Sunday, November 19, 2017
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JOHN TREW spends some time at The Crum…

EVERY visitor to Belfast deserves to spend time in prison this summer. What I mean, of course, is that they should be urged to put CRUMLIN ROAD GAOL near the top of their List of Must-Sees during their visit here because it’s a truly fascinating all-weather Visitor Attraction.

Indeed, it’s the city’s top Historic Site according to TripAdvisor which has literally hundreds of enthusiastic reviews from people all over the world. From Toronto to Tokyo, plus scores of Ulster residents, they praise the guides on the 75-minute tour (Brendan and Harry seem to be favourites) and the all-round visitor experience is rated Excellent by the vast majority. I am surprised so few complain about the name ‘gaol’ which is on all the signage. While being historically correct, this archaic mediaeval word is not only confusing to foreign visitors in search of Belfast’s well-publicised PRISON but also to young people like my grandson who read it as ‘goal’ instead of ‘jail’.

Anyway, the wee café in the ‘gaol’ is also rightly recommended highly by reviewers — and that’s where my own Visitor Experience started, as my family party just missed one of the hourly tours, so we had plenty of time for tea and a traybake in what has been wittily named THE CRUM (Crumb — get it?).

Regular readers will know that I am World President of the equally wittily entitled T-POTS (The Preservation of Tea and Scones) and cannot,t herefore, pass by a café without sampling their baked goods together with a cuppa. My Wexford-born son-in-law Henry was most impressed when he ordered for me a ‘Fifteen’ which is, as the world should know, a particularly calorific traybake containing (according to tradition in its native Ulster) fifteen of each ingredient — mashmallow cubes, glacé cherries,digestive biscuits, condensed milk and dessicated coconut.

“I think we’re out of them, but I’ll have a good look,” said the smiling server. Happily one turned up and was promptly awarded 10 out of 10, or in this case 15 out of 15, for its authenticity. In this Year of Food & Drink, every café in Northern Ireland should offer such regional treats by law and fined if they don’t serve filled soda farls and toasted tattie bread. Local delicacies make us different. End of rant.

The Crum café stand-up menu-card listed their offerings alongside details of the regular gigs in the gaol by appropriate Tribute Acts such as ‘Johnny Cash’ re-creating his famous appearances in the California State Prisons of Folsom and San Quentin when he brought the house down singing ‘A Boy named Sue’ (one of my all-time favourites).

On the subject of US prisons, some tourism literature describes Crumlin Road Gaol as ‘Europe’s Alcatraz’. This is a load of piffle, according to our tour guide David, who emphasised that NOBODY ever escaped successfully from Alcatraz while more than FIFTY got out of Crumlin Road. He told us that 13 prisoners got away in one six-month period alone; that was back in the early 1970s, at the peak of our Troubles. In 1981, eight inmates, armed with smuggled guns and holding hostages, escaped through the Front Gate.

These stories are not glamourised during the tour. I was impressed how the political sensitivity of imprisonment during our Troubles was confronted, but not over-emphasised. Also, I appreciated how sensitive was the narrative during our visit to the Condemned Cell; the Execution Chamber with its Hangman’s Noose; the hideous Flogging Rack; and the sickeningly named Drop Room where 17 victims of the Public Executioner ended their lives, kicking.

This is a never-to-be-forgotten experience for tourists and locals alike.

My second visit to the scene of the crime…

FOR EVERYONE ELSE in our 20-strong group touring Crumlin Road Gaol, the section devoted to corporal and capital punishment was their first encounter with the hangman’s awful artefacts.

For me, it was a second visit. When I was a Law Student at Queen’s University (coincidentally, QUB was designed by Lanyon & Lynn who were also responsible for the prison) Capital Punishment was still legal in Northern Ireland. My Criminology lecturer, Dr Alan Milner, obtained the permission of Governor LF Stevenson, to bring a small group of Criminal Law students to see prison conditions at first hand. Astonishing!

The senior Warder who led us around in those distant days, seemed amused by the noisy reaction of the inmates when they spotted our two attractive females in mini-skirts (this was during the early Sixties). He was even more amused when they both nearly fainted because he suddenly and surprisingly operated the gallows when we were in the Execution Chamber. I was utterly appalled as he went into sickening details about the physical aftermath of hanging…

That awful experience strengthened my resolve to fight against Judicial Murder, whereby the State responds to murder by killing the convicted murderer in our name. Within days, I joined my friend and mentor, the crusading jurist Brian Garrett, in the NI Branch of the Campaign against Capital Punishment. Co-incidentally, that was in 1961, the last year a man was hanged here — but it took the Campaign another 14 years to get the law changed forever.

All these memories flooded back as I revisited these scenes of judicial crime in the company of my nearest and dearest a few weeks ago. My wife Karen and daughter Suzanne had, understandably, forgotten my stories about how a student visit to a local prison in 1961 hopefully helped to make me a better, more committed, journalist for the rest of my life…

W5 better than ever after 15 years

NO VISIT to Belfast is complete without a trip to the W5 DISCOVERY CENTRE in the Odyssey complex overlooking the Titanic Quarter on the banks of the Lagan.

