The Coronavirus Diaries, 7th August 2022. Take me to the Sperrins!

My short stay in Belfast comes to an end in around three hours. It’s been great. I have walked and walked. Mostly I have walked alone, but yesterday I spent with Petra who I met through my work, which happens to be the same line as hers, when she was visiting London. I felt quite proud to introduce her to a neighbourhood she didn’t know, and to Falafel, my favourite restaurant which I had thought had closed permanently due to the pandemic.

There are several Lebanese restaurants on Botanic Avenue. Before we got there, Petra asked if I really wanted to eat at the particular restaurant. I did. I wanted to make sure it was under the same management and the food was as good as in 2019. The answer to both concerns is yes.

When our food arrived Petra needed no further encouragement, and by the time we had finished eating she had noted the meals being served to other diners and announced her intention to return. If you like the look of it too, the address is 9 Botanic Avenue.

Lunch at Falafel

From the bus I kept seeing an intriguing sculpture. Petra told me it is of the Blackbird of Belfast Lough, and took me to see it. Did you see the one outside the library? she asked. I hadn’t noticed it tucked under the tree, so two refs to the blackbird just yards apart, and both lovely.

We strolled around, admiring the details on modest Victorian houses, watching dogs at play and cats on doorsteps. And talking.

We had met up at Two Sisters, the very lovely coffee shop Celia and I had stumbled upon in the spring.Petra had a coffee. I had a cake. We both bought bread.

All around the centre there are currently decorated elephants raising awareness and funds for hospices. I live close to the Elephant and Castle in London and we have the same style elephants, also decorated around the regenerated area. Whoever came up with the original design has found a goldmine. This one appealed more than most.

Flax flower elephant

The political murals of Belfast are famous, but there is also a tremendous amount of street art. Perhaps I’m squeamish, but the murals with their uncompromising messages to anyone who disagrees with them disturb me. Give me the street art any day. Strictly speaking the Monopoly board is advertising for Douglas Huston’s estate agency, but it’s so cleverly done I had to admire it. References in others go over my head, but I can still enjoy them.

Then there’s this one close by the main library which was the police station in Line of Duty:

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th August 2022: Belfast

My friend Fiona who I met through the pages of WordPress has succumbed to COVID. We met in her garden yesterday after she had tested positive. I met one of her daughters which was lovely. I have read about her so often and seen so many photos it was delightful to meet her in person. Also met Harry, the dog. Again lovely, big ears, more bark than bite. We got on. Fiona was feeling perky. Not so today. But perky or not she would not have been able to come with me as planned to the Ulster Museum to see the small but perfectly formed Bloomsbury Group exhibition, or the larger and completely wondrous Light from the West exhibition which had me lusting after a Paul Henry painting of a sunrise. Annoyingly the museum has a very small postcard selection for sale, a selection which does not include this painting. Maybe she’ll get to both before they finish.

In 2019 Fiona and I had lunch at a place called Falafel at 9 Botanic Avenue. It was great. Last year, my first time back since the pandemic I took myself there anticipating a good lunch, only to find it very closed. I assumed it was a victim of COVID and lunched at a good, but not as good as Falafel, place a few doors up the road. Going along Botanic Avenue today on the bus I nearly had whiplash when I realised the restaurant was open. I am meeting Petra for lunch tomorrow, and suggested this is where we could eat. She’s agreed, so I am hoping it’s the same management and as good as before.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th May 2022, Photos from the Weekend

Unfortunately I had accidentally switched my new pocket camera into video mode. I thought I had fixed that, but evidently I hadn’t so most of my photos from the first evening and Saturday are extremely short films. So we start with Sunday, my birthday as it goes, and our BnB, then our walk around Church Island and the bluebells with Cecilia. I don’t know if there’s an annual vote for most hospitable landlady, but my vote would be for her.

Then onto Belfast and the new bnb, where my favourite item was the coffee table made from a painted pallet set on casters.

Having not airbnbed before, I am unfamiliar with the styling guidance. We were surprised at the proliferation of fake flowers. Also signs with inspirational messages. Is this a thing? Cool table though. I want one.

The Titanic Quarter is photogenic, the wonderful exhibition is housed in a wonderful building. I use the word wonderful deliberately. A building and an exhibition which evoke wonder. So many of our words are overused and undervalued, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sound stale or everyday. I think Belfast City Council was both brave and far sighted to approve the plans for this building. It could have been safe (no bad taste joke intended); it could have been demure; it could have been a host of things it isn’t. What it is is bold, beautiful, and defiantly representational. That prow. That iceberg. The magnificent ship meeting its match. Like a tragic hero. To my shame I should have to look up the architects. Surely we should all know who they are?

