Farewell to Belfast

Next month, almost 13 years to the day that my parents moved their lives across the Irish Sea, they will return to the island of their birth. For the first time since I was 22, I will live on the same land mass as my parents.

It’s been quite a decade-and-a-bit. When they left, I was wrapping up my History MA in London and my sister was finishing her 2nd year of uni. Now, she’s been married nearly a decade; and I’ve completed another two degrees and got ordained along the way. While they were away, we both became something akin to “proper adults”.

Dad’s face ready to adorn the college wall. 

This past weekend was their leaving do at the college where Dad has been principal. Mim and I went along, both because we were invited, and because we wanted an opportunity to say a decent goodbye to a city that wasn’t our home but did feel almost like one.

As something of a surprise to my parents, Mim was asked to sing grace and I was asked to make a speech. We conferred, and decided that our mission was to embody the episode of Friends where Monica desperately tries to make her parents cry during a toast at their wedding anniversary; while Ross barely needs to try for it to happen. [We are cruel, cruel daughters who know their mother very well!] With her reference to our 1991 sojourn in Massachusetts in choosing grace, Mim scored immediately. Evidence [make up stained serviettes] would suggest I was similarly successful!

I think my words to the community of Edgehill & beyond are worth sharing here, because I meant them and they say a lot about what Belfast became for us as a family. [This isn’t exactly what I said, as I didn’t use my notes, but this is what I *meant* to say…]

“Thirteen years ago, we weren’t really sure what our parents were letting themselves in for. For the first time in our family’s life, we weren’t going to be coming with them on this move and we weren’t sure what ‘family’ would look like for them here. But what Mim and I would like to thank you all for is the way in which you have been family to our parents during their time here. In fact, not just them, but us too. Every time we’ve visited, we’ve been touched by the way in which we’ve been welcomed by people that we see barely once a year!

Nothing demonstrates the “family” more than the way in which people responded to Dad’s accident last week. [There was a cyclist V cyclist incident that left him with a few broken fingers…] That the President drove him to hospital despite it being Conference. That Brendan sat with him for hour after hour waiting for his op. That meals were provided while Mum was away this week. We need never have worried!

And Belfast has become a family home to us too. Despite never having lived here, we have our favourite places to have tea; eat breakfast; drink cocktails; and walks on the beach. I’ve worked on essays in the deserted college library during Christmas holidays, waiting for a signal from the dining room window to say that food is ready.

I was reflecting two weeks ago that one of the best things our family’s time at Edgehill has given me is obscure knowledge about Northern Irish politics – which suddenly became very useful in the aftermath of the general election! While other English people were being berated for suddenly acting like experts on this part of the world, we could claim a vested interest in the topic for over a decade!

So thank you. Thank you for being ‘home’ for thirteen years – the longest this family has been based in my parent’s entire marriage!

To conclude, I felt it only appropriate to include a quote from one of Dad’s favourite theologians: Karl Barth. (In fact, when I was at college, I made a point of including a Barth quote in every assignment – it became a fun challenge. I am my father’s daughter!) “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” [Church Dogmatics III]

There is much joy in this place, and for that we are truly thankful.”

Final Belfast meal at The Dock Café in the Titanic Quarter. An excellent place to say goodbye!

On Monday, as we prepared to head to the airport for the final time, our parents asked us what our favourite Belfast memories would be. I’m not sure that we really did justice to their question – partly because we’d had a running joke that our favourite things about Belfast were all food related – but also because there’s an awful lot to consider given 13 years of a relationship with a place. But I’ve had a think, so Mum & Dad, here’s my answer:

  • Food. We joked, but honestly, the land of tray-bakes, the Ulster Fry, wheaten bread, potato farls, pancakes… I could go on. We walked around the AMAZING St George’s Market on Saturday morning practically drooling over all sorts of goodies. I now need to learn how to make Fifteens and Mint Aero bars. And wheaten. And where to find buttermilk locally.

