Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Winecellar Cannon

Having inflated the tyres of the trusty two-wheeler to an appropriate degree, I rode into Belfast, the main purpose being to undertake a little research at the Linenhall Library.

It's convenient for me, given that I can park the bike opposite the side entrance at Fountain Street.

Afterwards I ambled across Donegall Square North in order to admire the grand lamp-posts which once adorned lord mayors' residences during their period in office.

The lamp-posts now stand outside the main gates to City Hall.

Diligent and faithful cherubs greeted visitors to mayoral homes; whereas now they welcome all from their prospect of the city's principal thoroughfare.

THE STUMP of a bollard of some antiquity survives in Winecellar Entry, at the corner of the courtyard near White's Tavern.

Marcus Patton, OBE, thinks that it might be what remains of an old cannon.

This entry, incidentally, dates from the 17th century.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Cullintraw Day

I have spent a lovely day with other National Trust staff and volunteers at Cullintraw, County Down, which is near the Castle Espie nature reserve.

The National Trust acquired the freehold of fourteen acres at Cullintraw in 1994 from Joan Morrow.

There were about seven of us today. We were cutting and gathering soft rushes in the field.

A small herd of Dexter cattle kept an eye on us.

After lunch - prawn mayonnaise sandwiches and tea for self - a few of us extracted some ragwort in a corner of the field.

It was quite remarkable to see how many Cinnabar caterpillars there were on the ragwort.

Heather cut the soft rushes with a powerful Allen scythe, which made light work of it.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Fermanagh DLs

The Viscount Brookeborough, Lord-Lieutenant of County Fermanagh, has been pleased to appoint:

Ms Roisin McManus, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh
Mr Shaun Pendry, Kesh, County Fermanagh

To be Deputy Lieutenants of the County, his Commission bearing date the 25th July, 2014.

Lord Lieutenant of the County.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Ministerial Honours

Neck badge of the Order of Companions of Honour

THE QUEEN has been pleased to appoint the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke CH QC MP to the Order of the Companions of Honour.

The Prime Minister requested the honour be granted following the recent government reshuffle, in recognition of Kenneth Clarke’s longstanding public service to the country.


THE QUEEN has been pleased to approve that the honour of Knights Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) be conferred upon the Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan KCMG MP and the Rt Hon Sir Hugh Robertson KCMG MP, in recognition of their public service to the country.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Phantom Revival

Eureka! I wondered what had become of the City of Belfast's Rolls-Royce Phantom VI limousine.

David Irvine discovered it.

The navy blue colour partly remains, though the car is now painted two-tone, grey on the sides.

The car was re-registered as WVO 338G.

The mayoral limousine was probably ordered at Stanley Harvey & Company Limited, Clarence Street West, Belfast.

Note the well-upholstered leather hide seating, with occasional seats.

The upholstery befits, and has supported, many illustrious and esteemed posteriors...

...and the drinks cabinet: The Bristol Cream or a wee dram today, my Lord Mayor?

It is known that the car was for sale on Ebay recently.

First published in August, 2012.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Mayoral Phantom VI

In the late sixties and seventies, the Lord Mayor of Belfast's official mode of transport was a stately Rolls-Royce Phantom VI.

This car was, without doubt, the finest mode of transport the first citizen has ever used; nothing has matched it ever since.

I have attempted, in vain, to obtain information from Belfast City Council about earlier mayoral transport.

Remarkably enough, I gather that the Lord Mayor's was the very first Phantom VI ever produced and was the official mayoral car from 1968 until 1978, when Belfast City Council sold it. 

The Lord Mayor of London still uses one.

The then Councillor David Cook may have been Belfast's last mayoral occupant of the Phantom VI, which was navy blue in colour with the first citizen's registration number 1 WZ.

It even had a little pennant on the bonnet and a coat-of-arms mounted on its roof.

The Queen still has a fleet of trusty Phantoms, including at least two Phantom VI state limousines.

As a boy I was in awe of this car, a true symbol of authority, power and presence.

