For a couple of weeks now we’ve been in the seaside town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. The winter weather here is not infrequently ‘manky’, a word that The Free Dictionary defines as ‘dirty, filthy, or bad’, and it has been particularly so this weekend. Wind at high speeds, rain at high volume, rough seas, anemic sun and the early encroachment of deepest darkness all create the atmosphere of a grossly unsubtle horror film. The wind is especially dramatic near the marina, where it produces various spooky FX on the masts and ropes and other yacht paraphernalia—clanking, howling, whirring. It puts the gulls in a bad mood, too. They’ve been mewling, keening and caterwauling like banshees.
Aside from the sound effects, there’s a wealth of visual interest—the movements of the tide, the activities of various species of bird and the parade of people and dogs along the esplanade. The other day, for example, I saw a man on a bicycle pulled by six huskies in tight formation. Was he training for the Iditarod? I asked myself.
One of the things we like to do is go to through downtown Bangor to the ASDA supermarket and see what all is going on.
This is the Covid-19 era, of course, so the hustle and bustle is subdued. Most of the shops are closed, some of them permanently, unfortunately, with plenty of boarded up doors, emptied interiors and dusty lightless windows. Other establishments are all dealing in their own way with restrictions. For the past couple of weeks Northern Ireland has banned indoor and outdoor seating in restaurants and cafes. Other shops have posted mask requirements and a few are even restricting the number of customers in the store. These restrictions are due to be relaxed this Friday, which is a little worrying seeing that local hospitals are already operating at 101% capacity.
We’ve made the trip enough times by now that we’ve picked up a bit of trivia about the area, including the names of famous sons and daughters of Bangor from days of yore. The very street we live on, Seacliff Road, was home to LAM Priestly, pen name of author and suffragette Elizabeth McCracken who wrote The Feminine in Fiction and once invited Sylvia Pankhurst to Belfast as part of a campaign to support equal pay for women doing work for the Great War. Just a few blocks away is the former residence (marked with a plaque) of the artist Colin Middleton (1910-1983).
Colin Middleton’s house is very close to a fancy cafe and deli named Guillemot, a bird that looks like something halfway between an auk and a cormorant but is known locally as the Bangor Penguin. We still haven’t seen one here, though they are eagerly anticipated here after their moulting season in Belfast Lough. This place does an excellent espresso and almost daily there is a gaggle of people clustered in the rainy street waiting for the waitress to come out and take orders or to bring them their paper cup of coping.
Opposite the cafe is the ‘Long Hole’, which seems to have originally been a little sheltered harbor for small boats in the early twentieth century. Nowadays it’s an excellent place for dogs to jump in and fetch tennis balls, expending plenty of energy while their accompanying humans sip coffee and take in the sea view. This Long Hole is next door to Eisenhower Pier, which, yes, is named after that Eisenhower. General Dwight D. stood on this pier in May 1944, inspecting ships as the Allies prepared to storm Normandy. It was known simply as North Pier until 2005, when Mary Eisenhower (the former president’s granddaughter) came to Bangor for a renaming ceremony.
Very near the pier is an old stone tower that was built in 1639 to serve as a Customs House by James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboyne (1560-1644), one of the first landowners in Ulster to bring workers over from Scotland a few years before the Plantations began. Hamilton was a beneficiary of the Nine Years War. It is the oldest building to have been in constant use in Northern Ireland.
Moving inland, we pass establishments that have been closed for several months: The Salty Dog, The Rabbit Room, The Royal, Brian’s Fish and Chips and others. Funland seems to be open still. I’m not sure what goes on in there and nor am I completely convinced that it’s really fun. There’s also a mural of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten with a subversion of his famous quote, “Anger is an energy.”
To the left is a little park with a clock tower, benches and pigeons. On non-rainy days it’s full of people sipping coffee, chatting and wandering aimlessly. There is a little fountain there and signs to something called Pickie Fun Park, which is apparently a big attraction for families. Crossing the road, we come to the main commercial cluster, heading up the hill past a few cafes and bakeries, a TJ Maxx, a bank and some goodwill stores.
One of my favorite things is a display window for a local art collective. I quite like some of the artwork on display, especially the bust of the nurse taking off (or putting on?) her scrubs. Unfortunately it has since been removed from the window and I didn’t see the sculptor’s name. But Jane Irving does a good rhino!
By this time we are about halfway up the hill and veering here and there to keep the requisite two metres between ourselves and other pedestrians, who are generally queuing up outside stores or ATMs. At the top of the hill we reach a large church, the First Bangor Presbyterian Church, completed in 1880, though a Presbyterian congregation has worshipped in the town since 1623.
Then it’s just a short walk across the street and we are at our destination, ASDA. Time to gel-blitz hands and grab groceries!