Vespa World Days Belfast 2018 & Alternative Ulster Tour | RALLERY
When I heard last year that there was going to be a Vespa World Days Rally in Belfast I started to get excited and to plan my visit back to my place of birth. Although living in Devon now I was born (and grew up) in Belfast and with my club ran a series of mini-rallies in the late eighties with the last being in 1990 near Belfast, which drew nearly 1000 scooterists from all over the UK and Eire. We also ran smaller rallies in Portrush, Portstewart etc. and I knew how hard it was to do such events so I was very excited to hear this news.
Quickly a group of mates said they wanted to go to the event but they also wanted to explore the city and see the sights in “Norn Iron.” I was/am a Vespa Club member as is my missus but most of the rest were not and Mark was adamant he would bring his Lambretta so we settled for ours being an Alternative Ulster Tour. I quickly realised the price of hotels in Belfast would skyrocket so decided to make our base of operations in Carrickfergus where I have family and I knew the Local Club the A2Aces were laying on events for the weekend. It’s only a ten-minute ride down the motorway to Belfast city centre and we got rooms in Carrick for £53 per person per night.
The guys and girls from the Ulster Vespa Club, Mark Cooke, Owen Nicholson etc. must be congratulated as they organised discounted ferry rates with Stena Line and, since the eighties, there are a lot more ferries available to cross to Larne or Belfast, or go via Wales to Dublin and ride up. For a daytime crossing from Birkenhead, a scooter and rider could get a ticket for £100 with night time crossings being dearer and cabins extra on top of that.
They also negotiated discounts for scooterists to the Titanic Centre in Belfast and to Crumlin Road Gaol and so again well-done lads and lasses. They had also planned ride outs to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum as well as Crumlin Road Gaol, climaxing with the big one on the Saturday to Carrickfergus and its fabulous castle. The Vespa Club had placed the Vespa Village with parking, stalls and entertainment behind the Titanic Centre, right by the Slipway where the famous ship was built and launched. This is right beside the famous shipyard of Harlands and Wolf which is still a working shipyard and with its two yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath can be spotted from miles away.
Next to that is Shorts Bombardier; the oldest Aircraft maker in the world and of course the Belfast City airport. This area is known as the Titanic Quarter, it’s well signposted and is only a short walk across the bridge to Belfast city centre and its many pubs and clubs. They had also arranged a campsite at Ardnavally in South Belfast for campers, with full facilities and a promised shuttle bus to the Titanic Quarter.
The Vespa Club were charging £84 for a full weekend ticket, which would include the famous Vespa Club evening dinner with its three-course meal and entertainment, or £55 for a weekend day pass. Or you could park in the free carpark just across the road and visit the Vespa Village for free up to 4 pm on any day, so that promised something for everyone.
Me, my missus and Mark planned to cross on the Tuesday night ferry from Birkenhead with the others of our group crossing on Wednesday night and the last three on the Thursday night ferry. Feeling responsible, I opted to get up each morning at 05:30 am and meet the morning ferries as we used to do years ago with our Convict SC Rallies. I also opted to do this as I knew they would get in at 7 am but wouldn’t be able to book into their hotel till 2 pm. By meeting them they could drop their bags off elsewhere and then we could begin our adventures each day with minimum hassle.
It’s 270 miles from my place up to the ferry port and it took about six hours up the M5 and M6. I gotta say though from near Birmingham and all the way up the M6 there were constant roadworks and we must have filtered for about ninety miles. One up it is fun for the first mile or so but two up and carrying everything but the kitchen sink it is a task requiring absolute concentration. For every nice driver who moves over to let you through there is the dick who changes lanes without indication or the one who deliberately moves over to not let you through. At least it wasn’t as hot as the previous weeks and it didn’t rain but I was well relieved when we rolled into the ferry port on Tuesday evening.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that although we were a day or so early there was a contingent of about 20 scooterists also making this crossing. This included three plucky Italians who had ridden up on their geared scooters, including a Rally TS 125 from Rimini and these guys were just hoping to find a hotel when they got to Belfast the next day. Quickly me and a few other Brits were scribbling down numbers for them for hotels and hostels but they were very relaxed and not worried at all.
Also, I must mention 70-year-old Pamela Genders who had recently had a hip replacement and who had come all the way from Tasmania for the rally, she had travelled to Paris then hired a scooter and ridden up from there. She had booked a hotel online but the crooks had booked her into a hotel in Antrim telling her it was only a ten-minute drive to Belfast. I quickly told her it would only be a ten-minute drive in a helicopter. Well luckily one of the Brits gave her the number of the hostel he had booked in Belfast and that’s where she moved to. On the ferry, remember first in last off so I knew when we were waved on first I knew it would be about a half hour to disembark the next day.
