Titanic endeavour: Simon Calder previews Belfast’s newest attraction

A century after Titanic set sail from Belfast prior to her tragic maiden journey, a £97m tribute to the ship and her makers is almost ready.

"That's where she was built. That's where she was designed. That's where the workers lived." Noel Molloy is a man with a mission to explain – and entertain. He is project manager for Titanic Belfast, a structure as monumental as the ship it commemorates.

Like a magnificent liner in the final stages of construction, the shell of Northern Ireland's new landmark is complete. Sprouting from a quay overlooking Belfast Lough is an angular, aluminium-clad eruption. Imagine if Ikea made a flatpack ship, and someone had made a right old muddle of the instructions: that's roughly how Titanic Belfast looks.

For once, the term "of Titanic proportions" applies literally. The top of the five-storey building is exactly as high as the tip of Titanic when the transatlantic liner was completed at the Harland and Wolff yard a century ago. During construction, she was known as SS No 401; her twin, Olympic, occupied the adjacent slipway as SS No 400.

As any Belfast resident will tell you, "Titanic was fine when she left us" on 2 April 1912. Twelve days later, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, Titanic struck an iceberg. As she sank, with the loss of 1,517 lives, at 2.20am the next morning, the seeds of a thousand legends took root.

"We know thousands of people whose relatives worked on Titanic," says Mr Molloy, "but we can't find anyone who worked on Olympic."

The reason, of course, is the most compelling tragedy in maritime history. "Whatever is the latest story out is the truth," sighs Mr Molloy. His team of 600 faced a formidable task: to create a visitor attraction that puts the story in its social context; to explain events with veracity and panache; and to pay due respect to the victims. If they succeed, this anodised angel may prove the salvation of a city.

Tragedy plus time equals tourism. The killing fields of the Somme, the skeletal fragments of Hiroshima that survived the atomic bomb, and the tunnels of Cu Chi where the Viet Cong fought: all are now tourist attractions that intrigue as much as they appal. The brutality and heroism of 20th-century conflict lure visitors in their millions. Now Belfast has signed up for the same franchise.

God knows the city saw more than its fair share of tragedy in the 20th century. One hundred years ago, Northern Ireland's capital was a proud and wealthy powerhouse of the British Empire, its foundations resting on the linen trade and heavy engineering – with the finest shipbuilders on earth.

Decades of decline stoked sectarianism. The murals along the Falls and Shankill Roads testify to the Troubles – the slow, bitter slaughter of that corroded Belfast for the final three decades of the 20th century. Some still regard Belfast as the dysfunctional sibling of those other great Celtic cities, Glasgow and Dublin. That the political art of Republicans and Loyalists has become a tourist draw shows how the city has been transformed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The army checkpoints are long gone, and Belfast is now an open, friendly city. In the dramatically expanded Ulster Museum, it boasts one of the UK's finest provincial collections. You can barely turn a corner without stumbling upon a boutique hotel or award-winning restaurant, sometimes within the same building. The problem is: few tourists have noticed. That is why the city council and the Northern Ireland Executive have chipped in towards the £97m bill to "do a Bilbao".

Twenty years ago, the capital of Spain's Basque lands appeared a hopeless economic and political case. The shipbuilding industry was moribund, and decline became a crucible for terrorism. Bilbao was not twinned with Belfast, but it shared the same DNA of despair.

Today, Bilbao is a vibrant, elegant city that stands alongside Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin as an alluring city-break destination. The catalyst was the Guggenheim, a waterside modern-art museum which appeared to be constructed out of offcuts from an Airbus factory. The bold architecture began to attract tourists, who soon spread the word about the pleasures of the historic city centre and its fascinating hinterland.

With Titanic Belfast, I sense the city could do a Bilbao – only better. The Guggenheim's exterior is much more appealing and energising than its interior, which is filled with mildly diverting modern works that have nothing to do with their surroundings. In contrast, almost every aspect of Titanic Belfast chimes with the city beyond the structure's metal jacket and big windows. And as with Titanic herself, the fitting out is designed to impress.

Your journey begins in an atrium echoing with industrial might. Walkways and escalators lead you through a labyrinth of distressed steel and concrete. The Titanic story is told in nine chapters – beginning with "Boomtown Belfast", when the city's hopes were as high as the prow of an ocean liner. In the 19th century, the railways shrank individual nations; in the early 20th century, ocean-going liners were the instruments of globalisation.

