Belfast and County Down: What Happens when a Couple just can’t Agree…

It’s been a few days since our last post, but we haven’t been resting on our laurels. We’ve visited three National Trust properties, Titanic Belfast and the Ulster Museum, as well as exploring Belfast itself.

Overview: 6 days, 120 miles


Now that we’re National Trust members again, we can’t possibly drive right past a National Trust property without stopping and taking a look. Rowallane Garden has a nice woodland garden and a walled garden to wander around.

To be absolutely honest, you wouldn’t go too far out of your way to visit it, though it was nice enough and very popular with the local dog walkers.

Castle Ward, on the other hand, is one of the National Trust’s major attractions in Northern Ireland. Back in 1747 (bear with me here….), a chap called Bernard Ward married Lady Ann Magill, a young widow. The marriage had been arranged by their two fathers, but neither Bernard nor Ann was keen. Needs must, though…. Bernard was presumably under pressure to keep well in with his wealthy father (and hence his inheritance), and finally came round to the idea when it was gently explained to him that Ann was five times as rich as he was….

So Bernard and Ann were married and, despite not getting along, went on to have eight children (though Ann did later scandalously ditch Bernard and move back to her family home).

Rewinding to the years following the marriage, Bernard was apparently quite miffed that although Ann had a title, he didn’t. The best way to get a title back then was to have rich and influential friends, and to get those you needed an impressive house to invite them to. This is where Castle Ward comes into the picture.

Castle Ward was started in the 1760s (and completed in 1772) as the house that would get Bernard his rich friends and, eventually, the title he craved. There was just one problem. Bernard and Ann really didn’t get on, and whilst he wanted a classical design, she wanted gothic. Neither was prepared to back down. The solution? To split the house down the middle, of course….

He got the front of the house with the main entrance (above)….. but she got the back of the house with the view down to the lough (below)….. The front was classical; the back was gothic.

I thought I might prefer the gothic, but to be honest, the gothic influence was pretty much limited to the shapes of the windows and doors, plus some pretty awful ceilings.

When he visited the house, the writer and poet John Betjeman supposedly commented that the ceiling in the “boudoir” reminded him of cows’ udders:

You could easily spend the whole day at Castle Ward, with a large area of parkland and a small formal garden to explore in addition to visiting the house. There’s plenty to look at in the grounds, including a 15th century castle, farm buildings, and a cottage that was apparently “Winterfell” in Game of Thrones. Is there any part of Northern Ireland that hasn’t featured in Game of Thrones?

From Castle Ward we needed to take a ferry to cross Strangford Lough. It’s a short crossing and the ferries run back and forth pretty frequently (it’s also inexpensive, at £6.80).

We had no trouble finding seaside car parks to spend the night on in this part of Northern Ireland, spending Sunday night at Kilclief just South of Castle Ward, Monday night at Ballyhalbert on the Ards Peninsula, and Tuesday night at Donaghadee (where there is also a motorhome service point).

Tuesday’s tourist destination was Mount Stewart, home of the Marquesses of Londonderry. Another National Trust property hence more “savings”!

The family history here isn’t, to be frank, terribly exciting. The Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, as they became, seem to have specialised in advantageous marriages to heiresses (hence the acquisition of all those surnames). Possibly as a result, the National Trust, showing their penchant for “themed” properties, have seen fit to focus the presentation of the property entirely around Edith (1878-1959), the wife of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry.

Edith was one of the leading society hostesses in London between the two World Wars (their London home, Londonderry House, was sold in 1962 and demolished; the Hilton on Park Lane now stands on the site). Thankfully I knew a bit about her from a book I read a couple of years ago (“Queen Bees” by Sian Evans).

At Mount Stewart, Edith’s main contribution was to develop the gardens. The formal gardens are stunning, and there’s also a good area of parkland to explore. The National Trust assure us that the gardens have been voted among the top ten gardens in the World, but they cunningly omitted to tell us who did the voting or when!

I can understand the National Trust’s approach of using Edith Londonderry as the central figure in presenting the property, but I didn’t feel that they had done anything like as good a job here as they have at, say, Polesden Lacey in Surrey, which was the home of another of the top society hostesses of the inter-War period, Mrs Greville.

Sticking a few name cards for important people on the dining table (including Winston Churchill) just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. The National Trust has quite recently completed a major restoration of Mount Stewart, so perhaps their focus has been on fixing the building and they can now turn their attention to developing the story….

Similarly with the gardens, we were told that Edith was responsible for them, and her “gardening desk” is in the house, but surely there are lots of records and photographs from the time that could be used to add depth to this part of the story?

