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Sunday, August 8, 2010, in Bangor, Northern Ireland

 

Hi everyone. We’re in Bangor, Northern Ireland, a suburb of Belfast, with nephews Doug and Drew. Last week, we were in Ardfern, in the West Highlands of Scotland, waiting for their arrival.

After a full day with no visitors, I was on my way to Oban to pick them up. Doug and Drew had already been in three European cities and hadn’t yet been outdoors. We met at their bus, had lunch alongside the harbor, and took the bus back through sheep-dotted rolling hills to Ardfern. Art had spent the day overseeing work on the boat, including the installation of a new anchor.

We left Ardfern in the morning to gray skies and misty rain. Scotland’s weather might not be suntan-friendly, but the sailing winds are dependable, and we put up the sails as soon as we left the harbor.

The winds stayed moderate most of the day, but every so often a rain shower in the area would float by, bringing additional winds. At one point, we were heeled over and slashing through the water at nine knots, and touching ten. Drew, clad in many borrowed warm clothes of ours, amused himself by taking photos of the cockeyed stove and standing upright at a diagonal to the rest of the cabin.

Our destination was Craighouse, on the Isle of Jura, in the Inner Hebrides. There isn’t much to Jura, as expected in this area. As we approached, a towering, dappled mountain, shrouded in clouds, welcomed us into the harbor. We picked up a mooring and put the boat back together in preparation for going ashore.

In the first week of August, it is cold in Scotland. The Scottish people apparently don’t realize this. Art is in three shirts and occasionally a jacket, and I’m in a turtleneck of some sort and possibly a sweatshirt, a fleece and a jacket at the same time. And then we walk around town and we see locals in shorts or sleeveless shirts, or someone sailing around on an overcast day in a tee shirt. The boys had arrived with backpacks intended for summer in Europe, so we lent them some of our favored Arctic wear and got in the dinghy to head to shore.

Jura is the home of 200 people and 5500 deer. Apparently, one of the reasons that people come to Jura is for something called “deer stalking”. According to Wikipedia, deer stalking is “a British term for the stealthy pursuit of deer for sporting purposes, typically with a high powered rifle fitted with a powerful telescopic sight in order to hunt or shoot them.” Yes, that sounds sporting to me. This sport prompted lyricist W.S. Gilbert to quip, "Deer-stalking would be a very fine sport if only the deer had guns."

Barnhill, on the northern end of the island, was the home of George Orwell for the last three years of his life, before his death from tuberculosis. He died shortly after he finished writing 1984. The residents knew him only by his real name, Eric Blair.

We had lunch in the hotel pub onshore, having been turned away from the visitor-filled community restaurant called Antlers. The boys had venison burgers. Make that 5499 deer. Someone was filming a documentary about single-malt Scotch, interviewing the owner across the bar about which of the half-dozen Jura bottles was his favorite.

The Jura distillery is indeed right across the small street from the pub, and again we were turned away, for the 2 o’clock tour. But the staff in the visitor center offered to take the boys for an unofficial tour, and gave them a very official dram of 16-year-old Scotch, which elevated their moods biologically and spiritually for hours. Suddenly, they both felt warm, and I began to understand the appeal of single-malt whisky in weather like this. A note to parents and grandparents who are wondering about our stewardship: drinking age is 18 in Scotland. After a short walk down the tiny road in the town, we headed back to the boat.

On the dock, a fisherman was doing something we didn’t recognize to something that looked like langoustines. We were wrong about the crustacean; his bin was filled with “squat lobsters”, and what he was doing was tearing off everything but their tails. This left a bucketful of ping-pong-ball-sized shellfish tails, and we bought a half-kilo of them to try that night. I was concerned that I was buying his dinner away from him, but he assured me that it was fine. “I’m sick of them, anyway,” he said. We offered him the hot dogs we had on board, but he wisely demurred.

I followed the fisherman’s advice and poached the little critters, and we all peeled and ate while dinner was heating up in the oven.

The next day’s sail was a crossing, to Northern Ireland, near Belfast. Art had paired our route with the weather, and the day provided a glorious sail. At times, we cut through the water at more than nine knots; at other times, we were lifted by a favoring current. The waves behind us were sometimes more than six feet (2 meters) high, and this would have been an ugly voyage for someone sailing in the opposite direction. We arrived in Carrickfergus, near Belfast, well before we’d estimated, and were met at the dock by a helpful and friendly sailor we’d met on the cruise we’d just completed.

The island of Ireland contains both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which occupies the northeast corner. Northern Ireland encompasses six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster.

Carrickfergus is a suburb of Belfast, most known as the object of a folk song that begins, “I wish I was in Carrickfergus.” I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of it. How could you come up with a rhyme for Carrickfergus?