It really was quite a spectacle to behold (more so, perhaps, than some of its official occupants).

It must have been quite similar in appearance to the Queen's car, a 1977 Phantom VI presented to Her Majesty for the Silver Jubilee.

The Phantom VI was manufactured from 1968 until 1991 and a mere 374 of them were made.

The mayoral transport gradually became less grand when the Phantom VI was sold. I imagine it was simply too grand for some tastes.

The Council subsequently bought a Daimler Limousine for the first citizen; then another Daimler; then downgraded to a Jaguar car and so on. It's been in free-fall ever since.

The present mayoral transport is a BMW 7 Series - still navy blue and 1 WZ. 

First published in June, 2008.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Brackenber School: 1930-1985

Here is the very last entry on page 34 of The Brackenbrian, Brackenber House School's magazine:-

Momentote vos superstites scholae Brackenbris
qui hinc progressi disciplina eius minime
dedecorata famam bonam ac mores ipsis ascivistis.

Be ever mindful, you who have survived,
Of what, from Brackenber, you have derived,
Who forth have gone, its training undisgraced,
And morals and a goodly name embraced
Briefly scanning the school register, a few interesting names of former alumni have emerged:-

L. OPIK 1969 - 1976
He went to RBAI where he had a brilliant academic career. He is now at Bristol University reading Philosophy and President of the Students' Union there. He must have been there during my time; I don't remember him, though. 
H.J. HASTINGS 1971 - 1975.
After a successful career at Harrow he went to Nottingham University where he obtained his law degree. He is now with Peat Marwick, London, studying for an accountancy degree. Howard Hastings and I were pals. I think we began a Corgi Toys club in the library, or something like that with others.
The above entries were written almost 25 years ago.

Incidentally, Brackenber House School was located at Cleaver Avenue, off Malone Road, in Belfast.

Paul, now the Lord Bew, is an Old Brackenbrian.

At the BHA Dinner held at the School on Friday, 4th January, 1985, the Toast of the School was proposed by another Old Brackenbrian, the Honourable Mr Justice Hutton, who went on to become the Right Honourable Sir Brian Hutton, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland; culminating in the House of Lords as the Lord Hutton, a Law Lord.

Lord Hutton attended the annual BHS dinner in 2011.

First published in December, 2011.

Monday, 14 July 2014

HMS Caroline News

The Belfast Telegraph columnist, Linda Stewart, reported recently that the historic Pump House that served the dock where RMS Titanic was built is to be transformed into a visitor centre for HMS Caroline.

The listed building is the subject of a new planning application by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which is working towards reopening HMS Caroline to public view in 2016.

HMS Caroline is to be restored to her former glory and it is hoped she will reopen in time for the centenary of the Battle of Jutland at the end of May, 1916.

The well-known Belfast architect, Dawson Stelfox MBE DL said his company Consarc has drawn up plans for restoration work to the Pump House for its client, the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

These plans have now been lodged with the NI Planning Service. Mr Stelfox added,
"It goes alongside the restoration of HMS Caroline. The Pump House was originally built for the Alexandra Dock and it serviced both the Alexandra Dock and the Thompson Dock. Part of the Pump House will be used as a visitor reception area for HMS Caroline.
The whole fabric of the building will be restored, the brickwork and the stonework, and internally it will be fitted out as a visitor reception and interpretation for when people arrive at the site.
The whole of the dockside is going to be restored with cobbles and square setts – it will take away all the tarmac and restore the traditional features. At present the site is owned by Northern Ireland Science Park, but the planning application has been lodged by the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
Eventually the Pump House will be taken over and run by either the National Museum of the Royal Navy or the Titanic Foundation. This is part of an overall plan to get all of the historical assets in the area restored. It started with the Hamilton Dock and the SS Nomadic which was finished last year.
The idea is that the Alexandra Dock and the Thompson Dock would both be restored and a walkway would be created along the river, connecting the two together."
After Caroline was decommissioned in 2011, there were proposals to move her to Portsmouth, but following a hard-fought campaign, the National Museum of the Royal Navy announced that she would stay in Belfast and be restored to her former glory.

