Titanic Belfast

IMG_1220In the summer, I visited Belfast’s stunning Titanic Exhibition. It’s housed in a spectacular building that references the White Star Line logo (and the iceberg which destroyed this vessel). A trip here opens up the social and economic history of Belfast, as well as exploring how the Titanic has entered popular culture. The city’s industrial heritage is never far away, with the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes from the Harland and Woolf  shipyard standing guard.


It’s located in a part of Belfast which has seen many changes since I lived not that far away in the 1990s. This whole area has seen much regeneration, with the Titanic studios being the Northern Ireland home for Game of Thrones filming (the yellow and grey building below).



Back to the stunning exhibition building, which opened in 2012, in time to commemorate Titanic’s 100th anniversary.


It’s set right at the head of the slipway from where the Titanic and its Harland and Woolf sister ships were launched.


Inside, it’s a cavernous creation that recreates the early 20th Century Belfast of the Titanic’s construction.


Then it’s in through the (real) gates of Harland and Woolf to learn more about how ships were built. A replica of the gigantic Arrol gantry takes the visitor to a dark ride through the shipyard, where there’s a sense of the conditions in which the shipyard workers toiled. 

The difference between first and third class accommodation on the ship is vividly bought to life with replica cabins, while the ship’s eventual sinking is handled with sensitivity.


Titanic’s role in popular culture and the aftermath of its demise are also explored. There’s an atmospheric double height cinema experience that showcases the resting place of the vessel and the exploration still going on there. Very poignant.  The site also looks forward, exploring how the city’s shipbuilding industry has evolved, and to the future of marine exploration.

All in all a fantastic visit with one ship’s construction used as a jumping off point to learn more about Belfast and much more.

It’s also possible to have a walking tour of the area, including the drawing office where Titanic and its sister ships were designed, and the tender ship for Titanic, SS Nomadic.  We decided to leave those for our next visit!


A week in Rome

The end of August saw me in my favourite inspiration for blog posts: Rome.  No more need for blogs on “finding ancient Rome in..” for a while.  The next few posts will focus on the places that we visited during our week in and around the city.  Enjoy a flavour of what we got up to in the meantime…



Three days in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Three days was never going to be enough to see all that Istanbul has to offer, but a natural starting point was Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya (the Church of Holy Wisdom).  Now a museum, this cavernous building started life almost 1700 years ago as one of three churches dedicated to the elements of the Trinity in Constantinople: the city that Constantine the Great had declared the new capital of the Roman Empire.

The building we see today is the third building on the site, and dates from the mid 6th Century. Post the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople, it became a mosque remaining so until the 1930s when it became the museum that we see today.  As part of that mosque complex, there was an adjoining primary school, fountains, an almshouse, and a complex of buildings where Sultans were buried.

So it’s a unique blend of Christian and Islamic heritage – now displaying some of the largest Islamic calligraphic panels in existence, as well as Byzantine mosaics.

The first view from the city’s Sultanhamet Park is pretty spectacular.

The site’s dome was the highest in existence (until the Renaissance) and appeared to float before eventually being reinforced by buttresses. As the scaffolding shows, repair is an ongoing  task.

The building was a pre-eminent Greek Orthodox cathedral during the Byzantine era (apart from a few years as a Roman Catholic cathedral) and had a central relevance for Eastern Roman emperors.  They were crowned here on this spot, known as the Ompithalon….

…and had a bird’s eye view of proceedings from this marble-clad loge.


Columns were rumoured to have come from the temple of Artemis at , and marble from all over the ancient world was used. The lighting in place now can only give some indication of the grandeur of how this structure would have looked when lit by candlelight and glittering mosaics.


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There’s also a reminder that not everyone would have been rapt by church services – this 9th century graffitti from a Viking Varangian guard suggests that he wasn’t exactly delighted to be there.



Moving on the site’s post 1453 life, and there are stunning examples of craftsmanship on display in the lodge for the muezzin, as well as an imperial library, minbar and altar.


Finding Ancient Rome in London

I got the inspiration for this post from my post on Milan’s Roman heritage: it seemed like a good idea to explore Roman heritage closer to home. I’ve mapped out some of London’s most important sites on the attached Google map, but obviously could only make a few of them in one day!


On exiting Tower Hill tube station at one of London’s main attractions – the Tower of London – the remains of Roman walls can be seen close to a statue of Julius Caesar. The walls have been incorporated into many buildings and even car parks – they’re also remembered by the street name London Wall in the western part of the City.  We’ll meet it again later in the post!

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Just a little further along, and a western neighbour of the Tower of London stands the Saxon church of All Hallows by the tower.


Built in 675 AD, this is the oldest church in the city of London and built over the remains of a Roman-era home discovered only in 1926, and whose pavement is visible from the crypt.  The church describes this as:

the floor of a domestic house from the late 2nd Century. Consisting of plain red tesserae, it has a gully in it thought to be the position of a wall, showing plaster at the edges.


