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by Len Ball

First published 9th May 2022

The population of Comber has mushroomed in recent years. The current figure is around 10,500, and seems set to continue rising if the house building schemes we are witnessing at present are anything to go by! ‘Pirrie Manor’ on the Ballygowan Road beside the Clattering Ford is nearing completion; a large project is underway on the Killinchy Road called ‘Ashgrove’, and a massive housing construction operation named ‘Enler Village’ is progressing around a large area of Cherryvalley off the Newtownards Road envisaging the completion of many hundreds of houses! And lastly, the latest news is the plan to build further housing over the hill between Ardara and Dalton in the area between Ballygowan Road and Glen Road. At this rate of going Comber might get ‘city’ status before very long!
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Back gardens of Straiddorn Green  and Dullisk Way 1960's.jpg

Back garden of Straddon Green and Dullisk way 1960's

Block 38-48 Darragh Road 1991.jpg

Block 38-48 Darragh Road 1991.

These aforementioned programmes are following on from a host of other estates around Comber such as ‘Dermott’ and ‘Copeland’ both established in the 1960’s, followed by ‘Linley and Longlands’, ‘Carnesure’, ‘Heathermount’, ‘Cuttles Ridge’, ‘Castle Hill’, ‘Laburnum’, ‘Moorfield’, ‘Ballyhenry Manor’ and so on through the years to name just a few. Even earlier, the ’McCormick, estate on the Newtownards Road is worth a mention as it was constructed in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, the streets being named after the royal family. This estate is now seventy years old and still going strong!

Demolition on Darragh Road 1987.jpg

Demolition on Darragh Road 1987.

However, the daddy of all the estates and the one to start the ball rolling was even earlier in 1950 when the Northern Ireland Housing Executive rolled out the plan for Comber’s very first housing estate on Darragh Road. The work was carried out using an English firm by the name of ‘Orlit’ and so the Orlit Estate materialised between 1950 and 1952. It seems no time was wasted in developing the town directly following the closure of the ‘Belfast and County Down Railway’ in 1950, when our very own Comber Station was closed for good, and road usage and development was encouraged by the government from that time on. Yet look at the state our traffic management today! The Orlit estate was built in an area known in those days as the ‘back loney’ above the primary school – a rudimentary farm lane which led to various fields, and dwindling up as far as the Ballyhenry Road. As the estate took shape it was decided that the streets would be called after islands in Strangford lough, namely Darragh Road, Dunsy Way, Dullisk Way, Straidorn Green and Graffan gardens. They are all there if you look through a good map or a mariners chart of Strangford Lough.

Dullisk Way looking down hill 1993.jpg

Dullisk Way looking down hill 1993

The Orlit houses were assembled as cost effectively as possible at the time, with shuttered concrete inner cavity walls and thin outer white ‘terrylene’ block walls, Wire suspended ceilings hooked over concrete beams spanned the roof space, and modern concrete tiles covered the roof. Entries were designed to give rear access where necessary within the terraced blocks. The period was still in the cloudy mists of the post war era, where running hot and cold water, bathrooms with fitted flushing W.C.’s and all electric lighting was the new order of the day for all those tenants lucky enough to be allocated a spanking new Orlit house – and all at an average weekly rent of around 15 shillings (75 pence) rigorously collected at the door every week by ‘thon oul doll lookin’ the money’. You weren’t easily allowed to run into arrears! Good garden space was often provided, especially at the rear, and it was still the fashion after the lean war years to rely on a good yield of spuds and vegetables from the garden for the daily meals. Where gardens converged at the rear it was not unlike the old public scheme allotments, where neighbours could be seen deep in dialogue over a fence or hedge discussing the latest crop of beetroot or tomatoes, while huts, sheds and greenhouses were in abundance all around. The corncrake was still with us in Murdoch’s fields adjoining Dunsy Way, and discarded washboards and lead acid accumulator wirelesses were singing their swan-song dumped out in the back yards due to the emergence of washing machines and new modern mains and transistor radios. Your noisy metal dustbins were brought from round the back by the bin men and dumped in the lorry amid clouds of dust and ashes, and returned again to the back of the house - those were the days! On the down- side the Orlit houses were notoriously cold in winter time. There was no central heating in those days. Nor was there any such thing as double glazing, and often after a heavy frost there were sheets of ice to be seen forming on the inside of the bedroom window glazing and the steel frames. Brrrrr! Hot water bottles were a good nocturnal companion!

Dunsy Way derelict 1991.jpg

Dunsy Way derelect 1991.

And all the while for thirty five years the steel reinforcing rods in the concrete heads and beams were corroding and beginning to destroy the integrity of Orlit’s houses. By the mid 1980’s the decision was taken to replace Orlit with a completely new estate – albeit a very expensive decision, and tenants were re-housed while the old houses were bulldozed and new ones constructed. Thirty five years or so is not a very long life for what was assumed to be quality housing property, but ‘must do’ is a good master, and a protracted re-building project spanning a few years allowed the transfer of hundreds of tenants from the Orlits to the new replacement houses. By January 1996 the last tenants on the old estate, Billy Coulter and his wife, left Darragh Road to be re-sited in their new housing.

Dunsy Way. Old Orlits and new houses 1994.jpg

Dunsy Way Old Orlits and new houses 1994.

The replacement estate was in red brick, and quite different from the design and looks of the Orlits, and today these houses themselves are now around thirty five years old, and thankfully still going strong. The street names remain much the same, but just think of the changes we have witnessed since the first estates sprang up in Comber way back in the 1950’s. Television, plastics, space travel, mini skirts, the ‘pill’, decimalisation, computors and mobile phones etc have all materialised as stepping stones in the endeavour of mankind’s pleasures and progresses - and dare I say conveniences to make life easier? Yet today more than ever we are racing around like headless chickens with not enough days in the week to achieve our goals!

Straiddorn Green looking to the top  1991.jpg

Straiddorn Green looking to the top 1991.

The noise of building and construction has been reverberating around Comber since way back when the first estate was developed, and has been with us ever since, and today it’s continuing as strongly as ever. Gillespie in Comber Square perched on top of his fifty five foot column from 1845 must have enjoyed a reasonably quiet life for his first five years. Since then he would have experienced the sounds of the trains as they chuffed their way around the town to Newtownards from 1850, and later to Donaghadee and even Newcastle. For a hundred years he heard much the same sounds until the authorities, in their wisdom, decided to axe the railway and shove everything onto the roads. Gillespie, since then, would have listened to the incessant sounds of the construction industry, along with the inevitable burgeoning roar of traffic around The Square and the busy streets. It seems this is the music he will continue to hear well into the future! But what about all the extra traffic which the new housing estates will inevitably give rise to? How on earth is that going to be handled?
      Makes you wonder!

Wall Sign Dullisk Way 1991.jpg

Wall Sign Dullisk Way 1991.

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