  • The beach. When have we ever lived 20mins from the beach?? Crawfordsburn was a favourite (with the bonus of spring bluebells too), but the walk at Holywood filled a need over the weekend.

  • The culture. Northern Ireland is a very different place to England – not least because of the impact of the Troubles. Understanding a bit more of that culture is one long-term result, and I strongly recommend that you visit Belfast and NI if you haven’t been before, if only to try and get a handle on just how different it is and why we need to *not* ignore it.
  • The people. See above! It was always fun hanging out at the college (not least because of the scones that used to be found at morning tea), but it was also lovely to feel a part – albeit a very distant part – of Belfast Central Mission, to which our parents belonged.

Farewell Belfast. You will be missed, and I may be back. Thanks for everything!

The quirks of regional programming

[Another brilliant example of my ability to completely forget to publish something, even though it’s finished. Pretend this was published a week ago, it’ll work much better…]

The UK comprises many parts – as we are increasingly aware as September 17th and the Scottish referendum approaches – but it can be the most mundane things that highlight that it is not simply one, monochrome whole. Travel into Wales and immediately road signs are twice the size and only half as comprehensible. Go north of the border or over the Irish Sea and the currency stays the same, but the notes change colour. Even within the entity that is ‘England’, things are different – try buying the humble bread roll in 5 different counties and you’ll probably need 5 different words in order to manage it. [Bap, barm, cobb, bun, muffin…]

As a child, one of the most obvious differences whenever away from home was on the TV. Regional news bulletins involved unfamiliar accents and places I’d never heard of. Holidays in Llandudno provided The Smurfs and Superted in Welsh, which was rather disconcerting to a 6 year old. When we moved to Gloucester, we discovered that our house (thanks to an aerial on a building over the road) was alone amongst our friends in that it picked up BBC South West and HTV as opposed to Midlands Today and Central. [It might not seem like much of difference, but it did mean that we got classic NZ hospital soap Shortland Street, which wasn’t shown on Central – it’s the little things!]

Fast forward to 2004 and my parents’ move to Belfast. Move to another province within the UK and things change considerably. Many Brits of my generation will remember with fondness the Broom Cupboard of CBBC which was the lynch-pin of weekday evening TV. A daily feature, before that day’s Neighbours was shown (an essential part of 1980’s/90’s TV viewing), was the presenter bidding Northern Irish viewers goodbye several minutes before Neighbours started. I didn’t give it much thought at the time (I was more concerned with what Brad had been up to in Erinsbrough), but once subjected to TV in Northern Ireland on a regular basis, I wondered what they were watching when we were indulging in Ozzie high jinks…

[I’ve just Googled it. According to this interview with Andi Peters, they had Neighbours an hour later than us. At 5.30pm they had local news instead. Who knows why!]


There are a lot of differences in the scheduling of TV in Northern Ireland. It becomes a bit of an issue at Christmas, when the rest of the country is watching something significant – one year it was the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special – and instead, viewers in NI are treated to a local comedy like The Folks on the Hill. (That’s not to say that this satirical cartoon isn’t quality entertainment – it is – it’s just that I’d rather have been watching a keenly awaited show that everyone else was enjoying!) Regularly, Mock the Week is shown over an hour later in the province, a fact that led my mother to inadvertently tweet a celebrity for the first time. [Chris Addison had tweeted something witty about the time of that night’s episode, which I had retweeted. My mother (thinking that the ‘Chris’ in question was my friend Christopher, not an award-winning actor/comedian) tweeted back: “…except in Northern Ireland, when it’s on at 10.40pm – it takes longer for the boat with the tape to get here”.] 

I’ve been over in Belfast for most of the last week and spotted a trailer for some interesting looking drama on BBC1 (it’s got Olivia Colman in it, so it’s got to be good) but noticed that they were being shown at 10.40pm. Lauded new dramas are not broadcast at that time of night – they’re on at 9pm. What was Northern Ireland getting instead? On Monday night, I experienced the schedule shift for myself. While the rest of the country was (potentially) enjoying New Tricks (can’t see the point myself), we settled down to a BBC documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire.

