In late January 2017 I was invited by BCS Northern Ireland to give a talk in Belfast. This is an account of that short trip utilising public transport, or foot, for the whole journey.
The Journey Begins
I’m on my way to Northern Ireland to give a talk to the BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) branch there, on “Making IT good for Society”, the splendid new mantra for this society. It’s a topic I’ve really warmed to and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone there.
The journey from Chester to Belfast can take many routes. Wherever possible I try to use public transport, and whilst flying to Belfast does count of more relevance are the link journeys at each end.
Belfast has two airports; the George Best airport (formerly City airport), which is quite close to the city, or Belfast International Airport which is 12 miles to the north west. I’ve previously used the former, serviced by FlyBe from Manchester, but their prices were quite a lot higher than EasyJet (Liverpool) on this occasion so it was to Belfast International I was headed.
Of course, Liverpool John Lennon airport is on the other side of the River Mersey from Chester so public transport – and I do not count taxis as such – means a train journey either via Birkenhead and Liverpool, or via Warrington. Now this probably puts most people off – too much hassle – especially since the latter involves walking from Warrington Bank Quay to Warrington Central.
The schlep across Warrington city centre is short – less than a mile if taken direct but as I’m an inveterate city explorer I usually wander around a bit within the time constraints. This particular variation wasn’t that good as I ended up crossing waste land close to Warrington Central, skipping over puddles and discarded condoms, but the recommended route – which passes the Parr Hall and through Golden Square shopping Mall – is just fine; and you pass a Starbucks.
The frequent trains to Liverpool mostly all stop at Liverpool South Parkway and one such arrived within a few minutes. The winter countryside blurred colorlessly and Fiddler’s Ferry power station vaped busily, it’s steam blending perfectly with the low grey cloud. At Liverpool South Parkway, still looking clean and modern despite 11 years of heavy use, the transfer to bus is easy and the journey to the airport relatively short.
Liverpool John Lennon Airport to Belfast
I always take some pride from seeing John Lennon’s name and self-portrait sketch. My generation took a lot of stick for supporting the likes of Lennon, but time has seen his and Yoko’s mantras for peace become ever more urgent.
An advantage of the timing of this particular trip, both seasonally and time-of-day-wise, was that I was travelling at the quietest times of each of those periods. I breezed through security and into Starbucks, keeping my laptop charged at a convenient socket. The plane boarded quickly, despite being full, and since all booked passengers were onboard, we departed early for the 35-minute flight. At Belfast International Airport the bus connection is easy and through the condensation covered windows I could see a lovely sunset. You can buy the bus ticket on the flight but I had to ask for it. The return trip is £10.50.
I just had time to check in at Jurys Inn, in the city centre, and have a half-hour of relaxation before setting off to the venue to give my talk. It was a lovely evening and the walk to the Mount Business Centre, about a mile away, passed the Central railway station and crossed the dark Lagan.
The venue, clean, bright and modern, was ideal and the equiment had been superbly set up by Rachel and Sinead.
On arrival there was good food – soup, sandwiches, cake and beverages – and a good audience who gave me plenty to do!
Leaving the venue around 8:45 pm the evening was still mild and inviting, so I set off exploring once more. This is my third visit to the city; the previous two were with work so free time was limited, but I had booked two days leave to cover this trip and I was now eagerly looking forward to a good long spell of “me time”.
Ulster and Titanic Museums
Belfast is a lovely city which has worked hard to make itself accessible, safe and fascinating for the visitor. The river promenade is modern and full of interesting sculptures and buildings. Tomorrow will see me visit the Titanic Museum and this major development has fuelled an exciting vibe along the river and in the town centre. Here, the tiny alleys – the Entries – which once one would have never dared venture down have been cleaned up and well-lit – though I still suspect late on a Saturday evening one might hesitate, as you would in any major city.
By now it was a little late for restaurants so I had bar food back at the hotel. Jurys Inn is a no-frills mid-range hotel. The food was average as was breakfast. Across the road is the Assembly building with a fascinating clock chime – apparently the only clock in Belfast with a twelve peel motion – I wonder if Schoenberg and co knew?
It was a bright and cheery morning as I first set off to the Ulster Museum to add to my history of the region. The museum is set in a modern building with a fascinating layout and there is an extensive history section as well as an in depth study of The Troubles.
It was clear even in the audience last night that the term ‘British’ is still contentious and the vivid exhibition brought the reasons home clearly.
A walk through the adjacent botanical gardens took me down again to the River Lagan, a decent walk into town and on to the Titanic Exhibition, the main target of my day.
The approach to the iconic building is impressive and carefully choreographed, passing the last White Star liner still in one piece – The SS Nomadic – in a dry dock. The Titanic building itself is iconic and beautiful, tall and imposing, evoking the ship’s prow and with the famous statue by Rowan Gillespie of Titanica with arms swept back in the pose made familiar by Kate Winslet in the 1997 film.
I first went to the bistro and had an excellent meal. The menu is interesting with plenty of choice. I had a bowl of lentils and sweet potatoes with salad, good coffee and a delicious cheesecake. Thus sustained I spent the next two hours deeply engrossed in the story. I’m not going to give anything away for there are surprises galore, but it is absolutely outstanding, exciting in its use of technology but also deeply moving.
But time was moving on and the design and technical drawing rooms along with the remote pump house will have to wait until next time – I need to bring Helen here! As I left the wind and rain were developing so I paid a quick visit to the slipway and then headed for the central bus station.
Belfast to Chester
My luck with transport continued and I hadn’t long to wait for the 300 bus to the airport. Apart from some slow traffic whilst leaving the city centre the run was fairly quick. Belfast International Airport is disappointingly small and not very busy at 6pm, but the facilities were fine. The flight was on time, the journey quick – the mostly full A320 taking only 30 minutes. I’m always amused by the easyJet safety instruction which begins “If we land on water…”
So within an hour of queuing at the gate in Belfast I am stepping out of Liverpool John Lennon Airport to be faced with a decision. Do I return via Warrington or Liverpool? A bus immediately outside the terminal was loading with passengers and was heading directly for Liverpool City Centre. Taking this would mean not having to change at South Parkway and waiting for a train; so this I did.
During the course of the journey I realised that the Loop line under the Mersey between Birkenhead and Liverpool is closed at present. This now entails a bus (another one!) between Moorfields and Birkenhead Central.
I had time to pick up a McDonald’s and the transfer to the other bank was easy. Mind you, I still had a half hour wait for the Chester train, and 40-minute journey thereafter.
Public transport v Private
Well, there is no doubt – car is quicker. But I had the time and, more importantly, the patience – I’d planned for this timespan of travel. The public transport at either end of the flight cost me a total of £20, return. The car park alone at Liverpool John Lennon would have been more than that and there would still be Belfast bus to pay for (or taxi). So, the key is to plan the time and have patience – I experienced no unplanned delays and that is unusual in an itinerary of this nature.
All in all a successful and rewarding trip