This is the year of the Titanic. Not only has the centenary of its loss been marked, it has been examined by such experts as Admiral John Lang, former Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents in the UK. He realised some years ago that in 1912 the accident was investigated in very unprofessional terms compared to what would happen today.
‘Relying on witness statements is notoriously unreliable’, he tells me. He decided to look at the Titanic evidence again to see if his own personal conclusions agreed with what everyone has always believed and, very simply, they did not.
As it happened the gal, onboard that luxury cruise ship Silver Explorer, sailed into Belfast Harbour and docked right opposite the new Titanic Belfast building, on the slipways where the liner was built.
Titanic Belfast® opened March 31st, 2012 and you need to book far ahead for tours through nine exhibitions stretched over four of the building’s six floors. The tour charts the history of the Titanic from its construction in the nearby Harland & Wolff shipyard to its final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic.
You do not, however, see the replica of the ship’s famous staircase. It has been incorporated into the banqueting hall on the upper floors and is not part of the tour. This is only on view to the more business-type guests who will attend sit-down functions on the two top floors of the building.
Entrance is £13.50, or £6.75 for a child. The total £76.9 million investment has mostly come from the Department of Enterprise DETI and the Northern Ireland Tourism Board: the remainder has come equally from Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and the Titanic Quarter Ltd. The building is owned by a charitable trust, Titanic Foundation Ltd.
The operator, which has annually to pay £200,000 in rent with a further £600,000 put into a trust to refresh the attraction, is Titanic Belfast Ltd, part of the Dublin-based Harcourt Group, an associate of Titanic Quarter Ltd.
But there were other things to do in Belfast. For us, it was, first, to the base of the Northern Ireland Executive, the vast Stormont Castle that parliament erected in the 1920s as a finger-up to the folks down south, in Eire. Little Northern Ireland wanted to make a big statement. It also has big approaches, one mile each of them, meeting just in front of the imposing building.
Next came a visit to Mount Stewart. Anyone who spends time in luxury hotels expects things to be neat and clean. Ritz-Carlton’s new video, The Art of Craft, includes a most charming scene, viewed megatimes on YouTube, showing the passion of a housekeeping supervisor at Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. She would have a fit here at Mount Stewart, the 18th century seat of the Marquesses of Londonderry and the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family.
Outside, it is frankly rather forbidding. Inside most of the treasures are still family owned (they live here occasionally) but as part of their deal with the National Trust, which operates the estate, they handed over two treasures.
One is a set of 22 chairs, exquisitely embroidered with the arms of the nations who took part in the Congress of Vienna: one hopes the participants had comfortable chairs at the time as the congress sat September 1814 and did not rise until June 1815.
The other treasure here is the largest and most valuable Stubbs painting, a lifesize of the racehorse Hambletonian. The thoroughbred belonged to the 2nd Marquess, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest.
Although the house and its 80-something acres of garden were already there, both were transformed by Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry DBE, 1878-1959. Born a Chaplin, she was brought up at Dunrobin and married at 21.
Her husband inherited the Castlereagh title and she took over the Londonderry title, but then her son somehow acquired it so she became dowager. Very confusing. An amazing organiser, she turned the gardens into a feat of globalisation – there is even an Australian section, with gum-trees.
The lake today has a pair of swans with eight juvenile cygnets, and dozens of ducks, and always a few fresh-faced Northern Irish mums and little kids feeding them bread. She set up her garden with the help of 20 First World War veterans from WW I, and now it is tended by a team of seven, headed by a German woman, with lots of local volunteers.
Lady Londonderry was a celebrated social hostess (a trait inherited by her descendant Lady Annabel Goldsmith and, in turn, her children, including Jemima Khan). She organised ARC evening soirées in London, with ubiquitous Champagne and animal nicknames for all those invited.
She organised the Women’s Royal Legion, and in one portrait looks very chic in her military-style uniform, with men’s button format. Sounds like a definite girlahead.