I wonder what your mind conjures when you think of the word ‘city’? Art galleries perhaps. A thriving town centre with quirky independent boutiques. Hip restaurants and cocktail bars. So I ask you, how many of these spring to mind when I say ‘Bangor County Down’?
I’ve heard it touted as the North Down Riviera, and granted, from certain angles on a bright sunny day, the Marina can look impressive. The sea front could possibly look pretty too, if seen from a distance of several nautical miles, any closer and it’s suddenly less Cannes and more zombie apocalypse.
While at school I was asked to compete in a Public Speaking Competition in the Town Hall. It was called something highly imaginative, such as ‘Why Bangor is Brilliant’. Contrarian that I was, I chose instead to complain about the lack of amenities for young people and lament the rundown state of Queen’s Parade. Twenty years on and if anything, the seafront is in an even more dilapidated state than it was back then. Yes, there may be the cute little artist pods known as Studio 24, but to me, this is equivalent of brightening up your tired living room with a few bright curtains, and maybe, at a push, a rug. Surely, this would be the very spot for the aforementioned hostelries, and would bring some much needed vitality into the town centre?
We took a drive down to Bangor a couple of weeks ago, to take advantage of both the sunshine, and the fact that a kind friend had taken the children off for the afternoon. As we drove down Main Street, I let a gulder out of me when I looked out of the passenger side and saw a boarded up shop front where TK Maxx used to be. There’s no Eason’s anymore either, or Dunnes. ‘I bet you can’t even get a decent ice cream anymore,’ I grumbled.
When I was wee, my mum used to take me to Papa Capaldi’s on a Friday evening, by way of a bribe for forcing me to attend the Girls’ Brigade in Trinity Presbyterian Church. (How I hated it: swapping your school pinafore for a navy tunic complete with massive navy knickers and then making an Easter basket out of an old Flora Tub. Two scoops of honeycomb ice-cream and hot fudge sauce used to help erase the memory for another week.) Anyway, Papa Capaldi’s is long gone. As is Vesuvios, a pizzeria that used to be above The Palladium where we used to go in sixth form, ordering cheeky bottles of house red to accompany streaming bowls of spaghetti carbonara. It was tremendous fun and easy on the purse, as befitted a group of teenage girls. There is a distinct lack of decent eateries now, unless one wants to sell one of their kidneys and visit The Boathouse. A colleague took her husband for his birthday recently and nearly dropped when she was handed a bill for £250. At that price she’d expected to be up for the night as well, and then served a champagne breakfast.
Looking at the shoddy excuse for a seafront now, it’s hard to believe that I used to have lovely evenings out in Bangor. I remember with fondness bopping about to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ in The Windsor and Calico Jacks. My friends and I would leave before the hoards were tipped out of the pubs at one o’clock, before walking home for a bacon butty and a cup of tea, lovingly prepared by the Mothership. I would always tell her that we’d got a taxi home, because even though it was only a mile down the road, I was strictly forbidden from returning, lest I was ‘set upon’. Sadly this hasn’t changed, and it’s still a regular occurrence.
But perhaps, (and I’m going to embrace optimism for a change,) now that Bangor has been bestowed city status, it may finally reach its potential. Surely this should finally deliver a boot up the arse to the North Down and Ards Council, who seem to squabble endlessly about the town centre and let it languish instead of making any changes.
Thankfully there are some people who are determined to put Bangor on the map, namely Alison Gordon and Kieran Gilmore, founders of the Open House Festival, who have done just this. They have worked tirelessly to bring a world class acts to Bangor and liven up our summers. If this is what one couple with vision and perseverance can do, imagine the change a collective of enthusiasts could bring about. In 2014 I took LSB to see the American Band The Barr Brothers play as part of ‘The Beach House Session.’ Tucked in behind The Starfish Café in a converted garage with surfboards on the walls, it was one of the most intimate gigs I’ve ever attended. ‘I can’t believe we’re in Bangor!’ I kept telling LSB as we strolled hand and hand home along the Ballyholme promenade.
The Aspects Festival is another reason I come back to Bangor every September. This festival celebrates Irish Writing and I have been lucky enough to see Seamus Heaney when he read from his Human Chain Collection back in 2010. I’ve also attended workshops with Bernie McGill and Patsy Horton in the North Down Heritage Centre, and last year was raging to miss a It also had a paddleboard and poetry event last year, unfortunately I missed due to not having my sea legs at the time.
Ian Sampson once suggested that if Belfast were Manhattan then Bangor would be Brooklyn, with its hipster bars, The Goat’s Toe, Salty Dog and Rabbit Rooms. I thought he’d got a bit carried with himself, but great things can happen when a place finds its niche, the people work together and have a vision for the future.
Bangor as a city may seem a little bit strange at first, but upon reflection it may just be the very boost it needs to put North Down on the map.