History and beauty in prospering Ballymena

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AT the end of my 30-minute drive from Belfast, a large notice on a roundabout hails Ballymena as 'The City of the Seven Towers'. This is an endearing exaggeration. Ballymena has three towers, and is a town, not a city. My expedition will reveal the faulty towers, a nuclear bunker, Sodom, and a 'weefla'! Immediately after the roundabout I detect industry and prosperity, which Alison Moore had briefed me about.

As president of the borough’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, formed in 1919, Alison is proud of her town’s resident manufacturers and cited some big brands; Michelin Tyres, Gallaghers, O’Kane Poultry and Wrightbus.

“They’re all Chamber members,” she said, “and we’re delighted to see the multiples coming in, making a unique blend with family-owned businesses. We get support from them, and from the banks, right across the board.”

Negotiating more roundabouts, I park in an architectural tower-de-force. Fair Hill car park and shopping centre is an appropriate name for a farming/market town variously spelt ‘bally’ (town) ‘mena’ (middle), built on the middle of Co Antrim’s most central mound. The exact centre-point was marked by a stone, long gone. Today half of the 200 square-mile borough’s 60,000 inhabitants live in Ballymena.

It nestles in the hub of picture postcard countryside, beside the rivers Braid, Kellswater, and Cloughwater, near the Maine, Bann and Lough Neagh. My first impression is of industry and commerce coexisting genially with quaintness and charm, exemplified by a visitors’ information notice advertising hotels, restaurants, and ‘pre cast concrete products’.

“I have the pleasure of living in the best provincial town in Northern Ireland,” said Stephen Reynolds, owner of The Front Page hostelry, and past president of the Federation of the Retailed Licensed Trade, Northern Ireland.

“We’ve a great selection of traditional pubs offering food, entertainment, tea and coffee, and a wealth of restaurants. We have the capacity to be a city.”

Steven Montgomery, businessman, farmer and Co Antrim’s High Sheriff, guides me into a shop, with a hearty “Good morning!” to the mother of rugby icon David Humphreys. Fellow shop-owner Thomas McKillen and Steven are enthusiastic members of the Ballymena Town Centre Partnership. Meeting every two months, and with focused sub-committees, the six-year-old Partnership’s two dozen members are drawn from the council, PSNI, DRD, Chamber of Commerce, DSD, shopkeepers, and other town-centred representatives.

“We’re convinced that Ballymena is Northern Ireland’s best shopping and retail destination,” Thomas began, “and we’ve a great mix of multinationals and local independent retailers.” Steven continued: “We’re unique, with so many good stores still owned by families.”

The Partnership’s priority is “the good of the town”, added Thomas. They’re bidding for BID, “to become part of the Business Improvement District group,” explained Steven. I garnish some statistics: 100,000 people a week through their town centre, ‘leakage’ is low (only 3-4 per cent of local people shop elsewhere; some Ulster towns quadruple those figures), and there are over 5,000 car parking spaces.

“We’ve three centres within walking distance,” Thomas summarised “two shopping centres and a town centre.” Testing his trio I strolled back to Fair Hill, then on to the Tower Centre, collectively about a hundred shops, restaurants, leading High Street names and local independents, everything, in soaring arcades. Shoppers’ paradise extended along the streets.

Peeping birds have superseded pealing bells around the Old Parish Tower (1723). Two rows of gnarled tree trunks are its aisles. Moss-swathed stone crosses stand over a silent congregation of leaning gravestones. Rusted wrought iron railings cast shadows across their tombs, rich with history.

“People come to Ballymena for a bargain,” said Mrs. Anne Donaghy, a few seconds after I walked into her office, “you’ll not meet any better traders, they know how to treat their customers.” Town Clerk and Chief Executive Anne Donaghy defined Ballymena’s qualities - “Our unique ‘boutique style’ of shop makes us so different. The key ingredient is that we have a passion for our town,” Mrs Donaghy added, “people are proud here, proud of where they live.” I admitted that Ballymena was larger than I’d expected. “In terms of shopping we’re the biggest town in Northern Ireland,” she replied, stressing the Council’s focus on “protecting the jobs we have while working hard to attract public sector jobs”. Regarding education “we’ve some of the best schools in Northern Ireland in this borough. Education is more than ‘A’ Levels, it’s about turning out good citizens.”

Anne, with Assistant Director of Development, Leisure and Cultural Services, prioritised more local accolades; the “state-of-the-art award winning Braid centre”; the town’s recent ‘Divine Inspiration’ touring exhibition, celebrating faith, locally and globally “we were the first outside Dublin to get it”; the multi-visionary Town Centre Master Plan “it’s for the next 20 years and it’s already begun”, said Aidan, and Anne praised the inter-ethnic forum “which is helping to build a rich, diverse culture.”

