I hope the American tourist who stopped me in an industrial estate last Saturday found her way to Titanic Belfast. The ship-shaped and steel-clad visitors' centre, described by Building Design magazine upon its opening four years ago as "plumbing new depths of inanity", was visible from where we stood. However, it was on the opposite side of the river Lagan and a circuitous walk away. I commiserated with the American on having to hike through an urban wasteland but every visitor to Titanic Belfast must witness desolation, lost or not.
The attraction, implausibly named this week as the best in Europe, sits in a semi-abandoned shipyard, which in turn sits within the huge Harbour Estate, covering one-fifth of the city and housing all the bits and bobs the modern world needs but prefers to hide – oil tanks, sewage incinerators, recycling yards and mile after mile of warehouse and factory units, stretching up both shores of Belfast Lough and fanning across it like a delta. Reclaiming this land was the act of will that raised Belfast, physically and economically, from a swamp.
Many cities have similar waterfronts, of course, but Belfast adds its own unique strangeness. Aircraft manufacturing bequeathed an airstrip, which became one of the world’s most centrally-located airports – this is a harbour where planes are more numerous and closer than ships.
Not far from one end of the runway is the shipyard's cavernous paint-hall, now converted into a film studio. There could hardly be a less promising location for a sound stage yet it could hardly be more successful – most of the indoor scenes for Game of Thrones are filmed there. So glamorous actors must traverse this wasteland too.
Glorified scout hut
Behind the studio is
, a first World War warship and hence an even more literal expression of
metaphor-laden demise than Titanic Belfast’s naff architecture.
owes its preservation to the royal naval reserve, which spent most of the 20th century using it as a glorified scout hut.
The Victorian shipyard workers wanted a park, and after about 50 years of asking they got one – Victoria Park opened in 1906 and jutting right across the east bank reclamation. A landscape of gas manifolds gives way to landscaped gardens, then back again.
The skyline is famously dominated by the two shipyard cranes but they are often now dwarfed by oil rigs. In 2013, a particularly enormous specimen became Belfast's unofficial Christmas tree after being lit up for round-the-clock repairs. This year the oil rigs have in turn been dwarfed by the world's tallest offshore wind turbines, assembled onshore by Denmark's marvellously named Dong Energy.
Next to that is a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and maintained with the help of a herd of grazing ponies. There is a great view of the wind turbines from the bird hide – it would make a perfect contemporary update of that classic Belfast postcard "Shipyard cranes from Victoria Park".
By far the Harbour Estate’s strangest new sight are the cruise ship passengers, arriving at the rate of 150,000 a year. Belfast has only begun planning its cruise ship terminal so vessels are still docking at industrial wharfs on both sides of the lough. About a third of all passengers never disembark, it was recently reported, as they are having too much fun on board – or at least more fun than Belfast seems to offer. Most of the rest take a bus, coach or taxi into town.
But Titanic Belfast is a major draw, and enough of the 150,000 think they can walk to it as it is a visible presence among the cranes, planes, oil rigs and oil tanks.
Some of these people get lost – mobile phone coverage is erratic. Some of them stride about purposefully, perhaps trying to lose their shipboard weight. I have met Germans and Japanese well off the beaten track. However, anyone who stops you for directions is invariably asking for Titanic Belfast – and the reason there are locals about to ask is because of the walking and cycling routes which opened up around the lough in recent years. Industrial areas, with their wide, quiet roads, are ideal conduits for such facilities.
Bicycle hire businesses have started meeting cruise ship passengers at the quayside, bringing them through the Harbour Estate on two wheels in large groups, all expensively dressed for a downpour. There is a touch of the David Lynch movie about this, as sudden crowds whizz from one ship to an exhibition on the sinking of another.
I am surprised that people from across the world want to see Titanic Belfast. But if you are from the other four-fifths of the city it is now worth seeing the harbour.