For many people, Belfast will forever be linked—not with the Troubles—but with Titanic. I count myself as one of those. As a popular T-shirt in the High Street trinket shops proclaims, Titanic was “built by the Irish, sunk by the English.”
The Harland & Wolff shipyards, where Titanic, its sister ship Olympic and hundreds of other ships first hit the water down the historic slipways, are now mostly quiet. Shipbuilding no longer fuels Belfast’s economy, and H&W makes its money from engineering and refurbishment. But two huge yellow gantries, each bearing the H&W logo, dominate the Queenside landscape and bear witness to the city’s nautical ties.
An event to remember
As a youngster, I remember reading Walter Lord’s definitive account of Titanic’s last days, “A Night to Remember.” When the Booneshill School library was boarded up years later with books still inside, let’s say a few of those volumes wound up in my book collection, including a huge volume of “Roget’s Thesaurus” and the aforementioned Walter Lord book.
When I first traveled to Belfast in summer 2000 with my then-fiancée Marilynn, we took the train from Dublin to Belfast. Just before the train reached Central Station, the twin gantries came into view, letting me know without a doubt that I was in Belfast.
As we were touching down in Belfast City Airport on Jan. 2 to start this adventure, during the last minute of the short-haul flight from London I saw lots of water, followed by patchwork fields of at least 20 shades of green, and finally the twin gantries as airplane tires touched tarmac.
Since arriving here in January, I have been trying to take a definitive picture of the gantries to fit into the really tight horizontal photo specs of the blog template and for my own edification. But my quest was mostly quixotic, with blurry photos and near misses, trees in the way or a perfect picture of just one.
No Link to Titanic
To be clear, the gantries, named Samson and Goliath, have absolutely nothing to do with Titanic. They were built in 1969 (Goliath) and 1974 (Samson), but their height, their bold color and the H&W logos soon infused themselves into the city’s collective psyche, becoming symbols of Belfast. Their height (348 feet for Samson, 315 feet for Goliath) means they can be seen from nearly any place in the city.
We could glimpse them in the far distance from Belfast Castle, nestled at the base of Cave Hill. Samson and Goliath tantalize with their proximity while on the winding roads from the City Centre to the motorway toward the airport, but a building or overpass often gets in the way of a clear picture.
I came close with a shot I took from the waiting lounge at City Airport on our way to the Arsenal match in April. A couple of weeks ago, Declan took a picture that might have worked, except for the promo on the back of the bus window we were riding in.
That same weekend, we walked from City Centre to the Titanic Museum in an attempt to find the perfect angle. While you definitely can see them both, one of the gantries is too close to provide the right angle. And there are trees in the way, regardless.
Plotting and planning
I had already figured out the likeliest perfect spot—the layby near the Belfast Ikea, adjacent to City Airport. People park there to watch the planes take off and land, and I’d seen the gantries beyond the airport during out two previous trips to Ikea. But we didn’t have a car—until two weekends ago when we hired a car to visit area gardens.
Mid-Sunday morning, before Ikea opened, we drove out there specifically to take the picture at top. We parked in a surface lot at Ikea but couldn’t see the gantries for the trees. Fortunately, Marilynn ran to the layby, then disappeared through the trees. She reappeared seconds later, waving us over.
The trees definitely blocked the view, but hundreds of feet had smoothed a path through the trees to the airport fence. And there they were, finally, Samson and Goliath in all their glory, aligned nearly perfectly with the view I’d carried in my head all those months. The actual picture-taking was straightforward. Click, click, done. But we’d brought the telephoto lens, so I was able to get even better photos than I would have.
It seems anticlimactic to have actually captured the photo I’d been seeking for so long. So what quixotic quest will I need to come up with for the rest of the journey?