They’re working hard expanding tourism, and coordinating closely with the Town Centre Partnership “developing shopping and other facilities”.

Aidan directed me to Jayne Clarke, Museums Officer and Curator in the Braid Centre, “opened in May 2008 by Charles and Camilla”, she said. Its soaring glass facade, with galleries and high walkways, is extended with spectacular architectural aplomb from the older Townhall (1928) housing “the flagship museum for mid-Antrim, with permanent and changing exhibitions,” Jayne explained.

Year one brought 100,000 visitors. “We’re keen to explore identity here and our collections reflect that. We try to be imaginative in our approach,” said Jayne. The Braid’s visual ‘Time Line’ charts Ballymena from 435 AD and St Patrick, set against world events, from the Black Death (1347), to the Boston Tea Party (1773), to the Belfast/ Ballymena railway (1848), to Ballymena United’s Irish Cup (1940).

Another time line, from the Braid’s BBC studio, carries Ballymena’s latest news to Belfast, and into Northern Ireland’s living rooms. The town is well connected, in every sense. Beyond the sensitively designed lines of factory roofs are the remote slopes of the grassy Antrim hills, rising over 1,400 feet to the smooth-contoured points of Carncormick and Slemish, last week exquisitely wrapped with snow. If enslaved shepherd-boy St Patrick had still been there, I thought, his sheep may safely freeze!

Ballymena Borough encompasses Ahoghill, Broughshane, Cullybackey, Portglenone and several villages and hamlets. Tourists have discovered its rural intrigue, and with the Causeway Coast only a Finn’s throw away, the town ranks within the top 10 in Northern Ireland’s tourism revenue charts.

There are four hotels, 21 B&Bs, and collectively, over 30 cottages, self-catering units and houses. Altogether that’s 272 rooms, or 577 beds, depending on you attitude to these matters. In 2005 Ballymena counted 72,000 tourist trips and an 11 million tourism spend. Stella Grant, manager of the 44-room Adair Arms Hotel (Ballymena was built on land given to the Adair family by King Charles 1st in 1626) has already taken summer bookings for 15 bus tours, three quarters from afar. It’s the only in-town hotel; on the outskirts are the Tullyglass, the Leighinmohr and the Galgorm Resort and Spa. With substantial refurbishment imminent, Stella is positive about their future.

“It’s Ballymena that brings the people into the town,” she said. “People come here to stay, and to go shopping.”

People also go to the Ecos environmental centre and discover that the sun’s outer surface fluctuates up and down by 25 Km every five minutes! People go to Arthur Cottage, the ancestral home of Alan Arthur, 21st USA President, and to 200-year-old Gracehill, Ireland’s only Moravian settlement, and to the Seven Towers Leisure Centre where acting manager Terry Diamond and his 15 staff members offer a wide range of wet, sweat and dry facilities in one of Northern Ireland’s biggest leisure centres. Fitness is the focus; after-school Kiddiwinks, Fit Families (available on prescription via GP referral) and Armchair Aerobics for the over-50s.

Whether spectator, participator, or both, there’s Ballymena United Football Club, whose first competitive game on 20th August 1928, watched by a packed Ballymena Showgrounds, was against Belfast Celtic. Their first match programme was issued in 1929. Today’s stadium, opened in 2002, seats 1,856 spectators. All Saints GAC has its roots in the 1920s, when it was known as The McCrackens. Ballymena RFC was first affiliated to the Northern branch of IRFU in 1887, but the today’s Club began in 1922.

Galgorm Castle Golf Club’s championship course is overlooked by a castle built in 1618 by Sir Faithful Fortescue. Ballymena Golf Club’s 5,798-yard course boasts several demanding par threes and well-bunkered greens. “They could use the nuclear bunker for golf!” quips Sybil Adams. Husband Jack Adams, historian, author, photographer, pensioner and radio D.J. has been telling me about a nearby “grassy bump in the ground” with a thick steel door, Ulster’s only nuclear bunker. There’s apparently room in it for 300 government officials. All underground.

Behind a big locked door. Nice concept! Jack supplied the bulk of my historical and geographical information, and photographs, and when I queried, un-theologically, “What sort of churches are here?” he replied, “you name them, we’ve got them!” adding, “It’s a predominantly Presbyterian borough.” Jack told me about the four missing towers, originally on the First Presbyterian Church, on the Castle, the old Town Hall and the Mill. Harryville, a former mill workers’ district with an Anglo-Norman Motte and Bailey, was nicknamed ‘Sodom’. The remaining three towers are the old Parish, All Saints RC and St Patrick’s C of I. Saint Patrick’s footprint is on a Broughshane boulder. Allegedly.