For a site that purports to be, in part, a travel blog, it might seem odd to begin with a reflection on my home village of Broughshane. But, as the place I’ve been proud to call home for the last twenty years, apart from long intervals spent living in Belfast and Glasgow, it’s somewhere that’s very close to my heart, and therefore a place I’d like to talk about.
Broughshane is often described as the Gateway to Slemish, and that’s exactly what the village has always felt like to me: a gateway. Whether to the backroads that lead to Larne (where my Dad’s side of the family live), the roads heading to Carnlough and the North Coast, the Knockan Road leading to Glenravel and the country origins of my mum’s side, or the carriageways into Ballymena or towards Antrim, Belfast and Coleraine, Broughshane has always felt like a connecting bridge to all the other elements of my life. One of the newest additions to the village, the Barista coffee shop, rests right at the Knockan Road junction, and this feels, to me, like an appropriate microcosm of what the whole place represents.
During a recent breathing and relaxation exercise, I was encouraged to picture somewhere that made me feel peaceful, whose memory brought me a sense of happiness and calm. My first instinct was to imagine my time in Lake Garda during a family holiday back in 2010, to this day probably the best holiday I’ve ever been on. But to my surprise, I found another image interrupting and cutting into this memory, like a television set switching from one channel to another: and it was an image of Broughshane.
Specifically, Broughshane at sunset, one of the times of day I seem to find myself in the village most often. Many Saturday evenings have been spent making the fifteen-minute walk from my house to the local Hot Cha (formerly Happy Villa) Chinese takeaway, and it’s a routine I still like to keep up whenever I’m back home- there’s just something more psychologically rewarding, even in this age of Just Eat and internet orders, about making the trip on foot to collect your favourite food order, than simply waiting for a delivery driver to turn up at the door. And on the odd occasion we aren’t in the mood for a weekend helping of Honey Chilli Beef, Duck and Orange Sauce, or, in my Mum’s case, King Prawn Curry, it’s a short trip across the street from Hot Cha to the village chippie, The Fish Bowl. I can never really look at The Fish Bowl without thinking about childhood drives back from Carnlough on a Sunday evening, popping in for a fish or sausage supper to bring back to the house.
Another guaranteed stop on the way home from the coast was always the village sweet shop, for a Pick n’ Mix or some variety of chocolate bar that contained caramel: even now a borderline addictive substance for me. I’ve been especially pleased to see the sweet shop survive the economic uncertainties of recent years, albeit now brought under the banner of local Ballymena newsagent business McGroggan’s. There’s something about the charm of an individual sweet shop that’s hard to replicate in supermarkets or brand convenience stores.
Boasting their own individual charm are local butcher’s and fruit-and-vegetable shop McAllister’s and Devlin’s, the staff of the former in particular unfailingly friendly whenever I pop in for an order of vegetable roll or pork sausages. Right in the heart of the main street, they’re a welcome and clear sign of the surviving character of the village, particularly at a time when so much of the world is becoming corporate and globalised. I can remember being asked to go to McAllister’s for meats for the Saturday morning fry-up since I was little, and I hope I’m able to continue that tradition for a long time to come.
Also flying the flag for successful local business is James McNeill’s hardware store, towards the far end of the village, a shop that has often solved the frustration of a bedroom light with an annoyingly frequent tendency to pop its bulbs over the last twenty years. And of course, no coverage of local enterprises would be complete without a mention of the village pub, the Thatch, a drinking spot pretty much as cosy as its name would suggest, and a nice alternative to the sometimes volatile nightlife of Ballymena.
Not that I’m averse to using brand stores or businesses when I need to, and sometimes popping to the local VIVO or Spar is as handy as anything without having to walk into the village itself, with VIVO in particular affording the old-fashioned, but sometimes nicer, option of renting a DVD for the night rather than just switching on Netflix (although it’s sometimes hard to walk into that shop without feeling partial embarrassment at having once handed over my phone number to a good-looking shop assistant among my change- I say partial because I did actually get called back).
Away from the main shopping street, Broughshane is home to some great walks, and it’s places like the Buttermilk Bridge that contribute to its deserved, and frequent, prizes and awards for best-kept village. Stretching from halfway down the Knockan Road, right around the back of the village and exiting at the top end, and now containing a nicely-kept bird sanctuary, the walk has been a Sunday favourite in my family since my brother and I were kids, particularly suitable for burning off Sunday dinners, and, in more recent times, and on a very personal note, the site of a lot of early emotional bonding in my most serious relationship to date. By the time you emerge back out into the main street, you feel the obligatory ice cream from McGroggan’s is well-earned.
Sadly, not all the spots that have meant something to me about Broughshane have survived intact. The Tullymore Hotel was a particular favourite haunt for my family on Sunday afternoons, its gargantuan gardens providing what felt like an epic playing area for me and my brother when we were little, from chasing one another, to stick sword fights, to just generally being kids. But for a few years now, the site has been occupied by new housing developments- no doubt welcome income and additions to the village community, but it’s a shame to have lost Tullymore- it really was the site of a lot of good memories.
More recently, there’s been a sense of foreboding for both Broughshane and Ballymena with the announced closure of Michelin tyre factory, its plant situated halfway between the town and village having been a bastion of the local economy for years. The impact of its loss is much dreaded, and together with the closure of Gallaher’s cigarette factory, throws much about the area’s future into serious doubt.
However, call me an optimist, but I believe Broughshane will be fine. Money and the economy only make up part of the whole story of an area, and, along with the local businesses already mentioned, the stubborn survival of Broughshane Library, tiny as it is, against many threats of closure, and albeit only open three days a week now, stands as a defiant gesture to these uncertain times that some things are meant to endure. For all I know, I may be lamenting the Library’s sad closure in years to come, but whether this proves to be the case or not, I think, for now, it represents a symbol: that local village life will never wholly be eclipsed by a globalised world and the excitement of bigger towns and cities. If nothing else, its tourist appeal as the ‘Gateway to Slemish’ will always be a geographical certainty, and having spent many an excited St. Patrick’s Day climbing said mountain in honour of Ireland’s patron saint, I believe I can say with confidence that the joy of that particular expedition will always be a draw to people.
Broughshane is a village I’ve been very happy to call home since I was six years old. It has a quiet charm and a well of memories for me that nowhere else in my life can boast in quite the same way. Even if I’m spending a lot of time in other places these days, it’s somewhere I hope to always be able to return to for many years to come.