Breathing New Life into Old Walls; Londonderry's New Pounds 1.7m Verbal Arts Centre Has Been Nominated for a Top European Architectural Award. the Civic Trust Awards Will Be Presented in London Tonight and the Soon-to-Be-Opened Centre Is Highly Tipped to Win One of the Prizes. IAN STARRETT Has Been Given a Guided Tour of the Unique Building and Takes a Look at the Achievements Already Notched Up by the Team There

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Byline: Ian Starrett

To many generations of Londonderry people it was known as The School on the Walls. A listed building, First Derry Presbyterian Primary School stood on the corner of Mall Wall and Grand Parade, in the south west corner of Derry's Walls.

Those legendary ramparts, at the double bastion, were the favourite playground of the boys and girls who went there for over a century.

Sometimes, during innocent playtime, a ball would stray into the walled garden of the former Bishop's Palace, where Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander once sat at a window and wrote There Is A Green Hill Far Away.

Today, at a cost of pounds 1.7 million, the Mall Wall building, down Stable Lane, has been renovated.

The mainly-unaltered exterior of this cherished landmark, to everyone's delight, remains pretty much as it did down all those years.

Inside, is an awesome mixture of past, present, art and culture.

There's a performance area, debating chamber, recording studio, children's storytelling room and a coffee house, which will be the only public cafe on Derry's Walls.

Edel Gallagher, Marketing and development officer, proudly shows me around the building, which, this Thursday night, will be one of the nominees at the Civic Trust Awards, one of the most respected architecture and environmental design award schemes in Europe.

Edel said: ''Throughout the project, the architect, Hall Black Douglas and ourselves worked together, to establish a narrative thread, which progresses from dark to light, rising through the levels of the building, to reveal the expressive range of the verbal arts.''

"We believe that the new centre will provide a unique resource for our community of creative artists, through the provision of educational programmes. The centre's potential role in enhancing and promoting the city's historic walls, by providing an exceptionally interesting and attractive visitor resource and its wider role in stimulating cultural tourism in Northern Ireland and the North West, has been recognised.''

Anyone who remembers the old School on the Walls won't recognise the place, but sentimental links with those days remain.

The old coal cellar is now the recording studio, while in the 60-seater Young People's Parliament Debating Chamber, the wooden floor is exactly the same as the one trodden on by generations. Elsewhere, there's school memorabilia, booklets and photographs of former headmasters. The weathervane on the roof has been gifted to the centre by First Derry School Former Pupils' Association.

As Edel gave me a fact-packed guided tour, I was particularly impressed by the art works that enhance the interior, especially the glass sculpture by Killian Schurmann, which contains 212 original hand-written manuscripts, gifted to the Verbal Arts Centre by writers from across Ireland.

On the reception hall floor, an exact representation of a Louis le Brocquy drawing has been executed in ceramic tiles, the children's staircase carries a series of panels by Belfast artist Rita Duffy, who illustrates stories taken from all over Ireland.

In the Coffee House, is a commissioned bronze sculpture by Carolyn Mulholland, while the library honours Ireland's contribution to world literature in etched glass panels bearing the names of four Nobel prize winners, together with their citations. …