I am giving this a bigger space because it says so much. In the distance we can see the building I have just raved about. Belfast Marina is to the left. Celia is on the right walking past the saddest exhibit: that long sculpture, looking like a fish someone has caught, represents the Titanic going down prow first. That perpendicular position tells you all you need about the horror. There’s another picture of the sculpture in the next gallery. You’ll see it was quite dull and overcast when we went into the exhibition.

When we came out, it was a different story. The day had morphed into a bright, warm, sunny afternoon. We wandered. We looked. We sat. We contemplated.

The walk to the centre took us by Big Fish. I am fond of Big Fish as you’ll see. I also love the 1950s Unite Building close by.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

Celia wanted to post her brother’s birthday card. No sign of a post box, but there was a postman in a stationary van. Celia waved to him and walked over as he started move. Is it just the one thing you want to post? he asked. Yes, she said. He reached out a hand. I’ll take it, he said.

In my head I could hear my mother’s voice. They’d only do that in Ireland, she was saying, probably correctly, proudly pointing out yet again how the country of her birth was far superior to anywhere else.

We were in Belfast. The centre, not the suburbs, a stone’s throw from City Hall. It was the end of the weekend we spent in Northern Ireland celebrating both our birthdays. Working backwards, yesterday we had been in the centre, meeting Fiona for coffee at the Linen Hall Library, a favourite venue of mine, then staying chatting for so long we decided to have lunch there and forgo our other plans. We had already had coffee at the Two Sisters coffee shop off the Cregagh Road. I also had a vegan brownie there and Celia had resisted a bag she would have liked to buy. If you are near this coffee shop I recommend you pop in. It’s lovely. The coffee is lovely, the goods on display available to buy are lovely, the staff are even lovelier. It’s spotlessly clean, welcoming and probably saved our lives on Monday when we first visited it bleary eyed after a bad night’s sleep in a cold Airbnb with inadequate bedding. We compared notes in the morning, discovering we had each struggled to get warm. each been convinced in the small hours we had Covid. There were no extra blankets, no hot water bottles. The heating system resisted our efforts to spring into action despite our following the instructions to the letter. Via email I requested help, blankets and hot water bottles. Someone would come to sort the heating later I was told. Twice more I requested blankets and hot water bottles, requests which bore some fruit as we found blankets on our return.

Not the best start to our only full day in Belfast. Still, we managed a good walk through a bluebell clad Cregagh Glen to the rath at the top, then back on the Cregagh Road we enjoyed a tomato and chilli soup at the café attached to the Museum of Orange History, and where my cousin Kathryn collected us for a drive round south and east Belfast which included visiting a property she intends to renovate. She suggested we spend the evening in the buzzy cathedral quarter. All we could think of was bed and an early night, both duly achieved. Thank goodness we both slept well.

We’d arrived in Belfast by bus from Castledawson at lunchtime on Sunday. Our very lovely B&B landlady having left us at the stop after also coming for a walk with us around Church Island in Bellaghy, a walk we had hoped to do on Saturday but it had rained most of the day, and was raining particularly hard at the time we thought we might walk. We caught another bus out to our airbnb, dropped our bags and headed straight out again to the Titanic Quarter and exhibition. I think it was only when we came outside again that Celia believed my assurances that I was more than happy to go the exhibition again. Since I visited it a few years ago I’ve wanted to return. Celia is now where I was then. I am now ready for visit number three. The exhibition does everything only the best exhibitions achieve. It informs, awes, makes you think, has an emotional impact.

It had been overcast when we went into the exhibition so to emerge to bright sunshine was an added bonus. Fortunately I checked my phone as we sat looking at the water. Petra had sent a message saying she could after all join us for dinner. However, she thought we were still in Bellaghy, and was intending to travel down to Co Derry. I called her to say we were in Belfast and Home was the restaurant, not a reference to our Airbnb. Disaster averted. Home is a great place. My friend Jo, who we were also meeting there, introduced me to it last summer. The food is excellent and the service friendly and professional. Celia was impressed by the level of customer service she was experiencing. We had a great evening. Lots of chat, lots of laughter. The craic, as they say, was good.

Jo and I have known each other most of our lives. By one of those freak coincidences she was buying vegetables in the supermarket near the airport at the same time we were shopping for provisions after Cecilia (our landlady) had picked us up on Friday. That woman looks like Jo, I thought. Then, that woman is Jo! She had been at a flower show in Antrim, and had left her car at a park and ride by the supermarket.

