Monday, 12 November 2007

A bus tour of Belfast: stones not included

For some time I have been fascinated by what exactly the sightseeing tours of Belfast offer their customers. The bus-trips were in the news last week having been subject to attacks in West Belfast, but proving that in some respects all publicity is good publicity, my curiosity was “re-piqued”. And so this weekend my girlfriend and I decided to avail of the services of the main operator and experience their open-topped bus tour.

After the initial shock of being charged £11 each we took up our seats in the lower deck of what appeared to be a reclaimed and almost entirely unrefurbished service bus which had had the roof removed. The upper deck was already fully populated and the lower deck’s windows were smeared with seasonal road dirt, thus inhibiting visibility for the delights we were to be shown.

As we lurched forwards down High Street, our guide (Michael), clad in a red bomber jacket which gave him the appearance of a colourful nightclub bouncer, wrestled with his microphone, extending its cord to the fullest extent up the stairs of the bus and commenced his commentary. This he delivered in facetious vernacular throughout the rest of the tour.

Having briefly discussed the city’s origins as a port he launched into a rather contestable discourse on the Albert Clock, claiming that locals referred to it as “the leaning tower of Belfast”. We were then invited to descry the fountains of Custom House Square which were not in actual fact operating.

The tour crossed the Lagan and passed the Odyssey complex before taking in the post-industrial wasteland which currently comprises the so-called “Titanic Quarter”. The commentary made desultory mention of the ship-building industry and indeed the Titanic itself as well as mentioning Shorts aircraft factory. Most emphasis was placed on the promised development of the area – “the biggest waterfront development in Europe” no less, if the tour guide is to be believed. The imminence of something worth seeing and the present lack of it became a leitmotif of the Belfast tour.

We were about to embark upon one of the most thrilling sections of our trip. The bus edged unsteadily unto the Sydenham bypass. Rather than talk about the community of Sydenham and its tradition of employment in ship-building and industry, our guide turned his attention to the George Best City Airport, which he compared to the John Lennon Airport in Liverpool and then furnished us with a brief list of carriers. There followed the dubious claim that Belfast was the “leading short-break destination in the UK”. As this title was unqualified with any proviso about city size I can only conclude that it was inaccurate (more short-breaks than Edinburgh or London??!!).

Michael then treated us to a fulsome explanation of Northern Irish people’s relationship with the flat-pack furniture chain Ikea, which has culminated in the introduction of a store being opened at the Holywood Exchange. Never before has an out of town shopping development featured in any tourist guidebook or bus-tour which I have taken in another city.

Subsequently we embarked up the Knock dual-carriageway towards Stormont, replete with a singular analysis of the Northern Ireland political landscape by our jocular guide. Cunningham House offered an excuse for contemplation of David Trimble’s impact on the peace-process. “Whatever you think of the man, he eventually got a Nobel Peace Prize, so fair play to him”.

We arrived at Stormont shortly after 2pm, but were warned not to disembark the double-decker should we wish to view the parliament grounds, as no further buses would be arriving that day to resume the tour. The suggestion was that we might wish to come back the following morning, presumably expending another £11 for the privilege. Stormont was dealt with by a short eulogy for Mo Mowlam, some “banter” about the politicians therein being “cow dung”, a brief dialogue with a security guard regarding a local working mans club and an exegesis on the importance of rally cars to the peace process.

Thence back to the Sydenham Bypass, where our guide decided to take a short break until we “get back to the city centre where there’s something to see”. At this point the (inevitably local) toddler in front of us had taken to screaming “load of shite” as an accompaniment to the commentary and it was hard not to concord with his synopsis.

Crossing the Queen’s Bridge Michael decided that once again Belfast had features notable enough to interest the tourist. We were treated to his criticism of public art as he lambasted the “thing with the ring” (as he termed “the doll on the ball”). His assessment of the Waterfront Hall, was “like the Odyssey but a lot smaller”. He was however elegiac in his praise of St George’s market, evoking some far from fascinating childhood anecdotes.

