In the last of a series of reports filed from Belfast by Richard Weston, our intrepid correspondent peers into the dark corners of The Shop With No Name
It came out of the blue. Totally unexpected. Couldn't have been more of a surprise actually. About, oh I don't know, four or five weeks ago, what used to be a boarded-up bingo hall, just over the road from our studio, re-opened its year-or-more-closed shutters. But there's no more "two fat ladies" or "clickety-clicks" now; instead, we have a veritable emporium of vintage delights.
The Shop With No Name (which, incidentally, isn't its name, it hasn't got one) is both a boon and a curse.
If ever there was an ideal lunchtime distraction for me, this was it, in all its mixed up, ephemeral, kitsch, government surplus, dead man's stuff glory.
Packed full of the unexpected, so far I've invested good money in such valueless nonsense as: employment cards from the 1970s, an embroidered souvenir pennant from Lourdes, a rather fine and mighty T-square like I used in art school; a Canadian Airways luggage tag and, very best of all, a letterpress printer's composing stick.
And therein is the curse: I can't resist a bit of vintage trivia. So having a shop just over the road is far too close to resist. Thankfully, to date, I've displayed just about enough discipline to only purchase small, low cost objects. This means I've managed to abstain from shelling out on the old bicycle in the window, side-lined the fully working manual till, ignored the Olivetti Lettera 25 typewiter (just) and walked away from the not-so-old but bargain-priced Eye magazines from the early to mid 1990s (three quid a pop, they're listed on ebay at £30 each).
The crammed-full shop is run by Ian and Michael, who use it to clear surplus materials not needed for their prop hire operation. And they have all sorts of stuff. Interesting, surprising stuff; some familiar, some never seen before. Some you'd probably be happy not to see again but lots and lots that is quite fascinating.
I couldn't help wonder, where does someone get so much weird stuff from? So, the other day, I asked Ian. With a straight face he said, quite simply, "Robberies, mostly".
The Shop With No Name is on the Lower Newtownards Road, just opposite Portview. If you're nearby, you should drop in and buy something. A set of opticians lenses or a Lady Di plate, perhaps.
We know you will be as sad as we are to bid farewell to Richard, the good news is that you can read much more by him at Ace Jet 170, where he muses on design, typography, ephemera and recent finds from the Shop With No Name.
In his continuing series of reports highlighting unmissable and occasionally eccentric diversions in Belfast, Richard Weston of Ace Jet 170 stumbles upon a secret society.
The miniature railway at the Ulster Transport Museum has been on this site since 1970. Legend has it it recamped here after its previous home was vandalised and the new, slightly obscure location offered a welcome safe haven.
The lines are run by a committed body of enthusiasts (The Model Engineers' Society of Northern Ireland to give them their rightful name) who inhabit a private, untidy but basically magical world, largely hidden from view. Mostly men (no surprise there) of varying age meet in this secret garden to fiddle with their valves and tinker with their crankshafts.
I remember the first time we discovered the full extent of their domain. You see most people are content with sitting on the mini platform to wait, patiently, for their turn. But we're far too nosy and display far too little respect for other people's property to settle for such pedestrian idleness. We're snoopers through and through, so casually strolled up the rough track that runs the length of the wall that hides the chuffer's kingdom. Once round the corner you get a much better, much more interesting picture of what's actually going on.
Two tracks, of different gauges, sweep across and around surprisingly neat lawns. To the far side there's a club room and little further back, amongst the trees, are well-equipped workshops, store rooms and a maintenance area, where engine servicing occurs.
The natives were friendly and even though we were technically trespassing, they welcomed us in, gave us a thorough tour, showed us their lathe and invited us to become one of them. Perhaps a bit too eagerly.
Although we politely declined their invitation, I can't deny being tempted. It was a compelling offer: give up our safe and cosy Saturday routine in favour of a thrilling, adventure-packed, seat-of-the-pants new life aboard a steam engine hardly bigger than your kettle; hidden from the prying eyes of the proletariat and safe from the destructive endeavours of the scumbag vandals.
