One of the best views of modern Belfast is from the M3 which links the east of the city with the north and the M2 motorway.
I always think it’s particularly lovely at night time when the iconic dome of Victoria Square dominates with its changing neon colours and I often wonder as I drive on this elevated road, how many people who left Northern Ireland during the troubles to start new lives, peaceful lives, in other parts of the world, and who haven’t seen the city in a while, would recognise its skyline now, so very different from the one they left behind?
The landscape is about to change again with the addition of the new Hastings group hotel, announced on Wednesday, and to be called Belfast Grand Central.
Well, every great city should have a Grand Central Hotel, shouldn’t it?
Thirty million pounds is to be spent re-imaging the landmark Windsor House and it’ll open in 2018. Many people will recognise it as the entrance to the Parades Commission, but this building has a special significance for me. For many years in the 1980s I worked on Windsor House’s 15th floor in the Religious Programmes department of the BBC.
We shared the space with a few other BBC departments including classical music, radio drama, arts and youth programmes. The view of the city from our floor – at that time Windsor House was the tallest building in Belfast – was spectacular. An even better one was from the very top where the full time caretaker, Billy Harper and his family lived.
Bedford Street on which Windsor House stands, is also quite a wind tunnel - once, while battling against the elements on the street the wind was so strong it blew my brand new pair of Top Shop sunglasses clean off my face, embarrassingly.
But it’s the experience of bomb scares (remember those?) that I will always link with Windsor House. For a period during that decade in the run up to Christmas, the alarm bell would ring, followed by an announcement to evacuate the building. It started happening on a Friday just after lunchtime, and then as Christmas came closer, it seemed to be an everyday occurrence.
I swear it was someone who worked there who just wanted out of work early to do their Christmas shopping in town.
And these were the days when everyone entering the building was searched. Ladies offered their open handbags so the security staff could check for devices or whatever it was they were looking for.
But these things were pretty commonplace in those times and we never really gave it much thought as day after day we trudged down all 15 floors (16 if you count the mezzanine) to exit the building to the street.
If it was anywhere near midday, we’d just take an early lunch. Anywhere after 3pm we might have sojourned to a local hostelry for a while. Well, there wasn’t much else to do in Belfast at that time.
So I’ll be watching Windsor House’s transformation with interest and remembering the many Christmas office parties, hosted by the Religious Programmes Department (Christmas being one of the major religious festivals of the year of course) when colleagues popped in for a dose of the season’s spirit.
No doubt it’ll be party central again in years to come – and I wonder if, since the Europa was well known as being the most bombed hotel in Europe for a number of years, will Belfast Grand Central claim the title of most bomb-scared?