The crypt museum displays some everyday objects from the house, including lamps, bowls (some in great condition), writing implements and even the household shrine.



The atmospheric little museum also contains a model of the Roman city, built in the 1920s.


And appropriately for a church, there are fragments of burial monuments and tablets.



Peeking above that first picture of picture of All Hallows’ is the new Walkie Talkie building, only a minute or so away from the location of Londinium’s Roman Forum whose basilica was at the time the largest building north of the Alps.  The commercial theme of the forum continues into the 21st Century as it’s the site of Leadenhall market (which become one of London’s markets in  the 1300s).  And it also featured in Harry Potter and the Philiphosphers Stone as Diagon Alley!

There are no visible remains of the Forum or basilica above ground, although some of the basilica’s piers are apparently visible from below ground in a barbers shop!  While there’s nothing much to see now, the Museum of London have recreated the site in model format.



We’re also not far from a temple of Mithras discovered during building work in the 1950s but can omit that as it’s currently part of extensive city building work and will eventually reemerge as an exhibit in new Bloomberg offices. Again the Museum of London come to the rescue with remnants taken from the origianl excavation of that Temple. Interestingly, as the site was moved from its original location, archaeologists are now requesting that people forward old photographs to help them rebuild the site as authentically as possible.


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The gods above are Mithras and Serapis.  With the name of this blog, I couldn’t not include Minerva too.



On to the City of London’s Guildhall, home of the Corporation of London since the 12th Century. . Guildhall square is a gorgeous space but look at the elliptical black line around its edge – what it represents lies beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery: the remains of Londinium’s amphitheatre.

IMG_8976 IMG_8968 IMG_8953-0 IMG_8958 IMG_8965-0 IMG_8964-0The amphitheatre was only discovered as recently as 1988, and architects have incorporated it beautifully into the Guildhall art gallery. While it’s not the Colosseum, the scant remains of the site’s eastern entrance are beautfiully lit to give visitors an impression of what the site could have been like.   It’s even been used as a theatre in recent years.

Obviously, given their discovery dates, neither amphitheatre nor temple are featured in the All Hallows model above.

Moving on to the Musuem of London, which has provided some of the photos already in this post, there’s another sign of Roman London – in the street name (London Wall).  The museum itself has a Roman gallery showing wonderful exhibits of finds from across London – not just restricted to the city walls of Londinium, but venturing south into Southwark and much further.

Part of London Wall has even been integrated into the display – visible from the museum Londinium galleries. What’s displayed here is actually the round turret of a fort (to which the museum arranges guided visits) and located at the North western edge of the city of Londinium. One could just imagine the soldiers making the short walk from their fort to the amphitheatre for a day out!

Inside, as well as the representations of the Forum, basilica and Temple described above there is much more detail on how citizens lived and died, including models of the baths complex overlooking the Thames, and mock ups of a triclinium, kitchen and more.

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As with all the sites, many of the finds are quite recent, including a find of a Roman noble woman’s sepulchre (discovered in 1999 during excavations of Spitalfields market). The features of Its occupant – Spitalfields Woman –  have been reconstructed putting a face to at least one of the ancient city’s citizens.P1020857


And If you can’t get to see any of those sites, then there is always the wonderful cast court at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where you’ll even find a replica of Trajan’s Column.


then there are the Roman baths that aren’t….

Exploring Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle has been home to six English queens, and today is a major tourist attraction deep in the Kent countryside (the Leeds bit comes from the name of the area of Esledes recorded in the Domesday book).

It started life as a castle built by a Norman knight, Robert de Crevecoueur, who had accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066, and passed into royal ownership at the time of Edward I, where it remained until the time of Edward VI.  Its final owner, Lady Olive Bailie, left her mark by introducing black swans, and combining traditional decoration with a 1930s style.  It’s thanks to the foundation that she set up that so many of us were able to explore the site on an October afternoon.

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Inside the castle, the decor ranges from mock medieval to 1930s styles.  Here, the Queen’s bedroom reflects how a bedroom could have looked, with the cipher of Henry V and Catherine de Valois lining the walls.




Back outside, and there’s more to explore (whether by train or not!).

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Five days in Milan

There tend to be a couple of reactions when you say you’re going to Milan for five days: it’s either “ooh lovely” or “that’s a long time to spend there”.  In searching for blogs on Milan trips, the city can seem to be a stopover point en route elsewhere, with people taking in the Duomo and the Last Supper, before venturing elsewhere.

But, as we researched things to do in the city, it became clear that 5 days wouldn’t be enough, and we’d have to leave out some of the things that we wanted to see – adding a day trip to Florence into the mix meant that the list had to be pruned somewhat as well.

As a bit of a guide to what’s to follow on the blogging front, here’s a Google map showing the places that we did get to visit in this city that effortlessly blends old and new.  Click on any of the locations and you’ll see what it is.


And it is a city blending old and new, if you look for it: remembering its heritage as one of the last bastions of the Western Roman Empire, the home of the Duomo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Sforzas, but combining that with a bright future of skyscrapers and next year’s Expo which will focus on food and energy.

