Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Belfast's Queen's University--and Homeward Bound

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On another bleak morning, I awoke to potter around my backpack, shower, dress and check out of the Youth Hostel where I had spent four rather interesting and very comfortable nights. If you do not mind your bed sailing each time the occupant of the upper bunk moves, if you can deal with the occasional outbreak of snores, if you do not object to late-night chatter, you will find no better value than that offered by Hosteling International. I feel as if I have come upon the girl I used to be, 25 years younger, reclaiming my grad student days when I backpacked all over Europe and used Youth Hostels for affordable housing as I scoured the Continent.

I ordered a waffle for breakfast--large, warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar and drizzled (make that bathed) with chocolate sauce. It was so yummy to look but so disappointing. It was studded with tiny black bits of plastic and I can only conclude that they were pieces of the non-stick coating on the waffle pan that had detached themselves as the waffle was baking and had stuck to the dough and baked right into it. Yuck!!! There went my breakfast!

In the aftermath of a shower and under an overcast sky, I set out to explore Queens Quarter, that part of the city of Belfast that is dominated by the red-brick Tudor structure (reminiscent of Magdalen College, Oxford) of Queens University whose most famous alumnus is Seamus Heany, the Literature Nobel Laureate. Charles Langford who designed the university building used, as his model, the great medieval colleges of Europe and created a site for learning based on the cloisters situated around a quadrangle. Needless to say, a library and a dining hall would be part of the design.

It is lovely to visit educational institutions when they are still in session. The place buzzes with intellectual energy as students mill around--backpacks thrown carelessly across their backs, books in hand--making their way from one class to the next, one lecture hall to the other. I joined the throngs and arrived at the Black and White Hall with its dominant sculpture of Galileo by Pio Fredi. In the quadrangle a large canopied tent was being cleared and dismantled--remnants of a formal party held last night perhaps. I wandered into the Great Hall whose walls were covered with oil-painted portraits of the many eminent men and women who have called the university their alma mater. There was a High Table and a stone fireplace right behind it and a rather eye catching ceiling but it had none of the aura of the medieval halls of Oxford or Cambridge--perhaps because it lacked their venerable age. On exploring the library, I found that I had strayed into a 'Coffee Morning' at which several faculty and administrative staff had gathered for a mid-morning chinwag. There were mince pies and shortbread and coffee at hand and people were nibbling while purchasing tickets for a dozen food hampers that would be raffled later that day. English hampers come into their own twice a year--at summer picnics and at Christmas when they are filled with the most exotic eats like cornichons and candied stem ginger.

Across the street, I visited the book store and spent an idle quarter hour browsing through its offerings. I almost bought a signed copy of an autobiography by Cheri Blair for Llew but thought better of it. I was certain it would be badly misshapen by the time it made its way home in my backpack and I know how anal Llew is about the condition of a book--it must remain pristine if he is to value it! So there went that idea!

Then, I was back at the Hostel, retrieving my backpack from storage, taking the Bus 600 to George Best Airport (the only airport in which Ryanair lands that is within the very heart of the city as opposed to the other airports that are always several godforsaken miles away). I was there in 15 minutes, and with my boarding pass and security formalities all done (after the ordeal I went through at Stanstead airport, I was taking no chances with time), I had loads of it to kill in an airport that was singularly lacking in enticements such as duty-free shopping--but then I wasn't really leaving the country, so I could not expect to travel duty-free. It just felt as if I had visited another country because I had crossed the Sea!!!

On the flight, once I had settled down again in the bulk head seat, who should I see climbing up the stairs but Marina! Of course, she sat right by me and we kept each other company throughout. I was delighted to fly right over the Isle of Man and then to see Liverpool clearly reveal itself itself below me, the Mersey snaking its sluggish way, a hefty river indeed, and the Three Graces standing solidly on its banks. I still thrill to the view of the world from so many thousands of feet above sea level--it is about as unique a perspective on our world as one could ever have!

We reached before schedule, much to Ryanair's pride, and I caught the early Easybus back home to Baker Street. Nothing much to report expect that I had dozens of email messages to trawl through and a camera full of 120 pictures to download before I was able to unwind and call it a night after eating a sandwich and a mince pie and washing it all down with cider.

Tomorrow I give a final exam and have a stack of papers to grade before I can focus on my next trip--home to Southport and the ones I most love!

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