Friday the weather was amazing. Blue skies, warm sunshine. A contrast with the grey skies and low temperatures we had left behind in London. Saturday not so much. It started with drizzle and became rain. But we spent most of the day at the Heaney Homeplace, first at the exhibition and enjoying the new digital archive in the renovated library, having a snack lunch in the café so we weren’t exactly inconvenienced.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 23rd July 2021

I think the weather is going to break tomorrow or Sunday. Yesterday I did virtually nothing other than sit in the shade drinking mint tea or water, read and just enjoy being. Today seems to hold much of the same. Last night Poppy the overweight Labrador decided it was still too hot at 8.30 to walk, so after just a few hundred yards we turned back. I thought I’d walk her this morning, but by 9.00 the sun was already beating down. There’s little shelter from the sun for much of our walk, so exercise is again deferred.

Next week I’m hoping to see Uncle Bill on Monday, meet up with Fiona one day and see my friend Jo on Friday. Rain is forecast for the latter part of the week, but only light rain, so I think we’ll cope. I’m sure to be back in Belfast anyway.

ideally I’d like to revisit the exhibition on La Belle Époque with Charlotte McReynolds, it’s curator, but
as the pandemic rolls on, and numbers continue to rise while our freedom to spread and contract it remains uncurtailed, curators tours are unlikely to happen. In place of government leadership requiring us to exercise caution, individual businesses and venues are having to step up to the plate.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 21st July 2021

I have just read that Led by Donkeys is responsible for the very moving Covid memorial beside the Thames and next to St Thomas’ Hospital. Well done them. I hope it remains.

Today I have been in Belfast. It was hot, and by the time I arrived at the bus station to come back here I was weary. Belfast, I realised today, is a city not designed to give shelter to pedestrians. In warm weather you bake, in wet weather you get soaked.

After a brief visit to the Linen Hall Library – no visit to Belfast is complete unless this is on the itinerary – where I enjoyed two exhibitions, I dropped into tourist information for a free street map. Then across the road to City Hall and beyond, heading for the university quarter, where the Ulster Museum sits in the Botanic Gardens.

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Looking Back at My Holiday

I have been working pretty solidly since getting home, the weekend no exception. I got back tonight and, having fussed MasterB, fed him, cleared the poo from the litter tray, I made my own evening meal. I lingered over it, knowing that when I put my fork down I needed to read some notes for work tomorrow morning when the alarm will be set for six thirty. So a few minutes ago, when i looked at some pictures from my recent holiday they were a welcome reminder of rest and relaxation.

A man came to the house with a book that belonged to his family. Generations past they kept a shop, and it seems my family were among the customers. Cousin and I scanned pages from the 1840s, worried perhaps we were going to find unpaid bills that would by now have accrued considerable interest. There were lots of sundries, quantities of leather, salt, tobacco and bread, but fortunately no outstanding debts. Phew.

Groceries and Sundries

Visiting Uncle Bill, now resident with his son, another of my cousins, we again admired the temperament of the two dogs, brother and sister, found with their mother abandoned by the side of the road in a ditch. They seem to have suffered no lasting trauma.

Bookend Dogs

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The week so far

Monday
Already a day behind. I am reassured to read that 59% of people polled in a survey wouldn’t trust Boris Johnson enough to buy a second hand car from him. However as a significant number of members of the Tory party have chosen to elect him to a post which is somewhat more important than selling second hand cars, that reassurance is tempered with fear.
Some of the red tops are printing headlines suggesting Johnson is a champion, a knight in shining armour who is going to tilt with the EU and get an advantageous Brexit deal. This is disingenuous. For one, there is no deal that would make leaving the EU a better option than staying in. Secondly, the EU has made it clear there is no better deal than the one secured under Theresa May for Brexit. Johnson et al are engaged in window dressing, preparing to blame the EU for intransigence, when the ones being intransigent are Johnson et al. These same Merry band of cynics will then turn to the electorate, claiming to be patriots, and call a election. It feels like a runaway train. What we need is someone who can apply the brake.
Anyway enough of such things today.
The promised rain came at breakfast time yesterday, so we had a slow start, but by midday Cousin and I were on the bus to Belfast. We had been expecting to go out to meet her daughter K and go on to Downpatrick, but Cousin’s ‘phone rang once we were on the road to say the plans had changed. So instead we spent a few pleasant hours in the city, and I acquired a Van Morrison self-guided walking tour manual. I didn’t manage to get a collapsible lunch box for Celia as they were out of stock, but
I did make the decision to purchase a reversible dress for my second great niece. I had seen them when I was with Fiona, but was hesitant. Second great niece has a big sister and bigger girl cousins, so has an inherited wardrobe. I decided to Ask Her Mother. She gave the purchase the thumbs up, so in a few days the postman should be delivering one of these.
Tuesday:
A two walk day, the first with one dog, the second, appropriately, with two. Westie Boy went well ff to the beautician with Toots this morning, so Poppy and I had a walk on our own. She is very interested in the cows, not in a bad way. She wags her tail, and her body language is entirely friendly. Some of the cows seem to reciprocate her interest, leaning over the hedges and sniffing the air. I was back in Belfast, back at the falafel place, back at the Ulster Museum. I could spend a lot of time there very happily. I loved the Cornelia Parker Left Right and Centre film. Also the exhibition of woodcuts by women artists. Inevitably I didn’t have enough time, and I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity to get back before my return home. Suddenly the days are speeding by. We are hoping to see Uncle Bill on Thursday, it’s Van Morrison on Friday, Alan Johnson on Sunday, and I still haven’t quite finished my book An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris which I am finding gripping.