The Duomo’s at the heart of the city…


Remnants of Ancient Rome and the early Christian period are easy to find…

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including part of the Imperial circus..


It’s a city with a medieval trading heart..


And Renaissance masterpieces.IMG_4966



Napoleon left his mark on the skyline..


And the city prepares for the future…






Hillsborough Castle


Hillsborough Castle is the official residence of the Queen when she’s in Northern Ireland, as well as the residence of the Secretary of State. Located a short motorway drive from central Belfast it’s a lovely village setting.

The State Rooms weren’t open during our visit, but we had a quiet wander round the extensive grounds.20140802-114017-42017543.jpg




The house featured a taste of Greece with this Temple…


A beautiful sculpted yew tree walk leads to a small pond, complete with another Temple, dedicated to Lady Alice Hill, one of the family who gave their name to the town and called this grand Georgian house home.







It’s a working palace, and who wouldn’t want these views from their office. Historic Royal Palaces have recently taken over the site, so hopefully it’ll see more visits in the years to come.

St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast

This Church of Ireland cathedral is a late 19th/early 20th Century addition to the Belfast skyline: construction began in 1899, building  around the existing church of St Anne’s, and the new structure opened its doors to the public in 1904.  However, the most recent addition to the structure – the Spire of Hope – dates from 2007 and was built to commemorate 9/11.



Not many cathedrals can boast a science pillar – this is one of a series dedicated to celebrating Belfast’s early 20th century industrial heritage. Others focus on linen, agriculture, and shipbuilding.

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Shipbuilding is also the focus for another recent addition: the “Titanic pall” unveiled in 2012, to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic. Designed by staff from the neighbouring University of Ulster School of Art and Design, it’s an indigo felt and linen tapestry hand-embroidered with crosses and stars to commemorate the 1517 fatalities a century earlier.


The cathedral is unusual as it is the only Anglican cathedral to house to Bishops’ chairs.  Here are a few more images from around the building.

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Digital revolution

20140723-201121-72681468.jpg20140723-201121-72681468.jpg20140723-201121-72681468.jpgThis week, I got the chance to see the brilliant Digital Revolution exhibition at the 20140723-173954-63594828.jpgBatbican.

It’s a wonderful journey for those of us who grew up in the 80s and have seen computers change from the first zx spectrum and BBC micros that I experienced to the types of technology that enable films like Gravity and Inception to be made. And where else would you get to play with and direct lasers, or flap your arms wildly to make birds fly to showcase the creative process?

The exhibition didn’t help to make the kind of distinctions that one of my digital colleagues was trying to make – in defining digital it’s clear that the convergence of technologies that bring us from the first Altair machine, through Ceefax, Gravity and 3D printed dresses can mean many things to different people – maybe the key thing is that digital is just the enabler in bringing stories to life, making things happen and enabling stories to be told and creativity expressed in new ways.


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Birthdays, visions of democracy and back to BIS


So, this is my last day with Involve before I return to my day job.

It’s been a very different week in a small third-sector organisation as opposed to a large government department.  There are fewer people around, it’s a smaller building, and Old Street/Corsham Street is very different to Victoria Street.  It’s given me an insight into the different issues faced by smaller organisations, and I’ve been lucky to get a little insight into their work and projects over the last few days, as well as having a little space to reflect more on some of the aspects of my day-to-day job.

I’ve had an introduction to the NHS Citizen project, and a timely reminder of how facilitation skills can be applied in other settings – including in the type of digital training that we offer to policy makers  My time has also coincided with the organisation’s 10th birthday, and I was delighted to be able to attend their anniversary celebration at the University of Westminster last night (on Tweeting duty, although the team all share the digital load normally, and have got really strong online profiles).  As Simon let the cat out of the bag that I was tweeting for @InvolveUK during the event, I’d have to say I didn’t find it necessarily freer, although it was fun trying to distill some rather cryptic comments about pigs and cows.

The focus of last night’s event was a forward-facing one, with guests asked to think about their visions of democracy. While some of that, unsurprisingly, focused on areas that the impartial civil servant in me can’t really comment on or influence, it was gratifying to find such a resonance with what we in the BIS digital team are trying to achieve by empowering policy makers to listen and engage online – that’s our contribution to shaping the future of democracy, enabling both policy makers to have a voice online, and ensuring that the public voice as it’s expressed online is more easily heard.

So, I was really interested in some of the thinking last night.  Geoff Mulgan, for example, from Nesta discussed a European project that Nesta is involved with to make digital participation more widespread. But equally, later, in the speed dating/networking session I was reminded that some members of the public have the same misgivings about engaging online as policy makers.

It was also great to catch up with many of the current and past Sciencewise teams that I don’t get to speak to in my current role, and to hear about some exciting projects that will definitely be of interest to staff across BIS.

So, as I go back there it only remains for me to say a really big thank you to all of Simon’s team at Involve for making me so welcome over the last few days.