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Up to 500 buildings in NI at risk of falling into serious disrepair have found a new champion in Prince Charles

The Prince’s Regeneration Trust has so far helped to save a landmark primary school in east Belfast ... and a former mill used by Sinn Fein. Ivan Little and Judith Cole report


Royal ally: HRH Prince Charles on a visit to the East Belfast Network whose premises are located in the former Templemore Avenue Primary School

Royal ally: HRH Prince Charles on a visit to the East Belfast Network whose premises are located in the former Templemore Avenue Primary School

Royal ally: HRH Prince Charles on a visit to the East Belfast Network whose premises are located in the former Templemore Avenue Primary School

Royal ally: HRH Prince Charles on a visit to the East Belfast Network whose premises are located in the former Templemore Avenue Primary School

Former Templemore Primary School

Former Templemore Primary School

Workhouse, Enniskillen

Workhouse, Enniskillen


Royal ally: HRH Prince Charles on a visit to the East Belfast Network whose premises are located in the former Templemore Avenue Primary School

Conservationist Prince Charles has weighed in behind a new drive to save the 500 historic buildings and monuments across Northern Ireland which have been placed on an "at risk" register by worried architectural experts.

The buildings include run-down churches, abandoned industrial units and even forgotten castles and courts.

And it's hoped that the one-time architectural gems could be brought back to their former glory with what one observer says would be a little tender loving care and a lot of money.

Helping to lay the foundations for the not inconsiderable task are officials from one of Prince Charles's favourite charities, who've helped save old schools and mills in Northern Ireland in the past.

The Prince's Regeneration Trust (PRT) is offering to play a role in advising people on how to rescue more threatened buildings on the list, compiled by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS).

Earlier this month, the UAHS presented a series of awards to individuals and organisations who have already transformed derelict buildings into thriving businesses in the province.

The PRT is encouraging others to follow in the winners' footsteps and to get involved in restoring more architectural treasures.

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Together with the National Lottery Fund, the PRT is running a special workshop next Tuesday at Hillsborough Castle to show community groups how best to save buildings which are precious to them.

A PRT spokesperson says: "The idea is to equip and empower local groups to save and re-use buildings for community use. Very often, these buildings give a sense of place to the town, city, or county, where they exist, but have just fallen on hard times. Rather than building afresh, these buildings can find a viable and sustainable future to serve their communities well."

One shining success for the Trust has been the regeneration of an former school in east Belfast. The former Templemore Avenue Primary School was turned into the East Belfast Network Centre, which houses a large number of voluntary organisations, some of which have been involved in cross-community work.

In May 2015, the Prince of Wales visited the centre. And everyone who met him was struck by his passion for - and knowledge of - the project which had been assisted by his charity.

He told guests that he'd been highly impressed by the upgrade to the building which he said he knew was only yards from the peace line dividing Protestant and Catholic families.

The Prince also used his visit to hold a private meeting with community representatives who were trying to ease tensions on the interfaces.

In west Belfast, which isn't normally associated with accepting aid from royalty, Conway Mill, off the Falls Road, has been another example of a winning refurbishment, assisted by the PRT.

The former 19th-century flax spinning mill even won a UK-wide award for its spectacular regeneration.

The mill which had been famously used to host a number of headline-grabbing republican Press conferences during the Troubles, had fallen into serious disrepair before the regeneration started in 1996.

The late deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, opened the restored mill in 2010 with 16 business units, artists studios and spaces for community groups.

Another "at risk" building with which the PRT has been involved is the historic Armagh Gaol, where prisoners were kept at the "pleasure" of Prince Charles's mother, the Queen, and her ancestors.

Armagh Gaol, which overlooks the city's Mall, consisted of three prisons - one for women, one for debtors and one for felons.

Executions were also staged there and, during the Troubles, paramilitary prisoners from all sides were held behind bars before the gaol shut in 1986.

Plans to convert the gaol into a luxury hotel haven't become a reality yet, but sources say progress is being made.

At Hillsborough next week, at what is being called a BRICK (Building Resources Informing Community Knowledge) workshop, experts from the PRT will be joined by speakers from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund to give crucial advice about saving Northern Ireland's "at risk" buildings and monuments.

Laura Norris, the programme director of BRICK, says: "The day will focus on topics relating to governance, procurement, project management, funding, training and education on a heritage project, all essential to the proper planning for saving and re-using historic buildings."

Laura says it's important that everyone who wants to move forward with restoration work has the proper building blocks to do so.

Also on hand at Hillsborough to share their expertise and experiences will be members of a team working on a new scheme to regenerate Enniskillen Workhouse in Fermanagh.