I suppose that, the National Trust being the National Trust (nothing too complicated, nothing too controversial) it would be too much to expect any mention of the 7th Marquess’ political career, and the fact that the Londonderrys were leading proponents of appeasement in late 1930s (even inviting Ribbentrop to visit Mount Stewart) has most definitely been swept under a carpet!

The beautiful hallway has been restored and repainted by the National Trust; it’s looking fabulous. Not quite so the rest of the rooms open to the public. I think perhaps my problem was that the National Trust had over-egged the pudding somewhat in the leaflet for the property with statements like “Her interiors transcend time and taste” and “Mount Stewart has beguiled and enchanted all who have visited it”.

It was good, but I wouldn’t say that I was either beguiled or enchanted…..

It’s only a short drive from Mount Stewart to Belfast and the camp site we’d booked onto for three nights. Dundonald Touring Caravan Site was just the job. It’s run by the local council; you book and pay online, then receive a booking confirmation by email with a code for the electric gates to get in.

There’s a small toilet/shower block and laundry facilities. A quick tip: you have to go to the Ice Bowl reception just up the road to buy tokens for the machines. You need two tokens for a wash (they charge £3 per wash ie £1.50 per token) and one token to dry (for which they charge £3). It turns out that they’re identical tokens…. So when they ask, it’s cheaper if you say you’re just wanting to buy tokens for the washing machine. I bought three washes and three drys (which gave me 9 tokens and cost £18). If I’d asked for five washes, I’d have got ten tokens for £15. Live and learn…..

Getting into the centre of Belfast was easy; the number 19 bus took about 25 minutes from the main road just outside the camp site (a single ticket is £2).

Our first port of call was the Titanic Quarter. Titanic Belfast was very busy, as you’d expect for such a major tourist attraction. It was well worth the admission fee of £18.50 each (we got 10% off that with a leaflet we picked up in a tourist office somewhere in the Republic of Ireland a few weeks back).

We both thought that the museum was extremely good. It set the scene well in terms of industrial Belfast at the time when Titanic was built, and then explained how you go about building a huge liner. There are no artefacts from the wreck site, although recent news suggests that over 5,000 items may soon be available to purchase from the USA and might hopefully end up in Belfast. The story didn’t overdramatise the sinking itself. There was, of course, a section of the museum on the sinking and then information on the subsequent inquiries, underwater footage from the wreck site and so on, but I found the most interesting parts to be the earlier ones about the shipyard and the construction process.

Harland and Wolff built 247 ships in Belfast between 1900 and 1913, making it the busiest shipyard in the World. Special slipways were built for the White Star Olympic-class liners after the order was received in 1907. Titanic was built on the slipway to the left on the photo below (you can just see the outline of the ship in white), Olympic on the slipway to the right:

The columns mark the positions of pylons on the huge Arrol Gantry (840 feet long, 240 feet wide, and 228 feet high) constructed specifically for the Olympic-class liners. Here’s Titanic on the slipway, surrounded by the gantry:

Titanic was launched on 31 May 1911 and then put in a dry dock to be fitted out. My big question has always been how you get a ship like that off the slipway once you’ve built it. Thankfully, Titanic Belfast provided the answer:

15 tons of tallow, 3 tons of soft soap, and 5 tons of a mix of tallow and train oil provided lubrication. The ship was built on wooden keel blocks which had to be split out with chisel and sledge hammer having been individually marked red, white or blue to denote when this should be done (red being the night before launch, blue being an hour or two before launch). At the last minute, the struts (dog shores) along the sides of the ship were knocked out and then it was just a question of using a hydraulic launching trigger and rams to get things moving. It must’ve been quite a worrying moment! 100,000 spectators turned out for the event. My GG uncle George was living in Belfast at the time; I wonder if he was there?

Once launched, Titanic was moved the short distance to dry dock to be fitted out (you can see the dry dock and the gantry over the slipway in the photo below). The Thompson Graving Dock was the largest dry dock in the World when it opened in 1911, just in time to handle the Olympic-class liners. You can pay £3 to go in to see the pumping house and go down into bottom of dry dock. We didn’t do that this trip; there’d been plenty to see for one day in the museum itself.

The explanation of the fitting-out was good; Harland and Wolff had pretty much a brochure of interiors for shipping lines to choose from and huge workshops where furniture and fittings were manufactured. It took 3000 men ten months to complete the fitting-out of Titanic, adding the complete innards to the ship from boilers and engines through to the lavish fixtures and furnishings.

