Brackfield Bawn, beside Lower Cumber Presbyterian Church. One of two bawns or fortified houses built by the Skinners Company of London on their 'proportion' as part of the Plantation of Ulster in the early Seventeenth Century. The other bawn was in the village of Dungiven and reused the historic priory in that village. The construction of bawns was.a requirement of the Plantation and provided refuge for the new settlers from Scotland and England in times of uncertainty. They all tended to have a fortified stone house with a courtyard defended by corner turrets or 'flankers'. The bawn was the focus of a small settlement and 12 houses and a church are recorded outside its walls in a map of 1622. A mill was also recorded between the village and the nearby Faughan river. Of all this nothing survives above ground. The bawn itself was abandoned by the end of the Seventeenth century. It is now a Monument in State Care.
Next door. Lower Cumber Presbyterian church. This dates from 1883 and unusually has a lecture hall underneath which results in the grand stepped entrance up to the front door.
Out into the country. This is the former Cumber Primary School near Brackfield Bawn off the main road from Derry to Belfast. It dates from 1931 and is an elegant well designed building with simple, sparse, Georgian Revival detailing, a symmetrical layout, and with a white painted exterior that sits well in its rural surroundings. It is now used as a rural development centre. Windows unfortunately replaced in PvC and a bit flat, but it still sits very well in its surroundings.
Around the corner on Bishop Street is the former Northern Counties Club remodelled in 1902 by the same architect Alfred Forman. Full of spikes and bays this was a gentleman's club until the early 2000's. After a long period of vacancy it was bought by the Inner City Trust and remodelled as a boutique hotel. which opened in 2016. The works retained the Edwardian grandeur of the interior, with its magnificent staircase, inglenook fire place and fine function rooms on the first floor overlooking the street.
On the other side of the Diamond, a smaller building from the same period is worth a look. This is Diamond Chambers (1899) another confident piece of architecture. it was designed by Alfred Foreman who was responsible for a number of fine buildings in the city during the following ten years.
Dominating the Diamond today is the Austin's building. Unfortunately vacant for a number of years, following the demise of a company that prided itself in being the 'worlds oldest department store'. Austins is a great, confident building, full of bays, columns, and swagger. Inside, it has a double height space on the ground floor and a fine, if slightly tilted, staircase. The building was designed by Matthew A Robinson at the height of the city's economic boom in the early years of the Twentieth Century and replaced an earlier department store on the same spot. In December 2022 the Council passed a motion to set up a taskforce to encourage a new use for this important building. Unlocking a new future will not only preserve a historic building, but will add life and activity to the Diamond and enhance the atmosphere of the city centre.
The market house the centre of the Diamond was destroyed in the Great Siege of 1689 and rebuilt with money donated by William and Mary in thanks for the 108 day defence of the city against King James which had been important in securing their throne. Like many market houses across Ulster it was arcaded at the base with a meeting/ court room over. Over time the arcades were filled in and in the 1830's the building was significantly rebuilt, remodelled and extended to function as the Corporation Hall hall. In the 1890's this function moved to the new Guildhall and the building became an art college. This suffered a fire in 1903 and was repaired but it was demolished and replaced with a civic garden in 1910. A war memorial was added in 1928. The cellars of the Corporation Hall remain under the surface. This image is based upon a photo of c.1890.
Go up onto the monument along the steps beside Magazine Gate and walk along the top to Shipquay Gate. Looking over the railings here gives you the best understanding of the historic town. You can see the Main Street - Shipquay Street - rising up to the town square or Diamond at the top. The street is very steep for a commercial space, and reflects the need to enclose both the high ground of the former island that the city is built upon and its access to the river.
To get your bearings and to understand the layout of the Walled city, you should look at this map, which is a copy of one drawn in 1623. This shows the regular layout of the city. A main street rising from the Ship Quay to a central square caries on to a gate at the western end of the city. A bisecting street from the square connects to gates to the north and south. To the north, overlooking the current Bogside, and at the time the marshy remains of a former river channel ,the defences are fairly straight and there is no sign of a moat. this is because along this stretch, they followed the natural contours which were scarped or cut back to make them more defensive. On the southern side where the slope is gentler, there is more of a curve to the walls and a moat is indicated. The walls have regular bastions that project out to provide flanking fire. The whole thing is based on the latest technology of the time. The defences are low and thick, to give maximum protection against cannon balls. The other thing to note is that this is a post medieval city. It is a colony of the merchants of the City of London. A church or a king's residence are not the focus of the plan. The market square is. This is the start of the modern secular era. At the time the 'garrison church' was a fixed up medieval church in the north west corner of the plan. 10 years later a cathedral was, however, built. This is located at the south west corner and, actually, was on the highest part of the city - so the church may be to one side but it still holds significant power.
Magazine gate has a parabolic arch i.e it forms a parabola which allows it to be wider than it is high. This is Victorian construction and reveals the fact that it was a new opening of 1865 to increase flow through the monument at that time. Its keystones never-the-less represent two hero's of the Great Siege of 1689 - Cairns and Murray.
Marks of Time
Sketches of buildings in the North West of Ireland and further afield with a little information about their history.