This community had recently completely redeveloped the waterfront area, including the new marina that was hosting us. The harbor is lined with garden-style residences with balconies that hover over the marina and look across the Irish Sea. By the time we were settled in and registered at the marina, it was well into the evening, and we scurried next door to the Northern Ireland equivalent of Friendly’s for a quick dinner.

Carrickfergus was once named as “strong rock”. Then King Fergus of Scotland, in 530 AD, was suffering from a skin complaint, probably leprosy, and heard of a healing well in Ulster. He set out on a ship, but as they approached the shore, a storm came up and wrecked the ship, killing everyone aboard. So the town’s name now means “the rock where Fergus drowned.”

The harborside is dominated by a large castle that was first built in 1178. Like so many castles in the area, this one changed hands over its long history. Carrickfergus Castle is amusingly populated with mannequins dressed in period garb, leaning out of windows, guarding the towers, and standing on the roof, pointing weapons at the tourists. I’m not sure how King John – who took over the castle in 1210 – would react if he discovered he’d been memorialized as a life-sized doll sitting on the stone latrine that emptied over the water. We walked around the grounds and walked up the “keep”, the main tower and most fortified segment. A small audio visual room showed short films, one directed at adults, and an animated version for the kids.

Carrickfergus holds several American connections as well. Both of Andrew Jackson’s parents were born there. Not long after that, privateer John Paul Jones engaged his ship Ranger with the HMS Drake just off of the castle, won the battle, and became the first ship of the American Revolution to obtain a surrender from the British.

Our friend Robert who’d advised us to come to Carrickfergus and helped us dock once we arrived there was sailing in a race in the evening, and invited us to the sailing club to join him afterwards. We watched the boats return to the harbor and spent some time with him and with other locals who were delighted to give us recommendations for docking, visiting, and eating in the area. As we’ve noticed since we arrived in the UK, people are simply scrambling over each other to be helpful.

In the morning, we motored the short distance to Belfast Harbor and docked in a quiet space alongside a new, interactive science museum a ten-minute walk from town. Belfast is the birthplace of Van Morrison and the passenger ship Titanic.

The marina had been built for a tall ships visit in August 2009, and was left in place after they left. It’s either still undiscovered, or taking the river up to Belfast just isn’t the place that’s at the top of the list of sailing holiday destinations. The marina has room for forty boats, with facilities for 200 planned. We were the only boat there.

We were in what’s called the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, so named because the adjoining shipyard built the doomed ship in 1912. Or, as the locals will say, “She was fine when she left here.” The city is in the process of creating a themed area around the Titanic’s history, but for now, there’s some signage and an overgrown dry dock. Around the river, there are new, empty buildings with glass-enclosed offices and decadent-looking penthouse apartments. The only active commerce nearby, we’d learn, were the nightclubs along the waterfront. Lonely Planet’s web site says of Belfast, “Get here early and enjoy it before the rest of the world arrives.” That’s right.

We took the pedestrian bridge to the downtown area, and walked along bus-lined streets, pedestrianized shopping lanes, and tiny alleyways. Belfast is a manageable European city, stocked with all of the chain stores: Boots from the UK, H&M from Sweden, and Starbucks from us. A quartet was playing a madrigal on a walking street we passed by.

Our first stop in town was the Welcome Center, where we loaded ourselves up with maps and brochures, and got a good recommendation for a pub for lunch. In the afternoon, we took a walking tour to get an overview of the compact city. Belfast is a place of contradictions, friendly and warm, yet for decades the violence was brutal between neighbors. They’ve had about ten years of peace since the Good Friday agreement signed in 1998 came into effect in 1999.

It’s just impossible to conduct a walking tour without talking about The Troubles, which is a bit of an understatement. Between 1969 and 2001, more than 3500 people were killed because of The Troubles.

The tour began next to City Hall, where a bagpipe band was playing “My Bonnie Lassie”. That’s just always on the playlist. It’s as if every street musician in New York played only “New York, New York.” An international pipe band competition was in the finals at the waterfront stadium, so maybe these players were finalists, or maybe this performance was a consolation prize for a band that had recently been eliminated. We walked by the 113 foot tall Albert Memorial Clock Tower, a memorial to Queen Victoria’s Crown Prince. The top of the tower leans four feet to the side, earning the nickname “Belfast’s Leaning Tower of Pisa”, prompting locals to say “Albert not only has the time, he also has the inclination”. We walked by the first “lying-in” hospital, a maternity hospital founded in 1797 by Mary McCracken. This hospital was an attempt to provide free, sterile, safe facilities for women to get through the dangerous business of childbirth. I’d have been better disposed to even the scary-looking McCracken, but not surprisingly for the times (or any times until very recently), this assistance was only available to “respectable” women. We looked beyond the city to the rolling hills in the distance. There’s a craggy mountain called Cavehill. A basalt outcrop on its side is called “Napoleon’s Nose”, as it appears to be a silhouette of the emperor. It’s rumored that the local clergyman Jonathan Swift once saw people walking on the top of that hill and was inspired to create the Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels.

