It’s one of those questions you’ll get asked countless times in your life. And the answer, of course, depends on who is asking.
If I’m abroad I’ll say Northern Ireland. But if the interviewer is struggling with that concept I’ll settle for Ireland.
If it’s someone closer to home I might say County Antrim, or north Antrim if they have some local knowledge.
But if I’m being asked by a native, with that inherent Ulster desire to know where and who you belong to, then it becomes a little bit more complicated.
I could justifiably claim to be from Ballymena. I was born and spent the first few months of my life there. But I’ve barely been back since, don’t know it well and feel no real bond.
Often I’ll settle for saying I’m from Ballycastle, the pretty little coastal town where I spent some of my teenage years. But it was always hard-wired into my psyche when I went to school there that kids from Ballycastle were townies and I was a country boy. It was a them and us thing.
Actually the place where I’ve lived for the longest period of my life is Belfast. I moved to the city as a timid student at 18 just weeks before the Shankill bombing and didn’t leave for almost two decades. At different times I’ve had homes in the south, east and north but never overcame the feeling of being an outsider. I didn’t lose my culchie brogue and I don’t want to.
If I’m from anywhere, and if it even matters at all, then I’m from Ballinlea.
The problem is when I share that name, I’m generally met with a quizzical look and the inevitable ‘where?’ Even when I tell people from north Antrim where I’m from they usually don’t know it.
So where is Ballinlea?
Well just a few miles south of Clare Forest in County Antrim, there is a flat area where a crossroads is surrounded by fields on a bleak landscape. I grew up calling it the Ballinlea Cross.
It’s an in-between place, an intersection where the roads to four locations collide.
There’s the windy road to Ballycastle, where I remember my Ma spinning her wee car on the icy surface before I was old enough to know that was a bad thing.
There’s the bumpy road which heads straight for the stunning rocky coast near Ballintoy, the panoramic sands at White Park Bay and the wonderfully named Lisnagunogue (which the spell checker on my computer refuses to believe is a word).
There’s the long straight Straid Road which stretches in the direction of the smoky cottages at Bushmills, Dunseverick and the the Giant’s Causeway.
And then there’s the road where I grew up. The snaking Ballinlea Road from which you can travel away from the Cross in the general direction of a myriad of small local villages including Armoy, Stranocum, Mosside, Dervock and Liscolman.
So Ballinlea is not a town, it’s not a village or even a hamlet. It’s barely a place at all. If I Google it I find the area referred to as a townland. I’m not sure what that means.
But it does have its own residents’ association, so presumably the people who live there must feel some sense of commonality.
There used to be a little petrol station just off the crossroads. If I had the money I would buy a penny chew there as I walked home after getting off the school bus. The business closed 30 years ago.
Travel further up the Ballinlea Road and the shell of a tiny one-room school is still there, partially restored and preserved as a museum. Its doors closed many years before I was born but my da had an education of sorts there. The school could cater for maybe a dozen children and Catholics and Protestants sat together.
Beside it is a small white chapel. The last time I was in there was for my granny’s funeral, about 15 years ago.
Across the road is the parochial house, an imposing, dark and crumbling edifice. Ballinlea was, and I assume still is, part of the same Catholic parish as Ballintoy.
Beside the priest’s house is a small, overgrown graveyard. With its crooked and cracked headstones and roughly hewn crosses it’s like something out of a gothic horror novel.
Many members of my family are buried there, including my grandfather who had the same name as my son.
Further up the road is a doctor’s surgery. When I was growing up it was small cottage operation. One doctor lived on site and there were no other staff that I remember. He examined and diagnosed you before going into a little room at the back and returning with a bottle of medicine which was always pink, no matter your ailment.
This was my puerile understanding of how doctors’ worked. It was only much later when I moved to Ballycastle that I understood that there was such a thing as a prescription which you had to take to the chemist.
Today the surgery is very different. It’s a large modern health facility called The Country Medical Centre. According to its website there are five doctors registered there and a large team of nurses and admin staff.
The name Ballinlea comes from the Irish Baile an Leagha, which means town of the physician, so I suppose this is a fitting progression.
Just past the surgery there is a handsome and sturdy old stone bridge locally known as The Dry Arch. Beyond this the road stretches on to the village of Stranocum and towards Ballymoney.
About halfway between the Cross and the Dry Arch there is a long, thin rocky lane, pocked by puddle holes and violated on both sides by wild briers. My granny lived at the bottom of it. Past her house and the lane crawls up a hill before splitting in two.
