All changed, changed utterly at Ebrington Parade Ground

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On St Valentine’s Night the latest milestone will be reached in the regeneration of Derry when the Ebrington Parade Ground is opened to the public. As the finishing touches were being carried out at the five acre site, reporter IAN CULLEN took a tour of the new jewel in the crown of the city centre.

Few may have stopped to note the flurry activity going on behind the fences at Ebrington but there will soon be no option but to heed that the city is all changed, changed utterly because of it.

Far from the tumultous situation Yeats coined the phrase for in his celebrated poem ‘Easter 1916’, Derry’s change is positive in all respects and for all the city’s population. The transformation on a public space is something on a scale never before seen in the city and it has taken place right under our noses.

On Valentine’s Night, the extent of the total overhaul and expansive new extension of Derry’s ‘city centre’ - compete with a public realm space bigger than Trafalgar Square in London - will be all too apparent. With the impressive Peace Bridge already in place, the new square will practically doubles the size city centre and looks set to breath fresh life into Derry both physically and socially. First impressions may well be that the new modern space, which is fused delicately with the surrounding 19th century buildings of the former British military Star Fort, is akin to that of a culturally vibrant European city centre. And on a fine and dry day it’s easy to imagine people spilling into the space from across the city and beyond, whether to enjoy a pre-planned event or simply for a lunchtime escape or leisurely stroll. On that note, some may envisage a major pitfall in terms of the often torturous Derry weather and suggest that roofing a section of square may not be a bad idea, although perhaps such an expensive move is not one for the near future, given the current economic climate.

Regardless of what mother nature hurls at Derry, for many Ebrington Square is a true triumph for the city and region - in practical terms it is somewhere for the sparkling new Peace Bridge to lead to while in aspirational terms it indicates the ambition of the city’s people to forge ahead towards a bright future.

Caoimhín Corrigan of Ilex - the urban regeneration company overseeing the OFMDFM-funded £7.5m project - has said that the opening on February 14 will be “a significant milestone”.

And indeed there have been thousands of stones and masses of earth excavated for to make it all possible. Kieran Doyle, of SIAC, the construction firm appointed to carry out the work, which got underway last February, gave an insight into the huge scale of the operation. Kieran, whose been involved in countless major public realm projects during his career - including at famous addresses such as Dublin’s O’Connell Street, St Stephen’s Green and Grand Canal, Galway’s Eyre Square and even Leicester Square in London - said he was “shocked” at the actual size of the former British military parade ground.

“Ebrington is the biggest single area we’ve ever worked on - at two hectares it is seven times bigger than Guildhall Square and slightly bigger than Trafalgar Square.”

He revealed that in the early stages of the project 15,000 cubic metres of materials were excavated from the site, at some points up to six metres in depth to allow for drainage.

“That’s the equivalent to 1,000 lorry loads and it took from the start of February to the middle of the summer last year to remove it all. Another gauge of the scale of the project would be the fact that the total amount of cabling used during the construction would stretch as far as Claudy if joined together.”

Ebrington Square has one particularly unique feature in that it has a built in geo-thermal heating system deep underneath the surface.

“The ground source system at Ebrington Square is unique in public realm space of that size. It involved digging 34 bore holes deep into the rock, about as deep as a wind turbine is high.

“The aim of installing ground source heating was to vastly reduce the carbon foot print as the water in the pipes is partially heated by the surrounding earth before being pumped to the buildings in the square.

The project also involved close consultation with archaeologists and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, particularly in relation to work carried out the Star Fort’s perimeter wall. This was erected by the British Army in 1841 and is the oldest part of the former military barracks.

Kieran said; “We had to be very careful when making an opening in the wall to allow access to the bridge. Special stonemasons were brought in and they had to take down the stones one by one and number them individually before replicating the wall once again. When they were finished you wouldn’t even know it was touched, except of course for the access hole, which made the NIEA very happy!”

Two of the more exciting days on the site involved the unearthing of antiquated cannons from the former parade ground. Archaeologists were again called in, as Kieran explained.

“You just never know what you’ll come across when excavating a site like Ebrington. Digger drivers were well informed that if they noticed anything unusual to stop working at the area straight away and because of that the cannons were recovered safely.”

It’s hoped that the naval and ground heavy artillery guns, both dating from the 1890s, will go on display to the rear of the former military hospital, which is to be transformed into a maritime museum as part Ilex’s regeneration of the area.

The site also has a custom-built time capsule compartment, nestled neatly among the paving stones. Ilex is appealing for suggestions from the public as to what exactly should be sealed away in the capsule for future generations to discover. Suggestions or queries should be sent to orla.rafferty@ilex-urc.com or by telephone on phone 028 7126 9226. Alternatively, people can log on to www.facebook.com/legenderry.city to post ideas. As Caoimhín Corrigan explained: “Items should give an idea of city life in 2012, the events that shaped us and our hopes for the future.”

Indeed hopes for the the future are certainly bright, with the opening of the square which will utterly change Derry’s cityscape just around the corner.