LAUNCH BREAK; Belfast, the City That Built the Titanic, Makes a Huge Impression on Nigel Thompson

Article excerpt

Byline: Nigel Thompson

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past couple of months, you'll be well aware that the liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1,514 lives 100 years ago.

The luxury "almost unsinkable" 882ft and 46,000 tonne ship was, of course, built in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which is now the site of the Titanic Belfast centre.

It would be fair to say the birthplace of the ship has aimed to capitalise on the centenary, and who can blame the city for wanting to earn a tourist dollar or two?

So what's all the fuss about? Well, the Titanic Belfast centre is located on the east side of the River Lagan in what's termed the Titanic Quarter, a waterfront regeneration project, and close to the Thompson dry dock where the vessel was fitted out after being launched.

It's a fabulously striking three pointed building at the entrance to Belfast Lough and is designed to represent the bows of the White Star Line's most iconic ships; Titanic, Olympic and Britannic.

The exhibition is housed in nine galleries reached via an impressive atrium with the first dedicated to the history of Belfast and how it became a boom town through linen, cigarette and rope manufacturing.

I overheard some visitors questioning the relevance but I thought it gave some context.

Gallery two moves on to the Harland & Wolff shipyard and the mighty Arrol Gantry that housed the ship during construction.

Here the facts flow fast, and I learned that building the ship cost eight lives and 254 injured (a fatality was described as having "gone to the other yard"), three million rivets were used, foremen wore bowler hats to protect from rivets "accidentally" dropped from the gantry and riveting teams consisted of left- and right-handed hammerers.

In this gallery you get a lift up the "gantry" and head to the Shipyard Ride, which consists of cars for six people moving up and down through a reconstruction of the yard. I thought it was, well, genuinely riveting. Next up is the The Launch of Titanic area which looks down the ship's slipway though a window fitted with electrodes that switch from the normal view to a superimposed image of the Titanic. It's really rather clever.

The fourth gallery details the fitting out of the vessel and has mock-ups of all three classes of cabin plus a seriously whizzy CGI tour of the ship from engine room to bridge. I thought this was the highlight of the exhibition.

Passing through the Maiden Voyage gallery, where you "meet" the passengers and crew you arrive at The Sinking, which is subtly handled and reading the displays of the many telegraph messages between the sinking ship and those racing to the rescue was informative and moving.

By now I was getting a slight dose of Titanic overload and perhaps spent less time in The Aftermath and Myths and Legends sections than they deserved - I'd allowed two hours for the whole exhibit but it's not enough.

You wind up your tour at the Visit & Explore the Wreck area, which features fantastic videos on underfoot screens of the Titanic lying on the sea bed two miles down. You then exit via the Ocean Exploration Centre, which details marine biology, archaeology and the mapping of coastal areas.

Belfast isn't all about the Titanic.

It was my first visit and I hadn't expected so many grand Victorian buildings. It's a low-rise city and the streets are generally quite wide so if you're lucky to get sunny weather, as I did, it feels light and airy in a northern European way.

Probably the grandest of all the Victorian structures is the City Hall, a marvellous civic building started in 1898. …