All aboard: 24 hours in the life of one seat on the Belfast Citybus 8b
One bus, one seat, one November day in Belfast. The Belfast Telegraph chose to traverse the city on a Translink bus and speak to the myriad of people who travel on it: the 8b Malone route, which runs from the city centre to Erinvale and back - and all points in between.
The journey takes in Belfast City Hall and the impressive 19th century red brick facade of Queen's University; it picks up students from university halls of residence and residents of Malone Road's mansions and Taughmonagh's terraced houses. Its path crosses all sections of Belfast society.
The 8b transports people at each stage of their day, mood and energy. It carries people to work in the city centre as it deposits others, exhausted, back home.
Some people hop on the bus with a spring in their step, not knowing where, exactly, the bus will take them today.
People take the bus for a plethora of reasons, as I learnt from speaking to commuters. Some savour their time on the bus; some see the ride as merely a necessity. People plug in their headphones, or bury their nose in the newspaper, while others strike up animated conversations with their neighbours, or learn foreign languages from tourists.
A ride on one of Belfast's buses can make an individual's day. Like Anne Townsend (84). Anne was born in Belfast and has lived at Greystown Avenue for 53 years. Anne says: "My husband Harvey died four years ago and I don't drive. I take the bus nearly every day; it's quite sociable, especially when you live on your own. I like looking at the scenery, if it's a nice day, and if someone speaks to me I like to have a chat with them."
Although her family live nearby, they work, and so Anne depends on the bus to get out and have an independent life. "Getting the bus means a lot to me. I'm not really a lonely person, but if anybody lives alone and isn't feeling good, if they take the opportunity and get on the bus to go for a coffee, or something like that, it can just lift them for the day - it truly can make a difference to their lives."
When we spoke to Anne, she was on her way to Shaftesbury Square. "I'm going to get my hair curled and then to Coffey's butchers to get some chops for dinner. My daughter Averil is coming over tonight so I'm going to cook lamb chops, potatoes and broccoli with mint sauce and gravy."
At the beginning of the bus's return leg from Erinvale to Donegall Square, university student Stephanie Dale (18) is the first person to take a seat. She makes the journey from home, where she lives with her parents and younger sister Kirsty (16), to Queen's University every day.
She went to school at Hunterhouse College and is now in her first year studying drama. "It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it," she says. "Tonight, I'm going down to rehearse for a play that's going to be performed at the Brian Friel Theatre called The Gate of the Year. It's about the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette, who I'm playing.
"It's a very challenging role, because she is quite a misunderstood character in history. The director, Gareth Russell, is also the playwright, so that helps a lot."
As a self-described "nosy" person, she enjoys the variety of people-watching on the 8b bus route. She has yet, however, to find inspiration for characters she has played.
"I don't think Belfast locals really live up to Marie Antoinette, but maybe one day I'll get inspiration for a character while on the bus," she says.
Buses have travelled these roads for years, as has Stanley O'Neill (72). The retired senior managing director of housing for Belfast was born in the city and has lived in Erinvale for 42 years with his wife Doreen.
He fondly remembers travelling this route by bus regularly for more than 20 years and is taking it today to buy a present for his granddaughter Sophie (16).
"I like being on the bus, knowing every aspect of where we're going. I've been doing it since I was a boy, I know every niche in the road. It brings back memories as you travel down towards the centre - I remember playing cricket there," he says, pointing.
"I am going to Matchetts music shop to buy a book for my granddaughter, who is doing her Grade 5 music theory. She goes to Victoria College and plays the viola - she's in the City of Belfast Junior Orchestra."
Clarke Cooper (19) is gazing out of the window before he chats relaxedly as he makes his way to Maggie May's cafe in Botanic Avenue for his evening shift.
"I'm on my way to work. I'm a waiter there," he says. "I'm still trying to get full-time employment, but it's a cool place. It might seem like the same stuff every day, taking orders and bringing out food, but there's always something different.
"It's not monotonous. I like the people you meet; the other day I was talking to someone from America who has moved over here to go to Queen's University."
Clarke does shifts at both Maggie May's on Malone Road and Botanic. "At the cafe on Botanic, you have a group of local elderly people that always sits out at the front," he says. "They get their pots of tea and wait for everyone coming round to meet up."
He lives in Finaghy with his mum Jacqueline (49) and went to school in Lisburn. "I've been getting the bus every day from when I was 11. Now, I usually just scroll through Facebook, Instagram, or text people."
Despite having taken the bus as a schoolboy himself, he now regrets when his peaceful bus ride is interrupted by young peoples' chatter.
"Sometimes it is not as quiet as you'd like it, passing by schools and getting young kids on the bus," he says. "But then, the other day, I saw my cousin on the bus who I hadn't seen for a year or two."
