We woke to a bright sunny morning and after enjoying a delicious continental breakfast at The Harrison, the lovely hotel where we were staying, it was then just a ten minute walk to the Ulster Museum. Entrance to the museum is free of charge but it is recommended that visitors pre-book a timed slot to avoid disappointment. Opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday 10.00 – 17.00 plus bank holiday Monday’s.
The museum is home to Northern Ireland’s treasures including portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough, landscape paintings, sculptures and furniture. The interior is light and airy and the galleries easy to navigate. After viewing dinosaurs and an Egyptian mummy we explored the Troubles Gallery which was opened two years ago to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Here, we learnt about politics and conflict and their impact on everyday life. Continuing round to another gallery, we had great fun taking a journey through the Periodic Table trying to answer the questions about what elements look like.
After leaving the museum we’d arranged to meet Conor Owens from Belfast Hidden Tours outside the main entrance to accompany us on a walking tour around the city centre. Our first stop was literally next door at the Botanic Gardens which was established in 1828 by the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society in response to public interest. Entrance free.
The gardens are centred around the Palm House which is one of the earliest examples of a glasshouse made from curved iron and glass in the Victorian period. The gardens also feature a Tropical Ravine consisting of a plant filled sunken glen of tree ferns, flowering vines, bananas, cinnamon and orchids. On leaving the Botanic Gardens we continued through the Queen’s Quarter, the southernmost quarter of the city centred on the Lanyon Building of Queen’s University where we were heading next.
Queen’s University was founded by Queen Victoria by Royal Charter in 1845. Its magnificent main Gothic and Tudor building was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon who also designed the Palm house we had just visited. The university is one of Belfast’s architectural gems and is comprised of over 100 buildings listed as being of Special Architectural and Historic Interest. Visitors are welcome to walk around the campus and admire its stunning quadrangle reminiscent of the great medieval universities.
We continued along the leafy Botanic Avenue, a vibrant area with numerous attractive pubs, cafes and small shops clustered around the Botanic railway station which serves the Queen’s Quarter. Our helpful guide, Conor took us to No Alibis, an independent bookshop specialising in crime fiction and run by David Torrans for more than 20 years. It’s evolved into more than a bookstore as it’s become a venue for literary events and concerts with the likes of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame and Van Morrison attending their gigs.
Moving on from the Queen’s Quarter it didn’t take us long to reach Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square. This is yet another of the city’s masterpieces and was completed in 1906 after Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status eight years earlier. This was a time of great prosperity and industrial might for the city which is represented in its Baroque Revival style constructed from Portland stone. Free guided tours of City Hall are available but are suspended at present. Even so, it’s a treat to walk through its grounds and view the statue of Queen Victoria standing proud in front of the building and to visit the Titanic Memorial Garden on the east side of the hall.
The garden commemorates the 1,512 people who perished on RMS Titanic in 1912. A nine metre long plinth supports 15 bronze plaques and is inscribed with the names of all those who lost their lives including passengers, crew members and musicians. The plinth surrounds the existing monument which was funded by the public, shipyard workers and victims’ families and was dedicated in 1920.
The colour theme of the garden is predominantly a range of whites, silvers, blues and greens reflecting the colours of water and ice. The late autumn display created a feeling of peace paying tribute to those laid to rest.
Facing City Hall in Donegall Square is the Visit Belfast Tourist Information Centre so we popped in there next to pick up some maps and leaflets and to look around the gift shop. Even if it’s only something small such as a mug or a fridge magnet, I like to return home with a souvenir of my visit to remind me of my travels.
Close to the tourist office is the Linen Hall Library which is one of Northern Ireland’s most fascinating cultural institutions. Since 1788 it has been home to many highly acclaimed collections as well as operating as a fully functioning library.
We entered the building by climbing its curved Victorian oak staircase to be greeted at the top with the sight of an Irish harp and rows of light oak bookcases. The library takes its name from the Victorian linen warehouse and during the 19th and 20th centuries Belfast was known as Linenopolis for its many mills and shops producing, selling and trading linen. The linen trade boom faded due to overseas competition and with the introduction of new fabrics. New life has been breathed into many of its warehouses which have now been repurposed as offices, hotels and restaurants.
Leaving the library, it was just a short walk to the Cathedral Quarter with St. Anne’s Cathedral at its heart. Standard admission to Belfast Cathedral is £5 and is well worth a visit to view its interior. The exquisite Baptistry with its mosaic domed roof comprises of more than 150,000 pieces of glass representing earth, fire and water.
