Talking Heads

'This is a tour for all but the cripplingly paranoid: everywhere you go in Belfast, hundreds of eyes are staring down'

I don’t drive, which marks me out as both effete and untrustworthy in Belfast. So I do a lot of wandering around in this city, usually in the rain and usually staring at my own feet. Daniel Jewesbury, a lustrously bearded talking head himself, aims to change all that by simply advising people to look up.

There are myriad cultural and sociological treasures clinging to the buildings in Northern Ireland's capital city. This tour, part of Belfast City Council's ongoing Poets & Players, Dockers & Dreamers heritage trails taking place throughout summer 2012, is an idiosyncratic history: the City Hall, our starting point, is dealt with dismissively, within minutes. The real story, the interesting stuff, is elsewhere.

Ten Square for instance, now a boutique hotel, restaurant and bar, was built as the Old Post House in 1863. The outside is covered in high Victorian pin-ups from Joseph Marie Jacquard, inventor of the mechanical loom that revolutionised the linen trade in Belfast and made an awful lot of Belfast businessmen very wealthy, to Alexander von Humboldt, the romantic Prussian philosopher.

Other luminaries, Shakespeare and the Roman god Mercury, are now tucked away beneath awnings at the front of the building; innocent victims of the smoking ban.

Ocean Buildings, on the corner of Chichester Street and Donegall Square East, is a magnificent perpendicular Gothic construction in Scottish sandstone, peppered with heads, animals, dragons, grapevines, a smattering of Royals and the emblem of the company: a mermaid holding a shield with a light-house on it.

The company were named, rather unfortunately, The Ocean Accident Guarantee Corporation. It’s not disclosed whether they ever insured the Titanic. Rather sadly beneath all of this careful rendered detail, held cautiously in place by what looks like a giant hair-net, there is a disused, bolted up shop. The word 'Boudoir' stares forlornly through its window like a forgotten dog.

It’s onto the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square East next, and the Robinson and Cleaver department store. All the usual suspects are featured prominently on its Scrabo sandstone façade, but there are one or two surprises peaking out from the pediment.

There’s the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who helped formalise the rules of snooker, and to his right the personification of Australia, depicted as woman hidden behind a veil to symbolise Australia’s emergence onto the world stage.

On the corner of Donegall Street West and Chichester Street were the offices of Young and McKenzie, which is covered in friezes depicting a personified commerce as benevolent and gentrifying. Wealth was flooding into the city at an unprecedented rate and these were good times for the owners of shipping, rope and linen companies.

It’s little wonder they felt the nurturing warmth of big business as a force for good, though it was a different story for the ordinary working people. Industry was fit to be personified as a Greek goddess, and the city would soon be littered with statues of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Mercury, god of communication: Belfast was becoming a world city thanks to its trade routes.

These buildings were built for the glory of that city and for the glorification of the companies who built them, but also with a kind of, admittedly smug and Patrician, benevolence: they were things of beauty that the ordinary man could look upon and be inspired by.

It’s a notion as flawed as the American Dream: it must be hard to be inspired to greatness by looking at a comely piece of stone if you’re half dead from hunger and cold.

There are extraordinary figures in every nook and cranny around Belfast: Tesco has a population of gnomes and minstrels squatting on its atrium, for instance. The Black Box arts venue has a very prescient carving of Bacchus over its door, considering it used to be a bonded warehouse.

Best of all is the Malmaison building with its representations of the continents through the medium of lugubrious stone heads and its peculiar weasel/tortoise figurines poking out through stone foliage. This is a tour for all but the cripplingly paranoid: everywhere you go in this city, hundreds of eyes are staring down at you.