Clientele drink in hot gossip as storm brews for inn owner
THE storm clouds were gathering in one of the photos on the wall of Kirk McCambley's cafe.
The image featured a white sailing ship at full tilt careering through the growing waves.
Genteel and well-spoken mothers with young children exchanged knowing glances as Iris Robinson's 19-year-old toyboy lover worked busily behind the counter serving up lattes at the Lock Keeper's Inn.
The MP secured £50,000 (€55,000) from two wealthy developer friends so the fresh-faced Mr McCambley (now 21) could open the restaurant.
Still boyish looking, with gelled hair and just the hint of a downy moustache, in another life he could have been signed up for one of Louis Walsh's boy bands.
Fame, or infamy, has visited him nonetheless.
Nestled on the snow-cloaked banks of the River Lagan's towpath, the cafe is in a renovated stone building dating from the 1880s and just five miles from the Stormont Estate where the reverberations from the "May to December" dalliance could yet topple a First Minister.
It was opened in May 2009 in the Lagan Valley Regional Park, at the heart of the affluent Malone Road area of south Belfast and is a popular stop-off for couples and families communing with nature on a popular walking route.
The Heritage Lottery Fund provided £1.6m (€1.78m) for the makeover of the cottage.
The regional park is a mosaic of countryside, urban parks, heritage sites, nature reserves and riverside trails.
The backbone of it is the towpath -- offering miles of level walking in tranquil, attractive surroundings.
Today the cafe did a roaring trade, with black Labrador dogs outside straining eagerly at the leash at joggers whose winter breath sent plumes of steam skywards.
While the lure of hot drinks on a freezing day made a seat in the small cafe an attractive proposition, many of those who thronged it were lured by something more than cappuccinos and muffins.
Adjoining an interpretative centre, the cottage was opened last year by Mrs Dorothy McBride, daughter of the late George Kilpatrick, the former lock-keeper of Lock Number 3.
An inscription beside the entrance from an Irish folk song said: "Young lovers they walk slowly beside my lagan (sic) stream. Holding hands and talking about their wildest dreams."
The restaurant is accessed via a snowy pathway and stone bridge over the old dark-painted locks and frozen stream.
Smoked salmon and prawns were on offer for £6.95 while a bowl of stew cost £5.50. Carrot cake for £2.50 lined the counter. French toast for breakfast came in at £3.45 while the more proletariat-sounding bacon buttie was £2.95.
Janice Richards (33), a mother from south Belfast parked her mammoth blue pram and said she had wanted to bring baby son Chris to the Alps skiing but was enjoying the snow closer to home.
Beside her the headlines screamed out of neatly-folded newspapers about Iris's "toyboy" lover. Mrs Richards said: "It is just such a surprise, to think with someone so young..."
Another diner, who declined to be named, munched on well-done toast as she said: "I just came here for something to eat, The programme (BBC's 'Spotlight', which made allegations about Strangford MP Mrs Robinson) has certainly created a stir."
Segafredo extra-strong coffee beans were on sale and an array of coffee flavourings lined the wall as well as a variety of herbal teas for the discerning guest.
Another customer, Carol Blaney (43) from south Belfast, leaned over and said: "I know there is the whole political thing but to me it is the fact he is so young."
The idyllic scenes outside were of weeping willows coated in sugar-icing-style snow, while inside there were photos of autumnal and spring forest scenes set against a wallpaper of gold and floral prints.
Mr McCambley, with dark hair cut short and dressed in black shirt and trousers with black apron, spent much of the time outside fielding calls on his mobile phone and when asked about the controversy simply smiled wanly, said "no comment" and shook hands.
Before noon, though, the young man with all eyes on him made his escape, gingerly sledging on indoor shoes across the stone bridge, over the river and across the frozen snow to a waiting red Renault Megane.
The storm clouds are expected to be persistent.