Focus on - the Walls of Derry

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1. A view from afar

All tours of Derry’s Walls should start in the Waterside! From Eskaheen View in Gobnascale you can see the complete Island of Derry, cradled by the foothills of the Sperrin and Donegal mountains, rising up from broad waters of the River Foyle and with the City Walls encircling its crown. From this vantage point, you can understand why the Island of Derry was chosen as a strategic site by monks, chieftains, soldiers and merchants.

2. Up close and personal

A walk around the base of the City Walls from New Gate in the Fountain, past Bishop’s Gate to Butcher Gate at Fahan Street is especially rewarding. Only when standing in the Fountain will you get perfect views of the ancient bulwarks with the 17th century Cathedral rising up behind them. Here the Walls are at their most complete with features such as Church Bastion, the Sentinel Posts, the Curtain Wall and the Postern Gate. Follow the path that marks the former location of Nailors’ Row, from Double Bastion to Royal Bastion; gazing up here you can fully appreciate the scale of the battlements, a full 7.5 metres in height.

3. Getting high

It is only when viewed from above that you can take in the layout and girth of the Walls and grasp the function of the Bastions, surmounted with their Company Guns. With the loss of Walker’s Pillar, aerial views of the City Walls are limited. Whilst the roof of the Tower Museum is fully accessible, unfortunately the Walls here fronting onto Shipquay [see p37] Place have been denuded of their bastions, so this aerial view is not entirely satisfactory for ‘Wall Anoraks’ like me. My four favourite vantage points are the upper floors of Alexander House on Bishop Street Without, the spire of St Columb’s Cathedral, the tower of the Memorial Hall in Society Street and the Conference Room in the Rathmor Center in the Creggan. Special permission will be required for all but hopefully events can be organized in the future which will provide occasional, managed and safe access for the public.

4. Beneath Derry’s Streets

The streets of the Walled City are certainly riddled with rumours of forgotten tunnels. However there is genuine evidence for the existence of vaulted cellars erected by Derry’s Merchants in the 17th centuries under their houses and under their premises which lined the main streets within the Walls. In sister walled towns like Waterford, similar surviving vaulted cellars have been turned into unique restaurants and galleries. Occasionally when sites are redeveloped in Derry, vaulted cellars are exposed, but unfortunately to date no-one has seen their potential. So the best subterranean experience to be found in the Walled City is in the basements of the Georgian and early Victorian houses such as the Deanery and the Freemason’s Hall on Bishop’s Street Within. Here you can find traces of past domestic life in the homes of Derry’s Deans and Bishops – a little bit of Downton Abbey on our doorstep. Again special permission is required for access but it is hoped that special tours will be arranged for 2013.

5. Mr Preston’s Engravings

Derry’s Walls are of note not just because they are the most intact town walls in Ireland; they also retain, in the locations originally intended, the largest cannon collection in Ireland of known provenance. Because most of the cannon were supplied and owned by commercial companies, rather than by a King or a Lord, they were not carted off to be used in other battles. On each of the surviving bastions (the angular platforms projecting out from the Walls) are the great guns shipped to Derry in 1642 by the London Companies: Merchant Taylors, Grocers, Salters, Mercers, Vintners and Fishmongers. The records of the London Companies show that Mr Abraham Preston of London was paid 5 shillings for engraving the barrel of each cannon with the name of the Company that had supplied it. Bring a step ladder or climb on someone’s shoulders to see the beauty of his work [ed note - check health and safety first!].

6. Going crazy

Most of the relics of the most recent use of the City Walls as military fortifications have been erased but near Bishop’s Gate there is section of wall facing onto Bishop’s Street Within which remains from the British Army’s Masonic Base. To make the sanger, which was part of the Base’s perimeter defences, ‘blend’ into the historic City Walls, its bomb-proof concrete wall was decorated with a patch-work of natural stone cladding, like crazy-paving.

7. A personal pilgrimage

The present day St Columb’s Cathedral, St Augustine’s Church and the Long Tower Chapel are all located on or near to ancient ecclesiastic sites, present long before the current City Walls were laid out. Walking from St Augustine’s up Palace St or from the Cathedral down St Columb’s Court, out through Bishop’s Gate, down the winding Henrietta Street, past some ancient graveyards to the sanctity of the Long Tower, and away from the hustle and bustle of the commercial part of the Walled City, you can feel you are walking in the footsteps of Columba’s monks.

The Holywell Trust is organising a series of events during 2012 and 2013 to unpack the history of the City Walls and their legacy both as a unique part of Derry’s townscape and as one of Ireland’s most significant heritage sites. The City Walls Heritage Project is supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and is endorsed by the Culture Company as delivering on the Purposeful Inquiry theme of the 2013 City of Culture programme. It is time for people to reclaim Derry’s Walls by getting to know them better.