A while ago, my husband and I took two 3-week photography trips around Northern Ireland, including ten days in Belfast. My husband needed to produce photographs for several books he had been commissioned to illustrate. Every minute of every day was taken up with photography. We found ourselves hoping it would rain, just so that we could have a day off! It didn't. We didn't. For six weeks (although we did once wake up to snow).
As with any city which has enjoyed a resurgence in its fortunes, Belfast is a heady mix of the old and new, alive with history but buzzing with new developments: the beautiful architecture of City Hall sits happily amongst smart new office and housing developments...
The beautiful interior of City Hall, from the dome
... the harbour is home to the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated Titanic was built and fitted-out; and the arts are thriving in all their forms. Down by the River Lagan, John Kindness's 'Big Fish' sculpture brings old and new together: created in 1999, it is clad in ceramic tiles decorated with texts and images chronicling the history of Belfast as far back as mediaeval times:
The Big Fish, which also contains a time capsule
But to me, the real jewel in the crown of this fine city is The Crown itself.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is a Grade A Listed building, standing on Great Victoria Street. Dating from 1826, it was extensively refurbished in 1885. In 1978, after a campaign by, amongst others, Sir John Betjeman, the National Trust acquired The Crown and restored it to its full Victorian glory.
And glorious it is too. A real gem. The exterior offers an enticing hint at what awaits you inside, with its elaborate tiles and delicate stained glass (designed to give the customers within a greater degree of privacy):
Stained glass window and elaborate ceramic tiling
And stepping inside really is like stepping back in time.
The Crown owes the beauty of its interior to Italian craftsmen. During the late 1800s, there was a resurgence in Catholic church-building in Northern Ireland, and many Italian craftsmen were employed on these projects. Some of these men were persuaded to work after hours on the refurbishment of The Crown, and their skills and attention to detail can be seen everywhere you look.
The bar is a feast of coloured ceramic tiles, beautifully-carved wood columns with Corinthian capitals, etched glass, decorated mirrors, and mosaics. There is a long 'alter' bar in red granite and a heated foot rail.
The sumptuous bar: ceramics, mosaics, carved wood...
Customers wishing to have a little privacy can enjoy one of the ten individual booths, or 'snugs', which still have a bell for attracting the attention of the bar staff. Each snug is enclosed with carved wood panels and etched glass, and guarded by carved wooden lions and griffins:
'Fortune favours the brave'
And to add to the atmosphere even further, The Crown is lit by its original gas lamps, which occasionally putter, and which welcome the thirsty visitor with their homely, muggy odour.
Gas lamp, pounded tin ceiling and colourful mosaics
The Crown Liquor Saloon has seen, lived through and survived a lot of history. During 'the Troubles', it frequently suffered collateral damage owing to its proximity to the Europa Hotel, a favourite of visiting dignitaries, which had the dubious honour of being the most bombed hotel in the world.
It is so sad to think that a few people are intent on reversing the peace process in Northern Ireland. I do hope peace will prevail, and I hope that will be soon. Belfast, and indeed the whole of Northern Ireland, is full of gems like The Crown, and they deserve to be discovered, enjoyed and celebrated.
All photography © David Taylor Photography