I was rather surprised that such a programme wasn’t on the national schedule. [You can catch up with it on iPlayer – there’s a dedicated Northern Ireland section there.] When I was growing up, and for decades before that, the Troubles were usually the top item on the news. Living in London, I experienced at first hand some of the effects of the IRA’s actions – feeling the tremors of a controlled explosion of a bomb in John Lewis Oxford St during my first term at secondary school; being prevented from taking my usual route to school because of overnight bombs; the secret service protection of a neighbour who worked in the NI Office; not to mention the shock and horror everyone felt at the atrocities carried out by both sides over the years. Without the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and everything else that has paved the road to peace, I wouldn’t now be travelling to Belfast on a semi-regular basis.

The Troubles were not solely a Northern Ireland issue, they were a national issue – an international one in fact. This documentary was an important reminder of how far things have progressed in a comparatively short space of time and thoroughly deserved a national airing. But as I watched, I realised that it was far more detailed than most of the programmes I’ve ever previously seen on the conflict. It was made with those who had lived in and with it year after year after year in mind. For a population where everyone knows someone who has been directly affected by it. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much sense to the typical 9pm BBC1 audience?

As a result, I’ve been somewhat reconciled to the peculiarities of regional scheduling. Clearly, Northern Ireland deserves programmes that cater to their knowledge and experiences, that would probably go over the heads of many people in England, Scotland and Wales. They deserve to watch them at a sensible hour and on a ‘normal’ channel. But, we need to be careful not to exclude the rest of the nation. What happens in one province doesn’t leave the others unaffected. We are – for now – a United Kingdom.

Organisation in adversity

Last week, while wallowing, I mentioned that we’d lost our water supply. What I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time was just how disastrous and newsworthy this event was. By the end of last Tuesday, more the 40,000 Northern Irish homes were without water – some having lacked this essential commodity since before Christmas. We knew things were serious when it made the main BBC news.

In the Clutterbuck household, the former missionaries rose to the occasion. On the first morning, I was the only person (out of six) to not have had a shower before we realised there was a problem. When you’re wallowing in the flu, the last thing you want is to be left in your sweat all day (not a pretty image? I do apologise), but fortunately my mother came to my rescue with a veritable cauldron of warm water – courtesy of the college’s kitchen (which still had at least a partially full tank). She did also attempt to instruct me on how to wash with a saucepan, but I reminded her that I’m a festival regular, so know all about washing one’s body without the aid of a shower…

The next day, things were a lot more organised. A bonus of living in a college was the sheer quantity of water storage and heating devices that could be borrowed. Stepping onto the landing I discovered one of two 14 litre urns producing hot water – genius. [However, on this occasion I left my showering so late that the water had returned again, in a reversal of the previous day’s events, I was the only family member to get a shower.]

But, my favourite piece of water conservation/organisation was this discovery in the guest bathroom:

The label reads ‘water for teeth’ in case it’s not obvious

Those labels are all over my parents’ kitchen – cake tins, the cupboard full of tea, home-made chutneys – so of course, it would be the obvious way to denote which water ought to be used for which purpose.

In the kitchen was a variety of bottled water, only a small amount of which was still (thanks to the national shortage which led to Scotland promising NI 160,000 litres of the stuff – but this was before it arrived) but what still there we had was earmarked for me and the dog. I like where I sit in the family hierarchy when I’m ill.

The lack of water was inconvenient, but not a total nightmare. Generally, it came back on mid-morning, no thanks to the next to useless NI Water website that never said when the water was going to be on or off. By New Year’s Eve it was back permanently. I have an awful lot of sympathy for those that were totally without water for days and days, and even more for those who have no regular water supply at all.

