Image totally yoinked from Titanic Universe
From 31st March to 31st May 2011, Belfast played host to the Titanic 100 Festival, celebrating 100 years since Titanic was built and launched. Yes, she might have sadly met her end with that damn iceberg in 1912 (only 99 years ago) and the resulting deaths are not really something to celebrate, but as the saying around these parts goes, "she was fine when she left here!"
I've always been interested in the story of Titanic - I guess that just comes with growing up in the city that built her - but sadly there hasn't really been any one central place dedicated to telling her story, just bits and pieces in various museums and exhibitions. I was pleased that a whole room had been set aside for Titanic last time the Yorkshireman and I visited the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and I merrily spent a while looking at all the memorabilia that had survived and reading transcripts of the ship's log and personal accounts of those onboard. However that was about it for Titanic really.
I guess I just assumed that no-one really wanted to shout about one of the most infamous maritime disasters of all time in case it seemed disrespectful, but given how huge Titanic was at the time, both in size and fame, it seemed a shame that such an achievement should just be ignored. And not just Titanic itself, but the feats of the Belfast shipbuilding industry in general - we were the biggest and best in the world at that time by all accounts. Imagine, Belfast being famous for something other than pointless violence!
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has now developed its Titanic display into the new TITANICa exhibition, which seems to go some way to addressing the issue but the museum is a bit too far out of the city centre to make it on to most tourists' must-see lists and so a fitting celebration of Titanic still seems currently lacking.
Clearly the good people at the helm of tourism in Belfast felt the same way and hence sprung the Titanic 100 Festival, with its aim to commemorate "the centenary of many key milestones of the ship's construction as well as some significant centennial anniversaries connected to the Titanic", for example the opening of the Thompson Dry Dock on 1 April 1911, the launch of Nomadic on 25 April 1911 and the launch of Titanic on 31 May 1911. I'd been keeping an eye on the events listed as part of the festival with every intention of at least going on one of the free tours one weekend, but we were a bit busy those few months and I didn't quite get around to it. As 31st May had now come and gone, I thought I had missed my chance.
However last Friday afternoon I was perusing the Belfast City Council events guide for potential entertainment for the approaching weekend (my only alternative seemed to be buying protective safety gear and trying my hand at rollerblading – the Yorkshireman believes that this will increase my confidence for ice-skating - I think he is just trying to kill me) and I noticed that the free Titanic Bus Tours were again running as part of the Belfast Maritime Festival. I decided fate was telling me to take the plunge and go to sea. There was just something fishy about that rollerblading malarkey. Arrrr you bored of the marine-based puns yet?
Luckily when I called on Friday afternoon there were still a couple of tickets left for the 2pm Titanic Bus Tour and so it was decided - no rollerblading for me, yay!
On Saturday afternoon we finally rocked up at the Belfast Welcome Centre at about 1.55pm - the Yorkshireman has very poor bus karma, which means every time we are waiting for a bus together I somehow end up waiting about ten minutes longer than I normally would alone and I end up getting anxious about the potential of being late (a fate worse than death). I think he must have killed an omnibus driver in a previous life or something. But in spite of my timekeeping concerns everything went smoothly and we had collected our tickets from the front desk at the Welcome Centre and taken our seats upstairs on the double-decker Metro bus with a few minutes to spare before we set off. The bus was full except for about two seats so the tour was clearly popular.
Our tour guide, who I think was called Stephen (sorry I'm useless with names - let's just assume for the purposes of this blog that his name was in fact Stephen), was part of the Belfast Titanic Society and more than capably showed us some of Belfast's Titanic hotspots, including the Titanic Memorial statue at Belfast City Hall, the Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices where Titanic was designed by Thomas Andrews, the slipway where Titanic was launched and the Thompson Dry Dock where she was painted, fitted out, etc.
The exciting part for me was that we actually got to go inside the Drawing Office and stand on the slipway. I've been on a good few Belfast city hop-on-hop-off bus tours in my time and they usually drive you past these places and point them out, but the doors of the Drawing Office have always remained firmly closed and the slipway gated off. However this weekend was the exception and it was great fun being allowed into places that are usually off-limits - you feel almost naughty, like you've sneaked in!
I've always thought the Drawing Office was a lovely old building and wish they'd do something to make the most of it. Actually going inside was a bit of a surprise - on the one hand there are these beautiful marble and dark wood walls in the entrance hall and intricate craved detail around the arched and windowed ceiling in the main office, but on the other hand the paint has all chipped away and there's a smell of damp in the air. Some effort has clearly been made to spruce it up a little bit in recent years but the building is still very much straddling that fine line between glory and ruin and I hope someone decides to invest in the potential glory before it's too far gone.
We only really got to enter to main office and have a very quick look into a side passage leading to the boardroom, but I would love to have gone exploring the whole place. Instead I made do with a look at the displays about the ships that had been conceived in that very room and also trying on some hats akin to what ladies would have worn in the days of Titanic. I made the Yorkshireman try one on too - he was not amused but looked very pretty.
I really liked standing on the slipway too. I'd been to the dry dock before and, not knowing very much about shipbuilding, I'd always had it in my head that Titanic was just sort of built there in its entirety. It never really occurred to me that she would have been built and launched from elsewhere and only really finished off in the dry dock. And to be fair, even when we were standing on the slipway itself, I didn't really get it. It was just a big flat area of tarmac with piles of rubble and pebbles and weeds and broken shells (apparently the seagulls drop them there).
However Stephen explained that once upon a time, it really had sloped from the highest point right down into the sea, but that when the slipways had stopped being useful and the shipbuilders decided they needed more room to store shipbuildy-type-things, they just filled it all in with rubble and put tarmac over the top. However the slipways (there are two, one that Titanic was launched from and the other that her sister ship the Olympic was launched from) have been declared scheduled monuments and it's now necessary to dig up all the tarmac and rubble again to restore the slipways to their former glory.
I think that will be a very nice touch for that area, especially since the slipways are at the foot of the new Titanic Belfast building that is currently under construction and due to open next April, so you'll be able to learn about Titanic being launched and then just look out the window and see the actual slipway itself - it will add a certain sense of realism to the whole thing. Stephen also told us about some très cool plans for Titanic Belfast, whereby some very fancy multimedia will make it so that you will be able to see the launch of Titanic as if you were actually there. I hope it turns out as awesome as it sounds.
So anyway, after a very interesting afternoon of Titanic-themed learnin', our bus tour dropped us off outside the Odyssey so we could continue our nautical experience at the Maritime Festival. I didn't go on any of the ships but people seemed to be having a lot of fun exploring them. I instead reverted to a five year old and wanted to play with the Exploris touch tank but apparently you're not actually allowed to touch the creatures - aww! We had a brief look around the market but it's always the same stalls as every other year and, indeed, every Continental Market at the City Hall, so cut our losses and went home.
It really was a very interesting tour though - if they start running them again I would highly recommend booking your tickets, especially if they are still the bargainous price of free! Failing that, if you're itching to learn more about Titanic, you could always check out the TITANICa exhibition and then if all goes according to plan it won't be long until Titanic Belfast is open. Does it make me a titanic dork that I'm really looking forward to visiting it? Actually don't answer that...