In May, 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund approved an £845,600 grant to support conversion work as a museum.

The former boiler room of the Pump House has been converted into a modern cafe and visitor centre which is open to the public.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Downhill Mausoleum

I visited the Downhill Mausoleum recently, at Downhill demesne, County Londonderry.

Downhill House, Palace or Castle - whichever nomenclature one prefers - was built by the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Frederick Augustus [Hervey] Earl of Bristol and Lord Bishop of Derry, commonly known as The Earl Bishop.

This august monument, several hundred yards from the mansion house, was erected for the Earl Bishop between 1779-83.

It was built in memory of his lordship's elder brother George, 2nd Earl of Bristol, who died a bachelor in 1775.

The 2nd Earl was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a highly esteemed viceregal position with very considerable power, patronage and influence.

The mausoleum stands between the Lion's Gate and the Bishop's Gate.

It was based on the Tomb of the Julii.

Sir John Soane produced a sketch design (above), based on the Roman model, for the Earl Bishop, though the work was undertaken by the Irish architect Michael Shanahan.

Shanahan's version was said to be very similar to Soane's, though less elegant.

It comprised a square-planned, cross-vaulted structure, with arched openings and eight corner columns, standing on a high plinth.

The monument was crowned with a domed monopteral tempietto, contained a fine statue of the Earl Bishop's brother, in Roman dress, by John van Nost the younger.

Neither the timpietto nor the statue could withstand the storms of 1839, since when the fragments have lain around the base of the now stunted monument, awaiting restoration.

The 2nd Earl's statue is located near the Bishop's Gate in the grounds, though the head and part of the right arm are missing.

Seemingly the Earl Bishop 's intention had been to create an open-air museum, centred round the mausoleum, of reconstructed antiquities within the grounds of Downhill.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Magilligan Drive

This morning I drove across the bridge at the River Bann, at Coleraine, County Londonderry, and towards Bellarena, passing the Desmonds' admirable Bellarena estate (above).

Magilligan Point isn't far from here, so I made a detour towards the little ferry terminus.

There's a fine Martello tower of 1812 here, close to the beginning of Lough Foyle.

I stopped at Downhill, the property of the National Trust, and admired the grounds.

I made a point of visiting the mausoleum, built between 1779-83, in memory of George William [Hervey], 2nd Earl of Bristol, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766, brother of the Earl Bishop.

The mausoleum stands proud, though many of its finely-carved stone blocks lie on the ground.

Would this edifice make a future project for the Follies Trust?

Mussenden Temple

A reader informed me that the centaur statue, which used to greet visitors to Downhill Palace (or Castle), is now at Spencer House, in London.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The French Rooms

I dined at The French Rooms yesterday evening. This charming restaurant is located in the centre of Bushmills, County Antrim, not far from the Bushmills Inn.

They have a very good selection of spirits.

My starter of goat's cheese with fig chutney and rustic bread arrived promptly.

This was nicely presented, on a wooden platter. The cheese was enveloped in a little paper pouch, tied.

The small disc of butter had a sprig of mint. The chutney complemented the cheese beautifully.

The trusty gnashers were champing above the long-suffering nose-bag by this stage.

The staff here are charming. Chef here is a monarch of the profession.

My sea-bass duly arrived. I also ordered garlic potato bites and garden peas a la Francais. 

Needless to say, the fish was tender, moist, and boneless.

Alas, I'm too full to do justice to a dessert. I have the pudding menu in front of me: Tarte au citron; croque banane; pear, chocolate and almond tart; clementine cake ...

There's also a crepe collection, various cheeses, and liqueur coffees.

Indeed it was a memorable evening.

Don't forget to look upwards to see the central rotunda.

Ards by Wayfarer

Route clockwise from Cultra to Newtownards at head of Strangford



The Ards Peninsula, a long limb of fertile land extending south along the coast of County Down, was a backdrop to my Ulster childhood.