A taste of Ireland (with humour)

If you’re ever in Belfast on a Saturday, I highly recommend heading to St George’s Market. (It’s actually open on Fridays and Sundays too, but I only have experience of the Saturday ‘food and garden’ market.) It’s become a staple of my parents’ Saturday routine (usually followed by an exceedingly yummy brunch at the fabulous, not-for-profit Common Grounds) and is where they buy all their fruit & veg as well as organic, locally sourced meat and cheese.

Several hundred miles away, my own Saturday routine often involves a walk through the historic Borough Market after a trip to the gym, so I can’t help but compare the two experiences. In Belfast, there’s a pleasant buzz, accompanied by live music that my sister and I like to call ‘old man jazz’ [although last week it was more ‘young woman folk’, playing Amy Winehouse to Simon & Garfunkel via Leona Lewis] and a distinct lack of tourists and yuppies. Borough – particularly during the summer – can be less of a fun shopping experience, and more of an ordeal to be dealt with, thanks to the hordes of shoppers/photographers. Both have great free samples, lovely baked goods, friendly & knowledgeable stall holders and a wealth of interesting meal opportunities.

What St George’s also has, which gives it the edge over Borough, is comedy stall names…

 I’ve shared ‘Wee Buns’ before, but it is a great name.
Not entirely sure what there is to laugh about with embroidery…

You can have a lot of fun with curry-themed stalls.

This non-coffee drinker says there most definitely is! 

And last but by no means least, my personal favourite:
Just before I took that photo, a group of older ladies had lined up to have their picture taken under the sign – I like the way they think! Incidentally, another big difference between the two markets is that no one really takes photos at St George’s (unlike at Borough where you could shop for cameras almost as easily as for food) so I felt rather self-conscious taking all of these. I really didn’t want the stall-holders to think I was taking the mick, so for the record I’m not, I admire their comedic genius! 
The only area where there were a lot of cameras was the small petting zoo. Guinea pig in a basket? Very cute. Two-day old goat kids? Uber, uber, uber cute!! 

Regional variations

One of the quirks of living in a nation made up of many nations is the way that devolution is effected in day to day life. Take two examples from today (during which I’ve travelled through England, Wales, Eire and Northern Ireland to get to Belfast for Christmas):

1) Bilingual road signs.
In Wales, there’s no consistency in whether the Welsh is above or below the English place name/traffic instruction. Slightly problematic when you’re driving (when I say ‘driving’, I was navigating as I don’t actually drive) to somewhere you’ve never been to before and in fog/rain. In the Irish Republic things are much simpler thanks to their decision to consistently place the Irish version above the English – at least you always know where to look.

2) Regional TV.
I’m not talking about regional news – we all have that. I’m talking about the random programmes you get in the devolved nations. Like Pobol y Cwm (Wales’ long-running Welsh language soap opera), or, if you’re in Northern Ireland, The Folks on the Hill, a satirical cartoon about Northern Irish politics. (Yes, that is as fun as it sounds.) These may just sound like interesting, regional novelties, but the problem is that they wreak havoc with the tv schedule.

This evening, following a day spent travelling for 12 hours, all I wanted to do was to watch the QI Christmas special and the last two episodes of Gavin & Stacey (in preparation for their Christmas special). According to the Guardian, this would be BBC 1’s line up from 9pm. Yet, on BBC 1 was some weird comedy show involving people with Belfast accents. On checking the Northern Irish Radio Times, it turns out that those across the Irish Sea have to wait until late at night to watch what’s primetime viewing for the mainland. No fair.

Still, thanks to the wondeful iplayer, I’ll simply remedy this situation as I lie in bed tomorrow morning on my first official lie-in of my holidays (despite having been off since Friday). That might make up slightly for the fact that, yet again, I’ve kicked off the holidays with a minging cold. Don’t give me sympathy – feel for my family who’ll have to put up with my annoying, hacking cough for the next few days.