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.

The luck of the (Northern) Irish

Visits to Belfast are always punctuated with the regular consummation of tea and cake – not just because a wealth of tea is available in my parents’ home (all nicely labelled, obviously) but because the city possesses some of the best places in which to sit and eat cake.

For a start, my Dad’s theological college has tea and scones every morning. Who couldn’t fail to love an institution that pauses at 10.50 every day for such a refreshment? And, when I say ‘scones’ I don’t just mean the regular raisin variety, I mean baskets of all sorts of variations – wholemeal with dates; strawberry and white chocolate; cherry; plain… It makes our St Mellitus biscuit assortment on a Monday morning pale in comparison.

Edgehill SconesA basket of Edgehill scones.

Then there’s the hitlist of places I require a visit to on every trip to the city…

Avoca [renamed ‘Avocado’ by the iPhone autocorrect] which also does a fantastic line in scones. (What can I say, I love a good scone – as long as it’s sweet. Savoury scones are wrong, wrong, wrong.) Their pear and vanilla scone has to be consumed to be believed! On this particular trip, as I’d only had a college scone a couple of hours previously, I went for the lunch option of Carrot & Ginger soup with a side of wheaten bread – utterly delicious. The café is the upper floor of an equally delightful shop that sells what can simply be described as ‘nice things’. The foodie bit of it is wonderful, and a good place to go for an affordable dessert for a dinner party if you want your guests to be fooled into believing that you made it yourself.

The Ikea café. Yes, I appreciate that one can eat Swedish meatballs in practically every major city around the world, but Belfast’s Ikea must have the most entertaining cafe view of the entire chain. In Edmonton you look out over a roundabout; in Wembley it’s the A40; and in most other locations it’s the car park, but in Belfast it’s the runway of Belfast City Airport. [We don’t ever refer to the ‘George Best’ bit of its name.] You don’t need to be a plane spotter to appreciate the entertainment value of planes landing and taking off, though it becomes rather more geeky when your companion uses their flightchecker app to establish the destination/origin of each plane. Plus, what’s not love about a mid-morning tea break that includes free beverages (thank you Ikea Family Card) and three Swedish cakes for £1.50? I also love visiting Ikea when it’s physically impossible for me to buy anything but that which can be easily carried in hand luggage (basically, cushion covers and Swedish liquorice).

Common Grounds. The traditional Saturday brunch location of the Belfast Clutterbucks and an incredible example of social enterprise. Run by a combination of paid employees and volunteers, all  the profits are put into social transformation projects locally and abroad. It has a fabulous atmosphere and delicious food, plus lovely means of showing love to others. They had the ‘suspended coffee’ concept long before Starbucks and you can also pay for a coffee/snack for a friend when they next visit – the chalkboard above the counter bears the names of those who have a treat awaiting them. It’s no wonder that it’s effectively become my mother’s second office. According to their website, in their 8 and a half years of existence, they’ve given away over £55,000 – quite a feat.

Lunch at Common Grounds & Harlem CafeOn the left, my go-to savoury brunch at Common Grounds (potato cakes with chilli sauce) & the Veggie Fry at Harlem Café. There’s a potato theme…

Harlem Café. A new addition to my ‘places to visit in Belfast’ list, but well-deserved. It’s eclectically decorated with myriad ojects d’art, generally vintage themed, but with a cracking menu of local delights. (I had their Vegetarian Fry, which was carbtastic in a way that only happens in Ireland – potato farls, soda bread and pancakes!) I noted that they also do a range of afternoon tea options (something to explore on another visit), including a ‘Gentleman’s afternoon tea & cognac’ (with an optional cigar extra). The mind boggles…

The Dock. I’ve saved the best till last. This pop-up café may not be around forever, so catch it while it is! Located in a new shopping strip in the Titanic Quarter and barely a 5 minute stroll from the Titanic Experience, this café is run by the Church of Ireland and staffed entirely by volunteers. There are no prices, you simply donate what you feel your food and drink was worth. (I’m virtually certain this results in people giving more than they might actually have been asked to pay.) There’s a mix of furniture; interesting art on the walls; friendly volunteer staff; free books; and they serve Suki Tea, seriously, this place is amazing!

Homemade Chocolate Tea CakesHomemade chocolate tea-cakes at The Dock. I am now obsessed with getting hold of a silicone mould in which to try this out myself – as inspired by a technical challenge on the last series of the GBBO.

Oh, and talking of the awesome Suki Tea, my other Belfast foodie essential is St George’s Market, where I was able to stock up on tea leaves – Earl Grey Blue Flower (a classic) and Mango Tango (a newbie, sampled at The Dock and likely to be an excellent candidate for summer iced tea making).

Wee Buns at St George's MarketAnd this stall, at St George’s Market, will always make me giggle. Because I am a child.