To the left is Listen Lane where old Spence lived alone in his little cottage without electricity until the end of his life.
To the right is a shorter passage which takes you to a little clearing and a small hill. My great aunt Rosina lived in a stone building with my da at the bottom of this mound. One of the earliest memories of my life is scavenging through the old derelict house and finding a tiny black crucifix which I kept for several years.
My da flattened the house with a digger while I was a small boy and all that remains today is a rusty old pump from where Rosina once drew her water.
My family lived for a time in a caravan beside the old cottage while our new home was being built. I think I have a memory of spending one of my first Christmases in that caravan huddled around a little portable black and white TV.
Then the following spring we moved into our new house on top of the little hill. Number 71 Ballinlea Road, a striking red brick bungalow designed and built by my da.
It was remote. I often had to walk a couple of miles in the dark just to get the school bus.
My da had to fight against BT who thought it was too isolated to be linked to the phone network.
Our electricity failed often. One winter day we woke up to find that the snow was lying higher than the top of the front door. With freezing, sore fingers and runny noses my da, brother and I dug out the wee grey Massey tractor and then drove it over the top of the snow to Ballycastle to get vital supplies.
My older brother and I grew up running through the fields, climbing trees and voraciously reading comics.
We had a dog. When it died we got another. When it disappeared we got another.
My granny at the bottom of the lane kept cats and hens. We had a couple of ponies and an old unfriendly goat which seemed to go mad at the end of his life and started drinking his own piss and trying to eat his own leg. We put him out of his misery.
It was my job to walk to the end of the lane to pick up the milk bottles. The shiny silver caps were usually pecked into pieces by the hungry crows who wanted the cream.
And that was the life we knew. Nothing remarkable for the time. An anonymous existence in an anonymous place.
And I spent years trying to explain to bemused people from Belfast and further afield just where Ballinlea was.
It was the place that nobody had ever heard of. There was no reason to hear of it.
But then, just a few years back, things changed.
Now, if someone asks where I’m from I don’t have to expend the energy anymore.
I can simply say, ‘Oh, just up the road from the Dark Hedges.’
The Dark Hedges. Ah, now you’re interested.
Suddenly you know exactly where I mean. Part Ballinlea Road. Part Westeros.
Just in case there is anyone out there not familiar, the Dark Hedges are two rows of ancient knobbly grey-green beech trees on either side of a thin road. They slope towards each other, as if reaching out for comfort. At the tops the thin branches cross like spindly fingers locked together, forming an arch which blocks out the sunlight, creating something almost sinister and disturbingly beautiful.
The trees have featured in the HBO television series Game of Thrones. A programme I’ve never watched but which has had a huge beneficial impact on the local economy.
I grew up about three miles from the Dark Hedges. Straight up the Ballinlea Road and turn left onto Bregagh Road.
I’ve got a friend who lived even closer. I used to stay at her house on weekends, just a few hundred yards from the trees.
The Dark Hedges are big business now. Bringing in visitors from all over the world to gaze at the haunting natural formations.
But it wasn’t until recently, when I was having lunch in Belfast, that I realised how important they are to some people.
I was halfway through my duck ravioli when an excitable American woman burst into the restaurant. She was just off a cruise ship. She had a few hours on land before it sailed away again.
And she had to see the Dark Hedges.
The poor waiter who she had accosted was Polish and hadn’t a clue what she was on about, so I stepped in. I told her where they were. She wanted to know the fastest way to get there, stressing that money wasn’t an issue. I gave her the number of a taxi company and she ran off.
I hope she enjoyed the spectacle. I hope she made it back in time.
The trees are in the news regularly these days with stories about the lack of signage and facilities, damage caused by weather or the little Bregagh Road being closed to cars.
More loftily there’s usually a nonsense story knocking around about how it’s been voted one of the top 10 most beautiful places on earth or one of the 20 places you won’t believe actually exist.
But it wasn’t always like this.
No, until Game of Thrones came to the Ballinlea Road the Dark Hedges were about as much a tourist attraction as the chilblains on my toes.
There’s a long list of places in County Antrim which have marketed themselves as places to visit for travellers. Torr Head, Glenariffe Forest Park, Cushendun, Cushendall, Ballycastle, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Ballintoy harbour, White Park Bay, Bushmills distillery, the Giant’s Causeway, Portballintrae, White Rocks beach, Portrush.
But I never remember the Dark Hedges being listed among them. There was never a visitors’ centre, a car park, not even a road sign.
