Councillors have enthusiastically backed plans for the development of the historic Mountsandel site in Coleraine - including a pedestrian bridge link at the Cutts and a tourist visitors centre.
Members of the Leisure and Development Committee fully endorsed a recommendation by Peter Thompson, the Head of of Tourism and Recreation, that Council officers be allowed to complete the first stage of an outline business case for development.
Councillors were rich in their praise of the exciting plans mooted in an impressive 31-page document, A Blueprint for Mountsandel, tabled at the Committee meeting in Cloonavin last Tuesday evening.
Around £25,000 will now be spent on developing a strategy to develop a ‘Mountsandel Experience’ to “help both understand and celebrate the regional and national significance of this special landscape”.
The report outlined the huge historical and archaelogical importance of the Mountsandel Anglo Norman Fort and site, where, in 1973 Prof Peter Woodman discovered evidence of the earliest human settlement in Ireland dating back 9,800 years.
The University College Cork academic famously described the discovery of Mesolithic life as “the cradle of civilisation in Ireland.”
The report discusses options on how best to manage and promote the 21-hectare site as an amenity for local people and also a beacon for tourists visiting other North Coast attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
The detailed document concluded: “ Improved riverside access, building on the current provision, will help to focus attention on the river and provide improved connectivity currently missing.
“Sensitively designed interventions will help to both animate the narrative and guide and direct potential visitors through the experience.
“An aesthetically pleasing visitor orientation hub in the vicinity of The Cutts would create a focus for the whole ‘Mountsandel Experience’ and could potentially revitalise this outlying fringe area through attracting additional footfall and creating opportunities for revenue generation.”
The Council blueprint was developed with considerable input from Coleraine Rotary Club - which last year launched its signature campaign ‘Our History Starts Here’ project and Prof Peter Woodman.
It seeks not only to promote and develop the Mountsandel site itself but the River Bann and Cutts region.
Peter Thompson said Council was working towards developing a vision statement for the wider Mountsandel area in order to bring “our shared history to light”.
The report says that a critically building a pedestrian bridge linking the east and west of the Bann - from the Cutts to Mountsandel - would tackle the current “disconnect” that exists.
The plans could also see significant associated development of sites along the river:
* Somerset Riverside car park - Proposals include redesign of the car park to increase capacity, provision of an upgraded picnic area and the installation of a viewing platform/contemplation deck projecting over the riverbank providing panoramic views of the river both upstream and downstream.
* Somerset Forest - Potential exists to develop additional car parking and coach parking facilities, subject to agreement with Forest Service.
* Somerset Riverside Park (including Christie Park) - Through strategic and sensitive vegetation clearance, opportunities exist to develop and strengthen views along the river through construction of one or two viewing points/contemplation decks.
Opportunities also exist to encourage or ‘direct’ tourists, perhaps on foot or bicycle, to visit the ‘Mountsandel Experience’, possibly through the creative use of life-size sculptures depicting human and animal life during Mesolithic times.
* ABC Laboratories site - This derelict site comprising approximately 1.6 acres, in the ownership of The Honourable The Irish Society, represents a significant development opportunity site. The site occupies a prime riparian location, with continuous river frontage affording excellent panoramic views of the river and towards the historic Mountsandel site.
* Locks and quayside - The locks and quayside adjacent to the Waterways Ireland administrative building are fully accessible to the public by foot and afford magnificent opportunities to experience the river at The Cutts. Access by boat is facilitated by a modern jetty.
Opportunities exist to further develop this public space, including interpreting the story of the salmon, the history of the Cutts and the Plantation of Ulster.
* Mountsandel Wood - In the event of a bridge structure being constructed linking east and west banks, it would be necessary and advantageous to create a ‘welcome and orientation point’ for visitors at the intersection of the bridge and the Wood.
* Anglo-Norman Fort - Within a wider Mountsandel Experience, opportunities exist to develop and promote family fun activities and interpretation at this feature.
* The Cutts crossing - Extensive engineered structures, constructed in phases over a 200 year period, already span the entire width of the river at this location known as The Cutts.
The feasibility should be explored of utilising these existing structures to carry a new pedestrian crossing/bridge structure, to enable people to walk from one bank to the other, effectively overcoming the ‘physical disconnect’ that exists between the east and west banks.
* The Mesolithic Encounter - It is proposed to sensitively create an opportunity to ‘meet the earliest Irish settlers’. Plans include procuring the site into public ownership, replicating a Mesolithic family encampment, including huts, planting and landscaping and developing and installing interactive interpretation features.
* Mountsandel Wood jetty - Opportunities exist for guided boat trips on the river and tours of Mountsandel, including openings for private sector operators. Low-key picnic facilities and interpretation are also proposed at this site.
* Visitor orientation hub - A potential opportunity exists for the development of a visitor orientation hub/facility incorporating commercial, educational and interpretative facilities, to essentially act as the administrative hub for the Mountsandel Experience. The preferred location for this is likely to be a prominent riverside location on the west bank.
The report mentions that should Council proceed with its plans an economic appraisal and design for all the individual projects detailed within the Blueprint would be carried out. Heritage Lottery Funding was a possibility, it added.
There was unanimous cross-party approval of the Council document with long-time supporter of the development of Mountsandel, UUP councillor William McCandless, leading the praise.
Congratulating Mr Thompson and his colleagues on the report, councillor McCandless said he was “excited” and “enthused” with the entire project.
“We have all been to Cultra, Omagh and Titanic but we have the daddy of them all on our doorstep,” he said.
He likened the potential of Mountsandel as “discovering black stuff (oil) coming up through your toes” and proposed that the Committee fully endorse the Council’s recommendation.
“We need to grasp the vision and develop it. It’s a wonderful asset we have here - it was a gateway for the Vikings and also the Plantation. I propose that we proceed with the project without delay.”
Seconding councillor McCandless’s proposal, the DUP’s Trevor Clarke agreed that Council had to grasp the opportunity to “start to tell the history of our island in a very meaningful way.”
“We have neglected this gem of an opportunity for too long”, he remarked.
Sinn Fein councillor Kieran Mulholland said: “Everybody should support this, it’s a fantastic opportunity for us. It’s a fascinating read.”
Mayor Maura Hickey, who along with her husband Liam, the immediate past president of Coleraine Rotary Club, began the ball rolling with the Mountsandel project two years ago, said everyone should be congratulated for their input into the Blueprint.
She added that Mountsandel could easily rival New Grange as a major all-Ireland tourist facility and that the historical significance of the site had already been recognised by many of Europe’s leading archaeologists.
The recommendation of the Committee will now go to full Council for ratification.