GRAEME COUSINS speaks to an NI man who has made it his mission to tell the stories of the Province’s derelict properties
A Banbridge man has rediscovered his childhood sense of adventure and in the process gained a host of online followers.
He admits that entering derelict properties and taking pictures of their time-weathered contents may be viewed in a dim light by some and so to avoid unwanted attention he prefers to be known only as Michael for the purposes of this article.
“I’m just there to take photos, but by going into a property that once belonged to somebody or still does I can see how it’s a bit of a grey area,” he explained.
“There are no people living in the places I go into. I’ll try where I can to find out if anybody nearby owns the property. These places are almost always in a bad state of repair – broken windows, roofs and doors missing.
“If it’s somewhere that’s been left open you’re not breaking and entering and you’re not going in to commit a crime so you can’t be prosecuted for that either.
“You’re going in at your own risk. If you can’t get in you write it off and move on. Like I say it’s a grey area so I prefer to keep a low profile and let my pictures speak for themselves.”
Michael shares the photographs he takes via his Facebook and Instagram pages entitled Forgotten Places NI: “I respect people’s privacy and if I’m ever asked to take any photos down I do it straight away.
“I do it for the love of old buildings and their contents, it’s as simple as that. It’s a hobby and I don’t try to make any money from it.
“I had been taking photos for my own pleasure to start with but when I showed them to other people they said I needed to share them online because they were so good. That’s why I started up Forgotten Places NI.”
Michael’s photographs are posted with a short description of the property but little detail about the location unless it’s somewhere that’s easily recognisable.
He said he likes to keep his best finds to himself: “I know a couple of other guys who do this. There’s ones who take photographs and sell them. Mine is purely a hobby.
“I’ll get messages from other people asking where I’ve been. I don’t always tell them. It’s dog eat dog. It sounds stupid because there’s nothing to gain from it. It’s one-upmanship to find somewhere that no one else has posted about.
“I don’t get why people would exchange locations. I don’t see the point. It’s finding the places and not knowing what’s going to be inside that does it for me. If you go somewhere that’s already been documented it takes the excitement out of it.”
He said: “What I do I call it documenting. I go in take pictures and write a wee blurb about the place I’ve been.
“Sometimes it’s a property that’s got a ‘for sale’ sign at it. You’ll come back in three months and it’s gone, it’s been flattened for redevelopment. It’s sad because when you’re in it you get a real sense of the character of the house, the essence of it.”
Michael said he used to have a penchant for ghost hunting, but with his new pursuit he tries to steer clear of the paranormal: “I used to have a bit of a fascination with paranormal investigation, though I think it had more to do with the old buildings. I love walking round old places as you can pick up so much of the history from just walking around.
“I used to do a few paranormal investigations so that gave me an appreciation of old buildings, the character of them, just how different they are to the ones now.
“With Forgotten Places NI I don’t like to spook things up to be scarier than they are. That said, there’s a post I put up just this weekend about a house that I called the House of Ambivilence. It really did have mixed feeling about it.
“It looked lovely from the outside, a nice farmhouse. Downstairs had a nice calm atmosphere, but when you went upstairs, honestly, you wanted to get out again, something just didn’t sit. I felt uneasy about the atmosphere.
“That’s not generally the case, mostly you get a good feeling about the place because of the items you find in them – kids’ toys, religious pictures, birthday cards. It’s that connection I like.”
Michael’s photos are largely focused on derelict properties in NI but he has also ventured into the Republic of Ireland: “Banbridge is a good location to have as a base. I can be in the south in 20 minutes, quicker than to get to Belfast.
“For me it’s trying to find places that haven’t been documented. Everybody’s done Cairndhu (a derelict stately home near Larne) and because of its popularity it has been subject to vandalism. Nevertheless it’s a fascinating place. It doesn’t matter what people do to it.”
Michael, who has three children, said: “My daughter would come out with me from time to time for a wee spin. We’d trek up country roads to see if we can find any or maybe I’ll have some place marked to check out.