The free bus passes that the Government gives to people aged over 60 enables Maureen Moore (68) to volunteer at the Macmillian cancer support and information centre once a week. She says: "I had breast cancer four years ago and it's my way to give something back. I meet and greet people and we're trained to listen to people with cancer. Volunteers all use their passes to get there."
The former midwife has lived in Finaghy all her life, and been married to Tom, a retired hospital supervisor, for 44 years. She worked at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital for 40 years.
"My free bus pass is fabulous - I love it," she says. "I've done mostly bus rides into town, but in the summer Tom and I go on longer trips. We've been to Dublin, Newry and Derry. I'd be worried if the politicians decided to stop the bus passes for senior citizens. It gives them independence."
On the day we travel, people are grateful for the enveloping warmth of the bus and the shelter it offers from intermittent, but battering rain. Emma Gillespie (30) is thankful for something more that the bus offers, though. It makes travelling through the city easier for her, whose mobility is limited by fybromyalgea, and her daughter Kara Fae (7), who has special needs.
"My mobility is not great," she says. "But in the mornings I am a little bit better than the afternoons, so I walk into town to get my exercise and get the bus out because that's the time I get very sore. "It's very good, the bus, especially when you travel with a disabled child. It's really handy for us. At certain times of the year, you also get tourists and I always have a chat with them, to see where they're going and be nosy.
"My daughter likes to learn languages, so if you get people from foreign countries she'll always ask them how to say hello. She can say hello in Cantonese, German, Spanish and French. She always remembers Cantonese because her favourite food is Chinese."
Sisters-in-law Justine Sullivan (27) and Jeanette McArdle (39) are relishing a child-free bus ride, a chat and the thought of a coffee with a mutual friend.
Jeanette says: "We are going to a friend's house for a chit-chat. We just talk too much on the bus so that we don't even realise where we are going until we get there. We usually miss our stop." She has four children, who range from two years old to 20. "They love getting the bus, especially if it's a double-decker," she says.
Justine has identical twin three-year-old girls. "They love a bus ride," she says. "But it's getting them to sit sometimes which is the problem. This is a peaceful journey - no shouting!"
All human life is here ...
Aoife Markin (19) is a first-year student at Queen’s University. She says:
“I’m travelling from my real house, in Cambourne Park, to my student house. I live with three other girls on Malone Avenue. I’m doing law at Queen’s, but I absolutely hate it.
It’s not that bad living so near home. Whenever your housemates annoy you a bit, you can just go on home.”
Geraldine Keenan (50) is a nurse and lives with her husband at Greystown Avenue. She says:
“I’m coming home from work, as I do night shifts at Belfast City Hospital. I’ve been a nurse for 37 years and have been travelling this route for about 30 years. There’s a few people who commute every day and start at the same stop, so I’ve made some friends.”
Denis McKaigue (23) is a software engineer for start-up firm The Tactics. He says:
“I’m on my way to work and alternate between cycling and taking the bus, depending on the weather.
I’ve just graduated from Imperial College in London, where I studied physics and I’ve been back in Belfast for two months.
I love being back here — it’s a great place to live.”
Gwendoline Thong (19) and Calvin Mai (19), both moved from Penang, Malaysia, to Belfast in September to study engineering and science at Queen’s. Gwendoline says:
“Belfast is really nice — I love it so much. It so easy to get anywhere, even by walking, but we still need a map. We use the bus on rainy days. I like the architecture of the buildings here. They’re so old.”
“Usually we would drive in Penang. We would seldom walk because it’s too hot. We are just on our way to Victoria Square from the Elms Village.
Colleen McCullough (25) is deputy manager at a day nursery and lives with her fiance, Mark. She says:
“I’m going from home in east Belfast to Finaghy for work at a day nursery. When the bus is late, it’s annoying, especially when there’s heavy rain.
I’m usually knackered, so I just sit in a daze on the bus. If someone talks to me I’ll talk back, but I wouldn’t instigate conversation.”
Dr Youwei Li (47) is a senior lecturer at Queen’s. He lives in Belfast with his son, Xiaofan (8). He says:
“I am taking my son to school at St Bride’s PS, which we do every day. We usually have a chat on the bus about what he has got planned for the day.
I drop him off and then I walk to work. Sometimes we get the bus back home all together — me, my wife and Xiaofan.”
Margaret Richardson (69) lives with her husband Leslie in Erinvale. She says:
“I’m on the bus every day. I clean offices on Great Victoria Street for two hours a day, six days a week.
I like getting the bus and having a yarn with people who come on. I’ve been going on the same route for 14 years and it hasn’t changed much. But I’m noticing houses being built in Erinvale — it’s nice seeing how they’re coming along.”
Christine Cunningham (60) and her husband James were both Salvation Army officers in England before moving to Northern Ireland 21 years ago. She says:
“I’ve been getting some euros. My husband and I are going to Dublin for our 34th wedding anniversary. I don’t not enjoy the bus, but it is just practical. I sometimes can’t help overhearing other people’s conversations, but I try not to listen.”