2008 Yearbook

i n r e v i e w 31 From owner to campaigner: changing perspectives on built heritage in Northern Ireland A solicitor by training, Associate Member Jane McClure is currently chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS), having been an active campaigner and founder of the Holywood Conservation Group. My love of buildings began early with a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage on the exposed south east coast of the Ards Peninsula in County Down. It is one of a listed group of three terraced single- storey cottages facing the sea, with an additional two-storey house facing inland. Sturdy granite-topped walls mark out the individual front gardens and protect the large lawn with its mounds of Hebe. To the side is a small quay, constructed in 1790 when the South Rock Lighthouse was built. The lighthouse still stands, although without its light, a granite stump three miles out into the Irish Sea. This simple group of buildings and the rocky shore below it provided the back drop to many of my happiest memories as a child. Even then I remember the satisfaction of seeing freshly whitewashed walls as we bumped down the lane for the Easter holidays. Sadly, by the time that my grandfather gave me the cottage as a wedding present, the building was in poor repair. If it wasn’t on the Buildings at Risk Register, it should have been. Fortunately, we had the wit and the good luck to find an architect with conservation experience who understood both the building and us. Our builder was equally sympathetic and as a result the cottage emerged relatively unscathed in spite of our own lack of experience and limited budget. Together with the lighthouse, it continues to stand, a modest but constant landmark, connecting present to past and land to sea. Lighthouse keepers’ cottages at Newcastle, Portaferry, Co Down Throughout the restoration of the cottage (and subsequently our listed house in Holywood, circa 1836) we found ourselves performing a delicate balancing act between what should be retained and what might bear some alteration. Compromises were made in both buildings to accommodate the pattern of our lives but the process of taking account of the impact this might have on the building helped to keep unnecessary intervention to a minimum. One of the most important lessons we learnt was an appreciation of original materials. We became progressively more conservative about the need to replace anything unless absolutely necessary. We still live in Holywood, a small pleasant town enjoying a beautiful setting at the foot of the Holywood Hills on the southern shores of Belfast Lough. The wooded slopes above the town provide a backdrop for its Victorian terraces and merchants’ houses. These buildings, trees and views give Holywood its charm, yet they have come increasingly under threat as the pace of development has accelerated over the last five years. There are a number of reasons for this, including a meteoric rise in property prices, a planning strategy which supported increased density, and the fact that VAT is chargeable on renovation but not on new build. This was compounded by the failure of government to address the increased pressure to demolish older buildings by providing adequate protection or financial measures to encourage re-use. In 2002 Holywood’s problem became ‘acute’ with the overnight demolition of a number of buildings which, although not listed, contributed significantly to the character of the town. The demolitions were accompanied by the clearance of garden trees and shrubs. It felt like vandalism but was entirely legal. As a result the Holywood Conservation Group (HCG) was formed. We campaigned for a conservation area, published our own conservation area booklet, and lobbied politicians, councilors, local people and traders. We also monitored local planning applications and fought planning appeals. It was an exhausting but inspiring process; the committee had a useful range of experience and the wider membership filled in the gaps with great generosity. In May 2004 the Holywood Conservation Area was designated. This was the day after an injunction was upheld in the High Court preventing the demolition of a pair of unlisted 1834 houses. HCG continues to work to raise the profile of the conservation area, to encourage good design and to enhance the built and natural environment of the town. All members of the committee have acquired new skills, mostly from a standing start. We also learnt the