Tuesday 21 November 2017

Titanic odyssey records tragedy that still haunts

MUSEUM: In Titanic Belfast, images of people are projected on a wall in a replica first-class cabin. The tragedy saw the class divide starkly demonstrated, with more first class surviving.
MUSEUM: In Titanic Belfast, images of people are projected on a wall in a replica first-class cabin. The tragedy saw the class divide starkly demonstrated, with more first class surviving.
SEASIDE: Madeleine Keane beside the ‘Wind and Sea’ sculpture in the grounds of the Slieve Donard Hotel, with the Mourne Mountains in the background
Titanic Belfast
Slieve Donard Hotel
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

Designed to look like the famous prow, Titanic Belfast is captivating and moving.

'And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.'

(from 'The Convergence of the Twain')

THESE chilling lines, written by Thomas Hardy on the loss of the Titanic come at a pivotal point in the majestic museum dedicated to memorialising the tragedy. I was on a brief visit to Belfast (incredibly, given I've lived nearly half a century on this island, my first, but that's another story). Along with a friend, I'd travelled up to tour Titanic Belfast from our billet an hour's drive away.

Some billet. Slieve Donard Hotel is the imposing redbrick monolith you spy at the end of the line as you drive through the small town of Newcastle in County Down. Built in 1897 as a railway hotel, it demonstrates that the Victorians knew a thing or three about location. Flanked on one side by the mountains of Mourne which sweep, famously, down to the sea, on the other by the prestigious Royal County Down golf course, it sits in six lush acres of private grounds in which are currently dotted a collection of sculptures.

The most arresting of these is the elemental 'Wind and Sea' – a dramatic creation sculpted by the talented Patrick Campbell, formerly of the catering group which rescued the declining Bewley's Group in the Eighties. Numerous works, by Patrick and others, furnish the interior and exterior of Slieve Donard.

Bought in the Seventies by the Hastings Hotel Group, and given a substantial makeover in 2006, it now has a first-class fitness centre and stunning new spa, yet still retains a quaint charm which cast it in a central role in the 2000 film Hotel Splendide, a mad-sounding movie starring Toni Collette, Daniel Craig and our own Hugh O'Conor.

After our drive up from Dublin (about two hours or so) we had partaken of a light lunch in the Lighthouse Lounge, a peaceful place beside the spa overlooking the Irish Sea. But after a bracing walk beside the seaside, afternoon tea never looked so inviting. And we both agreed that as we were on our holliers, it was time to eat.

Very good value at £20 each, there was even an amuse-gueule alongside the traditional scones, cakes and sandwiches – in fact, there was so much food we took a doggy bag back to our room. For a tenner you could add the sparkle of a glass of Mumm's champagne. That was good value, but not so the glass of vin very ordinaire in Chaplin's Lounge (the great comic stayed there back in the day) which was a pricey £11. That said, a delightful dinner – scallops, rack of lamb, chocolate pave – took the sting out.

The next morning, refreshed by a deeply restful sleep, we headed for the spa. After a swim, a stint in the vitality pool (lovely to sit there soothed by warm water while looking out at the vista of thrashing waves) and a gorgeous lavender and bergamot massage, we headed north through pleasant countryside. We parked near the city's oldest coffee shop, Campbell's, which had a certain gritty authenticity and, after chicken sandwiches and apple pie, had a quick spin around the shops before our very important date with destiny. Titanic.

Like thousands of people, I've always been fascinated by the story of the tragic ship, and I wonder why. After all, there have been myriad disasters at sea – Lusitania, Marie Celeste, Costa Concordia among others – but none has quite captured the imagination as the story of the beautiful behemoth which set forth with such pride and joy that April day over a century ago. Was it the sparkling brand newness of it all, symbol of the hope of a new century, or was it the inequitable injustice of the class system that caused more impoverished than wealthy to perish, that inflames and rivets so many of us?

Whatever the reason, this grey Saturday in February there were thousands of visitors; book in advance as we did for your allotted time (www.titanicbelfast.com).

Apart from the shop – which is disappointingly diddly-eye – I'd imagined it would be like those fabulous emporia that attend the great modern museums of the world, but this sells Titanic coffee and Belleek: the Astors (the Colonel drowned, pregnant Madeleine survived) did not dine off Belleek on the maiden voyage. But that's my only caveat. Titanic Belfast is a breathtaking experience.

From your first view of it, designed to look like the famous prow – in the shadow of the great Harland and Wolff shipyard, framed by the massive twin yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath – Titanic Belfast is captivating and moving. Brilliant 3D visuals bring you from the bowels of the boat through the bow to the bridge – we both felt slightly seasick. And there's a magnetic journey to the ocean floor in the company of oceanographer and former US Navy officer, Professor Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck in 1973. He'll deliver a lecture there on March 20.

And yet, for all the fantastic touch screen galleries, faithfully recreated state rooms and exceptional archive material, ultimately it is the human tales of courage and cowardice which break your heart. From the owner J. Bruce Ismay who jumped ship and hid out his shamed remaining days in Connemara to the little toddler who, thanks to his nurse, survived (parents and sister claimed by the Atlantic), only to lose his life in Manhattan at the age of 18 from food poisoning.

Perhaps it is this that compels us so – for all the money, all the glamour, all the brilliant engineering in the world, we are but fragile specks upon this earth.

Getting There

Treat yourself to a luxurious break in in the Slieve Donard Resort & Spa in Newcastle, one of Ireland's finest spa hotels and the recent winner of the Hotel and Catering Gold Medal award as the best four-star hotel in Ireland. One-night stay starts from £85pps, two nights from £155pps and three nights from £210pps. This fantastic price includes dinner in the Oak Restaurant, a full Irish breakfast and use of the spa facilities.

To book or for further information go to www.hastingshotels.com or call 048 4372 1066.

This offer is available Sunday to Thursday. Supplements apply for room upgrades and single occupancy. Offer is valid throughout 1st April – 31st October 2014.

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