On that subject of the huge range of production at the shipyard (right down to workshops for producing furniture), there really is no escape from Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. The shipyard mixed all of its own paints in a huge paint shop; the paint shop is now one of Europe’s largest film studios. Yes, it was used for Game of Thrones…..

HMS Caroline is a separate visitor attraction in the Titanic Quarter (we didn’t visit; it’ll have to stay on the list for a future trip). It’s the only remaining British WW1 light cruiser and the only remaining ship to have taken part in the battle of Jutland in 1916. You can see one of the huge yellow Harland and Wolff cranes (Samson and Goliath) in the background:

The Harland and Wolff drawing offices are now part of the very swish-looking Titanic Hotel.

Our Titanic Belfast tickets included admission to the Nomadic, which is the last surviving White Star vessel, built at Harland and Wolff in 1911 alongside Olympic and Titanic. Nomadic and her sister ship Traffic were tenders, taking passengers from the quayside out to the big liners. Whereas Traffic took 1000 third class passengers, Nomadic took 400 first class and 500 second class passengers (strictly segregated, as you’d expect) plus, if necessary, 100 third-class passengers on a lower deck.

Nomadic took 172 passengers out to Titanic at Cherbourg on Titanic’s fateful first voyage. The aim was that passengers would start their luxury White Star experience from the moment they got on the tender, hence the first class accommodation was quite plush. Many of the fittings would have been made in the exact same Harland and Wolff workshops that were also producing similar fittings for Olympic and Titanic. Here’s Mark attempting to hold a tea cup in a manner befitting a first class passenger. a bit more practice may be required….

Nomadic has had an eventful existence, working as a tender, a minesweeper in WW1, a troop transfer ship during both World Wars, and later a floating restaurant on the Seine. She was finally bought by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2006 and brought back to Belfast for restoration.

The Titanic Quarter took up a full day, and we could have spent longer there if we’d also visited HMS Caroline. Thankfully we’d booked three nights on the camp site so as to have two full days in Belfast.

There are plenty of very impressive buildings in the city centre, testament to Belfast’s successful industrial past. Here’s the City Hall, for example:

Armed with a Hop-on Hop-off bus map showing the major points of interest, we set off to walk (no bus for us!) to the Falls Road, then look at the “Peace Wall” separating the Protestant and Catholic areas before returning to the city centre via the nearby Shankill Road.

I may not have known what the Troubles were all about as a young child, but I certainly remember the Falls Road and the Shankill Road being mentioned often on the evening news, and not in a good way. Who’d have thought that these areas would now be full of tourists taking photos?

The “Peace Wall” is a rather optimistic name for a graffiti-covered monstrosity?

Interestingly, my GG uncle George lived on a road that runs between the Shankill Road and the road in the photo above. The old housing has long since been demolished. I wonder what it was like in the years immediately following WW1?

I think the main thing to say is that this is still a very scruffy part of town. Whereas on the Falls Road side you have the Republican murals, there wasn’t much in the way of flags. Cross to the Shankill Road side, though, and you have Loyalist murals but also the huge quantities of red, white and blue flags and bunting that we’ve seen in other loyalist areas in Northern Ireland. It reminds me of the street parties for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee back in the 1970s….

The house at the end of this row had a “never surrender” banner attached to the diagonal front porch supports such that it somewhat bafflingly covered the top half of the front door. Hmmm…..

Today’s other destination was the Ulster Museum which is to the South of the city centre, near Queen’s University Belfast. It was a really well presented, modern museum, but if we were hoping to find sanity, it wasn’t to be….

Here’s our top item from the museum: it’s a 1951 Gilbert “Atomic Energy Lab” kit that, it’s claimed, will allow your child to perform “over 150 exciting experiments”.

It came complete with some uranium ore and radioactive isotopes of lead, zinc, ruthenium and polonium. The experimental kit did include a Geiger counter, presumably so you could check how radioactive you’d made yourself by bedtime…..

Oh, and finally, we had our obligatory daily run-in with Game of Thrones….

The Ulster Museum has completed a 77 metre long Bayeux-style tapestry of the Game of Thrones story, and for added excitement they’re adding to it weekly as the current series progresses. The tapestry is actually very good, though judging from the sheer number of gory deaths depicted, they must have a huge turnover of actors?

We’ve made it back to the camp site at the end if a second long day, tired and somewhat bewildered. Tomorrow we’re heading West to Dundrod for a relaxing week at the Ulster GP. Vroom Vroom!

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