Londonderry: If stones could speak

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the medieval walled town of Londonderry in Northern Ireland to understand why it is UK’s first City of Culture 2013

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If stones could speak, what stories they would tell. Their voices would echo across the walls and cobbled streets of Londonderry… One of the longest inhabited places in Ireland, the best example of a walled city in Europe, home to Ireland’s most haunted church, a staging post for the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II, a city that inspired hymns and songs – from Amazing Grace to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. And if Parle confectionery is to be believed ‘a wonderful town famous for a rich caramel and milk candy’, Londonderry is steeped in so much history; you encounter one at every footstep.

We had driven from Belfast via the Antrim Coast into Beech Hill Country House, a beautiful 32-acre estate near the river Faughan. The country home was right out of a picture postcard – broadleaf woodland of oak and beech, an artesian wheel by a stream and clusters of hydrangea in the deepest shades of magenta and purple. A plaque outside the door bearing the US Marines motto Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful) commemorated the arrival of the First Provisional Marine Battalion that billeted on these grounds between May 1942-August 1944.

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The History Room documented Londonderry’s tryst with the Second World War – the navy station at Ebrington barracks, the decisive battles of County Donegal, sinking of the Bismarck and surrender of German submarines. We were ushered into our regal room with chandeliers and a four-poster. The hunt for a bottle of mineral water and an indignant visit to the front desk was met with a cheery reply, ‘Our ground water comes from a natural spring. You can drink it straight from the tap’.

The next morning we devoured a traditional Irish breakfast of soda bread, fried eggs, bacon rashers and sausages with black and white pudding. We ought to have done one of the hikes, colour-coded yellow, green and blue denoting the level of difficulty, but all the food seemed to have had made us colourblind! So we skipped the Skipton, O’Cahan, Nicholson, Marine and Donnelly Trails and headed into town.

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Almost all local tales hark back to ‘doire’ or derry, a sacred oak grove atop a hill, where Irish Saint Columba set up a monastery in 546 AD. While Europe entered the Dark Ages, this community became a beacon of light and learning. Soon a settlement grew around it with a stronghold, cathedral and port. The prefix London was added in 1613 to acknowledge the support of the City Guild of London Companies, who helped build a new city on the Foyle in return for land on a new plantation in Ulster owned by King James I.

It is said the city was once an island in the form of a bent bow; the bog being the string and the river the bow. We disembarked at Peace Bridge, which linked the Waterside to the city, though local gossip believed it was a shortcut built by a bishop to meet his mistress! We walked along streets covered in graffiti and entered the walled city. With over 100 historic monuments, murals, churches and cathedrals, Derry’s Heritage trail is a walker’s delight.

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Stretching over 1.5km, the city walls were built out of schist between 1613 and 1618 by The Honourable, The Irish Society. Originally there were only eight bastions and four gates – Bishop Gate, Shipquay Gate, Butcher Gate and Ferryquay Gate, which was closed by the Apprentice Boys of Derry in December 1688 against the Jacobite army. Lining the Grand Parade were 14 sycamore trees, one for each of the 13 Apprentice Boys and their lookout on Ferryquay Gate.

Caught in the struggle for the English throne between James II and William II, 18th April 1689 marked the start of a 105-day siege, the longest in British history. Nearly 2000 residents, a 7000-strong garrison and 15,000 refugees were packed within the city walls. Horses killed in battle were dragged into the city and salted. By the end of June, people were reduced to eating dogs, cats, rats and mice! Despite famine, Derry’s walls were never breached and it earned the nickname Maiden City.

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We came to a 13th century Augustinian abbey, which served as the first church for the Plantation settlers until St Columb’s Cathedral was completed in 1633. Thereafter St Augustine’s became known as Little Chapel or the Wee Church on the Walls. ‘It’s as haunted as it’s pretty’, remarked our guide wryly.

Reports abound of a lady dressed in white 18th century costume walking down from the chapel graveyard, crossing a wooden bridge over Magazine Street and disappearing into Bridge House! We turned our heels and hastened towards St Columb’s, the first post-Reformation church to be erected in the British Isles.

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The foundation stone in the porch bears the famous inscription, ‘If stones could speak then London’s prayers should sound who built this church and city from the ground.’ Also on display was a shell fired during the 1689 siege carrying the terms of surrender, which landed in the churchyard. We noticed the odd placement of the tombstones; not vertical to the ground, but arranged lying down. ‘Oh that was during the Troubles so that the bullets wouldn’t destroy them’, quipped our guide nonchalantly.

Legend has it that after surviving shipwreck and a hunting accident, John Newton prayed twice a day at the cathedral to repent for his slave trading days. While his ship Greyhound was being repaired in the Foyle, he supposedly found inspiration for the hymn Amazing Grace here in Derry.

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Three new gates were added since the 18th century – New Gate, Castle Gate and Magazine Gate, the city’s newest gate named after the gunpowder store. At Hangman’s Bastion a man nearly killed himself when he became entangled in the rope he was using to escape. The nearby Coward’s Bastion was the safest place in the city, hence the name. At Double Bastion sat Roaring Meg, the most famous of the city’s cannons. Weighing 1794 kg, it took six men to fire it. Incidentally, Derry has the largest collection of cannons in Europe.

After the Potato Famines in the 1840s, the Bogside became the first community outside the walls, home to poor Catholic families from the country who worked in the city as weavers, sailors and dockers. Over the next two centuries the city prospered, as industries like shirt making and whiskey distilling flourished while the port became a centre of international trade.

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Visible from Derry’s walls were the Bogside Murals painted on the gable walls of Rossville Street and Lecky Road. Bloody Sunday Commemoration Mural opposite Bogside Inn remembers the death of 14 people on 30 January 1972 or Bloody Sunday. The Death Of Innocence Mural portrays Annette McGavigan, a 14-year-old girl who became the first child victim of the troubles in Derry and the hundredth victim in Northern Ireland. Annette in her green schoolgirl uniform stands against debris from a bomb explosion, a rifle muzzle buried in the ground and a butterfly in the corner, which was coloured in 2006 to represent the change from violence to peace.

Ulster History Circle had marked houses of eminent writers like Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), philosopher and Dean of Derry 1724-34 and Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) who was inspired by the Creggan Hills to write the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’. Strolling past statues of Temperance, Erin and Vulcan looking down from St Columb’s Hall we reached the Diamond.

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Located in the heart of the walled city, one can see all four original gates from here. The black figures of the War Memorial denote the Navy, Army and the winged Angel of Victory representing the Royal Air Force. At Custom House we ordered roast stuffed Irish quail, crispy pork belly with squash sauce and salt ‘n chilli squid. In light of Derry’s frugal past, it was an unapologetic lavish meal, but we had earned it.

This year, the city’s walls celebrate 400 years and a series of events showcase it as UK’s first City of Culture. Little wonder Lonely Planet ranks it among the Top 10 places to visit in 2013. After surviving two sieges that lasted over 100 days, two world wars, famine and decades of civil strife that destroyed a third of the buildings within the walls, the spirit of Derry and its proud people was undefeated. As local expert Martin McCrossan’s award-winning city tour sums it up ‘Rain, sleet or snow, our walking tour will go!’

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 14 July 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.

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