The whole county is pebbled with low hills of glacial moraine called drumlins, which also account for the many islands and drying pladdies [small islets] of Strangford Lough, the UK’s largest sea inlet and a place of soft and tranquil beauty.

On the east coast of Ards is the North Channel of the Irish Sea from where Scotland and the Isle of Man are easily visible.

My cousin fishes prawn out of Portagovie and I’d often cycle down and round, visiting the fishermen and maybe crossing over to Strangford on the ferry that plies the fast flung tides of the Narrows at the mouth of the Lough.

In June 2014 I fulfilled a long held ambition to sail round the peninsula from Belfast Lough, down the east coast (visiting my bemused relations), up through the Narrows, and north into Strangford as far as the shallow draft of a Wayfarer would allow.

I took the water on the slipway of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club at Cultra on the southern shores of Belfast Lough, opposite the brooding basalt of the Antrim Plateau.

A few miles to the west is the city of Belfast, its skyline dominated by Samson and Goliath, the two colossal gantry cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

The local clubmen were very welcoming and the usual banter was struck up,
“is there any particular reason why you are doing this?”, “you are not going on your own are you?”, “did you ever consider going by car?”, “I hope the Coast Guard have been alerted?”
Especial thanks to Gary who, between banter attacks, stocked me up on local knowledge.

For instance at Donaghadee Sound the tide flows south for only three hours. By 11:30 I could think of no further excuse for not setting sail.

I could feel some tension in my guts but, as Gary said “you need a bit of fear to remind you you are alive”.

Setting sail from Cultra, southern edge of Antrim Plateau behind (Photo Noel Thompson)

My first port of call was Donaghadee, a small town with two big piers.

A colleague in Bristol was reared in these parts and I called her up seeking recommendations for a good ice-cream.

The sun was splitting the skies and I felt a bit freakish wandering amongst the day trippers in a dry suit.

All day there was a fairly thick bank of cloud sitting inland – a common and favourable pattern for the coastal cruiser.

With northerly winds blowing for the whole trip this was a lee shore and I decided to depart under motor and hoist the sail off shore.

The wind had freshened and I made a good call to reef before heading due south.

Ah - the sheer joy of running before the wind on a sunny day, the feel of the boat as she lifts on the wave, twists slightly and speeds into the trough, the sound of water chortling at the transom, landmarks quickly distancing to windward.

I made six knots to Portavogie – a little less when I furled the genoa which was finding it hard to set on the run. 

Selfie with ice-cream from “The Cabin”: Donaghadee’s famous lighthouse behind

Portavogie has a working fishing fleet and most of the boats were in. How different and exciting it is to arrive somewhere from the sea!

I threaded my way, again under engine, into the inner harbour and tied alongside one of these hard worn wooden craft.

Cousin Roy was there duly bemused, and soon I was in the bosom of my fisher folk family, the victim of much banter, freshly baked sponge and an impromptu bagpipe recital.

The knot on the end of my rudder downhaul had pulled through the wood (I think because the joint is too stiff and my efforts too vigorous) and this was quickly repaired.

These people are made of stern stuff. The working day for a Portavogie fisherman is 18 hours.

Margins are tight with £1000 a week on diesel, competition from bigger vessels with “expendable” foreign crews and an unsympathetic Northern Ireland Fisheries Board (Roy was banned from fishing for ten days for accidentally landing 0.5Kg over his quota for cod).

The fish we eat are hard won. Yet there is a still a glint, a passion. I think they’d rather die than sit at a desk.

The next morning I headed off south again, bound for Strangford Lough.

350 million tonnes of water pass through the Narrows with each set of the tide.

The stream runs at 8 knots at springs and so all transits are determined by the tides which run a full three hours behind those at the coast.

I needed to enter the Narrows around 4.30pm so went cliff sniffing in pursuit of a nice sandy beach with an offshore wind.

Along the way I caught a first magical glimpse of the Mountains of Mourne. South Bay is not named on the charts but on the hearts of all those lucky enough to have discovered it. 

