Coleraine (Cuil Rathain) is situated on the river Bann and one of the largest towns along the Causeway Coastal Route. It has a fascinating and varied history which can trace human settlement back to when man first arrived on these shores. The town is full of delightful period architecture which line pedestrian streets full of shops, restaurants and commerce. The simple and practical layout of the streets owe their charm to the towns foundation as one of two settlements built during the Plantation of Ulster. Coleraine received its Charter in 1613. It is recorded that a chieftain called Nadslua gave Patricius (St. Patrick) a piece of land here to build a church, the ground was rough and covered with ferns, which is reflected in 'Corner of the Ferns' , one of three translations of the name Coleraine. The other two being 'Ferry Corner' and 'Rath or Fort at the bend'
The present town hall replaced an early building constructed in the 1700s, the new building was designed by Thomas Turner and opened in 1859 to form the centre piece of the Diamond. Surrounded by numerous period buildings, the Diamond is well worth seeing for its architectural value including the modern design of the Northern Bank. The market style space has been in existence since 1610. In front of the Town Hall stands a memorial to those lost during the two great wars, a bronze figure of a soldier in full battle dress stands resting his hand on the barrel of a rifle while below a beautiful bronze sculpture of the daughter of Erin wearing a long hooded cloak, reaches a wreath upwards towards the soldier. A fabulous piece of sculptural art. On the far side of the hall you'll find another bronze sculpture of Bertie Peacock, a famous local footballer, created by the artist Ross Wilson.
A short walk from the town hall is St. Patrick' Church which was completed in 1885 and design by Thomas Drew, it stands on one of the oldest ecclesiastical sites in Ireland. St Patrick founded one of the first churches here in 456 AD, the grandson of the chieftain who gave him the original piece of land became the first Bishop of Coleraine. The church grounds are an oasis of peace and tranquility in the centre of this pleasant and busy rural town and the architecture is superb. Behind the church and forming part of Anderson Park are the last visible remains of earthen ramparts which once surround this fortified town on six sides, the river forming one side.
The two main entrances were by draw bridge which were closed at night, one was Kings Gate (Kingsgate Street) and the other Blind Gate (Blindgate Street). The town is similar in conception and origin to Londonderry where the fortifications were more elaborate and substantial as well as twice the size. King James 1st of England and VI of Scotland initiated the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 in an attempt to pacify and prevent further rebellion in Ireland, to aid this he turned to rich businessmen in London for their support. Sir Thomas Phillips was sent to survey County Coleraine (became County Londonderry in 1613) while the trade guilds formed into the Irish Societies who collectively agreed to support the Plantation of the county. One of the objectives was to built two new towns, Coleraine and Londonderry.
Coleraine was chosen because it already had a substantial Abbey, it defensible and surrounded by fertile land plus the river could be navigated. St. Mary's Abbey which had been abandoned by the Dominicans in 1556 was acquired by Thomas Phillips for his personal residence during the building of Coleraine between 1605 and 1610, after this the abbey became an educational facility which was given the status of university by the Dominicans in 1644. The first bridge across the Bann was constructed out of local timber by the Anglo Normans around 1250, they also built at the same time, Drumtarsey Castle which they garrisoned.
The castle was situated close to where the present day Clothworker's Building. The Clothworker's building and the wonderful bridge we see today with its shallow elliptical arches were designed by the architect John Lynn. The bridge was constructed by George Maxwell out of dressed Scottish granite and completed in 1859. Up to this time and continuing afterwards was a ferry service by small boats across the river from Ferry Quay (Ferryquay Street) to the 'Wee Brae' at Killowen.
The river once divided two counties and the town straddled both, this aided its development as a major source of commerce and administration from the plantation onwards. The town prospered immensely from the involvement of the Honourable Irish Society and the plantation which is reflected in the quality of the buildings, level of administration and various educational establishments. The river although navigable was hindered by dangerous conditions at the barmouth where sand bars and turbulent waters required expert seamanship to overcome. Many suggestion were put forward to remedy this situation including a canal system but with the construction of Portrush harbour in the 1830s, these ideas were abandoned and Portrush became the focal point for shipping.
Coleraine really started developing as a commercial harbour after work was undertaken at the barmouth in the 1880s which created two long piers to protect the river entrance. With this in place the harbour flourished but it still needed an experienced pilot service for shipping, this was and still is operated from Portstewart harbour. Settlement in the area can be traced back to the last ice age when the first settlers known as the hunter gatherers made their way across from Scotland to North Antrim and began settling coastal regions like Whitepark Bay and Portstewart Dunes. Eventually they made their way up the river Bann until they encountered the rapids near Mountsandel Fort where they settled close to the Salmon Leap or the Cutts, The present day man made structure was to facilitate the navigation of the river Bann from the ocean to Lough Neagh and on to Newry. Coleraine is a University town, the extensive campus grounds on the outskirts provides educational facilities for 6000 students. The Riverside Theatre on campus offers a range of creative production from comedy and dance through to opera. Within the extensive grounds you'll find the Guy Wilson Daffodil Garden which provides one of the best displays of spring daffodils, including a collection of rare Irish-bred daffodils and narcissi.
Coleraine has a bypass road system with roundabouts for Londonderry, Castlerock, Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Bushmills, Portrush and Portstewart, all linked by the Sandelford Bridge which was completed in 1975. On the Londonderry side of the bridge is Somerset Park, an out of town shopping area which has all the major stores like Curry's, B&Q, Sainsburys and Lidl plus fast food outlets. For those who love exploring there are numerous walks to be enjoyed from the town centre, there are also several riverside car park. The Bann Valley Scenic drive runs from here down one side of the river Bann, over the Agivey Bridge and back up the other side passing the Cutts, Ancient Camus Island, Mountsandald, and the rural caravan park of Drumheglis. Along the way are riverside picnic sites and forest walks. If you want to have a memorable experience of the river then a trip on the Lady Sandel should be taken. The boat offers a variety of cruises throughout the summer both up and down river, one will take you up through the lock gates at the Cutts to Kilrea and back.