But the truth is, our interest in steam is limited, we were there for the snooping as much as anything.
In which Richard Weston of Ace Jet 170 continues his explorations in Belfast, reaching a somewhat unexpected feature.
It's an actual, real life tropical rain forest and it's just, oh I don't know, half a mile or so out of the city centre. Adjacent to the Ulster Museum in Belfast's Queen's Quarter, according to my secret source of information, The Tropical Ravine is the only one of its kind in the whole of the European subcontinent.
Construction was completed in 1889 to a design by Charles McKimm, bearded Victorian Super Gardener; it was considered to be his finest work. Not surprising then that it was opened by Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, bigger-named but the lesser-bearded 1st Marquess of Dufferin, best known for his irrelevant travels in the North Atlantic.
It was a big deal at the time but I'm not sure how sexy the Ravine is considered to be today. Nevertheless, it's good that it's still there.
There's something special about a surprisingly tranquil place so close to a busy metropolis. The Ravine, which forms a significant part of Belfast's small Botanic Gardens, is more than just that though; by its nature it offers more than just a quiet escape; it's tropical; and with that comes a whole different set of atmospherics.
It may be cold and wet outside (Belfastians recognise "cold and wet" as being the city's natural state) but inside the red brick and glass structure it's always humid. When autumnal or winter-bare outside, here it's always lush with its alien plant life dripping with steamy condensation.
The ravine's outer is built into a slope so although you enter (via the top end) at ground level you're actually on the first floor which means you're in the micro-forest's canopy. Looking down it's easy to imagine wild beasts prowling while you enjoy the weird foliage stretching for the roof.
Now don't ask me what any of the green stuff is. A lot of it looks like it's been lifted from the pages of a Dr Seuss book but with that comes a real sense, when you first enter, of stepping into a different world. I love that. It's a bit like when Mr Benn steps out of the changing room into his new adventure. Only there are no dragons or mermaids and you're not in outer space or Ancient Rome. You're just in Belfast, looking at a clammy banana tree.
When we published our first map we sent copies to blogs, publications and individuals whose work we admired. Among those was Richard Weston of Ace Jet 170, whose regular postings of found type, book covers and the belongings of the deceased inspired us then and continue to do so today.
Over the course of this month Richard has agreed to share with us some of his favourite things to see and do in Belfast, beginning with Linen Hall Library. You are in safe hands.
We headed to Linen Hall Library (which you'll find, by the way, in the very heart of Belfast's City Centre) for a book launch. I'd not been in before, but that's not surprising; you'd hardly know it was there at all. Not unless, that is, you're from around these parts or you have a specific reason to visit, as we had.
Or if you're a spy and use the library, Northern Ireland's oldest, as a dead letter box. Which is highly likely. In fact, after just one visit it's obvious to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of espionaginal tradecraft that the library is the perfect place for all sorts of covert activities for our most secret of services.
Perfect for a number of reasons: it's warren-like inside so there are plenty of nooks from which you can observe your prey safely; two entrances, the old one on Donegal Square and the new one around the corner on Fountain Street, means a swift and sneaky jaunt from one to the other, via various categorised sections, provides the ideal means to shake off that unwanted stalker; and the Library's low key facade makes its cafe an off-the-beaten-track (but still very handy) rendevous point for when you need to slip a sealed envelope of top secret documentation to a fellow spook or, dare I suggest, enemy agent.
Linen Hall Library is largely old style; straight out of a le Carré or Deighton novel. Dark wooden shelves hold dusty volumes not touched for decades; its murky corners offer respite from the busy city immediately outside and I wish I worked nearby so I could take advantage of its well worn leather padded chairs when I need a quiet space to think.
I shouldn't neglect to mention the Library's modern side entrance, which opened in 2000. Not least because it offers a surprising treat: the atrium's walls are covered in political advertising from the Province's checkered past and there's some real gems amongst them. Worth lingering over if you have the time (and you're not being shadowed).
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