While Harland and Wolff did not have a monopoly on large ships, the Belfast yard was biggest and best. The White Star Line wanted to achieve supremacy on the world's leading intercontinental link, which – then as now – connected southern England with New York. Just as Heathrow to New York JFK is the 21st century's leading intercontinental air route, Southampton to Manhattan was the primary link between Europe and the US. White Star's flagships were Belfast born.

A problem facing any Titanic attraction is how to convey the sheer scale of the vessel without actually building a life-size replica. The solution at Titanic Belfast: something akin to a theme-park ride through a simulated shipyard, from the laying of the keel upwards. Little cars hoist visitors up and around a life-size model of the rudder that made the ship's final, fatal turn.

Some may see the ride as the unwarranted intrusion of Disneyfication. But it resolves the conflicting needs to educate and entertain the 425,000 expected annual visitors. And it is also an efficient device for taking people to a startling viewpoint: looking directly down on the remains of the slipways where Olympic and Titanic were built.

Such proximity settles the argument over which city "owns" the Titanic story. Southampton's new Sea City commemorates the vessel. Cobh in Ireland (which, as Queenstown, was her final port of call), has opened a Titanic Experience in the former White Star Line terminal. But Titanic Belfast's chief executive, Tim Husbands, insists: "No other city can say 'She was designed here, built here and launched here'."

Your perch – and other high-altitude viewpoints around the building – also helps you understand the city a little better. Belfast has a lucky location, crowded around the Lagan river with hills rising beyond and the lough opening the city to the world. Equally clear is the desolation that consumed much of the city's economy and self-confidence. The Harland and Wolff yard occupied the former Queen's Island, now rebranded Titanic Quarter and at the heart of Belfast's regeneration.

Time to get on board, figuratively, and compare the first-class chic with the rudiments of third class. (Statistically, the more a Titanic passenger paid for their ticket, the higher their chance of survival.) Titanic Belfast is not, though, a museum. If you seek artefacts from the ship, visit the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, seven miles east of Belfast, which has a soup tureen and a porthole recovered from the sea bed.

All the energy and artistry invested in Titanic were nullified in the 160 minutes beginning at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912, when the ship was fatally wounded by an iceberg. Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Convergence of the Twain", is quoted: "And as the smart ship grew in stature, grace, and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."

Voices of some survivors, recorded in the 1960s, recount that horrifying night. The needless loss of life was soon exposed by official inquiries by the Board of Trade and the US Senate, which revealed how cost-cutting and a botched evacuation took many lives. Titanic carried lifeboats for fewer than half her passengers and crew, and many of the vessels were only half-full when they were launched.

Enough time and space remain to outline the myth-making that has followed in Titanic's fatal wake, and the efforts to explore the wreck two miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

One more strange twist remains: not in the Titanic story, but in the building itself. Most of it is an ingenious commemoration of the genius and follies of man. But the top two floors comprise a banqueting suite, resembling a dozen upmarket hotels between here and Dublin.

Sales conferences and wedding receptions will help pay the rent, which will help if Titanic Belfast fails to meet visitor targets. But its prospects, unlike its subject's, seem set fair. The opening on 31 March will harness the surge in interest around the centenary of the sinking – exemplified by Julian Fellowes' ITV miniseries Titanic. "We have put together an exhibition that is educational, that is respectful – but is also very, very entertaining," says chief executive Tim Husbands. And it may also help the city lay its own ghosts to rest: "It took many, many decades before Belfast itself could come to terms with the loss."

Travel essentials: Belfast

Getting there

* George Best Belfast City, served from from numerous UK airports by Flybe (0871 700 0123; flybe.com) and from Heathrow by BMI (0871 60 70 555; flybmi.com), offers the easiest access to Titanic Belfast – a 10-minute, £4 taxi ride away.

* Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0870 737 8282; jet2.com) serve Belfast International airport from a range of British cities, though it is poorly located for Titanic Belfast.

* By sea, the easiest links are on Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk) from Cairnryan and Liverpool. Ferries dock close to Titanic Belfast.

Seeing there

* Titanic Belfast (028-9076 6300; titanicbelfast.com) opens on 31 March. It will open 9am-7pm daily (10am-5pm daily except Monday from October to March), admission £13.50.

Further information

* Tourism Ireland (0800 313 4000; discoverireland.com).

News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?