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A Very Festive Tour of Belfast

A Very Festive Tour of Belfast

Belfast is a cracker city any time of year but it really comes alive during the Christmas season. The streets are aglow with decorations, the Christmas market cabins (and the people) are crammed side by side in the City Hall gardens and the pubs are full of festive-clad punters singing “Fairytale of New York” at the top of their lungs.

It’s a magical city to stroll through because every inch of the city is sprinkled with Christmas cheer – even the tiniest alleyways are decorated which makes it an ideal place to get a bit lost, even if you’re a local like me! I took myself on a festive tour a few days ago with just my camera and allowed myself to get caught up in the spirit of things. I took so many photos I thought I had to share them just in case you’d like to get a bit carried away too.

I’ve listed my favourite festive spots but if you think I’ve missed any gems make sure to tell me in the comments!

City Hall

I know City Hall isn’t exactly a secret what with the Christmas markets right outside but have you ever been inside? They have the most beautiful Christmas tree and there’s tours that can take you round the whole building if you fancied having a nosy. The staff are super friendly too – Gaz, one of the security guards had to get in on a selfie when he saw me snapping!

Christmas Markets

The markets can be really crowded on the weekends so my tip is to go early or, if you’re able to, head during the day on a weekday. It’s a beautiful place when it’s quieter mostly because you’re able to walk at a normal speed and because they’re quite small, it only takes a wee while to enjoy them.

There are plenty of photo opportunities too. The most popular place to capture the Helter Skelter is at the entrance to Patterson’s Place – you haven’t been to the markets unless you get this photo!

Margot

Margot is a relatively new bar on the block having just opened earlier this year but it’s already established itself as one of the cosiest bars in the city. Not satisfied with providing just a regular spot for a festive pint, the bar has gone all out on the Christmas decorations making it an essential visit this season. The Georgian buildings have been dressed to the nines outside and inside you can find a beautiful candle-lit fireplace and Christmas tree sparkling in the corner – very merry indeed!

St. George’s Market

St. George’s is on every Belfast tourist guide but at Christmas it’s an extra special place to visit. The decorations, music and lights bring the festive joy but the vendors are who bring the spirit. It’s a perfect spot to wander on a weekend morning with a toasty cup of mulled wine and at Christmas it is the best place to snap up presents from local businesses.

Revolución de Cuba

A popular watering hole for the city workers, Revolución de Cuba has really went for the festive decorations this year. They’ve kept the disco balls up and at night it sparkles and shines so much it almost feels like you’re inside a bauble – a bit trippy when you’ve tried a few of their cocktails!

Joy’s Entry

An historic thoroughfare, Joy’s Entry had been derelict for decades throughout the Troubles but now it’s one of the most colourful alleyways in the city. Each season the owners of The Jailhouse bar decorate the entry and this Christmas has been no exception with nearly every inch of the alleyway covered in beautiful boughs and bows. The music from the bar is played outside too so it’s hard not to feel happy if you decide to take a detour through there.

Henry’s / Jailhouse

Well, if you’re going through Joy’s Entry you might as well call in to the two sister pubs that are adjoined in the alleyway. Inside is just as beautiful as outside and if you’re brave enough, you can enjoy a drink on the terrace on the second floor.

Merchant Hotel

Of course the fanciest hotel in the city would have the fanciest facade and the facade of the Merchant is a real thing to behold this time of year. A Christmas in Belfast calls for a festive tipple in either The Great Room or The Cocktail Bar, each beautifully decorated and each as fancy as the next. ‘Tis the season!

Cathedral Quarter

The whole Cathedral Quarter is the merriest corner of Belfast and not just because it’s where the best pubs are! Every street is lit up like a Christmas tree and it makes a beautiful wee walk after a pint.

Queen’s Arcade

It’s a small piece of the city but it’s a cherished one having survived years of neglect and countless recessions. I love walking through here from Royal Avenue across to Sawer’s, another Belfast institution. The arcade is like stepping in to another time and at Christmas it’s a special part of the city that feels like a haven from the chaos of the main streets.

