and pepper omelette and the Yorkshireman had some beans on toast. Being quite plain menu choices, it was pleasant enough if not particularly special, and average value for money. I won't be rushing back for breakfast but I could be tempted to try some of their lunch or dinner dishes at some point in the future. Then it was over to Great Victoria Street for our first tour of the day at the Grand Opera House.

Having grown up in Belfast, I have of course been on the audience side of the house a few times, usually watching warily as May McFettridge pranced around the stage as a pantomime dame. However I'd never been backstage or, to be honest, really had a good look at the inside of the theatre, my main concerns usually being where my seat is, whether the interval ice-cream will come with a little wooden spoon and, in recent years, how expensive the wine is at the bar.

It was an interesting tour for several reasons. For one thing the tour guides were trialling a new tour script, which happened to involve some acting in parts. It was successful in varying amounts at different points throughout but they needed a little more confidence in their delivery methinks. Regardless of their nerves it was all very enlightening though.

We began our tour in the auditorium itself and had a gander at the d├ęcor whilst learning about the architect, Frank Matcham. It was a bit of a strange juxtaposition: our imaginations were being transported by our guides back to a packed full theatre in the late 1800s, whilst in our 2011 reality a young technician dude walked around on stage doing a sound check for the matinee performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10… reduced volume because of the lady doing the Heritage tour please… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…" I waved but he didn't seem inclined to wave back. Must be the pressures of the job - counting to 10 is hard, especially in front of so many people.

During the rest of the tour we visited most areas of the theatre, including: backstage (which was a lot smaller than I'd expected); the Baby Grand auditorium (which I'd been in before); stage door on Glengall Street (where they explained how the Opera House had been affected by the bombings of the Europa Hotel next door during "the Troubles"); the bars and restaurants in the recent extension of the theatre; that little conservatory-type room they have right above the (old) main entrance (which apparently used to be a bar back in the old days); and finally the (old) main entrance itself, where I remember coming in for pantomimes etc when I was a bit younger. I would have loved to have seen one of their new dressing rooms but apparently we couldn't because the Joseph people are very strict about that sort of thing. Oh well!

All in all it was an interesting tour. There was a bit too much of this "on the 30th of February 1901, this happened, and then on the 41st of March the following year, this other thing happened" malarkey for my liking. I like the anecdotes but if you start telling me dates every few seconds, I start to zone out. Especially since they saved a lot of that for the end of the tour, by which point we were all standing in the old foyer, tired from walking around for an hour and a half. It might not have been so bad if I'd had the option of a seat. But still, it was a decent tour. If you're interested in the theatre or in architecture it would definitely be worth going on but if, like me, you only have a general passing interest, I would consider how much they're charging before I signed up.

Having luvvied ourselves out, we made our way to the City Hall for the 9/11 memorial ceremony. I've already written about that so I won't go into detail, except to say that it was a sombre and moving interlude for our European Heritage Open Day activities, but I'm glad I went.

Conveniently our next tour actually started from the gates of the City Hall right after the memorial service finished. We were off on a walking tour called 'Hidden history - the past under Belfast's streets'. I must admit right from the off that this, for me, was going to be the least interesting part of our weekend. I'm not all that interested in history in general but the geographical aspect seemed to capture the Yorkshireman's imagination and I have an open mind, so off we went. My nonchalance was not helped by the fact that the tour started ten minutes late, during which delay we had no option but to stand around in the drizzle, bored.

Once we did get going our first stop was Corn Market, where our guide told us (in substantial detail) about three castles that were apparently once built in the area but that no archaeologists have thus far been able to find. I paid attention for about five minutes but by the end of what seemed like three hours of talking about digging (or the clearly disappointing lack thereof), I was slumped over one of Starbucks' outside tables, yawning and willing our group to move on already. At this point I suddenly recalled why I hated history and geography at school.

Eventually we moved on to Ann Street, down one of the entries and out on to High Street. Then it was on to the Cathedral Quarter area. Our guide, with the aid of a rudimentary map of Belfast back in olden days (yes that is as specific as I'm getting), explained throughout what the relevant part of Belfast would have been like at various points in history. Some bits I knew already, e.g. the river Farset used to run right up where High Street is now, and other facts were new to me. However apart from one interesting anecdote about a skull (I won't ruin it for you in case you intend to go on the tour yourself), I must admit I found the whole tour extremely dry.

I guess if you're a real history buff or interested in archaeology it might be up your street but the guide assumed a basic knowledge of local history (which I don't have - who the feck were these "earls" he kept referring to? Actually don't answer, I don't really care anyway) and anything additional he was telling us was told in such a dull way that it went in one ear and out the other. I've been on plenty of tours with historical aspects and despite my lack of interest in the subject at hand, they actually held my interest because they brought it to life with interesting stories. I'm sad to say this tour was not one of these occasions.

I guess I'm not the target demographic for a history tour (being, as I am, an advocate of Barney Stinson's rule that "new is always better") but in my opinion it's definitely not a great example of how to encourage interest in history amongst the general public. In fairness I will say that the Yorkshireman seemed to enjoy it more than I did and I have another friend who apparently has been on it before (although with a different guide) and she liked it, so perhaps take my damnation with a pinch of salt.

So, as we abandoned our guide across the road from St Anne's Cathedral (me feeling giddy like the school bell had just rang at the end of the day), that was the end of our European Heritage Open Day adventures. Some bits were (obviously) better than others but generally I feel like I learned a lot and it was especially interesting to see the parts of such well-known buildings that no-one really gets to see most of the time. I'm already looking forward to next year's brochure so I can go and nosy around some more!

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