The last voyage...

Titanic Belfast in Northern Ireland tells the story of the legendary eponymous ship, from her conception, through her construction and launch, to her tragic maiden voyage, writes Purnima Sharma

Titanic Museum, Belfast

Bill Clinton has stayed there, as have many other important personalities,” smiles my cab driver as we zip past magical vistas that the road from Londonderry to Belfast — a stretch in Northern Ireland that’s famous for its natural beauty — keeps offering. “So, you’ll be in good company.” Tim is talking about one of the most historic and talked-about buildings of Titanic Town called Europa Hotel. Over an hour later, as I wheel in my suitcase, his words ring in my ears: “Oh, I forgot to add, having survived 33 bomb attacks, it’s probably the most bombed hotel in the world.” And with a laugh, I cross my fingers even though I know that The Troubles chapter in the Emerald Isle has come to a close now.

The day is still opening out as I stand near the window of my room watching the morning sun beam its magic on the streets below. There’s the Grand Opera House with its stunning Oriental-style architecture that goes back to the 19th century, and the lovely stretch of the Great Victoria Street. Downing a quick cup of coffee, I am ready for a walk down to the area that was the birthplace of the magnificent streamliner, RMS Titanic, that set sail from Southampton on its journey to New York City in the US and met with a tragic end in the Atlantic Ocean.

In less than an hour later, I am at the Titanic Quarter that, incidentally, has been voted the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016. As one walks out of the train station, two mammoth gantry cranes catch my eye. And that’s an indication that you’re now close to the historic Harland and Wolff shipyard where the mammoth ship, touted as the ‘unsinkable city’, was built. Dominating the Belfast skyline, these bright, yellow-coloured cranes are sure a remarkable feat of engineering. Boasting Biblical names, while Goliath stands at a height of 315 feet, Samson towers over it with an additional 33 feet.

Back in time

Looking more or less the way it did in its heyday, the shipyard goes back to the year 1861 when it was founded by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. Over 70 ships are believed to have been constructed here. 

Meanwhile, the cranes that have become a symbol of the city’s industrial past, have not been privy to the building and sailing of the Titanic, but came into existence only in the more recent past — Goliath in 1969 and Samson in 1974. 

Heading towards the Titanic Belfast area close to River Lagan, what makes its presence felt is a stunning glass and steel structure created to look like a glistening iceberg. Housing an eight-storey museum dedicated to the Titanic, this futuristic building was opened in 2012 to commemorate a hundred years of the Titanic disaster. Most of its massive 1,30,000 sq ft floor space is spread over the dry dock where the Titanic and her White Star Line sister ships, the lesser-known RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic were built almost simultaneously between 1910 and 1912.

A display in the museum
A display in the museum

As you get set to ‘board’, there’s a call for a photo-session. That done, it’s fascinating to go past each stage of the ships’ creation through a series of interactive exhibitions bringing together special effects, a ride that simulates the work environment at the shipyard, full-scale reconstructions of its banqueting suites complete with the plush carpeting, furniture and, yes, the winding mahogany staircase that was made famous in the Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet starrer.

As you walk along the different sections like The Shipyard, to Walking with the Workers, it’s interesting to take in nuggets that recreate this chapter of history — like what ‘He’s away to the other yard’ was supposed to mean at the time —a that the man being referred to died on the job! The precious Launch Day tickets are there too — there’s one that belonged to Miss Charlotte Brennan who was a Harland & Wolff typist. After the ship sank, Brennan kept the ticket as a memento and is believed to have written a personal note in shorthand on the back stating, ‘Launched 31st May 1911. Left Belfast 2nd April 1912. Sailed on her maiden voyage 10th April 1912. Struck an iceberg at 11.45 on 14th April 1912 Sank with the loss of over 1,000 lives at 2.20am 15th April 1912.’

Recreating the day of the launch are details like the cost of ticket — about 1 shilling each — just to view the spectacle; and from an hour before its scheduled launch, over 1,000,000 spectators had gathered just to see the Titanic sail.

It’s with a sense of foreboding that you move along, and in Tales of a Tragedy, as the lines from Thomas Hardy’s Convergence of the Twain...
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

...appear on a wall, you get prepared to ‘meet’ some of those who perished in the Atlantic waters. Like the engineer Anthony ‘Artie’ Frost whose manager chose him to sail on the Titanic as a reward for his hard work, the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews and its captain Edward John Smith of whose last moments, the accounts vary. 

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