There’s an old quote attributed to Samuel Johnson about the Giant’s Causeway. Asked by James Boswell if the causeway was worth seeing he is supposed to have said, ‘Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.’
This could have been adapted for the Dark Hedges. Worth seeing? Yes, but only if you can flipping well find them.
The huge old leaning trees which once framed the Frocess Road were much better known.
Until the last few years I never met a single person who was not from the immediate area who was aware the Dark Hedges even existed. Indeed there were many from the area who were unaware of them.
And not all who were aware were impressed. For years farmers who had to struggle with getting tractors and trailers up and down the route grumbled that the rotting old trees should have been bulldozed long ago.
I was only vaguely aware of their existence myself in my early years and I was a young adult before I truly appreciated their eerie grey elegance.
When I lived in Belfast I would sometimes bring friends north, and I always included the Dark Hedges in the trip. I showed them to my wife, and others several years before the TV cameras arrived. The reactions were always the same. ‘This is stunning’ and ‘How come we’ve never heard of this place before?’
Things are changing, but slowly. There’s now a road sign to help confused visitors. Cars have finally, many years too late, been banned from the road.
Can you imagine any other significant tourist attraction anywhere in the world where vehicles are allowed to drive right through the middle of it? Would cars be allowed to three-point turn in the middle of Stonehenge, giving one of the stones a little nudge as they go?
Opened in recent years is a rather strange, soulless hotel on the Ballinlea Road, just yards from the trees.
But the overwhelming feeling you still get when you visit the site is that there’s not much there. Very little has been done to capitalise economically on the trees’ popularity. This will undoubtedly change over the years and the location will probably be poorer for it.
Presumably it’s only a matter of time before someone opens a shop nearby, selling sticks of rock, T-shirts and replicas of whatever creatures inhabit the Game of Thrones world.
When this happens it will be closing a circle.
Because, and I have to assume this is a fact known by very few people alive on this planet, there was a shop at the Dark Hedges before.
It was quite a few years back and it was run by a relative of mine.
Rosetta McCambridge was my grandfather’s aunt. Which I suppose makes her my great great aunt, if there is such a thing (note; great great aunt Rosetta should not be confused with great aunt Rosina who appeared earlier in this story).
Her tiny shop was at the end of the Bregagh Road, where it meets the Ballykenver Road, just yards from the famous trees. Planning laws wouldn’t allow a shop there today because someone sitting in an office would deem it to be on the sight-line at the corner of the road.
If this seems like a very remote location for a shop then consider that in past decades, long before supermarkets, these little stores were dotted all over the country, helping to feed their communities.
The shop sold sweets, cigarettes and basic foods. It probably opened sometime in the 1930s and was in business for years. Rosetta lived in the same building and never married. Apparently she lived a long life and kept the shop open until near the end when she was incapacitated after a fall.
The shop then closed and went to ruin. The building was never knocked down, it just fell apart over the years. The stones were probably commandeered from time to time by local farmers to patch holes in walls or barns. It’s just a pile of overgrown grass today.
But I remember the shop. The sweetie counter. A kindly old woman pushing chocolates onto me and my brother. The stone unplastered walls and the slate roof. The smell of cigarettes.
It’s a lovely memory. A great link with my own family history and a way of life that is being rapidly forgotten. A great tale to tell people who are interested in the story of the Dark Hedges.
Except it almost certainly isn’t true. The maths just don’t add up.
Rosetta McCambridge was born in 1881. I’m not sure when she died. I was born in December of 1974. At the very earliest, for me to have a memory of her and the shop, the visit would have had to have occurred in 1977 or 1978.
By then my great great aunt would have been about 96 or 97. People were hardier in those times but it’s surely fanciful to think that she could still have been running the little shop on her own at such an advanced age. It’s much more likely that the shop closed years before I was born.
But the memory of a shop run by an aunt of my Da where my brother and I got sweets is fresher in my mind than any recollection of what I had for breakfast this morning.
My da would have told me the story of the shop when I was an infant. There were several other similar little shops still around which I would have visited. It seems my brain has simply written its own narrative. If the pieces don’t quite fit, the memory just makes up the best story it can. Well, mine does anyway.
But regardless of my confusion, there was a shop at the Dark Hedges for many decades. Long before the visitors came.
I suppose I should dedicate this story to great great aunt Rosetta, who I almost certainly never met. If she was alive and had her wee shop there today she’d be a bloody millionaire.