Finding The Hidden Stories

August 11 – Belfast 

“I’m just going down here.” [2 minutes later]…”I’m just going down here.”

That was me, leaving Steve behind as I continued ducking and diving down alleys and laneways, freestyling around the backstreets of Belfast. 

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Our Sunday began with the practicalities…laundry and research. We spent time in the laundrette with the other crowd of Australians and Americans (there’s a cruise ship in town), getting our necessaries washed and dried. We followed that up with time in front of the computers, looking at route options for the onward ride and discussing possible solutions to some challenges we can see with access to accommodation, campsites or supplies along the way. Then it was time for a roam.

Yesterday we saw a lot of Belfast that focused on the most known aspects of its story – the Troubles, the city’s problems and some of its maritime history. Today I wanted to find some of the hidden stories. What can we discover by looking in the nooks and crannies, backstreets and alleys, smaller streets and laneways? Well, we found some stories, some heritage and some more fantastic murals and street art, with a theme beyond the Troubles. 

We roamed completely freestyle, no idea what we would find or where we were heading, other than me calling out, “I’m just going down here,” before heading across a street to look down another alley. We found Bank Square, where three little streets, Bank Street, Berry Street and Chapel Lane meet. It turns out this is one of the oldest parts of Belfast, being in existence from the 1600’s. Bank Street has had a few different names over the years, but was once a little country pathway, leading through fields and gardens. 

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Strolling down Bank Street

Down Hill Street we saw a fairly ordinary, red brick building, but discovered that it was once a jute sack warehouse. Various breweries once distributed their wares from this street and it’s also where the old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery once stood. 

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Looking down Hills Street with the building on the left once a jute sack warehouse

We found ourselves in Belfast’s answer to Fleet Street, where the heart of the newspaper industry has beaten for years. The Belfast Telegraph and Irish News offices are still there, in a building dating from 1870.

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Through the Cathedral Quarter, dominated by St. Anne’s Cathedral, which dates from 1899. This area was badly bombed during the Blitz of April-May 1941, but thankfully many buildings survived. The Cathedral was built on the site of the old St Anne’s Parish Church which was founded in 1776 and the foundation stone for the cathedral was laid in 1899. It’s had many additions over the years, the last of which was completed as recently as 1981. It seems to be quite an international building in its construction too, because I learned that it is made of Somerset Stone, with Irish marble in the aisles, Canadian maple on the floors and Australian sequoia in the roof timbers! I then had to educate myself as to what sequoia is, to discover it is a variety of redwood, which made me wonder why that timber had been sourced from Australia, since I wouldn’t say we’re particularly known for our redwoods, I would give that claim to fame to the U.S. ahead of Australia. When they got their maple from Canada they could have just popped down and picked up some redwood from California, rather than Australia. But there you go, there are Australian redwood beams in Belfast’s cathedral! 

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In 1888 Belfast achieved city status and on October 13th of that year, the first free public library was opened in the city. It was constructed from red sandstone and today holds more than one million items.

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Down North Street, as we zig-zagged our way around the streets and laneways, we discovered that this street is one of the earliest streets in the city. It was once known as Goose Lane because of the geese that were once driven down there, on their way to feed in the fields outside the town. At that time, in the 17th century, it consisted of simple single storey houses and the old city walls ran through it. 

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No geese to be seen these days
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The art deco old Bank of Ireland building was built on North Street in 1928
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Another art deco building on North Street, the former Sinclair’s department store

The Entries are a series of narrow laneways that connect some of the more prominent streets in the city, although these were once the waterfront streets and warehouse districts. Pottinger’s Entry is one of these little passageways, with an archway showing its Victorian heritage. Still a source of a potential head-bump for the likes of Steve though!

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Not exactly hidden, is one of Belfast’s most notable features, the Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast’s own “leaning tower’. It has a tilt because it’s built on reclaimed river land, so has a slightly boggy bottom! It’s named after Prince Albert and it’s one of many things in the city named for Queen Victoria or some association with her. Apparently she visited Belfast once, for a grand total of five hours, declared she didn’t like the place at all, left and despite that brief and none too complimentary visit, the city has given her name to streets and buildings all over the place. 

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So that was our little roam, completely make-it-up-as-we-go-along, just zig-zagging, freestylin’ and ducking down here, popping over there, strolling along there and tootling over here. It was nice to see some of the more hidden streets, as well as some of the prominent buildings and discover some stories from Belfast’s history and heritage beyond its more recent narrative. We also saw some more fantastic murals and street art and I’ll finish with a selection of that talent. Tomorrow we ride on, into Ireland, where once again, everywhere and everything will be new to us on our first visit to the Emerald Isle. We will have our slicks to hand though because we have already discovered first hand, there’s a reason why it’s so lovely and green…rain ahoy team…rain ahoy!

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