A Visit to Northern Ireland

Tra-la-la, tra-la-lee
It’s only six miles from Bangor
To Donaghadee

Richard Hayward

When we woke up at eight o’clock the Silhouette was making her way slowly into her berth at the mouth of the Belfast Lough. We could see the famous Harland & Wolff giant yellow gantry cranes nicknamed Samson and Goliath, and in the foreground we spotted P&O’s Azura and Fred Olsen’s Bolette. The sky was overcast but the temperature was fairly mild.

It would be very strange for me being in Belfast today. It’s true to say that it is the first time in my entire life that I have ever “gone across the sea to Ulster” and not met up with members of my family; my aunt and uncle and my cousins. The last time we were here in Belfast on the Boudicca in 2016 we’d met up with my cousins and had a whale of a time. Today, however, we were going on a half-day excursion around Belfast and to the Newtownards peninsula.

Our trip was not until after lunch, so we just spent the morning at leisure on the ship, walking around the deck and looking to see what we could see. There were not many passengers on the ship as some of them had already left for the full-day Giant’s Causeway excursion; we had wanted to do that one but it was understandably sold out.

We therefore did the morning trivia and picture trivia on our own; needless to say we didn’t win. We did, however, indulge in a delicious piña colada each, even though it was only 10.24 in the morning. A cruise ship, or an airport lounge, are the only places where it is forgivable to do this. 🙂

Fabulous piña coladas on board the Silhouette

We went to lunch early in the Oceanview Café as we had to meet at Craft Social on deck 4 to disembark for our excursion at 12.30pm. We therefore went in as soon as it opened, and I enjoyed a delicious salad consisting of crisp Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onion, sweetcorn, beetroot and pickled vegetables, all washed down with a cold Strongbow cider.

We then made sure we had our Sea Passes and our excursion tickets (and some money!) and made our way to the meeting point, where our names were ticked off the list and we all trooped down the gangplank and over to the waiting coaches. Our guide introduced herself as Noeleen, which she said was an Irish name meaning “Christmas”.

The bus set off through the streets, around by the famous Titanic Quarter which we still haven’t had the chance to visit yet. As we passed the old Harland and Wolff buildings, we saw the original premises that housed the old Drawing Offices where the ships’ designs and blueprints were created (including the Titanic). This is now the Titanic Hotel, a luxury hotel containing many of the building’s original features and architecture. It looked absolutely fascinating, and somewhere we will definitely have to stay at some point.

Noeleen also pointed out the slipway where the Titanic was launched on 31st May 1911 prior to being fitted out. We also saw the SS Nomadic, the only remaining White Star Lines ship which was used as a tender to the Titanic. The Nomadic had ended her service as a tender in 1934 following the 1934 merger of White Star and Cunard Line and the opening of the enlarged port at Cherbourg which allowed liners to dock rather than anchor in the harbour. She was then sold to the Société Cherbourgeoise de Sauvetage et de Remorquage (SCSR or Cherbourg Tow & Rescue Society) and renamed Ingenieur Minard.

She was finally retired in 1968 and taken to the Seine to be used as a pleasure cruiser. Her funnel and her topmost decks were cut off to enable her to fit under the bridges of the Seine; she looked unrecognisable.

In 2005, the Nomadic was put up for sale. If no buyer was found, she risked being sold for scrap value. On learning of her fate, heritage and maritime enthusiasts (including the French Titanic Society, Belfast Industrial Heritage, Belfast Titanic Society and the Save Nomadic appeal) began campaigns to raise funds to buy the vessel. These campaigns were well supported by the public, particularly in Northern Ireland, and soon gained political and governmental support. On 26 January 2006, the Northern Ireland government Department for Social Development bought the vessel at auction for £250,001 (the reserve price being £250,000).

SS Nomadic left Le Havre to return to Belfast on 12 July 2006, and arrived close to where she was built, on 18 July 2006. Since then, a charitable trust has enabled her to be restored to her former glory.

We continued our fascinating tour and soon the coach was wending its way along the streets of Belfast and their famous gable-end murals. We were hoping to go down the Shankill Road (which we know very well) but we didn’t go that way; instead passing the imposing and ornate Belfast City Hall and other notable buildings.

Eventually we headed out of the main city centre towards Parliament Buildings, often referred to as Stormont because of its location in the Stormont Estate area of Belfast. This is the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature for the region. The purpose built building, was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), in 1932. Here the bus pulled up for 10 minutes to allow us a photo opportunity.

Afterwards we set off to continue the rest of our tour, this time to the Ards peninsula in the north-east of Northern Ireland. Several towns and villages are located there, including Donaghadee, Millisle, Newtownards and Portaferry.

