Heritage heroes restoring historic buildings

Meet the nominees for the ‘Best Maintenance of a Historic Building or Place’ and ‘Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place under £1 million’ ahead of this year’s Heritage Angel Awards

Heritage Angel Awards 2024

NORTHERN Ireland is home to some truly iconic buildings such as Belfast City Hall, the Grand Opera House, the Guildhall, Castle Ward and St Anne’s Cathedral.

However, it is unlikely they would be here for us to admire and enjoy if it wasn’t for those who have gone to great lengths to preserve them.

An extreme example that comes to mind dates back to the Second World War when Parliament Buildings at Stormont were painted with a mixture of cow manure and bitumen to camouflage it from enemy attack.

Although times have changed, people’s attitude towards preservation has not, as is highlighted by this year’s Heritage Angel Awards shortlist.

A total of 18 projects have been nominated across six categories. Amongst the categories is an award for Best Maintenance of a Historic Building or Place and Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place under £1 million.

Best Maintenance of a Historic Building or Place

Spanning from Sailortown to Strabane this year’s nominees for Best Maintenance of a Historic Building or Place have all dedicated their time to restoring their local churches.

Christ Church Open Door, Derry

Originally built as a Chapel of Ease in the 1830s, the church had been closed since 1996 due to a fire and other structural damage.

However, it was reopened in July 2022 as a result the The Christ Church Open Door project which welcomes cross community use of the building. Additionally, its fine acoustic has enabled it to play host to world class musicians including Barry Douglas and Ulster Orchestra.

Jim Kelly from the project said: “Because this church is right on the border of where all the nasty things happened during the Troubles we closed the doors two generations ago, only opening them for services.

“The Heritage Lottery and the National Churches Trust said they wanted us to be a community asset, they said ‘can you take this place and make it something much bigger than it is already’.”

“The family atmosphere here now is tremendous it’s very warm, it’s very friendly and that for me is probably the most endearing feature.”

Terry McKeown Sailortown Regeneration Group

Terry McKeown was nominated due to her efforts to help reverse the decline of the listed St Joseph’s Church in Sailortown. Terry led a team of volunteers who campaigned to secure funding for essential safety repairs. Today the building hosts an extensive programme of cultural events and is planning its future in the cultural life of the city.

McKeown explains that the church is now deconsecrated, prioritising community over religion.

“We got a lease on St Joseph’s in 2008 under Sailortown Regeneration but one of the clauses on the lease was that there wouldn’t be any religious services.

“So, we’re deconsecrated and we are first and foremost a community space focusing on getting people together – that sense of community is what we’re all about.”

The Church Restoration Team, led by Father Boland

Nominated for the maintenance of the majestic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Strabane. The B+ listed structure built in 1866 designed in the French gothic style.

It was in poor condition until community volunteers began a huge fundraising effort to secure its future.

The team has developed local in-house skills providing museum and tour guide training.

“I came here 25 years ago,” says leader of the project Fr Boland.

“I realised the church needed a little bit of attention but seven years ago I was told that the stained-glass windows were in danger of falling out. So I went to the people, we started fundraising.”

Over the course of two and a half years the community raised £200,000 towards urgent repairs and a new exhibition space.

Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place under £1 million

Usually when people purchase a listed building it is not because it makes financial sense as restoring historic buildings can often be a costly and time consuming process. It more likely due to the fact they have fallen in love with the property’s character, charm and history as is the case with the candidates who have been nominated for the Heritage Angel Award for the Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place under £1 million. Not only have they dedicated their time, energy and money to their projects but they have also done it on a budget.

Jonathan and Lynne McCabe, Arthur’s, Hillsborough

Arthur’s Boutique Guest Accommodation in Hillsborough is a B2 listed property dating from around 1790 – it was on the at-risk register when Jonathan and Lynne McCabe acquired it in 2018.

The couple’s biggest challenge was reconciling building control with historic building requirements. Repairs were conservation led and traditional materials were used throughout. The work was completed in 2022 and Arthur’s is now open for business.

“I’m from Hillsborough and Jonathan has been here for 20 years now as well,” explains Lynne.

“We’re both very involved in the community and very involved in the business.

“The last 15 years we’ve here we’ve been hearing ‘Hillsborough is such a jewel why is there nothing on the main street?’ and this was a substantial sized building and we were able to sustain it.

“We had the perfect use, we knew the market, we knew the demand everything aligned.”

Mr Roy McKeown, Raceview Mill, Broughshane

Raceview Mill faced demolition after being put up for sale in 2013. Over a decade later thanks to the dedicated work of Roy McKeown the buildings on the 16-acre site have been restored and improved and are now home to 35 local companies employing nearly 200 people.

The water wheel is back up and running and the site has echoes of its hay day as a bleaching green and flax mill in the early 1800′s.

“My background is absolutely not building it is the arts and I couldn’t believe we couldn’t find some use for the building,” Roy recalls.

“So I put in a very modest bid and ended up with it and wondering what to do with it.

“We had no grant aid so we literally just had to do the work ourselves.

“Today Raceview Mill is a vibrant business centre.”

Caledon Regeneration Partnership, the Wool Store

From storing wool to make soldiers clothes during the First World War to operating as a creche providing much needed childcare support the Caledon Wool Store has a history of serving its community.

Christopher Gill of the Caledon Estate recalls how there was no nursery or childcare provision in the village before the Caledon Regeneration Partnership restored the wool store.

“Children were leaving the village going to different villages or towns which had a knock effect as those children then maybe went to school in those villages.

“Two or three years down the line we now have around 60-65 children on the books here and that is keeping those children local and going on to local school and we have seen and increase in the local school numbers.

“It has also created employment opportunities there are 16 full time staff at the wool store.”

Revenue generated by the creche is also supporting further conservation work in the village.

All of these nominees are eligible for the Public Vote Award with the winner being announced during the Heritage Angel Awards which take place on March 27. Voting and additional information can be found at