The long nave leads to the high altar and standing in the choir stalls, we were able to look up through a roof top window to view the Spire of Hope. The spire was added to the cathedral in 2007 and rises to a height of 250ft (80m), creating a recent addition to the city skyline.
It was then time for some lunch and we left it to Conor to decide where we should go and his choice couldn’t have been better! Nestled along Hill Street within the vibrant Cathedral District are The Dark Horse and the Duke of York, two of the most popular pubs in the city and both under the same ownership.
We opted for The Dark Horse which had a welcoming feel with its antique furnishings and artefacts adorning its walls that had been salvaged from some of the city’s most famous hotels and buildings, providing a unique glimpse into the city’s historical past.
The service was warm and friendly and the food delicious. Seated around a copper topped table I tucked into a huge superfood salad whilst my son’s prawn baguette was declared one of the best he’d ever tasted, and that’s saying something as prawns are his favourite!
Conor then suggested we try a Fifteen, I’d never heard of it but it’s a Northern Ireland classic traybake. The name makes sense as the recipe is comprised of 15 digestive biscuits, 15 marshmallows and 15 chopped glacé cherries plus a tin of condensed milk and some desiccated coconut. It was a very filling, tasty sweet treat to round off our lunch and I might try making some when I’m home.
Before leaving the pub, it was suggested that we take a look in the courtyard at the back of the building with its colourful murals each depicting surreal scenes of Northern Irish history and culture.
The centrepiece is a large oak tree surrounded by words from the poet Seamus Heaney cut into solid steel. I can’t imagine ever visiting Belfast and not popping into The Dark Horse, I enjoyed both its convivial atmosphere and the casual dining so much.
Next door to the pub is the Friend at Hand – an Irish whiskey shop combined with a small museum charting the whiskey distillery industry in Belfast. My husband, if he had been with us, would have been in his element as the small shop contained the largest selection of Irish whiskies available.
Moving on, Conor had two more places to take us, the first was St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic church built in Romanesque style. Here we enjoyed viewing its interior and intricately wood carved confession boxes.
We then walked through the grounds of Clifton House, originally built as a poor house. It now houses a heritage centre alongside a residential home and sheltered apartments. It was then time to bid our farewells to Conor for accompanying us on such an interesting tour of Belfast. We’d covered a lot of ground and learnt so much more along the way than we could possibly have done just wandering around on our own. Conor was both friendly and knowledgeable and I would definitely recommend joining one of his tours, details here.
Just up the road from where we had left Conor stands the Crumlin Road Gaol Experience where we had pre-booked tickets for a 3.00 p.m. self guided tour. Tickets are £12 or £10.80 if pre-booked on-line.
The tour began in one of the holding cells where we watched a short introductory video. After being released we were guided to a tunnel which used to link the courthouse on the other side of Crumlin Road with the historic holding cells. It must have been a long and lonely walk for those involved.
Our tour continued to the Governor’s Office and then onto the centre circle as it was referred. This was where all four wings joined together and from where one guard could see down each wing.
Along C Wing we were able to peer into numerous cells of differing sizes and view the kitchens, showers and toilet blocks. It was good to see that the gaol had been retained just as it would have been when still in use, providing visitors with an authentic experience.
The gaol opened in 1845 and closed its doors for the final time as a working prison in 1996. During its 150 years it had held 25,000 prisoners. Since 2012 it has been one of Northern Ireland’s main tourist attractions and is also now used as a conference/ event venue.
Video screens and information boards provided us with useful information about the gaol’s history and the daily lives and routines of both the prisoners and the prison officers.
Next was a visit to the condemned cell, which is two cells joined together with a private bathroom. This was where a prisoner condemned to be executed was held. The condemned had privileges such as better meals. Three prison officers were assigned to each prisoner to prevent him from taking his own life before the execution.
We then viewed the Hanging Cell where we could see the gruesome sight of the rope noose hanging from the ceiling. A total of 17 executions took place in there, the last of which was as recent as 1961. As the hangman had to travel over from England, prisoners could be confined to the condemned cell for considerable lengths of time awaiting their fate.
Ending on a lighter note, our tour concluded outdoors where we walked around the exercise yards encased with high brick walls and saw the lookout tower from where prisoners could be observed at all times. Our tour lasted approximately one hour and was a fascinating insight into life in a Victorian Prison.
After a very enjoyable day exploring Belfast we returned to our hotel for a well earned rest.
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