Just shy of Ballyquintin Point at the tip of the peninsula, this was the perfect cove to tuck a Wayfarer whilst I basked in the sun, had a snooze and climbed a hill marked Tara on the chart – an ancient fort which local legend says is inhabited by a bunch of musical fairies.

Our Neolithic ancestors had rare taste in real estate. From Tara you can see the whole of Ards up to Belfast and south to those sinuous mountains as they sweep down to the sea.

South Bay near Ballyquintin Point with Osprey parked at the high water line.

A bit of tension in the guts again as I approached the Narrows.

Just to complicate matters and kill a bit more time I decided to sail past the entrance to the lough and south to round Gunn Island.

Ulster has few coastal islands (Rathlin being the most famous).

This then involved me in a long and sporty beat back north against wind and tide. Having run the Severn Bridges already this year, I was less frightened of fast tidal stream than I might have otherwise been.

The danger of the Narrows is on the ebb where huge standing waves develop at the mouth especially in winds E to SW.

I tried to be encouraged by the pilot’s advice to “enjoy the whirlpools”.

Caused by some underwater pinnacles there is a large one called “Routen Wheel” which you are advised to avoid but which I think I may have sailed straight across – less whirlpool, more giant jacuzzi.

As with the Severn, I was surprised how well the boat kept its course in the turbulence.

Near the end of the Narrows, where the stream is fastest, is a tower from which are suspended two huge electricity turbines.

I tacked in front of this but slightly traumatised myself by getting pulled down by the current much faster than anticipated.

I missed the structure by 20m but 100m would have been better. The sight of the tide heaping up against the tower gave me the willies.

How different it was to be spat out into the gentle waters of Strangford (Norse, strong fjord).

No waves, land all around, the beautiful Mournes beckoning in the haze.

I headed now on a single tack to East Down Yacht Club and picked up an empty mooring.

Here I had my first attempt at erecting a boat tent. Dave Barker’s (UKWA) instructions were superb (first instructions I have actually read in a long time) and the Ralph Roberts under boat bungee system inspired.

However, no sooner had I got it up than I took it straight down again.

Firstly I felt strangely nauseous in the slight swell, secondly I felt deprived of the wonderful views all around and thirdly I knew there was a dry night ahead and no call for a roof.

I don’t think I could have been happier, tucking into a hot meal, listening to the varied and urgent calls of the birds and reflecting on all that had happened that day.

I could still read a book at 10.30pm and settled to an acceptable sleep – sunglasses making a good barrier to the sun rising at 4.30am.

Perhaps I was lonely because I did put on Radio 4 over breakfast and spent the morning doing the sorts of seamanship drills I never find time for at home: MOB, coming out of irons, taking a mooring buoy and rowing in close quarters.

I did an experiment to check the fuel consumption of my 3.3HP Mercury 2-stroke. It used around 300ml of petrol in 10 minutes at full throttle.

With a tank of 1.4litres that gives me about 45 minutes in one fill. Accounting for tides, the boat under power has a top end of 6 knots.

With 7 litres stored I have an engine range of about 28 miles.

Before leaving East Down I was regaled with tales of their Wayfarer exploits (there are 20+ at the club) including a man in a boat called Blunderbuss who shot the Narrows only for the wind to vanish.

The poor bugger rowed to the Isle of Man in ten hours.
Another day of sun and wind. I parked myself in the middle of the fairway and hove-to for half an hour of watery bliss, listening to music through Bluetooth headphones and figuring how lucky I was to be alive.

Though it doesn’t pay to get complacent. A few years ago near that spot I was feeling very pleased with myself as we reached parallel with a yacht in full sail.

I commented glibly to my crew that according to the chart we were currently sailing over an island and just as the words were spoken we ran aground on a pladdy.

The yacht bobbed demurely on toward Portaferry where I now headed to check out a permanent aquatic exhibition called “Exploris”.

Having held a dog fish, stroked a ray and got up close and personal with cod, I headed back north with the tide toward my destination at the head of the lough.

