Hail to the Unsung Heroes of Tourism

John Trew pays homage to the cheerful bands of volunteers who make it possible for tourists to enjoy Ulster’s fantastic programme of festive fare and special events every year

Frankly, in our uncertain socio-economic climate, were it not for their unpaid — and largely unheralded — contribution to local festivals, sporting occasions and on-going attractions, many of our cultural and entertainment highlights would have to be scaled down.

Indeed, without their energy and enthusiasm, some would disappear completely. Who could imagine, for example, the global success of the IRISH OPEN GOLF at Portstewart without the assistance of HUNDREDS of volunteer marshals and odd-jobbers?

What has prompted me to slap the backs of these unsung heroes in this month’s Trew’s Travels is the fact that I personally spent a substantial part of my own free time this summer working hard on a voluntary project that essentially combined two of my lifelong passions — Tourism and Art. So it was always going to be fun, then? Well, not always. Read on, dear readers, read on…

It all started on a chilly Sunday afternoon in early spring when I accompanied my wife Karen on a dander to the café at Pickie Family FunPark, one of Northern Ireland’s Top Ten Visitor Attractions — and the only one within a mile of my home in Bangor West. Alas, I don’t visit it often enough, mainly because our grandson is now a sophisticated six-footer and reckons he’s long outgrown the Pickie Puffer and pedalos!

Heading homewards, after a good coffee, along the Coastal Path to Bangor West, I was suddenly shocked to see the deplorable condition of the well-known artwork on the western-most concrete wall of the Marina near the FunPark entrance. The 15ft-long CERAMIC MAP which formerly illustrated the main scenic features along the NORTH DOWN COASTAL PATH was missing the whole of its middle section.

Ten tiles out of the 30 which made up the Map unveiled by the Mayor in August 2008, had been deliberately destroyed by vandals around two years ago, it seems, leaving a meaningless, 5ft-long grey gap that has been frustrating cyclists and walkers in search of information at the halfway point of the popular 16-mile seaside trail.

What had once been an artistic enhancement to North Down tourism had become an awful eyesore!

I decided there and then to do something about it. I soon found out from a nearby plaque that the tiles had originally been designed and hand-crafted nearly ten years ago at the behest of the Council’s Arts team by a half-dozen Ceramics students from the local South-Eastern Regional College, led by Artistic Director Martin McClure.

A light bulb was suddenly switched on in my brain: ‘That’s Marty, my Ceramics teacher whose night-classes at Bangor SERC have brought joy to dreary winter Tuesday nights!’ So that’s how my friend and mentor Marty later agreed to lend a hand. The idea was that he would take charge of firing the 10 clay tiles in the SERC kilns after I had designed, hand-crafted and glazed (painted) them to replace — but not replicate — the vandalised ones. I emphasise ‘non-replication’ because I have used the opportunity to update activities along the Path — for example, by portraying wind-surfring instead of kayaking on Ballyholme Bay, and changing old dinghys to popular modern Toppers etc.

It took easily six weeks of my leisure time to transform £60 worth of Scarva Earthstone E40 warp-proof tiling clay plus £20 of coloured glazes, into 11 tiles (I had a wee accident with the most challenging one upon which I had spent two days modelling, in loving detail, a Black Guillemot — known hereabouts as a Bangor Penguin; I re-made the broken tile immediately from scratch, in case I would despairingly throw all the clay and bottles of glazes into Bangor Bay, swearing that I would never EVER make another ceramic tile. They are much harder than you think.)

Anyway, I assure you of the the successful completion of the project — on the hottest day of summer, as luck would have it. Marty and I were joined by my good friend Matt Maginnis, the maritime historian, author and painter who is one of those guys who volunteers for everything interesting; he has been working on the restoration of Bangor Abbey headstones, so he has an invaluable skill-set.

What made this voluntary undertaking worthwhile was the astonishing number of passers-by who shouted appreciative statements while we were sticking up our 10 tiles and grouting them and then re-grouting and ‘framing’ the remaining 20 original tiles on the Ceramic Map. “A magnificent job,” was the highest praise recorded, but there were lots of “beautifuls, brilliants and well done, lads”. It was trewly one of the happiest days of my life as a volunteer.

Sitting Around as An Old Poseur

Happy volunteering was also an appropriate description for the delightful evening I spent posing — in public, in front of a sold-out audience but definitely not in the nude — for my favourite living artist at the start of Bangor’s OPEN HOUSE FESTIVAL last month.