The £1m plan is to turn the old workhouse, on the site of the former Erne Hospital, into an enterprise hub, with an emphasis on budding entrepreneurs.

The workhouse was built to accommodate 1,000 inmates. It opened in December 1845, with 69 paupers admitted, but two years later, at the height of the famine, there were 1,433 inmates and hundreds of them died.

The regeneration proposal was recently in the news amid claims that it was insensitive towards the people buried there in unmarked paupers graves.

An announcement about the Workhouse plans is expected shortly.

Charity officials say that over the past 20 years the PRT has worked on over 90 projects in the UK, saving about 1.4 million square feet of buildings and helping create around 1,800 jobs.

Laura Norris says the interest in restoring lost heritage has been very strong in Northern Ireland.

"There have been a lot of mentoring projects and we have had many people coming to the workshops which we have staged in the past.

"Our focus has been on community activists who are interested in turning something they once loved as a building, or as a focal point, or as part of their history, into something that is vibrant and active for people today."

Laura says that, while the regeneration projects in Belfast, Armagh and Enniskillen have attracted most attention, there have been other schemes as well.

They have included plans to refurbish Rathfriland Market House, which was built around 1770.

In Londonderry, the PRT has also been involved in mentoring for a project at Culmore Primary School. The Trust has also held working groups with people interested in restoring Kilwaughter Castle, near Larne, which dates back to the 18th century and which was occupied by American soldiers during the Second World War.

Another scheme centres on the old courthouse on the Main Street in Bushmills.

Laura says: "There's a huge amount of work being done - even if it is happening slowly. Projects do take a long time. If you are looking after heritage, you simply have to take a deep breath because this isn't a quick fix.

"These buildings need to be understood and the oral history and peoples' memories of them have to be heard before you can proceed with any plans. Time isn't a short thing when you have the word 'heritage' associated with any ideas. The main thrust is to get everything right.

"It would be very sad to mess things up at the point where there could be a positive outcome."

Laura says facilities like the UAHS online register of "at risk" buildings is "an incredibly useful tool" in the heritage campaign.

Its full, long-winded name is the Built Heritage at Risk Northern Ireland Register (BHARNI) and it is compiled in partnership with the Department for Communities.

The UAHS says the register highlights 500 buildings and monuments of architectural and historic interest whose future appears under threat, but may be suitable for restoration and repair.

One UAHS promo for the register says: "It aims to heighten public awareness of built heritage 'at risk'; to provide help and advice for existing owners, who may wish to engage in a suitable scheme of repair.

"It also offers assistance to potential new restoring owners, who are looking for properties for sale."

For the full list of buildings at risk, go to: www.uahs.org.uk/built-heritage-at-risk-register-northern-ireland

Buildings still at risk

Sinton's Mill, Tandragee, Co Armagh

Sinton's Mill, on Glebe Hill Road, Derryallen, is believed to have been built between 1865 and 1882 and has been an important part of the architectural and social history of the area. In its listing record it is described as a "relatively small and compact flax spinning mill complex ... in a combination of rubble, brick and render". Major production at the site ended in 1996 and, with new housing spreading in the surrounding area, it is thought that the building may be transformed into apartments.

Former Coleraine Union Workhouse, Mountsandel Road, Co Londonderry

This building formed part of the hospital complex until its recent closure. However, it was designed in 1841 by George Wilkinson as a front lodge house to the former Poor Law Workhouse. It was described by the UAHS as being "typical of the warden's houses which were attached to poorhouses erected in many towns at this period". The lodge, which is boarded up, has suffered vandalism, but is still deemed to be of significant architectural and historical value.

Aghintain Castle, Co Tyrone

Built by Sir William O'Neill in the early-17th century, the castle was destroyed in the 1641 rebellion. Now, after nearly 400 years of weathering, only the west gable of the building stands, but it is enough to give a very good picture of the size of this historic structure.

Mount Panther, Clough, Co Down

Dating from 1770, this is an 11-bay, three-storey impressive building, on an elevated site near Clough village, with a basement in modified Palladian style. The interior is now delapidated but this important building was once famous for its ballroom which had stunning rococo plasterwork.

Strangford Presbyterian Church, Co Down

Since the church was closed due to a declinling congregation, the building has suffered from some minor vandalism with several panes of glass broken at the round-headed window openings. The UAHS has described the church as having a facade of "considerable merit".

Methodist Church, Cullybackey, Co Antrim

The church was built in 1839 and the congregation worshipped here until a new church was built on the Shellinghill Road in 1969. The "old church" is a large hall-type construction and has tall semi-circular headed windows with square paned sliding sashes. It is still in fairly good condition but it is believed that, without long-term use, it will become more difficult to maintain.

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