The wind freshened and I had a long solitary beat to shelter on a mooring near Sketrick Island.  
Big skies over Strangford with the Mountains of Mourne in the background
On the next and final day of the cruise I wanted to do something that none of the clubmen I met had tried, to sail up the Comber River and haul out the boat at a small slip described by a canoeist on a paddling website.

The river lies at the head of a huge mudflat 2m over chart datum. On my way north I balanced the boat by standing on the side deck and leaning back on the shroud.

This felt Vikingly and lent a good view of the sea bed and any lurking rocks. Note that I benefit from having an extra-long tiller extension.

First the centreboard and then the rudder was up but with a rising tide I was not too worried about grounding.

Again the excitement of approaching an unknown shore, constantly checking the chart and scanning the land for the inconspicuous emergence of a river.

Soon I was in a totally different environment surrounded by reeds and swans breaking into flight to stay ahead of my slow progress against the wind.

There was one tense moment as I passed under some telegraph wires with about 8 foot of clearance.

Eventually I arrived at the slip way of the “Comber Cruising Club”, which ranks alongside the Chepstow and District Yacht Club as the UK’s most basic sailing facility.

The slip was deeply clarted in mud and, more importantly, the access gate heavily padlocked with no contact details to be found.

So, my sail of 89 NM around the Ards Peninsula ended instead at the Newtownards Sailing Club and the strong back of my long-suffering brother.

What a luxury to have been saved the practical hassle of a hitch back to the start, one of the less fun bits of a typical Wayfarer outing.
High tide on the mud-bound slipway of Comber Cruising Club, Comber River behind.
The trip was covered by Imray C69 (which covers the whole North Channel) and Admiralty 2156 which covers Strangford in greater detail.

Navigation was generally easy by sight and local knowledge.

Save yourself £25 and buy the Irish Cruising Club’s hardback guide to the East and North Coasts in the 1990 edition – very little had changed except phone numbers.

I used Navionics software on an iPhone to check my speed over ground and to verify distances.

A newly acquired reefing system for the genoa jib ( worked a treat and several times saved the need for a second tuck in the mainsail.

I doubt I’m the only single-hander to spend long hours studying his rig and thinking of (or plainly inventing) things to fix on return to shore.

I love to sail alone and in company in equal measure, particularly on sea passages: solitude is accompanied by total immersion in the physical act of sailing, a heightening of the senses and a clearing of the mental decks.

Yes, and a variable amount of fear. I’d take solace in the transitory company of a song.

With a careful eye on tide and weather I would commend this trip to any wayfarer with some sea experience.

Though the land has changed so much, the sea and much of the immediate coast is the same as it ever was.

This voyage was one of connecting back to my own past and that of generations of visitors to these hallowed shores.

Trevor Thompson, 1st July, 2014.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

New Lord-Lieutenant

County Borough of Belfast

THE QUEEN has been pleased to appoint Mrs Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, CBE, DL, as Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant for the County Borough of Belfast, to succeed Dame Mary Peters DBE when she retires on the 6th July, 2014.

Mrs Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle CBE DL
Born in 1960 and has had a varied career, including Communications, PR and Marketing Director, Bryson House Ltd; Director of PR and Communications, Andras House; and Project and Development Officer, RAIL (Northern Ireland Rape and Incest Line). She founded Jay Associates Public and Government Affairs in 1991, an independent consultancy specialising in government affairs.

For many years she has been involved in public and voluntary service, including the Belfast Civic Trust, the Belfast Buildings Trust, the Esme Mitchell Trust which assists organisations involved in social welfare, and the Prince’s Regeneration Trust. She is currently Chairman of the NI Schools Debating Competition.

She is the founding Patron of Teachers of Singing in Ireland, the only cross-border organisation in Ireland for the professional development of singing teachers at all levels. She is also Vice Chair of Northern Ireland Opera and was a member of the Historic Royal Palaces Hillsborough Working Group (now the Hillsborough Advisory Committee).

Mrs Jay-O’Boyle was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant in 2009.