Sure enough Wednesday morning the boat docked at 06:30 am and we rode off just after seven and headed up the M5 to Carrickfergus, which was actually a true ten-minute ride away. We all dumped our gear at my brother’s place, went around the local shop for supplies and had a soda bread, bacon and egg sandwich, a traditional Norn Iron way to start the day! We then headed back up to Belfast and rode up to Belfast City Hall and parked up for pics before heading over to East Belfast and rode, illegally I must add, into Stormont which is the Northern Ireland Parliament building. We parked up right by the steps into the famous and impressive building but didn’t stay long as the security would not be impressed. Then we rode back into town and we parked up outside the Crown Bar in Belfast – one of the most famous and gorgeous bars in the city, where we had a lunchtime pint. I was well chuffed to hear the bar staff all knew about the rally and said they were well happy to hear we had come over for the event.
We headed back to Carrickfergus to pick up Mark’s kit and booked him into his hotel and agreed to meet him later in the Central Bar in Carrickfergus, or Spoons as we call it. It was just opposite the Castle and close to the hotel and car park that the Vespa rally would use on the Saturday ride out. It would be our main starting point every day when we headed off on our trips and evening sessions. Me and the wife headed back to my brother’s (who had formed our club, The Convicts back in the early eighties and is still doing rallies and riding his P200E). We had food and then, with his missus, headed back out and met with Mark for an evening session to plan our next adventures.
40 not out
I naturally pointed out the Europa Hotel, which is opposite The Crown, it survived forty bomb attacks during the troubles and is, with the Crown Bar, another Belfast landmark. As late afternoon came we rode over to the Titanic Quarter where the Vespa Village and main car park were being set up and I could see that there were already several hundred scooters there. Amongst these were some Italians who had brought over about thirty scoots wrapped in cellophane on a double story HGV transporter with a built-in lift. One person told me they had come on a coach while another said they flew in. Anyway we watched in amusement as they unloaded and unwrapped their scoots fired them up and rode off… I thought of the three Italians on our ferry who had ridden with a vintage 125 from Rimini and I knew who I was more impressed by. The other thing that struck me just how big the area was… huge! You could put ten thousand scoots in it and it would look still half empty.
The next morning I got up early and rode down to the ferry port to meet the morning’s new arrivals – again there were lots more scoots and I saw a few faces I knew from England. Another four of our party arrived and we headed to my brother’s again and on the way back had to drive around some trees that had been blown down onto the motorway earlier because it was very windy due to the earlier storm. With kit dumped off and a bacon and egg sandy eaten, today with my brother leading, we took the A roads back into Belfast to see the city better. I had to point out the flags being flown along our route were not actually for the Vespa rally but other more local reasons.
Going down well
We headed back down the Titanic Quarter and visited the Titanic Centre which is a wonderful building that has a museum and attraction that charts the history of the Ship, the shipyards and of Belfast itself. It takes easily two hours or more to see everything and it’s amazing and great that they were offering a cheap rate for scooterists… so well done Vespa Club. There is also HMS Caroline close by, a World War One Cruiser built by Harland and Wolf that you can visit and the SS Nomadic, the last surviving ship from the White Star Line. This done we revisited the Vespa Village and saw a load more scoots had arrived and the Vespa museum had been set up in the nearby Titanic building just next door and I have to mention this is also in front of the Titanic studios where Game of Thrones is filmed and lots of other movies.
Mark wanted to get some two-stroke oil and my brother was after a front brake lever as the end of his had snapped off, however, there didn’t seem to be any scooter dealers. SIP had a stall but they had no spares just brochures. There was a lady selling pictures, food stalls and air ambulance etc. If your scoot needed fixing there was a team of guys in a tent who would fix your scoot for just the cost of spares and this was great but compared to most rallies was a bit disappointing.
We left our scoots and walked the short distance over the bridge and into town where we had lunch in Robinsons – another well-known Belfast Bar where I used to drink years before. Then we showed our friends all around Belfast city centre, explaining its history before heading down Pottinger’s Lane/Entry where we had a few more drinks in The Morning Star bar.
