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Ship-shape and Belfast fashion: Harbour estate is the star of three-part BBC mini-series


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Harland & Wolff’s cranes

Harland & Wolff’s cranes

BBC NI

Port controller Neil Scott keeping an eye on all operatoins

Port controller Neil Scott keeping an eye on all operatoins

BBC NI

Shipping agent Gary Hall

Shipping agent Gary Hall

BBC NI

Harbour pilot Dougie Rennie

Harbour pilot Dougie Rennie

BBC NI

Harland & Wolff’s cranes

It's been the birthplace of the world's most famous ship, the Titanic; a base for the world's most iconic TV series; and a home for world-renowned ice hockey stars in a venue which doubles as a stage for the world's most celebrated singers and bands.

But away from the shipyard, Game Of Thrones and the SSE Arena, Belfast Harbour is in a little world of its own, having quietly, and with the minimum of fuss, acted as a lifeline for Ulster for over 400 years.

It's been the entry point for countless ships bringing vital supplies all day and every day into the port, which handles 20% of all of Ireland's seaborne trade.

And rarely before has the busy harbour played a more important part as it rises to the challenges presented by the coronavirus, which has threatened to bring the world to its knees.

While many other businesses have been forced to shut, the show still goes on at Belfast's docks, where officials won't let any storms outside the port deflect them from their crucial role.

A spokesman for Belfast Harbour told the Belfast Telegraph: "Ferry, freight and cargo services at Belfast Harbour are continuing to operate as normal, as we work with our freight partners to maintain the flow of essential goods and efficient running of supply chain operations."

The spokesman said officials have introduced a number of changes to working practices to ensure that social distancing and other health guidelines are followed, enabling port operations to continue to run smoothly.

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Belfast Harbour

Belfast Harbour

BBC NI

Belfast Harbour

Now a new TV series is to draw back the curtain on the work that's undertaken in the harbour, a vast sprawl of Belfast that few people really know - a "secret world", as the producers are calling it.

The three-part documentary on Belfast's heartbeat was filmed last year before the onset and onslaught of Covid-19.

It was shot at a time when tourism was booming and cruise ships were queuing up to release thousands of disembarking visitors into Belfast.

The mighty floating hotels are gone for the moment, but the BBC Northern Ireland series - Belfast Harbour: Cruises, Cranes And Cargo - is still a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes in the harbour estate, which covers an area of 2,000 acres.

The statistics for 2019 - a record year for the harbour - were impressive, with 27,000 people working in the area back then and nearly two million people arriving in or leaving the port, with 24 million tonnes of goods passing through, too.

The 2020 figures will, obviously, be down come the end of this difficult year, but harbour bosses are hoping that the end of the coronavirus, whenever that comes, can be the start of a renewed beginning.

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Control room manager Craig Meldrum watches over port movements

Control room manager Craig Meldrum watches over port movements

BBC NI

Control room manager Craig Meldrum watches over port movements

The TV series shows exactly what makes the harbour tick, seeing life at the port through the eyes of its operational managers, crane drivers, pilots and even its colourful tour guides.

Narrated by actress and playwright Marie Jones, who was born and bred not far from the famous Harland & Wolff cranes in east Belfast, the documentary goes into the hub that controls the flow of the massive ships, which bring 130,000 containers a year into the harbour.

Many of the container vessels that are sent to Belfast acquire their goods from "mother ships" which come into other European ports, like Rotterdam or Antwerp.

Craig Meldrum, the control room boss, manages the ins and outs into the port with military-style precision from his nerve centre overlooking the harbour.

And it's probably easier to say what's not in the cargo than what is.

The containers are loaded with anything and everything, from rally cars to Christmas trees and from frozen meats to furniture, with Northern Ireland importing a lot more than it exports, according to Craig, who is in constant touch with crane drivers like Ryan Munn, whom the cameras follow as he unloads hundreds of containers from a weekly visitor to the harbour, the Dutch-registered Helga.

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The MSC Meraviglia

The MSC Meraviglia

BBC NI

The MSC Meraviglia

Ryan says that driving a crane isn't easy. "You're constantly watching around you to see who's below you, what you're lifting and how you're lifting it," he adds.

He also reveals that the wind is another regular challenge at the harbour, where a £40m investment package saw the arrival of new state-of-the-art cranes from China to replace ageing lifting gear, and the opening of a new terminal.

