Mother’s Day, Belfast Style

Technically, it was Mothering Sunday, but for the merchants and restaurants, it definitely was Mother’s Day…in the UK.

Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent, a time to visit one’s “mother” church, but, I guess like Black Friday sales, this is another instance where the UK appropriated a so-so American tradition and made it its own. Flowers, cards, chocolates, special meals for mom and much more were on offer this year.

The Wellington Park Hotel down the street from the flat advertised a three-course carvery meal for 23 pounds, but food with any hint of gravy doesn’t work with my onion allergy. So Marilynn opted for Pizza Express, a UK chain that does sell pizza, but not very expressly. I get the feeling she would have been just as happy with a meal at home, although she was the one who started us going to Pizza Express, which she remembered from her grad-school days in Oxford.

Pizza (not so) Express

Pizza Express has been around for 50 years, and folks still go there in droves, so I guess everyone realizes by this time that Express is a suggestion, like hoping the cable guy shows up on the front end of the four-hour service window. During our sojourn in England earlier this month, there was a Pizza Express in every city we visited except for Lyme Regis, which is tiny. St. Ive’s ain’t much bigger, but there was a PE right along the waterfront. Falmouth, too.

Although there is a Pizza Express on the Lisburn Road that’s closer to our flat, we went to a city centre location after seeing “Beauty and the Beast.” Again, Marilynn likely couldn’t be bothered with the movie, but Declan and I wanted to see it.

We ordered, and the food arrived very quickly, possibly because we each ordered thin-crust pies. “Oh, things have changed since past visits,” I think to myself. And then time stood still. Don’t get me wrong, the food was spot-on like it usually is, and we had a great time overall.

But there is a natural flow to the sit-down restaurant experience that this chain violates every time, every location I visit. Not sure where our server got off to, because we suddenly got another server, who we quickly remembered from a visit four years ago—even recalling where we had been sitting in the same restaurant.

He’s been with the restaurant for 10 years and is a credit to the company and the location. I remembered him making a cool paper airplane, and he made a new one for Declan, much to everyone’s delight.

We did order dessert (it was Mother’s Day, after all), but requested the check at the same time, because we could have been there all night.

Just like the rest of the day, however, our visit hit the spot.

Note: My Thanks to Dann Maurno for the reference to Mothering Sunday, which the holiday was still called when he lived in the UK as a child. And it probably wasn’t quite so festive.

It’s a Beautiful Day …

You don’t know it’s spring in Belfast when the daffodils bloom, nor when the trees start to put on buds. It’s not necessarily the temperature, which was an extremely temperate 57 degrees today.

You know it’s spring in Belfast when the restaurants put out their outside tables. I had always thought that the Lisburn Road was really wide, but not so much once Eddie Rocket’s, the Yellow Door deli and the Indian restaurant put out their tables and chairs.

Belfast’s own henge

It was by far the best day, weather-wise, we’ve had in Belfast in nearly three months, so of course we went outside. Our destination was the Giant’s Ring, a local henge that was built 4,700 years ago.

Google Maps said it was a tad over three miles, so we set off down the Malone Road a little past 3. This was a wish-you-had-remembered-your-hat day, because during the first part of the journey the sun was directly in our eyes. But we soon made it to the Lagan River at Shaw’s Bridge, before cutting through National Trust land and to the site.

After seeing Stonehenge and the Avebury Stone Circle last week, the Giant’s Ring was a bit of a letdown, but it still was impressive. An earthen circle that stretches 210 yards was built up around the henge, the remains of a passage tomb comprised of five upright stones and a capstone. Aerial photos show three rings between the ditch and the center, believed to be where posts were set. Archaeologists have found 10 other burial sites and other settings of posts.

We saw many dogs playing in the water, kids on bikes, daffodils in full bloom and lots of birds. An ice cream vendor was parked in the Shaw’s Bridge car park, so Declan and I had to have a cone apiece.

Glimpse of elusive landmark

On the way back, we even saw the twin Harland & Wolff gantries in the distance. My first trip to Belfast was by train, and I first saw Samson and Goliath just before arriving at Central Station. I knew of Belfast’s shipbuilding history, most notably as the birthplace of Titanic, and I’ve always associated the gantries with that part of Belfast’s history.

I so want to include a picture of the gantries in the blog, but I’ve never been stationary long enough to get a clear shot. The good news is that I have another four months to make that happen.