It is now well-established as one of our Top Ten Visitor Attractions, but when it opened 15 years ago in Spring 2001, it was a leap of faith as nothing like it had ever been attempted in Ireland before. As a tourism copywriter with experience of the seminal Ontario Science Center, I had been brought in at an early stage of the project to write promotional material for the W5 marketing campaign under the direction of its inspirational Team Leader, Dr Sally Montgomery. One of my first jobs was to compile a Press Info Pack for the Media Launch which I recall was held on a wet day when the building work was still being completed and rain dripped onto the television crews.

I told a nervous Sally that this was not an unlucky omen, assuring her that the worse the weather, the better business would be at W5 simply because it was an indoor experience. My prediction has proved right; W5 is particularly popular with families when it snows or rains, especially during school holidays, so get there early!

Our Edinburgh-based grandson Simon was still learning to toddle when W5 opened and he still loves it at 16. As a toddler, he gamely tried out hi-tech science-based activities but usually settled for low-tech shopping in the mini-supermarket in what used to be the Infants-Only zone. On his latest visit last month, as a hi-tech teen, he spent ages covering a vast white wall with colourful — thankfully virtual — graffiti; making animated (somewhat rude) videos; designing and assembling racing cars and operating a miniaturised H&W Goliath crane.

Most of these activities are old favourites, but the graffiti stuff is a fairly recent introduction because W5 has to keep refreshing its attractions and offer new events to ensure return business. Having been there at the start, I am pleased to observe that so many of our original activities are still popular.

However, I am heartened to see the success of the transformation of the Start Zone plus new kit such as Robot Thespian (in spite of its awkward name) but especially the blockbusting ClimbIt, the mighty multi-storey net-covered climbing structure combining physical fun, exploration and art.

Climbit is claimed to be the only one of its kind in UK & Ireland, but Simon used to enjoy clambering over a similar — if somewhat more primitive — version built into the Atrium of the swanky Ocean Terminal shopping mall at Leith, a few Christmases ago. I recall paying a fiver for every half hour he spent on it — that was £20 for an afternoon! In W5, the much superior Climbit experience is free, as are all the other offerings such as workshops, demos,shows and regular events, on payment of the £6.50 Child Admission. Family tickets are good value.

If I have a criticism of W5, it is that this year it does not seem to have a Special Summer Event with the WOW! Factor as I recall in previous holiday periods. We happened to catch Destination Space, an educational show celebrating Tim Peake, Britain’s first MALE astronaut, which is on Tuesdays and Thursdays until late August.

(Feminists in my family — that’s all of us — were disappointed that the demonstrator did not emphasise that Britain’s first-ever astronaut was indeed the FEMALE Dr Helen Sharman who lived in space for eight days in 1991).

Perfection when Salty Dog meets Chunky Haddock

I AM celebrating Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink in every Trew’s Travels Column by doing my bit to promote local dishes cooked with flair and care in local restaurants.

That’s why I am delighted to feature that finest of all seaside specials, Fish ’n Chips, as presented to perfection upon the window table of Bangor’s SALTY DOG BISTRO overlooking the Long Hole, an historic haven for small boats seeking shelter from the tidal turmoil where the waters of Belfast Lough meet the Irish Sea.

This popular Hotel and Bistro located in a Victorian Terrace, is strategically situated for strollers who hone their appetite for fish by watching the guillemots — known locally as The Wee Bangor Penguins — which go fishing 24/7 from their nests under the Eisenhower Pier just across the Seacliff Road. The old North Pier was re-named Eisenhower Pier on the 50th Anniversary of WWII Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D.Eisenhower making a rousing speech to the assembled troops there on the eve of D-Day. (Less of the ornithology and history, John. Get on with the food, I’m hungry — Editor).

For starters, my wife Karen had a generous tureen of Dundrum Bay Mussels in a tangy cider sauce while I enjoyed a selection of speciality breads from the local artisan Central Bakery; the hot rolls and Rosemary Loaf slices were complemented by Donaghadee Dulse Butter and a dipping bowl of nutty Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil (which I wrote about here last issue).

However, the Main Event was certainly the huge fillet of chunky haddock deep fried in crunchy ale-and-crumb coating that is a Salty Dog secret recipe, according to our young server. The triple-fried chips were also a credit to the art of the chef, crisp outside,floury inside. This is fish and chips at its very best, with only one criticism — the portions were too big!

Perfection comes at a price — but £13 is no deterrent to the crowds of happy eaters who make fish n chips the most popular dish on the Salty Dog’s menu cards which all follow the cheffy trend of naming the local provenance of just about every ingredient except the salt and pepper. Their impressive A la Carte menu, in particular, is a geographical and gastronomical tour of Co Down, from Leggygowan goat’s cheese and Kilkeel king scallops to Strangford shellfish and Carnbrooke steaks from Dromara.

As it happens, the Salty Dog is literally within inches (OK, 50 yards max) of two other highly praised restaurants, the long-established award-winning fine-dining BOATHOUSE in the ancient Custom House and the quirky, breakfasty GUILLEMOT in a former sweetie shop. I doubt if there is anywhere in the British Isles with three such delightful — and different — eateries in such close proximity by the seaside.

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