THE LAST time I was in Bangor Court House I had a notebook and pen in my hand and I was there to write about the low jinks of petty criminals. Twenty-odd years later, I’m back to report, not on the tragic tales of crime and punishment, but on the building’s new life as a hub for the enlightening power of popular culture. The Court House is almost open once again, after the keenly foresighted team behind the Open House Festival wrested it from the gaping maw of decay. After seven years of hard graft, the Open House team raised almost £2m through grant aid and donations to fully restore and redevelop a beautiful building which was decommissioned as a court in 2013. It lay empty until Open House took ownership in December 2020 via Northern Ireland’s first ever Community Asset Transfer. It verged on a crime in itself to see the listed Victorian building floundering, unloved and in disrepair for so long but now it is being offered to the people of Bangor and beyond as a venue for the best in music, comedy, film, theatre, spoken wood and food and drink events. Not only will the seafront venue bring headliners from many genres to entertain us, the Court House is a veritable living museum, with local history running through every room in the building which is replete with countless restored and reclaimed local gems of yesteryear. The building began life in 1865 as a bank, before it was transformed into a court with prisoner cells and judges’ chambers, but once it re-opens its repurposed doors again it will be a venue of hubbub and bonhomie. The official opening takes place ahead of its first gig just two days later, when Bangor-based four-piece, The Florentines, will perform to a sell-out audience. The launch marks the start of a year-round calendar of events for the Open House Festival, which annually hosts an abundance of live gigs and events of all types throughout the year. It’s a favourite among locals for its spring and summer programme when it packs out Bangor’s Walled Garden, Ward Park and a host of local venues with music, film and comedy. The launch also marks the appointment of a dedicated Court House director, Rachael CampbellPalmer, who is no stranger to steering the machinery of a good night out – especially since we’re all finally going ‘out’ out. Rachael has come fresh from Belfast’s Blackbox arts and music venue and has been at the helm of this type of venue for several years, coordinating arts and cultural events at home and abroad. She now brings her seasoned eye to the Court House, working alongside the Bangor pair who founded the Open House Festival in 1999, Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon. Open House Festival was originally established in Belfast in 1999 but moved to Bangor in 2013 in an attempt to bring the revitalising impact the festival contributed to Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, to their home town. Inside the Court House, the former public gallery, where families of those in the dock sat, is now part of an auditorium come theatre space – aptly called the Court Room – complete with a stage and capacity of 100 seated or 200 standing visitors. The room encompasses the former press box – which hadn’t enjoyed such architectural structure back in the day like most courts – just an area among the onlookers. The court clerk’s position and raised bench where the judges and magistrates once sat, issuing fines and sentences, is also included in this part of the new theatre style room. The former prisoner cells – once the strong rooms and safes during its time as a bank – are now toilets, with one original, heavily fortified metal door being retained, complete with prisoner names still written on it, including ‘Trimble’. In the Open Arms bar on the ground floor, patrons will be served over a bar reclaimed from parts of the old Crown Bar that once formed part of the Royal Hotel, as well as from the Windsor, just next door – now both vacant. Pop-up culinary events will take place in the beautifully fitted kitchen on the upper floor which flanks a large, gallery style space flooded with natural light from the pristinely refurbished original sash windows found all over the building. On these occasions, guest chefs from restaurants local and further afield will commandeer the kitchen to feed hungry guests. The upper floor is also home to a second bar – the Noddy Holder – in homage to friendships forged between the Slade member and the Open House crew in the past, which also features reclaimed fittings from the Windsor bar. Everywhere you look there is a bit of history to admire, and to spark memories, from the two old working juke boxes – one from the 1950s and another from the 1980s – to the very entrance of the Court House, with visitors entering via Bank Street, the lane to the left of the venue. People will enter through a very tall, fortified security door, a vestige of the Troubles which has been retained for posterity, bringing visitors on a journey back in time to Northern Ireland’s not-so-distant past when sangars and security measures were a daily consideration for the judiciary who ran the courts. Beyond the formidable entrance though, the Open House team hope the finished package will bring only smiles to the faces of clientele. Kieran Gilmore, Open House Director, can’t wait to welcome everyone on in. “It has taken us seven long years and a great deal of trial and error to get to this stage,” he said. “We’ve had support and help from so many individuals and organisations along the way – too numerous to mention. But we want to thank every single person who has played their part in making this project a reality, and in bringing the Court House to life. “As the third largest city in Northern Ireland, Bangor needs and deserves a dedicated music and arts venue. We’re looking forward to developing an exciting year-round programme of events, and working with other local businesses and creatives to draw new audiences into the city centre. “We hope this is the start of a new era for Bangor, with arts-led regeneration right at the fore,” he said. North Down MLA, Stephen Dunne, also got a sneak preview of the Court House alongside Economy Minister Gordon Lyons. “Bangor has proven itself as a fantastic venue for events as we seen most recently with the very successful Snow Patrol concert, and the addition of this new impressive Court House adds to exciting mix of venues on offer,” said Mr Dunne. Open House is a registered charity and run on a not-for-profit basis, with funding secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Department for Communities, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Arts Council NI, Ards and North Down Council, the Foyle Foundation, Swire Charitable Trust, Ulster Architectural Fund, Esme Mitchell Trust, Ulster Garden Villages, crowdfunding and donations.