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Anne Hailes: This iconic Belfast city centre building wants to give you a hug this Christmas

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Getting ready for Christmas at 2 Royal Avenue. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Getting ready for Christmas at 2 Royal Avenue. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Getting ready for Christmas at 2 Royal Avenue. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

King Charles III may think he has the most prestigious address in London but I've news for him – try calling at 2 Royal Avenue, Belfast for a real treat. Here is an address which offers a unique experience.

You'll be welcomed with open arms, you can meet friends, you can paint, you can dance – this address is basically a home from home, warm, colourful, elegant and full of fun.

Number 2 Royal Avenue has had a number of incarnations. Built in the 1860s, the Gothic Revival style building was designed by the Irish architect WJ Barre, it was the gracious headquarters of the Provincial Bank of Ireland before it became a downtown Tesco store. Thankfully, features like the circular dome and arched entrance have been retained by the new owners, Belfast City Council.

To get the lowdown on today's 2 Royal Avenue I met with Eimear Burton, venue and events manager, a delightful woman from Magherafelt who has travelled the world organising international events like the world bee keepers' conference – the largest convention of its kind – and looking after elite figures like Nelson Mandela and Stephen Hawking.

Eimear Burton and Susan McCallan from 2 Royal Avenue. The historic building has been taken over by Belfast City Council as a community and cultural hub
Eimear Burton and Susan McCallan from 2 Royal Avenue. The historic building has been taken over by Belfast City Council as a community and cultural hub Eimear Burton and Susan McCallan from 2 Royal Avenue. The historic building has been taken over by Belfast City Council as a community and cultural hub

As we sat at a long table reserved for young visitors to paint and draw, a little girl and her dad joined us – she was very businesslike, as she chose her picture and her coloured pencils – and front of house host Susan McCallan arrived with a welcome cup of tea. She has been working with Eimear for over 20 years, at both the Titanic and the Ulster Hall, and watching her greet parents and children, architecture students and senior members of our community, it's obvious this is a job she loves.

Working in this hub of activity fits Eimear and her staff of 20 like a fine leather glove. She's proud of what's on offer and there's a huge range of opportunities, be they a library with books for all tastes and ages, a children's 'cosy' space to explore, a homework station, free wifi, study areas and meeting tables and most important a grand piano for the use of talented musicians. Oh yes, an important point: this is also a dog friendly place, and the elves are working away in Santa's grotto...

The Christmas tree is up and decorated, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing gently before carols fill the air. It's exciting for a grown-up and a wonderland for children. There's a Twilight Market every Thursday in December between 5pm and 9pm, where you can sell and buy craftwork – there's no charge for a table and if you fancy yourself as an artist, there's a wall just waiting for you to display your work.

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Behind this project is the events organiser team, Sarah-Jane Montgomery and Lois Kennedy, and their company MayWe: "Here's to strong women: May we know them. May we be them, May we raise them."

These are all strong women who are making a difference and enthusing others to join them. The staff at No 2, all paid for what they do, go through rigorous training including the Jam card programme. 'Just A Minute' is a concept developed by the social enterprise Now Group, which supports people experiencing special needs; with one in five people in Northern Ireland living with a disability or communication issue, showing the Jam card makes life a lot easier.

After Christmas a back door will be opened so the building becomes a thoroughfare with easy access for students in the new university area and for the hundreds of cruise ship passengers to explore Belfast through the portals of 2 Royal Avenue.

No matter where they are from, they'll be welcomed by staff many of whom are multi-lingual: Eimear herself is fluent in French and Spanish, and there are Arabic speakers too. The Yallaa Cafe provides Arabic cuisine prepared by chef Rym Akhonzada as well as the more traditional; however, if you want to bring your own food that's OK too... and there's a McDonald's nearby. It seems anything goes.

The revitalised 2 Royal Avenue has been described as a 'warm indoor public park'. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
The revitalised 2 Royal Avenue has been described as a 'warm indoor public park'. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN The revitalised 2 Royal Avenue has been described as a 'warm indoor public park'. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Eimear's invitation is to come in and let this iconic building give you a hug. There's a tea dance tomorrow (December 5, 2-4pm), for example – something that is loved by men and women alike, this is where friendships are forged and if you thought your romantic dancing days were over, they aren't. You don't have to book anything – just arrive and let Eimear take care of you. Please go and see for yourself, you won't be disappointed.

:: 2 Royal Avenue, Belfast is open from 10am-6pm, Monday to Sunday, and Yallaa Cafe is open from 10am-5pm, Monday to Saturday, and noon until 5pm on Sunday.

:: belfastcity.gov.uk/2royalavenue and search for '2royalave' on Facebook and Instagram