Saturday, 26 September 2015

The baths

Templemore Avenue Public Baths, built in 1893. Where my primary school class went to swim in the mid-70s. 

What I remember.... a shivery, worried anticipation, cold, fear. My friends Stephanie and Joanne could swim much better than me. I didn't want to attract the teacher's attention. I tried hard. But I didn't come from the sort of family where we'd go to swimming baths regularly, where perhaps I'd be coached in special strokes and would "train". Instead, we had swum on random County Down beaches, teeth-chatteringly cold, where the best bit was racing up and down the sand afterwards, protesting and obeying Mum's instructions to keep warm by not giving in and shivering. Templemore was a different sort of swimming.

What I see now.... a sweet and shy child, grateful for the individual changing cubicles, where you could always delay just a little longer. Probably, a slightly ill-fitting swimming costume revealing stick-thin limbs that could maybe have been sporty but never quite were. A quite uncaring teacher, with little patience for children who couldn't do this all already. 

And now, in the baths as in some other places I pass every week, I like to imagine my adult self beside the skinny nine-year-old, encouraging her, praising her efforts and holding her up when she started to sink. That would have been enough.

As well, it would have distracted that little girl nicely to know about the other side of the baths, behind the life-belt wall. In the next room were the actual baths, where people went to wash.

Belfast was a dirty city, generating grime in the linen mills and shipyards, and a poor one. Houses in this part of the city didn't have bathrooms, and in the earlier years of the century, you came to the public baths instead.

A whole family could make use of one rented cubicle. You were given six inches of hot water, yours to cool and augment with cold. I like to think the children bathed first and grubby Harland and Wolff welder father last, but that might be overoptimistic. You rented a towel and borrowed a cake of soap.

People sang in their bathrooms. There's a great echo. You returned your soap, the towel was laundered in a gigantic basement washing machine, and you stepped back out into the East Belfast evening.

I'd love to have known that. At nine, nose rarely out of a book, I was fascinated by what I'd eventually come to know was social history. I already had a sense of the ghosts that moved around old buildings with their scents and their snatches of song. Here, on the white Victorian tiles, how much more important it would have been to hear Letty Moore from a 1930s McMaster Street singing in the tub, than to listen to vain Miss P's sharp swimming stroke strictures.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Gasworks: pride, beauty, and a cure for malingerers

We Belfasties impressed the German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl in 1843: "Almost all the little towns through which we drove that evening were lit up with gas. It is wonderful what progress this very important new invention has made in these islands. In Germany, a great city is very proud of being distinguished by gas-lights; in the British islands scarcely a town can be pointed out which is without them.

"At length we arrived at the centre point of all the gas-lights of northern Ireland, the centre point also of the great linen manufacture - at the thick cluster of houses and inhabitants which Irish flax has knotted together, at Belfast.

"I thought at first that it must be some great festival, for wherever I looked, on every side, I saw great houses, four, five, and six stories high, illuminated from top to bottom.

"There were even buildings, within which lights glittered from one hundred and two hundred windows. Yet all this was but the every-day, or rather every-night, appearance of a great manufacturing city."

193 years have passed since the founding of the Belfast Gasworks. 

The land on which it stood has been transformed into a business park, but some elements of the original Gasworks have been preserved, and I visited these rooms last weekend as part of the European Heritage open days. That same morning I'd had quite an emotional visit to Carlisle Memorial church (you can read about it here), and I didn't expect to be particularly thrilled by the gasworks. But in fact it's very beautiful and I did feel a strong sense of pride, both in the original achievement the buildings represented and in the fact that they haven't just been wantonly demolished, as so many lovely buildings in Belfast have

The governors' room (yes, I thought it was going to be some kind of boardroom, but it's where they governed the mechanics of the city's gas supply) still has the original wrought iron floor, tiled walls and ceiling.

There are touches of Belfast's typical yellow, a slightly more mustard shade than normal (did the city decide at some point that yellow was its colour, or is this a happy accident?). As ever, I notice how elegant and appealing the machinery of nineteenth century engineering was.

This room is a beautiful space, crying out for reuse. When I'm rich, it will be mine. A licensed coffee bar, I think, and little art gallery. The machinery and decor will remain in place, so patrons will just have to wear reasonably sensible shoes.