“I’ll maybe read around online about an area to see if there’s any stories relating to old mills, old schools. You can look at satellite images before you go. We’ll maybe have eight or 10 places marked.
“These places that I’m going into, people don’t even know they’re out there. There’s hundreds of them. I mark them on my Google Maps – there’s five or six hundred on there to explore.”
Michael said he has a bank of photos stored on his phone that he hasn’t shared yet: “If I didn’t go out for another three months I’d have enough to keep posting.
“Looking back at some of my older photos, they aren’t great. I think I’ve got better.
“In July or August I had 2,000 likes on the page, by December it had doubled, now I’m pushing towards 5,000.
“It’s amazing because I’m not doing anything with it, I’m just publishing photos with a small bit of a story, I’m not promoting it or trying to make money from it.”
Michael is quick to point out that he is not the first person to find beauty in the Province’s derelict properties. He said Abandonned NI set the benchmark for this sort of photography.
Michael said his obsession was a year-round one: “I’ll be out in winter as well as summer. In winter it’s good because the foilage dies back and you’re able to see things that would previously have been hidden. I remember once crawling through a hole and the hedge to find this property that you’d never know was there.”
Asked what led him to begin searching for old houses Michael said: “It was my son who got me started, it must have been about three or four years ago.
“He showed me this video on YouTube of a guy in America who was exploring this derelict mansion that used to belong to a drug dealer.
“It looked fantastic, all the broken windows and doors hanging off and the stuff that was left inside.
“My son said we should try to find something like that here. I said, ‘you’re not going to get something on that scale but we’ll have a look’.
“What we did was we went to Cairndhu which is near Larne. It’s pretty much where everybody that does this starts. It’s so well known, it’s such a tragic story of how it fell into such disrepair. It’s so vast. As soon as I got in I was hooked.”
Cairndhu which was built around 1875 is the former home of Sir Thomas Dixon. It became a convalescent home before it was closed in 1986.
Michael said: “There are people on social media who tell me about a derelict house near to them, sometimes it can be just a shell. For me that’s not that interesting. “What I find interesting is somewhere that has personal possessions still inside. It could be furniture, it could be letters, there’s houses you go into and you’d think people had just walked out and left everything still in it.
Michael said his passion was driven more by what people had left behind inside the properties rather than the buildings themselves.
He commented: “Some people would look at a man in his forties out exploring the country like this as stupid, but for me it’s just that sense of adventure.
“It’s good to be out and about. It’s a healthy interest and no one is harmed.
“It’s like how you feel when you’re a kid when you go out exploring.
“I’m not sure I was even this adventurous as a kid. Maybe I’m making up for it now.
“It’s that excitement of the unknown, that danger of not knowing what you’re going to find. That’s why I do it.
“It’s those wee unassuming houses that look like nothing and you go in and they’re just filled with stuff. You find out all about the owners, the life that they led.”
Discussing some of the remnants of the past he has uncovered, Michael said: “You see so many of the old Singer sewing machines.
“There was one house where I found the shell of a Mk II Jag. I found an old ambulance as well.
“For me the best finds are the wee personal things like a Valentine’s card or a kid’s note that says ‘mummy has been mean to me and daddy’ – you’re hoping that was just a wee fleeting moment.”
He continued: “I try to capture those items as they sit to tell the story of the house.
“I take the photos on my phone, maybe I’ll upgrade to a fancy camera someday though photographers will tell you it doesn’t matter what you use, it’s your eye for a photo.
“People say to me they can imagine a story around my posts. In my wee blurb I’ll not give the location away unless it’s a well known building. I’ll just describe it a wee bit as best I can and let the pictures tell the story.”
Offering suggestions as to why houses end up derelict yet full of possessions, he said: “A lot of the time you’ll get an elderly person who will pass away, they may have nobody to leave it to or they may leave it to the family and they can’t agree what to do with it so it just sits.
“Sometimes you get people who buy the property for the adjoining land but don’t knock down the original property.”