The Maiden City’s first time

At the back end of last week there was a bit of promising news.

Malcolm got it from the Derry Journal:

The Department of Environment has served an Urgent Works Notice on the owner of 20 Crawford Square, a listed building in the Clarendon Street Conservation Area of Derry.

This tall, late Victorian building is on the Built Heritage at Risk in Northern Ireland (BHARNI) register and, despite repeated attempts by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to encourage the owner to take action, no works have been carried out.

The Department has now issued a notice which outlines the action it will take to carry out emergency works if the owner does not initiate these within seven days. 

The notice is one of a number planned this year across Northern Ireland following the Heritage Crime Summit.

Remarkably — even shamefully  — this seems to be the first, ever, time such a notice has been issued in Northern Ireland. Kudos, then, to Alex Attwood.

Of itself, it’s not an outstandingly attractive structure (see right). It would go largely unnoticed, but still raise the odd million freehold, in most parts of north London. Obviously the “late Victorian” period came late to Derry, and spared it the overwrought fripperies and excesses exported to the rest of the English-speaking world. This is a strong, decent terrace of red-brick “master’s” houses. Crawford Square is fine in itself: many of the premises are outstanding — as the exemplary corner in the image below:

The city of [London]Derry — Gerry Anderson’s “Stroke City”, not because of a tradition of cardiac arrest, but because of the ambiguity of name imposed by two religious and tribal communities — has many fine buildings.

Malcolm recalls that, last May, he was in Shipgate Street, Chester. He observed the bustle and touristy glitz. Yes, he should have spotted the prevalence of sales, the first warning that Britain’s impending retail crisis was on the way. Perhaps the prosperous, bourgeois, touristic Chester he believed he saw then was a deception. All the same, it contrasted with Shipgate Street, Derry:

For Derry still has that grey, worn-out look to it. Shipgate Street, Derry — indeed much of the area inside the city walls — has the potential to be one of the architectural gems of these islands. Somewhere recently — ah, yes! it was Simon Winder’s Germania — Malcolm came on the observation that a walled town was somewhere which had been prosperous in the Middle Ages, but had subsequently lost its place in the wealth league. Hence the town had never been able to tear down those constricting walls and get on with rebuilding.

That’s not quite the case in Derry. The walls there are iconic, especially for certain beefy besashed types. Public money has been swilled on Derry, in the hope of putting a veneer of decency on what for years was a war-zone: the consequence is some of the most revolting concrete monsters on the face of the planet: once one has seen the brutality of the BT tower by the river, all other horrors pale into the merely disgusting… 

Through it all, though, there are substantial numbers of real authentic “period” buildings, from the Georgian and subsequent periods. Even the restored Edwardian Guild Hall has a spiky Gothic — and distinctly unUlster — personality, especially from within where every piece of Edwardian glazing tells a story.

Malcolm stands by every word of that.

In Derry an Englishman abroad is at the end of Empire. The Donegal border is only the dander of a stroll down the road. Fly into Eglinton and one notes that a fair proportion of the passengers then head for cars with DL registrations. The shops happily accept Euros (at an exchange rate which suits them very nicely).  Many of the folk who work in the city live across the border. Culturally, one is a world away from even Belfast (and Belfast repays the compliment by ignoring the north-west of the province to the best of Belfast’s ability).

Number 20, Crawford Square is even more significant. It is a further marker of the turning of the tide.

As far back as 1993, Robert Atkins, “Minister for the Economy and the Environment” (now Sir Robert, then an understrapper at the Northern Ireland Office) was penning an introduction to a planning document for rural Northern Ireland. Atkins was brief to the point of being taciturn, just five of the shortest paragraphs:

Northern Ireland has a wealth of wonderful landscapes, a rich traditional pattern of settlement and a dispersed rural community. This is a heritage which I value and one that we must preserve and enhance for future generations.

However, communities face particular challenges in planning for their future growth and development, and Government, at local and national level, has to provide a means of assessing competing demands in the public interest. The planning process is that means.

Following a consultation exercise which produced a wide range of opinions, we have published this comprehensive integrated report which lays out the Department’s Planning Strategy for rural areas. This will be the guiding document both for the public and specialists at all levels.

Planning decisions affect ordinary people and it is essential that the rules are easily understood and fairly implemented. That is why the relationship between applicant and planner must be helpful, straightforward and productive. This Strategy aims to encourage that.

If Northern Ireland is to develop in a sustainable way, accommodating economic diversity and the conservation of its natural assets, there must be understanding and mutual respect for the differing interests of society. There must be co-operation in reconciling differences and in charting a way forward in the interests of all.

I believe that the publication of this Strategy is an important step in that direction. I know that successful co-operation will conserve and develop a countryside which we will all continue to value.

It was, Malcolm believes, while Peter Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary that some flesh was put on that skeletal structure. The demolition of decent rural cottages, to be replaced by what the locals refer to as “Southforks” (from the Dallas TV series), ground to a halt. That was just in time, for the end of The Troubles portended the coastline of Northern Ireland getting the Donegal crust of gimcrack bungalows. On the other hand, sometime around the turn of the millennium, farmers and others realised that outbuildings and byres could convert into a cash-crop from tourism. Roundabout the same time “conservation” (in the widest sense) began to gain traction, while out-of-town bars potted up geraniums and hanging baskets.

Any Northern Irish small town will, inevitably, become “tin town” as the shutters slam down at 5:30 pm. Look around the side streets: with a bit of effort, you’ll see up several period buildings of some distinction. With rare exceptions they will be tatty and neglected. The notion of “gentrification” is coming as late to Northern Ireland — correction, make that all of Ireland — as did the gingerbread stuff that Crawford Square missed out on. But it’s coming.

So, for all of that, and much more a small cheer for Alex Attwood and the Northern Ireland DoE.


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Filed under City of Derry, culture, History, Ireland, Northern Ireland, pubs

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