After the tour was over, we made stops at a coffee place and then at the bar where we’d eaten lunch. We wanted to see what was advertised as a traditional session, which we recognized as the same sort of céilidh we’d been enjoying in Scotland. The players included two fiddles, a guitar, and a four-string banjo, and the musicians were sitting in the same seats where we’d eaten lunch. While we awaited an available table, the table next to the musicians opened up, giving us a ringside seat for their traditional tunes.

We were all tired by the time we got back to the boat, and had a quiet dinner and went to bed. Then we heard a thud above us at about midnight, Art got out of bed and poked his head out of the companionway. Two of the nightclub’s patrons had apparently decided that it was okay to hop the locked, coded entryway to the docks and come aboard “for a laugh”, as they explained as Art chased them away. One of them had already gone up to the bow, perhaps to recreate the famous scene about being on top of the world. Well, they were walking around on top of our heads, and we didn’t like it one bit.

We all went back to bed, but it was unsettling that we could still hear voices from the dock overlooking the marina. Sure enough, once we were asleep again, some other kid climbed aboard. This time we were pretty sure that he knew that the boat wasn’t empty, and it was getting annoying. So we called the police, who sent a car over to circle the area a bit. Art discussed the situation with them, and the police said, “Well, it’s Friday, so there are only a few hundred kids at the club. Tomorrow night there will be thousands.” I thought maybe that meant that there would be too many witnesses for a kid to boldly board a boat in the harbor. The policeman continued, “Maybe you should dock on the other pontoon, a little farther away.”

I was reminded of the time I was waiting for a train to the suburbs after my night classes in North Philadelphia. A policeman was standing on the bench on the platform looking over the parking lot in the station. I commended him for being so conscientious. “No,” he told me. “I’m just making sure my squad car is still there.”

This wasn’t a Belfast problem, or even a sailing problem. It was an underdevelopment problem: the fact that the only businesses around were nightclubs, so there weren’t pedestrians, car traffic, or police, the fact that nobody knows about or likes this marina, so there were no other boats there and no security other than a tiny fence, and the fact that young adults are, face it, underdeveloped. Both of our nephews had the rude awakening that they have probably already become adults, because they were as delighted as we were to chase away the urchins.

We left in the morning, and docked at Bangor, about ten miles away. Bangor is said to be to Belfast as Brighton is to London. The view from outside the harbor was of pastel-colored Victorian holiday houses and masts in the marina.

By the time we’d docked, we’d apparently covered the sightseeing in town, because the marina was always listed as the number-one attraction in Bangor by travel sites. But we’d still spend most of our daytimes in Belfast, a thirty-minute train ride away.

A small traveling amusement park was underway adjacent to the marina, and we walked through the shopping area toward the train station. After some calculation about our schedule, we opted for lunch in a pub in Bangor, and took the train into town in mid-afternoon.

We only had one official task in Belfast, to find out about the buses to Dublin Airport for our nephews’ departure, but we managed to cover the town from one end to the other, browsing shop windows. At City Hall, we watched a band from the Féile Festival, playing loud, generic rock on guitars, with accompanying howling of lyrics. But they were captivating their audience, who gathered in small Goth groups of black-clad men with stab wounds from piercings and women with Kool-Aid-colored hair and dark circles drawn around their eyes.

We stopped in the famed Crown Liquor Saloon, a stunning example of a Victorian gin palace. Remember when Bette Midler in ruffles and gold lamé said at the Academy Awards, "Bet you didn't think it was possible to be overdressed for this affair, right?" Well, if it’s possible, the Crown Bar is overdressed.

Owned now by the National Trust, the nineteenth-century building is a Jackson Pollack of mosaics, carved wood, and stained glass, festooned with gold and without an inch of wall, floor or ceiling without the attention of Italian craftsmen. Along the wall opposite the bar are small cubicles called snugs, available by reservation, that once satisfied the privacy requirements of hypocritical Victorians who preached one lifestyle and practiced quite another. The bar provided an important setting for the 1947 movie Odd Man Out, among others.

We’ll go back into Belfast today and spend a day here in Bangor tomorrow. Happy millionth anniversary tomorrow, Mom and Dad.

 

Love, Karen (and Art)