When we got back to the car park, we’d already walked just shy of six miles, so we called a taxi for the return trip. The sunset, as you can see, was a beautiful end to a glorious day in Belfast.

Is US Treatment of Muslims Creating Another Troubles?

With the passing of IRA leader and later Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness this week, thoughts naturally turn to the man’s place in history. Should he be remembered as a statesman who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the Troubles? Or as a terrorist who, despite his protestations, is widely believed to have directed and participated in terrorist activities?

His status as a Catholic from the Bogside of Derry played a huge role in his decision to join the IRA. According to the Guardian, after attending technical college, McGuinness was turned down for a job as a mechanic because he was a Catholic. Three years later, in 1968, he joined the IRA after seeing bloody pictures of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for Belfast West, after he was hit by police batons.

McGuinness’s radicalization didn’t turn on a single incident, I’d imagine, but occurred gradually over time as mistreatment piled atop mistreatment until he reached the breaking point.

Marginalizing a class of people

It got me to thinking about what I feel is America’s mean-spirited (not to mention clumsy and likely illegal) recent efforts to ban Muslims from traveling to the US. The latest is the odd ban on electronic devices larger than a cellphone in the cabins of flights originating from most Middle Eastern countries. (Side note: what about those dangerous lithium batteries in laptops in checked baggage? I’m more afraid of exploding lithium batteries than I am of terrorists.)

Maybe there is a compelling security reason, but does taking your shoes off at airport security and leaving your big tube of toothpaste at home make you feel any safer? Logic does not favor the government in these issues. But I digress.

Have you ever been treated unfairly for what you think was no good reason? How did it make you feel? Now take those feelings and multiply it by the 4.3 million Muslims in the US, many of them naturalized citizens, then add in the 178.3 million Muslims in the six countries affected by the travel ban.

Even if I was the straightest-laced Muslim imaginable, I’d be pissed off. Now imagine those already disadvantaged by lack of education or high unemployment where they live, and you begin to see how the seeds of dissent are sown by those who truly want to do harm to Westerners.

Let me be clear: we’re talking about an infinitesimal number of radical idiots in a vast sea of people, nearly all of whom share the same dreams of building a better life for themselves and their children as we do. Americans don’t hold a patent on this idea.

I consider myself a Christian, yet I’m truly appalled at many of the things allegedly done in the Lord’s name in the US and around the world. Conservative Christianity no more reflects my values than radical Islam reflects the values of all but a handful of Muslims.

Martin McGuinness was radicalized after being put down for his religion and seeing people just like him being cast to the sidelines of society time and time again.

But through personal growth and empathy, McGuinness risked his life to negotiate peace and later served admirably in the resulting power-sharing government with former enemies, including rabid unionist Ian Paisley. How will he be remembered? He will be seen both as a terrorist and as a diplomat, I’m sure.

Life must go on, regardless

How many future terrorists is the US risking through its heavy-handed efforts to keep us “safe,” while at the same time decimating the State Department budget that funds outreach to the world and beefing up what’s already the world’s largest military?

These efforts don’t make me feel safe. They just make me embarrassed for the country my family has been a part of since before the Revolutionary War.

Earlier this week, there was a terrorist attack in London. Declan and I are visiting there next weekend, attending a football match with 60,000 other people, visiting the Tower of London, Harrod’s and the British Museum, all top tourist attractions.

And the whole family will be in Antwerp next month, the scene of another incident just yesterday. Oh yeah, and we’ll be in Paris and Berlin on that trip, too.

Like it or not, we all are citizens of the world, and what the US does in the name of “security” has impacts that likely will ripple for years. On this matter, I take my cue from ‘80s pop star Joe Jackson and the title track of his 1986 album, “Big World.”

“It’s a big world – so much to do / And plenty of room for me and you”

About the photo: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (left) and Martin McGuinness.

On Pride, Prejudice and Bathing

On our final full day in England, we centered our efforts on Bath. I’ll admit to knowing little about the city before our visit. I now know that Jane Austen lived there for several years and based two novels there. I also know that 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of her death (thanks Bath tourism website!). And I know her Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the only Jane Austen book I’ve read, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”


h is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of 18th century architecture. Knowing our time was limited, we went straight to the Roman Baths, which have a complex history over millenia. Use of the hot springs dates to the Celts, who dedicated a shrine to the goddess Sulis, but the Romans harnessed the waters during their 300-year reign in Britain. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the baths fell into disuse and were covered by debris and time—and forgotten.