Oh yes, and the malingerers. In days gone by, apparently, when children complained of not feeling well, their mothers would bring them down by the gasworks to catch a whiff. That would revive them swiftly, and back to school they'd go. Excellent.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

William's church

William Bryans was known in later life for his copperplate handwriting, his engaging public speaking, the encouraging words he would offer at just the right moment, and his ability to transform a shabby house with a few coats of paint.

When he came to Belfast from Clones as a young teenager around 1880, though, he was probably mainly known for his County Monaghan accent and his wide-eyed country innocence in the sooty energy of the big city.

His family had attended the little Wesleyan Methodist chapel back in Clones, and one of the first things they did in Belfast was to walk the few streets from their rented house on the lower Crumlin Road to visit Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. 

Carlisle Memorial was a brand new Gothic-style building of bright red Dundonald sandstone. Inside, the vast aisles were lit by elegant stained glass windows. Constellations of gold stars twinkled from the blue ceiling. High up amongst the stone arches, dozens of tiny carved faces kept William, his big sister Isabella and his little brother Alex amused during the long services. 

Best of all, the front wall of the church, behind the communion table, was a lovingly decorated riot of flowers, fruit, birds and gold lettering. "This do in remembrance of me." William was fascinated by the delicacy of the work. He was already helping his father with his painting business and could brush an even finish on a parlour wall, but these fine strokes were something new.

The preaching at this church was something new too, and William listened. The hours spent in these pews became the foundation for his own work as a Methodist minister in twenty-three congregations across Ireland, from Donegal to Dundrum. He never served in a church whose physical beauty rivalled that of this one, but to every simple chapel he brought an eloquence and integrity inspired by his North Belfast days. His skill with a paintbrush never left him either, and many sanctuaries and manses looked fresher and more inspiring after his tenure there.

William was my great-grandfather. Yesterday I visited his church for the first time. I was moved and excited to think that he too had looked at these arches and stone carvings and painted finishes, over a hundred years ago. 

Carlisle Memorial is famous for having become almost totally derelict in the face of demographic changes in North Belfast. Belfast Buildings Trust is working to save the building and restore it for the use of the community. This weekend's European Heritage Open Days allowed us to see the progress of the work so far.

As a total romantic and a lover of decaying things, I'd be thrilled to see the church preserved in its current dusty and stripped back state. With the addition of a good floor, the beautiful empty space would be the perfect venue for music, art and formal events like weddings and receptions.

In fact, BBT is envisaging all sorts of creative ways of enabling this lovely building to be a catalyst for employment and opportunity for local people. This is a cause well worth supporting, and it's one that nineteenth century Methodist churchmen would have approved of. I'll become a Friend of the Trust and follow this and their other great projects. Click here for further information on the Trust and its work.

If you'd like to read more about Carlisle Memorial Church, this RIBA pamphlet is really interesting and informative.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Dee Street corner

I'm back in Belfast and liking being at home. I'm excited about a couple of things happening here over the next few weeks - the European Heritage open days next weekend, when many of my favourite old buildings will be open to the public (check out the programme here), and Culture Night on Friday 18 September, always a fantastic night out.

And the city is looking pretty at the moment, in its own inimitably stylish/tattered/ugly/beautiful way.

Like the Titanic mural on the corner of Dee Street. There seems to be less of it attached to the wall every time I go past. It's gorgeous, but I'm torn between my love of peeling paint and my concern that it will soon fall right off onto the street. These shots are from back in May, and it seems to have become more fragile since then.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

More old cars

I've spent some more time this week editing the photographs I took during the summer at Old Car City in Georgia, a place well worth the 35 mosquito bites that were its downside.

This is a collection of colour edits for you - if you'd like to check out some black and white shots, have a look at my previous post from Old Car City.

While we were at this amazing vintage car graveyard, we met a very nice reporter from The Associated Press, and he interviewed me about my thoughts on the location. I'm sorry to say that under such pressure all articulate thought deserted me and I said, "I love old American cars. There are many more cars than I imagined. I love it". This deeply perceptive comment is now reported verbatim all over the internet, since he wrote a very interesting article with great photographs, and lots of news outlets have used it. Excellent.