Vespa World Days had planned an open-air concert in the Vespa Village with a bar but as I said the weather had turned that day and it was very windy. There were light showers one minute and then sunny the next and a lot of people we met with reckoned they would just hit the pubs and clubs that night as the Vespa Village area was very large and very open to the elements. We headed back to the Village and met up with more old friends and exchanged stories of adventures thus far and told people what our plans were. Thursday evening we headed back to Carrickfergus where we could see there were posters up everywhere welcoming the scooterists and large banners hung outside Dobbins Inn and the Royal Oak – both had been put up by the local club the A2Aces Scooter Club who were for us saviours of the trip.
Scooter parking only
We all started in Spoons before heading over to Dobbins Inn where a load more scooterists had gathered and that’s were another pleasant surprise awaited us. Dobbins dates back hundreds of years and is a great bar and inn and several scooterists from England had booked in there. These guys asked where could they park their scoots as it is on the High Street. The manager said ‘bring them into the bar and park them in the reception’, which they did. I think this was great when has anywhere been so welcoming at any other rally? While in there we met up with the A2Aces and we all enjoyed a good night and so another drunken night was passed.
Next day I was up early again and met the last of our group and again was pleased to see a load more scooters roll off the ferry. The security guy said the ones that docked in the evenings had been well packed with scoots too. One group being the lads from Junction 13 Scooter Club who were doing a sponsored charity run from Surrey to Vespa World Days to help raise funds for MS. This group was led by my old amigo Nick Jolly who had been recently diagnosed with MS. Rather than curl up in a ball he decided to get out there and fight. Nick is a scootering legend, he was editor of the eighties scooter mag the Rallyist, one of the original trio of heroes who fought and founded VFM and was a great sprayer of custom scoots. He sprayed my Italian GP200 which is still mine and it looks great and I am glad to say so does Nick.
You can help Nick raise funds for MS by clicking this link.
Hugs and greetings done I once more took the lads back to Carrick and had brekky before going to the hotel where this time they could dump their bags in the other guys and gals rooms. We had agreed we would be ready to go and sure enough by ten, all eight scooters led by my brother headed into Belfast along the more colourful A roads. We took them along the Shore Road, through Tigers Bay then up the Crumlin Road to the Crumlin Road Gaol. We were always going to this place as it was the birthplace and the reason why our club was called the Convicts Scooter Club.
Naturally, in the early eighties, we were not all the sober clean-living guys we are now, most of us had been nicked for various things and two lads visited the Crumlin Road, unlike us they stayed for a lot longer than our morning trip as tourists. It is well worth the visit; you are shown the gallows and the tunnel under the road that connects the Gaol to the courthouse opposite. When you were found guilty you’ were sent down the tunnel to the gaol.
After that we went to the REX bar on the Shankhill road where we met up with Dinger Bell from the Pilgrims SC. The Rex bar is amazing and very colourful. Dinger then led us up the Shankhill to the Somme Memorial. The Shankhill is famous for once being a dodgy area but the locals loved us. When I told an old fella we were showing the visitors around our wee city I saw a tear roll down his face and he thanked us. From there Dinger and our Brian led our posse of scoots around West and East Belfast to show them the colourful local folk art and the guys and gals were amazed I think. Naturally, we took them back to the Vespa Village where we all met with old friends and found out the previous night’s open-air concert had been sadly largely deserted and most people had opted for the local bars.
That evening was meant to be another open-air concert in the Vespa Village but with the weather being so changeable, most people I spoke to were saying they were planning to hit the local pubs and clubs. It did rain but it never deterred us from riding around Belfast, it was only occasional short drizzly spells. The gamble to have open-air concerts had been just that, a brave gamble and it had not worked out. Anyway, we headed back to Carrickfergus for food and a change of clothes before we went out again. That night the A2Aces were out in the town putting up more banners around the castle area to welcome the mass ride out which was planned the following morning. Eventually, we ended up in the A2Aces meeting place in the Royal Oak bar and the Landlady even gave Lobby and Claire a lift back to their hotel when she finally shut the pub.
Saturday dawned and it was to be the most memorable day for the event with the mass ride out, when it happened it was amazing. The police, local papers etc. said around 3000 scooters left from the Titanic Quarter and took an impressive route around Belfast city centre then out towards and into Carrickfergus. As I said the local council had turned over the car park right by the castle for the event and it was amazing. The local papers raved about it as did the local TV and it was all positive and good for scooterists and the parade, which a lot of people said was bigger than the famed IOW rideout. It took about 15 minutes to pass and was led rightly by Mark Cooke from the Vespa Club of Ulster who had worked so hard on the event. For many people who had moaned to me about the Village or open-air entertainment, they were wowed by this amazing ride out and I must say well done.