Centuries later, baths again were constructed on the same site, including the King’s and Queen’s baths in use during the Middle Ages and the Georgian baths of Jane Austen’s time. Newer buildings were constructed over the Roman baths. But water’s got to go somewhere, and when people started getting water into their homes, the engineer sent to get to the bottom of it discovered the ancient baths.

The buildings have been stripped back to Roman times, but one can see the copper walls where the water level of the later baths were located. It’s neat to think about the centuries during which the Roman Baths were just waiting for rediscovery. And you get to taste the mineral water at the end. It’s warm and tastes, as Declan puts it, like you had a nosebleed you sniffed back in and then swallowed.

More sights to see

Following a guided tour of the baths and lunch, we spent the afternoon taking in the sights, including walking along the Pulteney Bridge, inspired by Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence we recently visited. Like its counterpart, the Pulteney Bridge is lined by shops on both sides, but with way fewer jewelers.

We walked uphill to get an overview of the city from just past No. 1 Royal Crescent, which the guidebook says is of Palladian architecture and is frequently used in film shoots. We also took a look at the Circus, a group of connected sweeping circular Georgian homes bisected only by three intersections. It’s said the inspiration was the Coliseum in Rome, just inside out.

Before leaving, we also took in Bath Cathedral, rightly known for its impressive stained glass windows. Declan was particularly taken by the ornate entry door. The cathedral is across a small courtyard from the Bath baths, so it’s a must-see.

Bath is a quaint town, brimming with interesting sights. But it’s another place you shouldn’t bring your car. There are free car parks on the edges of town, and super-cheap shuttles that take you right in. Just remember to find a free bathroom before leaving Bath to avoid a 20 pence charge at the car park lot. And if you do have to pay, why not block the door open for the next person? After all, you just dropped serious coin for a day out, and they expect you to pay to pee?

(Most) Henges, Great and Small

Stonehenge is known the world over for its mystery, for the (alleged) alignment of the stones to the summer and winter solstices and for the achievement of an ancient people. But did you know you can see it from the motorway that runs near the monument?

I’m not sure what I can say about such an iconic landmark that you don’t already know. But I can tell you that Newgrange in Ireland is older.

I had always wanted to see Stonehenge, but Marilynn convinced me it wasn’t worth the trouble since you couldn’t get up close to it. I had always imagined a chain-link fence or some such so you could only see it from a distance. But I was wrong. The viewing was close enough to glimpse the structure in all of its architectural glory.

On these trips, I give little input, besides driving the car when necessary. Because there is so much of the world I haven’t seen, I let Marilynn and Declan fuss over the details. On this trip, my only request was to hunt fossils in Lyme Regis. We had planned to visit some other Neolithic ruins, but I didn’t realize we’d pass right by Stonehenge until Marilynn said that morning, “So, do you want to stop by Stonehenge”? “Well, hell yes, I want to visit Stonehenge,” I replied. So we did.

But I was equally impressed with the other structures we saw after Stonehenge. The West Kennet Long Barrow was the burial place for nearly four dozen people from around 3,650 BC. The mound was filled in about 4,000 years ago. During its excavation, archaeologists disinterred the bodies and left the chambers as they would have been during the time. To access this site, you simply park in the layby, pop the cattle gate and walk right up. You can walk in, on and around the site. When we visited, we saw a couple walking down the embankment as we walked up.

Silbury Hill is across the road from the long barrow. It stands 131 feet tall, the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and was constructed around 2400 BC. Like many other ancient sites, no one knows what prompted early man to build what’s basically a big mound. It doesn’t contain buried treasure, as Victorian folks thought as they tunnelled into the mound without considering the consequences. The burrowing got so bad that the site had to be stabilized several years ago, and access was restricted, so no climbing up on Silbury Hill.

And the village of Avebury was built around its ancient mounds, including a roadway that cuts right through the heart of the huge monument, which is 460 yards across and not perfectly circular. The monument, constructed around 2,600 BC had a ditch running outside the main monument that was 69 feet wide and 36 feet deep. Within the larger circle were two smaller circles, with a stone pathway of 200 stones leading to the structure, what’s now called West Kennett Avenue.

