Mark Smith: The view of Northern Ireland from the man in seat 61
Last weekend for the first time in 20 years Mark Smith, the influential train fanatic and travel writer, made in back to Northern Ireland with his family. Writing exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph, he tells us if we're on the right track... or not
Mallorca? Benidorm? Tuscany? No. Passionate about Titanic and eager to see where she was built, this summer my seven-year-old son insisted we come to Belfast. Some might think us crazy, but I think not. I'd first visited Belfast in the early 1990s, and discovered a city and people very different from that portrayed on the Six O'Clock News throughout my childhood in the 1970s.
So armed with some cheap London-Dublin SailRail tickets bought online a week or two before, we set off on the morning train to Holyhead. Crewe, Chester, the Welsh beaches and the imposing battlements of Conway Castle sped by our window.
SailRail is making a modest comeback, boosted by rising air fares and increased airport hassle, not to mention the volcanic ash of 2010. Indeed, not so long ago just five cars of the 09:10 from Euston went all the way to Holyhead; now Virgin Trains send the whole 10-car train.
From the numbers swarming into the ferry terminal at Holyhead on this late August Monday, it might as well be branded The Ireland Express. Check-in was painless and we were soon aboard the afternoon ferry to Dublin, in the Club Lounge with a glass of red and a plate of smoked salmon as the ship approached the Irish coast, the sea sparkling, the sun dancing over the distant darkness of the Wicklow Mountains. Sometimes slower is better ...
A Guinness at Madigans, a night at the Gresham on Upper O'Connell Street, and we trundled north to Belfast on the smooth and comfortable 11am Enterprise. The Enterprise shares its coach design with the high-speed London to Paris Eurostar, but there the similarity ends. It ambled sedately through the pretty Irish countryside, arriving at Belfast Central five minutes ahead of its unambitious two-hour schedule.
Yet the train was busy, all seven carriages well-filled, this is evidently a route crying out for a speedier journey and an hourly departure. Once across the border at Newry, dire warnings against trespass on every platform struck British eyes as odd, and I pitied the graphic designer told to illustrate 'loitering' – this appears to involve standing in threes with legs and arms akimbo, which in NI obviously warrants a hefty fine. Or perhaps Translink have simply banned Charlie's Angels?
In Belfast, we checked into the Europa Hotel, unable to resist the intriguing title of Most Bombed Hotel in Europe, where journalists Kate Adie, Trevor MacDonald, John Simpson and others once stayed to cover the Troubles; when so many windows had been broken and boarded it was nicknamed The Hardboard Hotel. The Europa bravely stayed open throughout, and a glass cabinet next to the piano on the first floor attests to the hotel's turbulent history. A true survivor, today's reborn Europa proved a wonderful place to stay, good enough for US President Bill Clinton who was an honoured guest not once but twice. And the Europa is equally handy for the beautiful National Trust-owned Crown Bar, where the Belfast Ale proves the city can brew a bitter as good as any.
We settled in, then took the kids on the Belfast open-top bus tour, an excellent way to get one's bearings without wearing out the little ones' feet. The bus drives slowly along the Shankill Road and down the Falls, where the cheerful Union Jacks and red, white and blue kerbstones of the Shankill and the Irish tricolours on the Falls prompted the kids to ask if there was a party. Sort of, I replied ...
Next morning we enlisted the help of Susie Millar (www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk) for a personal Titanic tour. She took us first to the house of Titanic's designer Thomas Andrews in Windsor Avenue, now bizarrely converted into the headquarters of the Irish Football Association and surrounded by a car park, but retaining a grand staircase and some beautiful stained glass. The great grand-daughter of a deck engineer who went down with his ship, Susie brought a personal angle to the tragedy, taking us to the hamlet north of Carrickfergus where her grandfather (then aged five) had watched the newly built liner sail for Southampton with his father aboard, never to return.
That afternoon we visited the Thompson Dock and Titanic Belfast, which the kids loved. Personally, I found it incredible that crowds were admiring the beautifully mounted photographs of the old Harland & Wolff design offices inside the carefully manicured exhibition, whilst the real thing lay unsigned, unnoticed and derelict 50 yards away, a solitary desk standing askew on the ripped carpet with its drawer hanging out, our small party led by Susie the only people peering in through the murky windows. Nearby, we admired the restored and resplendent White Star tender Nomadic, so different from the hulk I'd once seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower, rusting on the Seine.
Next up, a day trip to the Giant's Causeway and a chance to see how investment has transformed Northern Ireland's railways. A one-day family ticket for train and bus cost just £20, and we set off on the 10:10 from Great Victoria Street to Coleraine on as smooth and modern a regional train as you'll find anywhere in Europe, with bright carpeted interior, powerful air-conditioning and comfortable seats. The contrast with the decrepit and infrequent trains I'd used on my first trip to Northern Ireland in the 1990s could not have been greater – this is a success story that should not go unremarked. We changed easily onto a bus at Coleraine, where the bus centre is sensibly integrated with the station (the rest of the UK might well take note) and were soon rambling along the north Antrim coast past pretty Bushmills village and the awesome cliff-hugging ruins of Dunluce Castle before being dropped at the Causeway entrance.
The weather was kind and the lazy afternoon sun shone down on the Causeway's implausible hexagonal stones. Our return took us through the bustling seaside town of Portrush, where day-trippers thronged the station platform for the train back to Belfast.
On our final day, a spur-of-the-moment decision sent us to the Old Crumlin Road Gaol. A good call, this was a thought-provoking tour with a wonderful commentary by guide Brendan, which brought the prison's 160-year history to life. Was it coincidence that my wife felt briefly unwell and my son suddenly anxious when we entered the condemned man's cell and the room where 17 men were executed between 1846 and 1961? Who knows ...
That evening we sailed home with a Belfast to London SailRail ticket, in a cosy family cabin on the overnight Stena Line ferry to Liverpool, dawn breaking over the Liver Building across the Mersey next morning, a fast train reaching the capital at 10am.
In London it sometimes seems as if no-one has enough time for anyone, and the friendliness we met in Northern Ireland was all the more welcome. It's no surprise to me that Belfast has risen from nowhere to become the 7th most popular city break destination in the UK. In my opinion that's just for starters. I have to admit I'm a fan. I'll be back...
A platform for success
Mark Smith lives in Buckinghamshire with wife Nicolette and children Nathaniel (7) and Katelijn (4).
He joined British Rail and rose to become station manager for Charing Cross, London Bridge, and Cannon Street stations in London.
He later worked as customer relations manager for two major rail companies and, until 2007, as the Department of Transport's expert on UK rail fares and ticketing.
He now runs his Man in Seat 61 site full-time. It covers rail travel in the UK, Europe and around the world and gives advice to travellers on how to buy rail and ferry tickets and book hotels. His site is called Seat 61 because that is the seat number he reserves when travelling first class on the Eurostar.
His travel site began as a hobby but is now his full time job.
It has won numerous awards.
Mark's favourite rail journeys include:
London-Fort William on the Caledonian Sleeper;
Auckland-Wellington in New Zealand on the Northern Explorer;
Chicago-Oakland (San Francisco) on the California Zephyr.