The Northern coast
When it arrived under the walls of the magnificent Castle and filled the town it truly looked like a proper scooter rally and it came alive. The local council had joined in and there were various re-enactors with cannons and knights who battled it out just by the car park. The town of Carrick really welcomed the scooterists. The A2Aces had risen to the occasion and had arranged a free custom show in the Town Hall and that would be followed by a proper scooterist do that evening, which would run till 2 am with a group playing too. The town and its pubs were filled with happy scooterists and the buzz and smell of two stroke filled the air. Of course, many scooterists used the A2 coastal road then as the perfect jumping off point to head up the Antrim Coast to The Giants Causeway, Carrick a Rede rope bridge, the great Dunluce Castle and on up to Portrush. This was about 80 miles around the coast road or 60 miles up the motorway.
That evening in a building in the Titanic Quarter, close to the Vespa Village the VCB held their gala dinner event with three-course dinner and entertainment, which everyone said was excellent and a fantastic end to the rally. A few people did wonder why this couldn’t have been used and booked on the Thursday and Friday nights for the entertainment instead of the open air event?
For us, in Carrickfergus, the scooterists entertainment carried on until the wee small hours and my wife had to help me back to my bed after a great night. Four of our lads had enjoyed themselves so much they had switched ferry from Sunday morning to Sunday night so when we were all breakfasted me and my brother led them back out for their last excursion around Belfast. We took them back up Stormont, as most of them hadn’t arrived when we visited it last and of course being a Sunday vehicle access was blocked. Naturally, we found another access point and nipped up and into the grounds.
After that, we went back into town, around City Hall then up past Sandy Row and the Donegal Road (where I was born) and to visit Windsor Park. Home to the Northern Ireland football and Linefield FC and on whose hallowed steps George Best had trod and walked. It was there Mark’s Lammy got its plug oiled up and died just after we filled up. Of course, no one had brought their tools.
The hand of friendship
Back in the seventies and during the troubles this was another area you would have called dodgy but the locals came out to look at the scooters and ask if they could help. One guy rang a mate who rang a mate and a guy arrived with the correct spark plug spanner and helped Mark get his scoot going again. It was another reason the guys said they had loved our tour and they all said they wanted to come back and next time they wanted to come for longer.
They left on the Sunday night ferry and me and the missus left on the Monday night boat and there was still a gaggle of scoots on it including Col from Scarborough who was also doing photos for this article. I intended to just have a couple of pints then hit the sack but naturally, this did not happen and we stayed up, laughed, drank and chewed the fat. The next day feeling rough I got as far as the first services on the M6 then I had to kip for half an hour but we still made it home in less than six hours. I have been attending rallies for 37 years all over the world and doing write-ups for them along the way for various magazines and this was one of the best so far. I’m pleased to say it was in my wee hometown so thanks, folks.
Overall I think the guys and gals did a fantastic job to get the Vespa World Days event going, the website was great, the price discounting with the ferries and Titanic Centre and Crumlin Road Gaol was ace. The city of Belfast itself made up for the underwhelming Vespa Village and there was always tons to do and see nearby, that made up for the outside entertainment. The Saturday ride out to Carrickfergus for many made the event most memorable and made it feel like a scooter rally that had truly come alive.
That night the Vespa Club had its gala dinner, which everyone said was ace. I loved what the A2Aces did and the ten scooterists I brought over all loved it and want to come again. Hopefully, the Vespa Club will learn from this event and although it could be years before Belfast gets another Vespa World Days the lessons learned can be put to good use for other rallies.
Over 3000 scooters attended the rally, that is more than the Llandudno and Woolacombe National BRSA rallies so it shows Norn Iron could host a good rally. If the A2Aces could source a local campsite with council cooperation then I think Carrickfergus showed it is a good candidate. They have a rally planned for 14-16 Sept in Maghramorne just up the road from Carrickfergus which should be fun, with bands campsite etc. for their 10thanniversary. Other local clubs Sheer Beer Sc and the Damsels in Distress, Mods and Sods etc. also have rallies planned so the local scooter scene is looking good.
To everyone that worked hard thank you and well done. It was a great weekend (well more of a week for us) and next year my lot will visit again for hopefully another successful event and tour and there will be more of us.
Words: Bill Mac, Photos Bill and Col
Rallery by Col
Alternative Ulster Rallery by Bill Mac
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