Considering these sky-splitting steel structures are from the shipyard that built the Titanic – the largest man-made object ever moved back in 1912 – I shouldn’t be surprised at the size of the Harland & Wolff cranes.
These huge machines tower over Belfast’s skyline so dramatically you’d think their bulky arms could lift the entire city and turn it around.
Which, in a way, they did.
I’m standing in ’s Docklands – once one of the biggest shipyards in the world, then a ghostly reminder of an industry long gone, and now blinged up as a site of modern development and big, big things once again.
See, just as the now-iconic cranes Samson and Goliath keep working – now busy constructing wind turbines – the Docklands are building themselves. Titanic Belfast. is the glittering keystone to the Titanic Quarter; a business, light industrial, leisure and residential development opening next year. The centenary of Titanic’s maiden voyage is the perfect big bang with which to open Titanic Belfast. In fact 2012 is set to be one of the biggest celebrations in Northern Ireland’s history.
“It’ll be huge” nods my guide, local taxi cab driver Billy Scott. From what I can see, it already is.
Taxi drivers don’t usually act as tour guides. But this is different; this is Belfast – and the famous Black Cab Tours are a city institution. Driven around by Blue Badge tour guide Billy, I get insider commentary in the backseat of an iconic black taxi – it’s the story of the city told in its own words. And if ever there was somewhere benefiting from personal insights, it’s Belfast.
Take the murals. Entwined with the city’s identity and record of its history, they’ve become a tourist attraction in their own right. A sprinkling of local commentary and a dash of insight really deepens my appreciation of each colour-coded history lesson, and I start to feel that I’m getting under the skin of this place. Billy explains the nuance and significance of each iconic symbol, such as the ubiquitous Red Hand symbol – it’s said you’re never more than 100ft from a Red Hand in Northern Ireland.
Billy parks the car and hops into the back to regale me with one version of the story. Legend goes that a boat race was used to establish a king for Ulster, where whosoever’s hand first touched the shore will own the territory. The most determined passenger draws his sword, severs his hand and throws it ashore. Ulster is now his property and the mutilated hand becomes a symbol for the province, appearing everywhere from the Tyrone GAA jersey, to stained glass windows in , to the mural we stare up at now.
Murals are painted over often, shifting along with the mood and identity of the communities. One of the most striking to me is a representation of Picasso’s Guernica on the Lower Falls Road by local artists Danny Devenny and Mark Irvine. It’s a remarkable copy, and a poignant reminder of the artwork’s universal statement of the futility of war and human suffering.
On our chariot goes by the – a triumph of ornate stained glass and flickering gas light, and the prettiest bar I’ve ever seen.
We also go past Belfast’s answer to the leaning Tower of Piza, . “Albert has both the time and the inclination” cracks Billy.
All around, the pavements serve as a catwalk to stylish, strutting youths – a whopping 40% of the population is under 25. They wander from the doors of the grand laze around the grounds of City Hall, and queue outside the music venues and . No wonder MTV set up shop here for this year’s Europe Music Awards (EMAs).
The facts keep flying as universities, courts and hospitals, each effortless examples of elegant architecture, zip past the window. Where were air conditioning, Back to the Future’s DeLorean car and milk of magnesia invented? You know where. Well, you do now anyway.
Belfast makes a petite size for a city, with a population of just 286,000. But don’t let that fool you – it’s a patchwork of diverse neighbourhoods and areas that all demand exploration. Zooming along, the cab feels like the perfect way to see them all. The journey from a Peace Wall scrawled with the hopes and prayers of visitors, to the five-star opulence of the where celebrities stayed for the recent MTV EMAs, is just a few minutes’ drive.
It’s a contrast as striking as the glittering Guggenheim-esque angles of the Titanic Belfast beside the cavernous concrete , which is where our tour ends.
Samson and Goliath, their H&W logo still proudly visible, dominate the scene. Like the needle of a vinyl record player, ready to drop and scratch out the song Belfast will play next.
A song for the future, no doubt.
To hitch your own ride on Billy Scott’s Black Cab tour call him 00 44 77 98 602401