Sawer’s

Opened in 1897, Sawer’s is Belfast’s oldest Deli and is famous for it’s range of cheeses and chutneys. The deli provided the Titanic with it’s cheese and olives for its functions so it’s renowned as the best spot to get all the festive treats. Once you step inside it’s hard not to get carried away (I blame the deep wicker baskets the provide at the entrance!)

White’s Tavern

Another hidden corner of the city that can’t escape the festive touch! The oldest tavern in the city, White’s is a brilliant spot to find a quiet corner and enjoy a festive pint with a friend. Live music is played out in to the square outside that’s beautifully decorated throughout Christmas.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my favourite festive spots in the city! I hope you get to enjoy a few of them this season and savour al the good this city has to offer.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

 

What I’m Reading This Autumn

What I’m Reading This Autumn

There’s many things that I love about Autumn; the delicious crunch of orange leaves, crisp air on a bright morning and the cosiness of a forgotten favourite jumper, rediscovered after spending months at the back of the wardrobe. All these little joys make my Autumnal heart sing but what I treasure most of all about this time of year is the prospect of new books to bury my head in to while the days turn dark and cold.

I try to find the time to read throughout the year but this season brings that back-to-school enthusiasm for reading that I sometimes fight to maintain. The types of book I gravitate towards get a little darker too. Gone are the light-hearted beach reads and in to replace them are the stories that will burn in my brain for weeks.

I’ve selected a variety of reads to keep my interest up; I get bored quite easily with books so I find it helps to have an assortment on my bedside table depending on what mood I’m in. I’ve provided the Amazon links to all of these books for convenience but I recommend visiting your local library to find copies of these fantastic reads. The local library is such a treasure and while it’s super easy to just order a second hand book online, there is so much to be said for perusing your local aisles for inspiration and all for free too!

I hope you’re just as excited as I am about the season ahead and that these suggestions will encourage you to dip your toe in new genres. If you already have a few titles in your to-read pile then please share them in the comments, new ideas are always welcome here!

‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

What an icon this woman was. Her first book didn’t get published until she was nearly 40 (which proves that you’re never too old to take a risk) and not only that, she ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize.

Beloved is the first in a trilogy series and won the Pulitzer prize back in 1988. The book is set the late 1800’s and was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an African-American slave who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856 by fleeing to Ohio. It will be tough to read but it’s a necessary masterpiece which deserves to be read by every generation; I can’t wait to start.

The Great Alone’ by Kristin Hannah

There’s something about Alaska that always seems to draw my curiosity. It’s one of the few places that remains truly wild and untamed by humans and it’s the unforgiving nature of its landscape that makes it so appealing to the disenfranchised who gravitate to its relentless wilderness.

This book has received brilliant reviews and while I understand there’s plots and relationships that are explored in the book, I think it will be the description of the landscape that will pull me in to it’s pages.

‘Everything I Know About Love’ by Dolly Alderton

Have you ever read about or watched an interview with someone and thought to yourself, “I would definitely be best mates with this person if we ever met”. Well, that’s exactly how I feel about Dolly. I’ve read her work for years in the Sunday Times Style magazine but when I read this book a few weeks ago I knew for sure we were kindred spirits.

The title ‘Everything I Know About Love’ gives the impression that the book will contain a guide to navigating the single life along with some hilarious anecdotes about how reckless the young can be with their hearts and while you can 100% find this in the book, it’s actually Dolly’s friendships with her female friends that are the most romantic. I read this book over one weekend and felt almost invaded upon since the very words I was reading could’ve have been taken straight from my own experiences throughout my 20s. It’s hilarious and toe-curling in parts but it’s an incredibly beautiful lesson on how we’re all on this constant journey of self-learning and the very best part of it is getting to have amazing women as our co-pilots.

