Archaeological work has begun on the High Hill, ahead of construction of a spectacular Norman park, beginning in early 2021.
Addressing councillors at St Michael's Theatre on Wednesday, Fintan Ryan of Wexford County Council's special projects team, outlined in detail plans for a tiered park, described by district director Eamonn Hore as likely to be one of the most spectacular in Ireland when it opens in early 2022.
The park on the site of the old Royal Hotel has been in planning since 2016. Mr Ryan said planning permission was approved for the project last year and funding followed. Bundled with funding for the Dunbrody ship and visitor centre and the new Norman centre at the Murphy building on the quay, the High Hill project is being funded through the €5.56m approved under the Rural Regeneration Development Fund, with additional funding coming from Failite Ireland and Wexford County Council.
Mr Ryan said the High Hill - which has long been a site of dereliction in the heart of the town - was the first project to go through planning and design. The park will have a 'landing area' at its base - with access to eletricity - where performances will take place and there will be new steps leading up to St Mary's Church to the right and a series of pathways leading up, with rest and viewing areas at two or three locations,
Mr Ryan said the town's Norman Trail will link the Dunbrody visitor centre, the High Hill and St Mary's. 'The existing site has been boarded up for quite a period of time. We are out for tender for maintenance and construction work. Catherine McLoughlin is undertaking excavation works so there will be some testing over the next couple of weeks. We don't want any delay,' he said.
Mr Ryan said the garden is centred around a network of paths through a steep site to create an area of formal gardens with box hedging.
'We are creating a Norman themed garden intermingled with features and symbols representing Isabel de Clare and William Marshall. Our main arrival plaza will be at the top of Bridge Street with steps up to St Mary's and a network of small pockets of gardens. Within the garden there will be a number of levels of platforms for resting places and areas where people can meet and chat and there will be performance areas.'
The council is awaiting tenders for the project up until September 25. 'That date may be extended depending on activity on e-tenders. We'll be awarding the contract in December and aim to start work in January.'
Cllr Michael Sheehan asked what the overall budget will be and Mr Ryan replied that the Murphy building will take up a significant portion of the €10m being spent on the projects, declining to give an exact figure for the High Hill project.
Cllr Sheehan asked if there are plans to bring the Augustinian Church and parking area back into use in any way in conjunction with the High Hill gardens, and if a funicular is being considered. 'That would lessen the gradient. With the Waterford Walls [murals] it will look amazing. I hope it goes to plan and will revitalise a part of the town that needs a good shot in the arm,' he said.
Mr Ryan said the project will take between ten and 12 months to complete. 'It's very much dependent on the sourcing of granite. It can come from Europe or China; if it's from China that could mean an extra month or two.'
He said the Augustinian Church doesn't form part of the plans, adding that the Norman park will stretch as far as the area in front of St Mary's Church.
Cllr Anthony Connick asked if the park will be wheelchair accessible with the steps. 'Are there plans to put in a lift to bring people up to St Mary's Church? Most of the people who come here [on tours] are of an older age group. This is a challenge trying to get them up the hill. I definitely think we should be looking at some kind of lift or monorail. I think it would be a lot more attractive to people going to the St Mary's area.'
Mr Ryan said the project team are talking with the accessibility officer for the county about the project. 'It's very steep terrain, 19 metres from street level. At street level, our view is that we will have an access location within the development. Along with the arrival plaza there will be an interim plaza at the Augustinian church and at St Mary's. We haven't incorporated any feature for a monorail through the site. We said we'd look at different areas within the site to ensure they are accessible for people with wheelchairs. That was what we felt was the best option for the project. We haven't engaged in discussions about operational infrastructure.'
Cllr Connick asked if any consultation has taken place with High Hill residents. 'I know a lot of people have problems putting out their bins because of the big drain that is there.'
Mr Ryan said: 'We'll be having discussions with residents about the construction impact.'
Cllr John Fleming said a special feature is needed in the park to attract people to the High Hill.
'We need something special to bring people from the Great New Ross River Walk along the quay up to St Mary's. Maybe a link in with the old flag steps.'
He said a car park at the top of the steps would be great, but the slope mitigates against that.
Mr Ryan said the flag steps will be removed and new steps laid.
'Some of the trees will be retained but generally it's a revamp of the landscape and the creation of the Norman garden. There will be some art feature there to attract people. We are trying to create a destination in its own right. The park is very much towards the end of the Norman Way. It will tell the story of William Marshall and Isabel de Clare through the planting and there will be original art features that will give us the wow factor.'
Cllr Pat Barden said the park will be a huge addition to the town. He asked if planting and landscaping will be carried out at St Mary's Church and graveyard.
Mr Ryan said: 'Our project brings us up to the car park where works have been carried out. We don't have any scope to go into St Mary's.'
District director Eamonn Hore said: 'The wow factor is St Mary's. That is the feature that is bringing people from Bridge Street up to the Norman Gardens. There will be nothing like them in the whole of Ireland. They will be spectacular in themselves and they will pay homage to Isobel de Clare and there will be an art piece depicting William Marshall and Isobel de Clare on the rest area. We have worked very closely with St Mary's improving the path in the car park area. It's completely wheelchair accessible all around St Mary's Church and there are seven information panels. We spent close to €400,000 on this over recent years.'
Mr Hore said St Mary's Church is one of the finest parish churches in the country and ties in perfectly with the Norman gardens. Cllr Michael Sheehan said: 'The wow factor is we have an area of dereliction that we're now renovating with plans for 100 people start working in a business centre nearby. If we can get the High Hill up and running that will get footfall into the town.'
Cllr Connick asked if monitored CCTV will be used for the area, which has been blighted by anti-social behaviour in recent years and was told there will be CCTV.