A large part of the first programme in the series is devoted to the massive explosion in business at the harbour from cruise liners, which it's hoped will make a return once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

Last year 145 cruise ships visited Belfast, compared to the two that came back in 1996.

The documentary looks at how the harbour last September accommodated its biggest ever ship, the HSC Meraviglia, which weighs nearly four times as much as the Titanic did.

The cruise liner is the last word in luxury, with 15 levels, three swimming pools, a 900-seat theatre, 12 dining venues and 20 bars and lounges.

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Harbour pilot Peter Gates

Harbour pilot Peter Gates

BBC NI

Harbour pilot Peter Gates

The documentary shows Neil Scott, the port controller, preparing to make sure that the ship gets to and from its berth, negotiating the narrow and restrictive Victoria Channel.

Pilots Dougie Rennie and Peter Gates, who are both ex-ship's captains, are the men charged with going out to meet the Meraviglia and guiding her into Belfast.

Just like crane driver Ryan, Dougie says the wind can be the trickiest factor standing in the way of making it plain sailing for the cruise ships.

He recalls how one wayward vessel once put a marker beacon out of commission for two years when it hit it on its way into the harbour after its autopilot failed.

The Meraviglia has to swing round 180 degrees before it backs down into its berth, but it docks without incident.

And that is the cue for the next phase of its frenetic day in Belfast to begin, overseen by shipping agent Gary Hall, who has responsibility for a myriad of duties, including offloading 35 tonnes of waste generated on board the Meraviglia in the 24 hours it's taken the massive liner to get from its last stop in Southampton.

But the disposal sometimes isn't as simple as it sounds because, as Jones says, time and tide wait for no man. And, in the case of the Meraviglia, the cameras show that the shell door through which the waste is due to be brought out is below the level of the quay.

So, officials have to wait for the tide to rise again to be flush with the dockside.

Gary knows to expect the unexpected from cruise liners, like the last-minute demand from the Meraviglia crew for a massive order of two-and-a-half tonnes of striploin beef.

Gary says: "It's a tall order to get it in Northern Ireland at short notice. But that's what makes the job interesting, fun and exciting."

As Gary is trying to organise for the beef to get on board the Meraviglia, its 5,300 passengers are getting off to go on bus tours to the Giant's Causeway, the shooting locations for Game Of Thrones, and Belfast itself. Last year 250,000 people from cruise ships visited Northern Ireland.

Larger-than-life Billy Scott is a tour guide veteran, who breaks into song just as quickly as he rattles off his patter about Belfast on his bus.

Billy fuels up for his tours with an Ulster fry at one of Belfast's best known cafes, Benny's, near the entrance to the harbour estate and which was a location for Neil Jordan's 2005 movie Breakfast On Pluto.

Between mouthfuls of his gargantuan breakfast, Billy marvels at the transformation in tourism in Belfast, adding: "If you had said to us a few years ago that you'd be getting cruise ships coming into Belfast, you'd have been taken away by the men in the white coats and locked up somewhere very quiet where people come and pay and giggle at you." On his tour, fry-lover Billy jokingly tells his clients that he's been a body double for actor Jamie Dornan - while the name doesn't ring too many bells, his movie Fifty Shades Of Grey is instantly recognised, particularly by the women on the bus.

The documentary also focuses on another famous name, Harland & Wolff, as shipyard workers take to the picket line as part of a campaign to save their jobs after the firm announced they were calling in the administrators.

Back on the bus, the tourists from right across the world are told about the industrial past of Belfast, including the building of the Titanic, but they also hear about the Troubles, as Billy takes them along the Falls and the Shankill, where he laughs as he urges them to desist from saying the rosary.

They also see the peace walls - and in nationalist areas, Billy asks his guests to call him Liam instead of Billy.

Gary, meanwhile, succeeds in accessing the beef needed by the Meraviglia. And with the shell door back down below the level of the quay, thanks to the falling tide, it's all hands on deck from the ship as the crew unload the mountains of meat up the gangplanks, racing against time to beat the ship's departure en route to Iceland and New York.

A relieved Gary reflects on a job well done.

But his busy day isn't quite over as he takes a phone call from his wife, who wants him to bring home... a red grapefruit.

Belfast Harbour: Cruises, Cranes And Cargo, BBC One Northern Ireland, Tuesday, 10.45pm

Belfast Telegraph