Tomorrow, Cousin’s daughter K is coming with the lovely Westie Pup, now the sweetest natured little dog you ever could meet, so it could be a three dog walk. The chances of taking pictures with three leads are about nil.

Slievegrine Gallion at sunset

Fungi

At the top of the hill

The Roads Well Travelled

My photographs so far are fairly sparse.

Sunshine

Fungi

In my defence, it is quite tricky to take photographs when you have a Westie at the end of a lead in your left hand, and a yellow Labrador at the end of a lead in your right. And you are making sure each dog stays ‘in lane’ so that you don’t get tripped up, tangled or twisted.

Poppy at the field gate

Other than that, the walks up and down the lane have mainly gone well. I say mainly as both canines disgraced themselves when we met a black Labrador, also on a lead, on the road. Honestly, you’d have thought they had been brought up in the gutter, or had never seen another dog in their lives. Gone were the socially adjusted dogs I know. Poppy and Westie Boy tolerate each other rather than being best mates, but faced with a dog they didn’t know they reacted as one, lunging and barking.

Once was enough, but we met the dog again and the whole performance was repeated. Seeing another dog coming towards us I expected the worst, but apart from suddenly pricked ears and quickened gait, we walked by without incident.

During the day yesterday I took the longer road to Belfast, travelling there and back by bus to meet Fiona. Regular readers of this blog will anticipate an account of shopping, but not this time. On Wednesday afternoon a friend of Cousin’s called at the house. She runs an antique business and I have been a customer of hers in the past. Her daughter Charlotte is a curator at the Ulster Museum, and curated the Fashion and Feminism exhibition Fiona and I visited last year. I said how much we’d enjoyed it, and a few hours later we got a message to say Charlotte would be happy to take us around her new exhibition Vice Versa.

It’s not a large exhibition, one gallery, but fascinating. Charlotte loves her job it’s clear. She talks knowledgeably and entertainingly. It was a lesson in socio-economic history, and much much more. Charlotte will be doing talks and arranging workshops I shan’t be about to attend, but i’ve A feeling Fiona might. Continue reading

Dog Show

It may have been mainly about antiques, but there were an awful lot of dogs.

Some of them looked none too impressed that their walk had turned out to be a lot of standing around. At one point the heavens opened and we made a run for the tea tent. The camera crew carried on filming; dripping marquees, sheltering people, this dog.

 

The setting couldn't have been better. We were at Stormont. The approach is wonderful, and many of the dogs at the Antiques Roadshow yesterday enjoy their exercise in the grounds of the castle. Quite enough to give a dog a sense of grandeur.

 

Interest was fairly intense with knots of people gathered around experts.

These experts seemed to favour bright colours, whether in socks or trousers.

 

And Fiona Bruce's jacket drew admiring glances and comments. We caught up with her in a pre-recording moment talking to a man who had brought a glass inscribed no surrender, which had belonged to his grandfather.

Although all three of us had agreed we did not want to be filmed, we were standing right behind her as the cameras rolled, so if you see a trio of women when this episode is broadcast looking alternately interested and uneasy, that will be us. We stayed as she prepared to talk to a boy and his mother. The boy, or rather young man as it turned out he was 18, Sam won the Norhern Ireland Young Musician of the Year competition, and we were lucky enough to hear him play his violin.

We quickly became paid up Fiona fans. One way or another I have met a few TV celebs. Most have been lovely, but one TV chef was a prat, quite the opposite of his bonhomous TV persona. Fiona Bruce fell firmly in the first category; professional, patient, natural. Unfortunately the black cloud which had been inching closer arrived above us at that point and everything was quickly covered over, the interview took place somewhere else while we sheltered in the tea tent.

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