I’ve been ‘up north’ this week in Manchester as part of my new job (our head offices are there), and in between a shed load of intros and meetings I managed to find time to wander around the Northern Quarter, the city’s bohemian hub.
While in Belfast earlier this year, I noticed that only a small minority of tourists in the region were British. It’s easy to understand why – growing up in the 1990s I have vague childhood memories of ‘The Troubles’ on the news, of the bombings by the IRA and its fractions in England, and Gerry Adams’ pre-hipster beard – none of which screamed travel hotspot. But it’s actually this rich, if complicated, political history that makes Northern Ireland such a surprisingly fascinating destination. This is most apparent when exploring West Belfast, an area divided by Protestant and Catholic quite literally by the ‘Peace lines’ walls. Up to 25 feet in places and collectively miles long, since The Good Friday Agreement these have been used as a place for artists to express local and international political discourse and human rights.
When it opened to a surprised public in late August, Banksy’s Dismaland was all over the British news. Some said the artist had become the gimmick themselves by harpooning the commercial world of theme parks in a way that arguably lacked depth and integrity. While Banksy’s work has always appealed to me (like most) it was more the appeal of the kitsch element of amusement parks that pulled me in. I am a massive fan of anything that if highly thematic, the most synthetic the better, With that in mind, an immersive sculpture art experience skewing the characteristics of the traditional British seaside experience in my old stomping ground of Somerset was hard to resist.
On a suburban street away from the seafront in Margate is a mysterious place of unknown age and origin. The Shell Grotto, on Grotto Hill, is a subterranean passageway discovered in 1835 decorated in 4.6 millions seashells. These shells are arranged in ornate mosaics combining floral motifs within the walkways and more geometrical patterns within the ‘alter room’ at the end of the tunnels. The mosaics are made from a variety of different shells including locally occurring mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters. The bulk of the ‘background to the design is however made of flat winkle, rarely found locally and in closest abundance near Southampton. This adds to the intrigue of the origins of the grotto – multiple theories circle from being a pet project of a Victorian dandy to millennia old religious site, with Freemasonry in between.
If you mention ‘Margate’ or ‘Dreamland’ to any English person over the age of 50 you will see their eyes light up like a small child on Christmas Day morning. The seaside town and it’s amusement park is the epitome of the traditional british summer holiday, full of yellow sand, cold waters, rickety roller coasters and fish’n’chips. Dreamland has been the location of seaside amusements since the late 20th century, with the park officially existing from the 1920s. Popularity peaked in the 1960s and 70s, with new thrills drawing the attention of holidaymakers nationwide. By the 200s times had changed with most Brits going abroad for a week of guaranteed cheap sun rather than staying closer to home, and Margate fell out of favour and became a little worse for wear. Due to low attendance the park was closed for several years before a local trust purchased the site for renovation.