Derry or Londonderry? Names matter fiercely here – because history does. What sets this place apart is the depth of knowledge its 106 000 citizens have of their past. They’ll happily share it, inside or outside the city walls – which are 6m thick and about 1.5km around and have never been breached in 400 years. I suggest they should simply call the place Historyopolis, a name to offend neither Protestant unionist, nor Catholic republican.
“I call it LegenDerry!” says Martin, my guide for the morning. “And we’re the UK City of Culture 2013. Let’s start on the wall.”
And so we stand above Ferryquay Gate where, in 1688, Catholic King James camped with his army during the siege. Behind us, in the distance, is the rush of the River Foyle curving under the Peace Bridge, recently opened, linking the Cityside with the Waterside and the former Ebrington Barracks, soon to be thundering with concert crowds during this year’s celebrations, which include the staging of the Turner Prize.
The Waterside houses most of the city’s Protestant population.
“Here,” – Martin has turned his back on the river – “the four main streets from the four ancient gates converge on the Diamond right in the middle of the city.”
At the far end of Ferryquay Street, we see the Diamond’s war memorial, and looming over it stands Austins (austinsstore.com), the oldest independent department store in the world, pre-dating Harrods by 15 years.
To our left are Artillery Street and the Playhouse (derryplayhouse.co.uk), a historic listed building, home to theatre, dance and comedy, one of the hubs of Derry’s ferment of arts activities.
Along Ferryquay Street we turn left across the cobbles into Pump Street and stare straight ahead at St Columb’s Cathedral (stcolumbscathedral.org).
“The city’s finest historical gem,” is Martin’s verdict.
Built in 1628, it witnessed three sieges (1641 and 1649, during Cromwell’s wars in Ireland), and houses relics in its Chapter House from the 1689 siege.
Leaving the graveyard to the rear, we regain the wall at Bishops Gate steps, the walk’s highest point, continuing clockwise. Huddled below us to the east is the Protestant Fountain estate, its kerbstones and lampposts emblazoned red, white and blue to match the fluttering Union flags. South, on Bishop Street, lies the Heritage Tower, now a ruin. West lies the hillside domain of the Creggan estate and the houses of the Bogside, Catholic redoubts.
The People’s Gallery, 12 murals by the Bogside Artists (bogsideartists.com) depicting events from the city’s Troubles, are flashes of colour among the grim grey of the tiny homes. They catch the eye as we walk towards the Butcher Gate on the widest stretch of wall known as Grand Parade.
To our right is Saint Augustine’s Church on the site of Saint Columb’s original monastic settlement dating to AD546. A few steps ahead, on Society Street, the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall (about R30 admission), gives the insider’s view of the 1689 siege (siegeheroestrail.com).
The walls continue towards the river, crossing New Gate, towards Shipquay Gate, and the striking neo-Gothic Guildhall (derrycity.gov.uk), bombed several times, but superbly restored, as is the Custom House (customhouserestaurant.com), now a magnificent Georgian eatery on Queen’s Quay, towards which, turning left from the Guildhall’s facade, I head for lunch.
One hour later, filled with the buzz of Derry chatter, I retrace my steps towards the city walls, reaching Waterloo Street – the music quarter – where Derry’s fun-loving, racy side holds sway, outgunning the cannon (fired once a year) that points from the walls that rise to my left.
From Peadar O’Donnells and the Gweedore Bar (peadars-gweedorebar.com), both crowded nightly, runs a string of cheek-by-jowl pubs: connecting the Dungloe Bar, Red Star, Bound for Boston (a name evoking emigration), where traditional music is guaranteed during the citywide Fleadh(2013fleadh.ie), August’s feast of Irish culture.
Reaching Butcher Gate, I turn left. Ahead lies Butcher Street (bombed to rubble in the Troubles), and the Tower Hotel, a plate-glass defiance. I reach the Diamond once again. From here all four gates are clearly visible. Down the steep Shipquay Street, behind pristine Georgian façades, is the Craft Village – I’d been told I’d find “quare wee shops, a bit of thatch and lovely cafés” here.
I turn instead towards Austin’s dome, and take the lift to the top floor restaurant. There, sipping coffee, I have it all: the city beneath me, spires and rooftops, a silvery river crossed by a peace bridge, 12 months of continuous celebration round the corner. What went right?
“It was the people, despairing, resilient,” Martin had told me. “We decided to get together. Once the walls seemed like a noose. Now they’re a necklace. And we’re excited by the future.”
Airporter bus connections run to the city centre from the airport (airporter.co.uk). – The Independent on Sunday