The Fall of the House of Usher (& other writings) by Edgar Allen Poe

I mentioned earlier that I gravitate towards darker titles in the colder months. It’s something about the approach of Hallowe’en, those misty mornings and windy nights that just make a Gothic horror novel a natural part of welcoming in the season.

I’ve actually had this book on my shelf for a few years now but this is the season I will finally summon the courage to pick it up and no doubt scare the living daylights out of myself  – sometimes books are better at doing this than a movie! This is a collection of Poe’s short stories and so I shouldn’t have to subject myself to his creepy Victorian tales for too long but from what I’ve heard it’s his beautiful use of language that is most memorable. One of the Amazon reviewers tells readers that “it’s best to read with the light on” – if that’s not a good review for a horror book then what is?!

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Having been published only a few months ago, City of Girls is probably the youngest book on my to-read list and maybe the most talked about this summer. It’s written by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and if you’ve never heard of Elizabeth Gilbert then can I ask where the heck you’ve been? She’s probably my favourite podcast guest ever (or host if you count her much missed “Magic Lessons” podcast from 2016) because the enthusiasm she has for personal creative truth and courage is is so contagious it will inspire you to do the very thing you’ve been scared of doing for years.

Despite being a mega fan, I’m guilty to never having read her fiction novels but when I read the reviews for City of Girls I knew I had to change that. The story is set in 1940’s New York and follows 19 year old Vivian who has been exiled by her parents and arrives in the big city with only her suitcase and sewing machine. The reviews have been glowing, particularly this one by the Guardian and I can’t wait to get lost in Gilbert’s New York.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney is Ireland’s literary answer to Phoebe Waller-Bridge; her ability to capture the anguish of being young and unable to communicate emotions for fear of rejection is so accurate I think I stopped breathing for paragraphs at a time.

I read this book, Rooney’s first novel, up in Donegal a few weeks ago and barely spoke to Andrew the entire time we were there. Instead I had a two day affair with her characters who are all perfectly flawed and so real that I felt like I knew them a few pages in. I had already read Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, last year and knew I’d love this one however I didn’t expect to love it quite this much. I already can’t wait for her third!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Another Gothic classic to delight my spooky desires. Isn’t it mad that Shelley was 19 when she wrote this?! She was such a trailblazer and despite being written over 200 years ago, this story still holds up as a beautiful analysis of human nature. I’ll be reading this surrounded by pumpkins under the light of a full moon to really get in to the drama of it all. Or maybe just in bed drinking a cup of tea and eating a bag of Monster Munch.

Circe by Madeline Miller

You can’t have a book on your Autumn reading list that doesn’t include a bit of witchcraft, right? Circe is a re-telling of the Greek Odyssey and centres around Circe, a goddess who is banished to the island of Aiaia when her gifts start to threaten the gods. It’s a tale of “family rivalry, love and loss – the defiant, inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright through the darkness of a man’s world”, a wonderful accompaniment to a time when women’s voices are finally coming to the fore.

If that’s not enough to persuade you then the awards should: Circe was shortlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019 and was chosen as Book of the Year by the Guardian, Telegraph and Time magazine among a dozen other publications. A book for the ages!

My Life in France by Julia Child

Andrew and I are getting married in France next year and I feel like this book is the homework I need in order to get to know the country that will be hugely important to both of us for the rest of our lives. The famous American chef, Julia Child, wrote this memoir of her time in Paris as a newlywed. A 6 foot 2 inch Californian who spoke little French, she fell in love with France (and mort importantly, it’s food), eventually becoming a cherished chef and expert on cooking French cuisine.

If you’ve watched the adorable movie Julie & Julia you will have already heard of Julia Childs. Meryl Streep portrayed her (wonderfully, of course) and it was watching this movie that I decided that one day I would live in France. While I haven’t quite managed to live there yet, planning a wedding there seems like a pretty decent second best! I’m hoping this book will prepare me for our celebrations or at the very least make me hungry!