Compared to the Avebury Stone Circles, other known sites are one-quarter the size, including its more famous cousin—Stonehenge.

What Do You Call a One-Legged Woman…

I knew something was off about this sign in the Belfast International Airport, when it occurred to me: the women’s toilet is only for monopod women! Or amputees! Or only for women who stand on one leg like flamingos! Or for one-legged women who walk like Egyptians!

Just remember, somebody got paid to design that sign…

No Escaping Pasties and Poldark in Cornwall

Pasties. Poldark. Paved road the width of goat trails. And, oddly, sea salt. That’s what the Cornwall area of England is known for, if the proliferation of pasty shops, Poldark-themed maps, damned tiny roads and sea salt displays in stores and restaurants are to be believed.

The equivalent in Atlanta would be … let me think a minute … pasties (oh wait, our strippers are totally nekkid), the Walking Dead, 16 lanes of asphalt and chicken and waffles?

Tiny roads, great views

Seriously, Cornwall is the quite beautiful southwest tip of England, known for its rugged beauty, coastlines, beaches, cliffs and a history rich in mining—and smuggling. We took a quick trip to the Lizard, the southernmost point of “mainland” England. It was that morning, when hedgerows allowed for only one car for the last couple of miles, that prompted the post on puckering.

At one point, when the road still allowed for two lanes, a pheasant ran out in front of the car. I moved over half a lane. The pheasant did, too. I moved over more, and so did the pheasant. Let’s just say the end wasn’t pleasant for the pheasant.

Declan asked me whether the pheasant was OK because he saw the bird flapping. I explained it wasn’t likely given the speed I was going, a point backed up by the driver behind us. When we all arrived at the car park for the Lizard, he asked about the pheasant. I said I hated that it happened. The man replied, “That’s OK, because I put him out of his misery.”

What’s in a name? Product placements

Writers and marketers apparently have appropriated the names of many Cornwall towns, including St. Ives (lotion), Penzance (pirates) and Land’s End (clothing). I have no idea whether the links between places and products is true, but it certainly is interesting.

St. Ives, despite its confusing, rage-inducing, tiny one-way streets, was worth a visit after a beer to calm one’s nerves. The town has a vibrant harbor that’s still in use by commercial fishermen. Seals also visit, judging by the signs in the harbor. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers in St. Ives, gazing across the water to the Godrevy lighthouse, which was said to inspire “To the Lighthouse.” The proprietor of the B&B in St. Ives showed Declan and Marilynn the lighthouse in the distance while I apparently was stuffing my face, because I missed that little detail.

We also spent a day in Falmouth, another seaside town, so Marilynn could give a talk. It’s a fine-looking town, but I’ll admit that at this point Declan and I had had our fill of seaside. Instead of taking a ferry trip (too late in the day) or visiting the maritime museum, we spent considerable time in Trago, a huge store that sells everything from guns and gnomes to toilets and teacups, and kayaks to kitchen cabinets. It spreads over what looks like at least three buildings and four stories at one point. The website claims it carries 180,000 items, which, if anything, is an understatement. It even has a cafe with impressive views of the harbor.

Everything Poldark

Now back to what Cornwall is known for. If you don’t know what a pasty is, neither did I before coming to England. Basically, it’s a meat pie that looks like a fried pie we Southerners would instantly recognize. I can’t eat them because they invariably contain onions (I’m allergic), but Declan is quite fond of them.

And if you didn’t catch the Poldark reference, then you’re not a fan of the Winston Graham books, the 1970s miniseries or the current BBC series that’s shown in America as part of “Masterpiece” on PBS. The scenery is another star on the show, often used as a stunning backdrop as some character or another walks, gallops or cavorts by the sea, the wind sweeping back hair and horse mane with equal ferocity.

The community certainly caught wind, and quickly, of the popularity of Poldark, evidenced Poldark (2)by Poldark tourism map where visitors can see various big houses used in either series, mines and scenic spots, including the secluded cove where a pivotal bathing scene takes place in Season 1. We attempted to glimpse one of the mines used in the series, but a succession of wrong turns left us running out of time to get to Falmouth. However, we did see signs for the township of Warleggan, also the last name of Poldark’s nemesis.

As for the sea salt? I have no idea why it would be popular, but apparently tourists will buy anything during a vacation. Pillow with Poldark’s very large face on it, anyone?