‘Historic City’ at centre of Culture year

A sentinel post on Derry's historic Walls.
A sentinel post on Derry's historic Walls.

Derry’s ‘Historic City’ conservation district will be at the heart of next year’s City of Culture celebrations.

In particular, the city’s ancient Walls - hailed as an “open stage” - together with nearby historic buildings, will form an important backdrop to many of the events planned for 2013.

Intricate detail on the roof of Carlisle Road Methodist Church.

Intricate detail on the roof of Carlisle Road Methodist Church.

These are just a number of the aims included in the innovative new Design Guide for Derry’s Historic City Conservation Area.

The guide’s authors says the district’s heritage, and the creative efforts to utilise it, formed a “vital component” of the successful 2013 bid.

The guide traces the history of Derry from its origins as an early Christian monastic settlement though to the Plantation period and right up to the modern day.

In the foreword to the guide, Alex Attwood writes that Derry has long been portrayed as a “divided city” due to its turbulent past - epitomised by the Siege of Derry (1688-1689) and the years of the Troubles.

Temperance, Erin and Vulcan grace the roof of St Columb's Hall.

Temperance, Erin and Vulcan grace the roof of St Columb's Hall.

“As we move forward into the new millennium”, adds the DoE minister, “there is an opportunity to foster mutual appreciation of a common history, celebration of our diversity, respect for our difference and a more informed understanding of recent and not so recent history.”

The Historic City, he says, represents the “core” of Derry and is, therefore, the ideal area where everyone can share space and enjoy the cultural, commercial and architectural merits of the city.

Strategically located on the Hill of Derry overlooking the River Foyle, the Historic City Conservation Area comprises: the Walled City, the Guildhall and Foyle Embankment, the Fountain area, the Longtower precinct and Carlisle Road.

The new guide not only celebrates the area’s history and architecture but also provides guidance to encourage investment that will preserve and enhance the character and appearance of the area, whilst also assisting in generating economic prosperity through the improvement of existing properties and new development.

Alex Attwood is in no doubt that that this is all “challenging work”.

Heritage or valued buildings may be at risk and DoE has had to step in to help protect and, on one occasion, permitted demolition,” he says. “The aim of this guide is to confirm my own and DoE’s belief in the value of the built heritage and to confirm the need to protect it.”

The guide depicts the Historic City as rich and diverse - dominated by the hilly walled city and the spire of St Columb’s Cathedral. The overwhelming image is that of a pleasing composition of tightly packed buildings, large and small - many of them listed - jostling for position.

Unfortunately, a great many historic buildings, both inside and outside the City Walls, were lost during the bombing campaign of the Troubles. However, “exemplary” work has been undertaken to save many derelict buildings from outright demolition, particularly in Magazine Street, Pump Street and London Street.

As the city slowly began to re-emerge after the worst years of conflict, much new-build work was commissioned in tandem with the repair of existing bomb damaged buildings.

The guide points out: “It is important to bear in mind that - whereas excellent late 20th century architecture emerged in some other parts of Europe due to a positive development context - an entirely different situation prevailed in Derry.

“All of the new buildings that emerged here over the last thirty odd years were the product of a painfully slow emergence from the Troubles. They reflect the extreme political, economic and cultural difficulties experienced during that time.

“These buildings undoubtedly helped in rebuilding the economy. Today, many are home to a host of dynamic and hardworking community-based, cultural and charitable organisations whose presence and activities enrich the social and community life of this city.”

It is in this context, says the guide, that it is possible to appraise the legacy of these new additions in purely architectural and townscape terms.

“When compared to earlier centuries, the architectural quality of some of the new buildings erected since the 1970s is weak and unlikely to stand the test of time.

“Sterling conservation work has been carried out within the Conservation Area including: the conversion of the former First Derry Primary School to The Verbal Arts Centre; the conversion of the former Convent of Mercy Schools to the Playhouse; the repair and refurbishment of many properties under the highly successful Townscape Heritage Initiative Scheme, the flagship building of which is the former Northern Counties Hotel.”

The loss of the former Tillie and Henderson’s and Hamilton Shirt Factories, at a key gateway sites on entry to the city, has left an enormous void in the city’s, historic, architectural and townscape fabric.

“The setting of the Historic City has been greatly diminished by their loss,” say the guide authors. “The design quality of any new building on this site - in terms of its scale, proportions, height and materials - will be expected to reach the highest architectural standards if it is to support the remaining high quality historic architecture within this section of the Conservation Area.”

n Copies of the Plan can be obtained from: Northern Area Planning Office, Orchard House, 40 Foyle Street, Derry, BT48 6AT. Alternatively, the document can be viewed online on the DoE Planning website: at www.planningni.gov.uk