My most treasured and special days are my days off. The days I have at home in our little coastal village with it’s sandy beach, 17th century Castle and basalt Amphitheater as a dramatic backdrop. I live in one of the most beautiful settings in the world, as it goes.
When I have to leave the house to drive to my local town, I can go the short way or the long way. The long way takes me around the headlands, the meandering Coast Road and through the Black Arch carved into the hillside and the gateway to and from the iconic coastal route. I pass through our own friendly little village, the country park and the next little bay where fabulous houses are popping up on formerly derelict sites. Built there with upside down living and lots of glass, drawn to the same attraction which seduces me to choose the long way every time. The sea. The North Channel with her guardian goddesses perched on the rocks out to sea and the distant Mull Of Kintyre adorned by the lighting choice of the weather gods. Days off are precious in the ever changing beauty of light, season and weather in this constant seascape.
By contrast, my work life takes me to the heart of our capital city. Albeit Belfast as cities go, is a little one. I leave for work whilst most haven’t even stirred from their dreams and head up the nondescript dual carriageway with the other early commuters and recently berthed ferry traffic.
I could dislike the city. My early memories were of security turnstiles, army patrols on the streets, headlines of murder and bombs. Political and religious hatred which still lives on in the hearts of those too bitter or plain stupid to leave it behind. In those days the Europa Hotel was infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world. Thirty Six attacks during the “troubles”. Maybe if Belfast hadn’t seen so much pain and hurt during my formative years, I wouldn’t feel so much pride and love for her now. After all she suffers the same social problems as all modern cities, but oh how the Bright Lights of our Little City are shining these days.
When I take a lunchtime stroll I am filled with hope each and every time. Some of the oldest, most historically important and precious buildings and structures filled with new life and purpose alongside brand new development. I’m naturally drawn of course to the water and the Titanic Quarter where at last we’ve realised the value of our proud shipbuilding heritage. As I stroll across the footbridge which spans the Lagan weir and head towards the two big Harland and Wolf cranes which watch over the city like two steely yellow giants, I’m warmed to hear excited chatter in numerous languages. Tourists with camera phones, or SLRs slung around their necks heading for the Nomadic and the Titanic visitors centre. Or back towards the city plainly puzzled by the slightly skewed angle of the Albert Clock. So many visitors seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, photographing and loving our city.
I’ve recently discovered that for one quick hit and feel good injection about Belfast, all you need is half an hour in St George’s Market on a weekend. Forget Royal Avenue and Victoria Square with its same shit, different city, chain stores and shiny mass produced luxuries. When I want to see the best things that this little place produces all on it’s own without the plastic, factory in Asia and huge carbon footprint, I head to the market. Yes there’s the odd stall of utter tat but you can buy the freshest fish from a local fishmonger, vegetables straight from the farm, little paintings by local hands of our greatest landmarks and artisan candles which smell of yellow whin bushes in the spring and turf fires cutting through frosty air on winter’s nights.
There’s a buzz here. Local musicians playing to a colourful crowd. Locals and tourists eating paella or baked spuds. Belfast these days is wearing it’s contrasts well.
Keep hoping Little City. Keep those bright lights shining.