Our route took us further into the lush green countryside, with its large and distinctive houses, and we wondered how much property sold for here; quite expensive I should imagine. We passed through the town of Comber, and I experienced a pang as this is where my cousin Alan and his wife Margaret live, and under normal circumstances we would have been spending today with them. We were so near, yet so far.

Around 2.00pm the bus pulled up near Newtownards, the largest of the conurbations in the peninsula. We could see an interesting-looking tower on a distant hill, and Noeleen said that was where we were heading to, in order to get the best views. She warned that the climb was very steep, and said that those who did not wish to go up could wait in the coach until everyone returned. I was on two minds whether to go up or not; it did look quite steep and I am not the fittest. I decided I would have a go and see how I got on; I could always come back down again if I couldn’t manage the climb; Noeleen said she would ask the bus driver to wait at the bottom and escort anyone back to the bus who didn’t want to complete the climb.

Anyway, we set off at a slow but steady pace; in fact, it was quite nice to have some exercise after all the overindulgences on the Silhouette. 🙂

Eventually we arrived at the top, and the view was totally worth it. The tower is called Scrabo Tower, and was built around 1857-1859 as a memorial to Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry and was originally known as the Londonderry Monument. From here we could see right over the Strangford Lough and its islets, as well as the towns of Comber and Newtownards; in fact we could see a small airstrip which provided Newtownards Airport. It’s not a commercial airport, it is owned and operated by the Ulster Flying Club and, indeed, we spotted a small private aircraft (it might have been a Cessna) circling above the tower.

After we all made our way back down, we boarded the bus for our next destination – the seaside town of Donaghadee. I had been here once before, way back in 1985 but I remembered it as a charming, typical British seaside resort.

As we left the coach, we passed a large house, the back gate of which held a hand-written sign saying “Fresh dulse sold here – 20p a bag”. I couldn’t come to Northern Ireland and not have any dulse! Dulse is an edible seaweed that is gathered each summer and dried on the rocks, and sold in paper bags. I had first been introduced to dulse at the age of nine, when my first reaction was “bleeuurgh!” on tasting it. While it is definitely an acquired taste (and I love the stuff now) it is very popular in Northern Ireland and one whiff of its seaweedy, salty smell takes me effortlessly back to happy visits to Northern Ireland in the past. 🙂 We decided we’d buy some on the way back.

We walked around the corner and along the harbour wall, looking at the small craft bobbing and clinking on the calm water. We could see the RNLI lifeboat anchored near the lighthouse and it was just so pleasant strolling along and taking photos. In fact, I was so absorbed in the scene I failed to spot a chain stretched across my path and I tripped, landing painfully on my knees. 😦

No damage was done (other than to my pride) and, after a few minutes, I was able to get up and continue. On the way back to the bus, we called and purchased three bags of the dulse at the grand cost of 60p. Several others in our party were looking on curiously, asking what it was, but when I offered them a taste of it they politely declined. I, of course, got stuck into a bag straight away. 🙂

Paper bag of dulse

We arrived back at the Silhouette around 4.30pm, where I rested for a while before getting showered and shampooed and ready for another “evening chic” night, where I opted to wear a yellow swirly off-the-shoulder dress with some gorgeous IC yellow sequinned shoes. The ship was due to sail at five o’clock, but there was no sign of any movement at all until we were in the restaurant enjoying our dinner at half-six. The captain’s voice came over the PA system to apologise for our late departure (not that it makes any difference to us!) and to explain that the delay was due to busy marine traffic in the Belfast Lough. We had really enjoyed our day in “Norn Irn”, so we had. 😀

Dinner once again was delicious and the service was impeccable. We were out of the restaurant in very good time tonight so we were able to go up to the Sky Lounge and take part in the “Majority Rules” quiz, where there are no right or wrong answers, but the idea is to submit the answer that you think most other people will submit as well. Some of the answers were very amusing.

It was then time to make our way to the theatre for tonight’s performance by the Shamrock Tenors, a group of four lads who had only joined the Silhouette today. They were excellent; they sang a selection of traditional Irish songs in harmony and played various instruments, including the penny whistle and the bodhrán, the Irish drum that is beaten with a double-ended stick held lightly in the middle. The lads had lots of personality and one of them, who used to be in a dance troupe, treated us to a bout of Irish dancing. They were all clearly talented and we really enjoyed their performance a lot.

Then we just finished the evening as we always did; went up to the Sky Lounge to listen to the music (we’d given up on the progressive trivia in Quasar by now), perching on bar stools and enjoying the delicious cocktails and other drinks. We were trying to put to the back of our minds that tomorrow would be our last full day on board; a week is definitely not long enough on a cruise. 🙂

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