Belfast Telegraph

Take time to peer through the window into our past

By Mike Gilson

Head down, iPod on, I've walked past the derelict building on my way to work so many times and never stopped to look.

Why would you? Set back a little, it is shrouded in buddleja, the funereal garland of all dead places. The butterfly bush covers everything, sparing the shame that would be the exposure of the red sandstone building's broken-down facade.

But the other day I did stop. Something caught my eye and I went back to have a look. It's a fascinating place, the former Methodist church on University Road in Belfast. Striking, yet quite ugly. A huge square campanile reaching into the sky for what purpose who knows. Maybe to be closer to God than anyone else in the district.

Through the undergrowth at the front you can see the entrance, a double arch now boarded up with chipboard, a sign that usually foretells the end of things.

You can see stained-glass windows, many broken, on the first floor and around the side. I imagined generations of Methodists respectfully filing into the place ready to immerse themselves in the joyous pleasure of Wesleyan hymns.

What were the dramas, intrigues, joys and despairs among the congregation and where are they now? I looked it up online. It's for sale. The vendors,, have a job on their hands even at a cut-price £400,000.

It is what we might call a "doer-upper" despite the brochure-speak of a "unique redevelopment opportunity". Pictures inside show heart-breaking decay, but the former glories, the fantastic balconies and towering arch over the altar have not been completely obliterated.

How long ago was it that this place was filled with voices lifted to God? Dereliction and decay fascinates me and has done ever since I was a boy.

In a small seaside town near my home stood a hotel amid the amusements arcades and fish and chip shops called The Regal. It had long been closed, a victim of cheap foreign travel, which robbed it of its traditional clientele.

Its sign faded, it, too, was covered with chipboard festooned with graffiti declarations of love and on its front wall a notice still promised Thursday night "swing time fun".

Through the gaps in the board, we youngsters could peer into its gloomy insides and still see the tables set for breakfast and the beer pumps on the bar, the specials on the chalk board, as if everything was left in a hurry, like a seaside Pompeii.

Could we strain our ears and hear the jazz band playing Glenn Miller and just about see the ghostly outlines of couples dancing to In The Mood? Of course we could.

For us, peering into that hotel was as awe-inspiring as the films of the Titanic at its final resting place, surrounded by wine bottles, shoes and dinner plates. As I walked across Belfast that day, the dying buildings in our midst begin to stand out. The manor house on Malone Road (the clink of spoons as high tea in the reception room is taken), even recently deceased Auntie Annie's (is that the three-chord thrash of an aspiring new band I can still hear?) and the Ulster Bank on Royal Avenue (all those under-managers with their eyes on the old man's job).

Those faint sounds and outlines joined the congregation of the church in pleading with us not to forget our past as we walk to work in our present.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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