Staying afloat

Birthplace of the Titanic, Belfast's dockyards are now quiet. But a boat tour through the aquatic world is still a towering experience, says Annie Caulfield

The boatman did something mysterious with the ropes, and said: "Where the boat goes depends on what day it is. Today is a Titanic day." No, we weren't likely to hit an iceberg in the river Lagan; it meant that this day the small boat would tour the shipyards where the Titanic was built, and where the wealth of 19th-century Belfast was created.

The boatman did something mysterious with the ropes, and said: "Where the boat goes depends on what day it is. Today is a Titanic day." No, we weren't likely to hit an iceberg in the river Lagan; it meant that this day the small boat would tour the shipyards where the Titanic was built, and where the wealth of 19th-century Belfast was created.

The shipyards employed huge numbers of Belfast men well into the 20th century. Between 1880 and 1925, one in 10 men worked for Harland and Wolff, the yard that built the Titanic. Its sinking was a rare failure in the yard's history of technical innovation.

Chugging around the decaying yards in the little tour-boat, the size of the dock walls and cranes was overwhelming. The gigantic yellow harbour cranes, known as Samson and Goliath, have been lovingly oiled and repainted. Like much of the once-neglected harbour area, they've been given a conservation order.

Other areas are slated for redevelopment. The biggest scheme is for the Titanic Quarter, with housing, shops and a Maritime Museum. Our chatty guide said he thought it was ridiculous that Belfast, of all places, had no Maritime Museum.

"But there's been a lot of time wasted over the last 30 years." He sighed and pushed back his peaked cap, then returned to more tales of Belfast's glory days, when the city had a tobacco industry, rope works, linen trade, food processing plants and the biggest gasometer in the world. He pointed to an area where Queen's University Science Park was being built. "It's appropriate that it's there. The engineering and science that went into Belfast's ships was cutting edge."

Snippets of the past were delivered to us by the guide, who also had framed drawings of the Titanic to sell, along with small wooden boards made into key rings. Every man at Harland and Wolff had a board, a sort of clocking-in card. The tour boatmen had rescued thousands of them after they were found mixed up with city refuse in an inner harbour area.

We looked at the high, dark walls of the old docks, and the guide spoke of plans for residential development and retail parks. This has been made possible by the construction in 1994 of the Lagan Weir, which controls flooding along the river.

The space-age looking weir indicated the new future for the shipyard district, but somehow it didn't promise to match the tales our guide told of old Belfast. A Canadian on the boat said: "We now have no shipbuilding either. It's a shame. It's a job with grandeur." "Aye," the guide said. "There were days in Belfast when there was grandeur."

The boat tour the following day, going up the river, had an equally chatty but less nostalgic guide. He told gleefully of huge price rises for waterfront property in Belfast, parks being developed on the sites of riverside tips, and bars with terraces where there used to be tanning works and abattoirs. He pointed out Queen's University rowing club, where Errol Flynn had taken a boat out. "His father taught at Queen's, so people had to lock up their daughters when Errol came to visit."

He remarked on the return of waterbirds after industrial pollution was cleared up. He showed sepia photographs of how the river used to look, and explained what had gone.

He didn't remark on the blocks of flats with "UFF" painted on every gable end, or the anti-Orange March graffiti on houses in Catholic riverside estates.

Beside one development of luxury flats, he pointed to a jetty where he and his boat team had run a passenger service into central Belfast. After several months, realising that they picked up the same five passengers every day, they admitted defeat.

But then the blockbuster filmTitanic came out in 1997. They called up a friend who knew the yards like his own soul, and started the Titanic tours. They found that tourists also enjoyed going up the river to see the attractive waterfront views and hear light-hearted tales of Hollywood stars scaring the local maidens.

The navigable stretch of river was being extended for miles inland, with plans for one long waterfront resort along the Lagan. The guide beamed: "As you can imagine, we're very cheerful about that. We've struggled on with our single boat and now we're thinking we'll get a second, maybe a third."

The boat turned round at a pretty enclave of buildings by Stranmillis weir. "I'll keep quiet now and let you enjoy the river in peace," the guide told us. He put on some Mozart. The sun sparkled on the water and the music wafted into clear blue skies. We settled into dreamy detachment. The boat tours told you all about the city's glorious maritime history, and suggested an unexpectedly gentle future.

Annie Caulfield's book on the lighter side of life in Northern Ireland, 'Irish Blood, English heart, Ulster Fry' is published by Viking Penguin in June

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Many airlines fly to Belfast, or you can sail from Liverpool or Stranraer. Belfast City airport is much closer to the centre than Belfast International, but both have frequent bus links.

STAYING THERE

Ten Square (028 9024 1001; www.tensquare.co.uk), 10 Donegall Square South. Doubles start at £129, including breakfast.

Malmaison Belfast (028 9022 0200; www.malmaison.com), 34-38 Victoria Street. Doubles from £95, room only.

Crescent Townhouse (028 9032 3349; www.crescenttownhouse.com), 13 Lower Crescent. Doubles start at £75, including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Lagan Boat Company (028 9033 0844; www.laganboatcompany.com). It offers daily departures from the Lagan Lookout on Donegall Quay. The typical cost of a boat tour is £6 for adults and £5 for children.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Belfast Tourism (028 9024 6609; www.gotobelfast.com)

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