Our driver negotiated the city centre traffic, taking us through the dreary November streets past the (again imminent) Victoria Centre and once again past the Albert Clock where Michael treated us to his knowledge of the Belfast vice industry. Predictably the Cathedral Quarter “is to be redeveloped and will become Belfast’s arts and culture quarter, but at the moment it’s derelict”. We were then invited to contemplate the significance of a statue of Lenin to our left, marking Belfast’s main gay nightclub. This was accompanied by a cheery declaration of Belfast’s tolerance and ironically a mildly homophobic crack about the bus driver.

We proceeded through Carlisle Circus and up the Crumlin Road, stopping briefly at the courthouse and prison. The gaol provides one of the few genuinely interesting sites which visitors may be tempted to return to on the tour. Of course being an interesting location, Michael dwelt on its history very briefly.

The next section of the tour took us down the Shankill Road. Tourists were invited to get off and visit souvenir shops with a range of paramilitary merchandise and Michael became unaccountably excited by a newsagent known as “the Chocolate Shop” proclaiming its merchandise “Belfast’s finest souvenirs”. The historic Church of Ireland and other buildings were ignored and we were instead invited to examine a clapboard mural of Edward Carson fastened to the outer wall of a local Co-op and some scorched earth which an 11th Night bonfire had decimated.

From the lower Shankill we proceeded to the Lower Falls. Identical spides, different football shirts. Pregnant teenagers hanging out of white tracksuits indistinguishable, but a completely different style of mural for the discerning traveller. The Falls’ attractions numbered a wall with murals to more or less every group of murderous separatists in Europe and beyond, a hunger strike memorial, the Sinn Fein constituency office and a remembrance garden to those who had blown themselves up in the furtherance of attempting to blow everyone else up. Fair to say there was a theme developing. The more interesting old buildings, the Royal Victoria Hospital and St Mary’s University College were ignored.

Crossing the West Link at Broadway we were treated to the wonders of Tate’s Avenue and our guide redeemed himself somewhat by expounding the wonders of David Healy’s strike against England. Unfortunately this was a transient enthusiasm and he soon resumed a recurrent lambaste against local football before advising his passengers to keep their eyes peeled for unclothed students in the upper floors of Tate’s Avenue’s flats.

The rest of the tour consisted of extended personalised advertising of various restaurants, pubs and nightclubs on the way into the city centre. The most useful advice to tourists at this point was a suggestion that they “access the quadrangle” in Queens. In Michael’s idiom and given his earlier thinking on the student population this sounded rather like some manner of sordid euphemism.

Kerry and I decided to discontinue the tour at Jury’s Hotel having had thoroughly enough of the delights of Belfast for one day. I came away reinforced in my opinion that tourism is woefully catered for in the city and shocked that £11 was the price of such an information bereft tour.


Kloot said...

A nice read.

Ive have argued with the guy in red, that at the time of paying, you were guaranteed that "a good stoning" was included in the price ;)

Despite living in Dublin this last 7 or 8 odd years, I only recently took a trip on one of the tourist buses. Interesting alright, but I just dont think they are value for money. Its just as easy to walk to the spots on the tours, in Dublin's case anyway.

Kloot said...

Ive have argued with the guy in red

Should have read "Id Have"

s.j.simon said...

lol. did you know that chocolate was banned in switzerland for many years. read this

Chekov said...

No chocolate would be a nightmare scenario for me!

Toddrpr said...

“like the Odyssey but a lot smaller”. Class.

Obviously a keen architect! Did he not say anyhting else about the Waterfront??

Dinamo said...

I suppose the marketeers did not segment, target, and position the likes of chekov when submitting their business plans to lenders. Indeed one can only imagine him sitting sullenly in the rain glowering at the host.
Belfast although an interesting victorian city is of limited interest in the great global scheme of things.
That said, one instinctively feels that it is macabre and indeed plain wrong to navel-gaze at the fiendish deeds of our terrorists. Perhaps a small number of our auatralian and american visitors are sufficiently uncritical to endure these trips. However I am sure that in the long run the market will decide and that unless there is an increase in quality content these tours will disappear from our streets.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you were unlucky and got a dud guide that day. All Citysightseeing tour guides are excellent these days!