In Belfast we take a lot of things for granted. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the petrol or diesel that we put in our cars and even the very paper that you hold in your hands while reading this — it all had to come from somewhere.
The Belfast docks, or the Port of Belfast as it's now known, provides us with a huge entry point for fuel, food, commodities and other products from the farthest corners of the world. But it's a major part of our heritage, as well as our lives.
These docks are famous for building the RMS Titanic, the HMHS Britannic and the RMS Olympic but, on a day to day basis, who works on the quays and harbours of the Port of Belfast?
The harbour handles five main types of goods: ‘liquid' bulk, such as oil and fuel, ‘dry' bulk, such as animal feed, ‘break' bulk, such as timber and steel, container traffic, which transports commodities like food to supermarkets and shops, and the two ferry companies, Stena Line and Norfolkline.
In years past, the docks employed many people in Belfast. Charlie Strong (71) remembers how it was as a young man trying to find work here: “My father worked in the docks before me, and I joined the workforce here when I was 18 years old. That was late though. It was normal for people to join at about 16. In the mornings, we would crowd around the gates, waiting to be given a job. There were thousands of men working here at the time. It was like a cattle market, and all of the union men were chosen first. You couldn't join the union until you were 18 so this meant that a lot of the younger lads were left out.”
Bearing in mind the stringent health and safety laws now in force in UK workplaces, Charlie told of how accidents were commonplace in the ’60s and ’70s.
“I was working with a man in the past who was hit in face with a moving beam that was being lifted off a ship. Sadly, he didn't survive. That showed how dangerous it could be. There are dangers still today. It's always going to be a dangerous industry.”
One of the things that grips you about the docks is the smell. There's a soupy medley of seaweed, oil and grain that wisps around the grey harbour walls, the faint sound of traffic passing by on the M3 bridge nearby.
“I don't notice the smell any more,” said Robert Allen (42), director of Scruttons, the company which is the port's largest importer of dry bulk. “Dry bulk can consist of anything from fertiliser to coal. A lot of the animal feed comes in on what we call deep sea vessels, from as far afield as Brazil or Argentina. A deep sea vessel will typically carry around 30,000 tonnes of goods, but they can be as big as 70,000 tonne ships.
“I've been working here since I was 17 — that's 25 years now. It's a pretty unpredictable job. It's not like a factory, where you can plan ahead. There may be few ships coming in during the week, then seven come at once on a Monday morning. A 30,000 tonne ship can take as long as three days to empty with around 20 dockers working on it. Scruttons imports most of the animal feed in Northern Ireland.”
As Robert says, if you're tucking in to some steak or a chicken while reading this, the chances are, Scruttons probably fed it. The docks here, like in many other countries, were inevitably affected by the recession. The slump in the housing market meant that the import of building materials has dried up as well. Giant warehouses that were once packed to the ceiling with timber are now only a quarter full.
An increase in activities like internet shopping, however, and the emergence of giant UK supermarkets like Sainsburys popping up all over the country has meant that there's now a steady flow of consumer goods flooding into the country. As well as this, the Republic is becoming more and more reliant on the Port of Belfast, and the services that the place can offer.
Perhaps the harbour’s biggest advantage is the fact that it has huge potential for expansion. The recent relocation of the ferry terminal is a case in point. By simply building a new station for passenger vessels closer to the open sea, the people at the port have shaved an entire 30 minutes off the overall journey time.
The cross-channel ferries are just one of the many passenger vessels that will visit the harbour this summer. Belfast is now a major tourist destination as well as a commercial one, and cruise ships pump an estimated £15 million into the local economy each year. This year will be their biggest ever, with 68 ships due to dock here before the end of October, carrying 62,000 holidaymakers, and the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, which works with the port, ensures that everything runs smoothly.
Mein Schiff, a huge cruise ship, arrived here last week. Not long after it docked, thousands of tourists began to line up outside tour buses with an efficiency that could only be Germanic. Thomas, Sabine, Marlene (12) and Julius Breyer (four), from Hamburg, were about to see the city.
“This is our first time in Belfast,” said Thomas. “We stopped in Edinburgh and Inverness on our way here. It's a 12-day cruise. We're really looking forward to seein Northern Ireland. We're going to go on a city tour first.”
The money that tourism brings to the country is evident by the number of taxi drivers who clamber over each other to take the visitors into Belfast or on a tour. Translink also works with the port in order to provide free buses into and out of the city.
Roland and Gabi Boettger, from Dresden, were about to hop on one of the pink buses into town. “A lot of our friends will be going north to the Giants Causeway, some are going to Tyrone and some are going to the Ards Peninsula,” said Gabi. “We're going to go on a tour of the city. We want to learn a bit about the history of Belfast.”
Robert took us back towards a ship from Liverpool that had just pulled in. Sitting close to the harbour wall was the unmistakable silhouette of a painter. Arnold Gardiner, from Belfast, told of his passion for painting in the area: “I've been coming down into the docks for the last 10 years or so. I like to paint the various ships that come in, as well as some iconic buildings in and around Harland and Wolff. I've many finished watercolours based on ships that have come and gone from here.”
Robert pointed to the giant cranes that loom over the water. “There's a lot less requirement for labour intensive jobs these days,” he said.
“Things like grain would have needed gangs of men with shovels to load it into suckers to get it off the boat in the past. Now they use small vehicles called Bobcats to literally drive on and scoop it off the floor of the boat. Even the fuel boats are literally connected straight into the main pipelines and oil tank drivers pick up their load in the docks themselves. Other goods are just loaded into containers and simply roll on and off boats.”
Back at the animal feed boat, Charlie reminisced about the days when goods from abroad weren't packaged as well. He explained: “When the fruit and meat boats came in, no one went hungry, put it that way. Many men had nicknames because of the things they got up to. There was a chap who was known for years as ‘luncheon meat' for literally stealing a tin of meat.
“When we used to receive shipments of frozen sheep, a lot of the lads would help themselves to a piece. A local butcher once said he'd never seen as many three-legged sheep in his life.
“One man who worked here owned a car. Back in those days nobody really had a car, but he did — and he didn't just want a burger, he wanted a whole sheep.
“So he took off his flat hat and put it on the sheep and sat it up in the passenger seat of his car. When he arrived at the gates of the port, he was stopped by the harbour police. They shone their torch into his car and just waved him on.”
There are a lot of police needed to look after the 2,000-acre estate, which is one-fifth the size of Belfast. The Belfast Harbour Police Constabulary is one of the oldest ones in Britain. They keep a close eye on the millions of tonnes of freight and goods that arrive in Belfast by sea on a yearly basis.
With tourism steadily increasing every year, and plenty of room for commercial expansion, it certainly looks like plain sailing ahead at the Port of Belfast.