A Titanic “experience”

The most popular tourist attraction in Belfast has, for the last year, been the curiously named ‘Titanic Experience’. What kind of an experience do visitors have? You may well wonder…

On my last trip to Belfast (11 months ago), we attempted to pay a visit but discovered that owing to its popularity, advance booking was essential. [Instead we explored the incredibly moving memorial to the ship in the dock where it was built.] This time, tickets were booked as soon as my flights were confirmed and, this afternoon, my mother and I spent nearly two hours thoroughly ‘experiencing’ the Titanic. [She’d visited a few months ago and was insistent that a visit was well worth it.]

I’m pleased to report that the experience element of the museum has nothing to do with the events of April 1912 – there is no water and no ice. In fact, the exhibition does an amazing job of not sensationalising the disaster that befell the Ship of Dreams. (Not that the disaster wasn’t a massive tragedy, just that it’s one aspect of the ship and the shipyard’s history.)

H&WHarland & Wolf gates

Instead, what you experience is what the process of shipbuilding was like in the early part of the twentieth century. That may not sound particularly riveting (!), but it really was. Ok, I’m a history geek and love nothing more than a good exploration of social history, but this was done brilliantly – not least the bit of the experience entitled ‘shipbuilding ride’. I’ll say no more, but it was funner than it sounds.

Part of the experience is the result of the building’s architecture – based on the ship’s design and the iceberg that sank it. At various points you emerge from the galleries into light spaces with windows looking out on to the docks. In one such moment, you can stand in precisely the place where Kate and Leo were on top of the world…

View from the bow of the TitanicView from the bow of the Titanic while it was being built.

Ship building transformed the city of Belfast and this is a fantastic testament to that element of its history. It’s also a moving memorial to one of the shipping revolution’s biggest disasters. There isn’t a minute by minute rundown of how the sinking occurred (surely most people know the score thanks to James Cameron?), instead, you see it as it was recorded by the wireless operators on board the Titanic and other ships in the area, including the Carpathia which ultimately came to the surviving passengers’ rescue. The rescue operation, inquest and stories of those lost are chronicled with sensitive detail.

Glimpses of the TitanicThe bow of the Titanic as it now looks under water.

Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you that the penultimate gallery (prior to a segment on the discovery of the wreck in 1985) is dedicated to depictions of the tragedy in the arts. Obviously, this section is accompanied by Celine Dion singing *that* song, meaning that thereafter, you will find yourself humming or even singing it to yourself. Admittedly, I should probably confess that I entered the building with a mental list of a musical Titanic medley, consisting of For Those in Peril on the Sea (sung in a service on board), Nearer my God to Thee (played as it sank) and *that* song. Until musical references crept into the later stages of the exhibition, I’d managed to stay quiet. Afterwards, it was an impossibility.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in the city with a few hours to spare – go. Only don’t try and attempt it with a school group. It’s booked out for school parties until 2015 apparently. That’s how good it is.

Titanic Experience & former H&W building

The Ship of Dreams

Ever since my parents moved to Belfast, something that’s bothered me has been the pride the city has in the fact that the Titanic was built in its docks. “It was alright when it left here” appears to be the mantra and over the last few years, with the ship’s centenary approaching, Titanic fervour has increased. Like anyone who was a teenage girl in 1998, I watched the movie multiple times and sobbed as Kate assured Leo that she’d never let go…and promptly did. The historical side of me is fascinated in it, but even I would have struggled with the amount of attention given by Belfast to the centenary back in April.

The centenary has provided its own legacy – a ‘Titanic Quarter’ has been developed, at the centre of which is the Titanic Experience – an awesome piece of architecture (easily spottable from a plane) commemorating the ship and the subsequent disaster. Surprise birthday guests Juliet & Doris were keen to go, so yesterday morning we heading there en route to the airport and their flight home. Sadly, we missed out on the official Experience as the bank holiday meant prior booking was needed, but we managed to create our own informative Titanic adventure.

Behind the building (whose inspiration I’ve yet to establish – is it based on the ship’s stern, or the iceberg that hit it?), is the dock in which the Titanic and sister ship the Olympic were built. Laid out before you are various hints of the scale of both the task and the loss of life. Rectangles of grass and decking alternate to illustrate the numbers of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class as well as crew who died – the grass marks the survivors. It’s rather damming to see the patches of grass grow wider as you travel up from crew, through steerage and to the 1st class section. Panels of glass have the victims’ names etched upon them (as well as the names of the 8 men who died during the Titanic’s construction). All very moving.

And then you have the gift shop… Rest assured, all kind of Titanic tat is available – from tea-towels, hats, pencils and notebooks to replica china. I’m sure every single bit of it was created in the best possible taste. Doris acquired a keyring incorporating a thermometer and compass (so she can check whether it’s cold enough for icebergs) and a notebook, so she was happy despite missing out on what’s apparently an excellent experience. Next time I’m due to come over, I’ll have to book a slot.

Oh, and there’s an interesting statue outside the front entrance to the building. Obviously, the inevitable happened:

Mim was initially doubtful that she’d manage this one – she did, and we then introduced Doris to the Statue Game. 
(Some people behind me were intrigued and had a go themselves afterwards.)