The gig was billed as AN AUDIENCE WITH NEIL SHAWCROSS and it was held in the Old Auction Rooms, just one of the unusual local venues featured in this eclectic annual feast of Classy Culture and Family Fun. It would be hard to decide into which of these classifications this event fell. A combination of both — Classy Fun — would cover what one nice lady later described to me as being “a really enlightening and hugely entertaining evening”.

It was Neil, as Ulster’s favourite painter, who provided the enlightenment through his non-stop articulation of his passion for portraiture while demonstrating on canvas the stylistic motifs that make his works so distinctive; I suppose it was up to me to supply the entertainment in the gaps that Neil left in his narrative when he had to concentrate on important technical operations. However, when he put the near-completed canvas on the floor and splashed white-spirit all over it, I was so alarmed at the prospect of all the paint disappearing that I gasped out loud.

“Oh ye of little faith,” he scolded me amid laughter. “The true artist puts his faith in his materials to do the things he wants them to do.” (I must remember that the next time all my ceramic red poppies come out muddy brown, Neil!)

Anyway, having spent 56 memorable years in journalism, I have no shortage of stories as Neil knows only-too-well, as we have lunch together with friends every month. Indeed, the two hours flew by and I did not have to fall back on My Old Standby — the necktie I have been bringing to Private Views since 1999 to be autographed by Ulster’s greatest artists — including the late Basil Blackshaw,TP Flanagan, Rowel Friers and Joe McWilliams.
At the end of the evening, as the 50 chairs were being packed away, I praised all the volunteers — especially those who had even re-covered every chair in advance of the event with donated fabrics.

I am leaving the last word on the subject to Open House Festival Founder Director ALISON GORDON, who told me: “We couldn’t operate without volunteers who have all kinds of skills as well as energy and a comittment to making Bangor better through the Arts.”

Best Tips for September Days Out

Thanks to perfect growing conditions, garden visits have made this spring/summer 2017 truly memorable throughout Northern Ireland, due to the quality and longevity of plantings which are predicted to continue looking good for weeks to come. Alas, the volunteer-led Ulster Gardens Scheme which persuades private properties to open has already ended for 2017 Still open are my own favourite National Trust gardens which provide year-round interest, namely Rowallane and Mount Stewart.

Belfast Rose Week in July 2017 was a triumph, and thousands of blossoms are still hanging on until the first frosts, so follow the lingering fragrance up to Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park this month. We have bought a rose there on each of the past two years; in 2016 it was a delightfully tricoloured rose called ‘Bright & Breezy’ which has proved to be a winner — to us anyway. Our 2017 patio climbing rose ‘Laura Ford’ has been a bit shy so far with only a dozen short-lived blossoms and no autumn flush in prospect. The rest of our garden has been spectacular, with dozens of Asiatic Lilies still coming into bloom.

GLENARM CASTLE and GARDENS provided Karen and I with our Best Day Out in 2017 – we enjoyed an excellent lunch in what used to be the Old Mushroom House which has been newly extended as a splendid TEA ROOM & SHOP. We were there the weekend after the DALRIADA FESTIVAL and with the sun still shining, the place was hiving.

The WALLED GARDEN was displaying its mountains of immaculately-maintained herbaceous perennials and lush lawns to perfection. We were genuinely bowled-over with the care — even love — achieved by the tiny team which Head Gardener James Wharry told me was composed of “Two-and-a-half people” when I bumped into him.

From the shop we bought a kilo of the Estate’s award winning Glenarm Shorthorn mince steak distributed by Hannan Meats (the people with the Himalayan Salt Wall for ageing) WOW! This has been the best meat we have cooked at home for years. It was almost too good for making bolognese sauce, and we look forward to getting more to make into our best-ever Burgers.

PORTAFERRY has always struck me as a town with considerable community spirit which we experience every time we go to GALA WEEK. They have been pulling their weight again and have ensured that the EXPLORIS aquarium still has a future. However, right in the town’s middle — but somewhat hidden, with insufficient signage — is PORTICO. This refurbished classical Greek-style former Church looks more imposing than ever in its bright-yellow livery.

It now operates as an Arts and Heritage Venue. We were treated to an enthusiastic tour of the building one Saturday by a volunteer who managed to juggle — with professional panache — the four different small groups who turned up at different times. Long live volunteering!