The Trespasser by Tana French

Finally in our list we have The Trespasser, a thriller written by the Irish author Tana French. This book is actually part of a series but I’ve not read any of the preceding books and I’ve been assured you can read this one as a stand-alone novel.

Set in Dublin, this story follows Detective Antoinette Conway, a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered narrator who works on the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s a psychological thriller which is my favourite genre to read if I’m wanting to immerse in a story quickly and without too much work. The whole series has great reviews and if I love this book as much as I think I will, it’s great to know I have a host of books to go to next.

Happy reading friends! 

How Do You Like Them Apples??

How Do You Like Them Apples??

Ah, Autumn. I feel you nipping at my heels, pushing me towards my winter boots and scarves and coats. I see you in the rust-edged leaves and bushes heavy with blackberries. I see you in the crisp new pages of a notebook, full of anticipation and hope. Being a September babe means I am always ready to embrace Autumn and probably explains my excitement at new stationery but my all-time favourite way to ring in the season is to get home to Armagh pick fresh apples.

Being from Co. Armagh means that I have the fortune of knowing folk who run an orchard and you better believe I make the most of it. The countryside of the orchard county comes to life this time of year. Farmers work tirelessly to fill their bins, sending them off to cideries or local supermarkets. Then there is I, galloping through the corridors of trees like some sort of harvest addict, camera in one hand and a basket almost too heavy to carry in another.

This year I came down to the orchards for the sole purpose of picking Katy apples. In previous years I’ve always made it down in time for picking the Bramleys, the most common apple variety in the county, but I’ve never been in time for Katy apple picking. Usually the Katy apples are ready towards the very end of August or the very beginning of September, about a fortnight before the Bramleys and I’ve always been disappointed to have just missed the timing.

This year I had my personal apple correspondent, Rebecca from A Clothes Horse, who gave me the heads up when the Katy apples were ready. Rebecca married in to the Glass family who have a beautiful orchard just outside Loughgall, a village and area famous for their apples. She let me know they were about to be picked and that I should get my skates on and get down before they were all gone.

By the time I got to the orchard there was only one Katy tree left – these pickers work fast! Rebecca told me the rough location of the last Katy tree so we went on a scavenger hunt to find it. As you can see, the bright red apple is fairly hard to miss! We were in a sea of Bramleys when all of a sudden this biblical tree appeared with apples so red they almost didn’t look real.

After a taste test I could confirm that not only were they real but they were freakin’ delicious. Super crunchy and juicy and not at all poisonous. I picked a few apples, not wanting to hog them all and then proceeded to take as many photos as I could because I didn’t know if I’d ever be this lucky with the season again.

So here you are. I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I loved taking them! If you’d like to visit the orchards for yourself then I would definitely recommend getting down to Armagh for the Food & Cider Festival next weekend (19-22nd September). There are loads of events on for the family including orchard tours, cooking class, cider workshops and even a painting masterclass in an orchard too! Visit the event website here for more details.

Happy Autumn friends and let me know if you’ve any ideas on how I can use a basketful of apples – recipes welcome!

Camping in Tollymore Forest

Camping in Tollymore Forest

Summer in Ireland… it’s a fleeting experience, isn’t it? The warm months whisper past us before we can even remember what was to feel the comforting heat of the sun and the gentle lap of waves at our bare feet. Though the season is brief, we Irish have know to appreciate every drop of sunshine while we can, revelling in the joy of back-to-back sunny days, outdoor picnics and endless adventures.

There are so many wee pleasures to have during summer but of on my absolute favourites is camping. Sleeping outside isn’t for everyone but for me it’s one of life’s real luxuries to fall asleep under the stars. It might require a bit of forward planning (and hardy expectations) but when you get that rare weekend jackpot of sunny AND dry weather, well there’s no better place to be than the mountains!

It was about a month ago when we struck weather gold and packed up our car with (definitely too many) camping supplies. We hadn’t any real idea of where we were headed but we drove out of the city and towards the Mourne Mountains knowing we would be able to find a perfect camping spot up there.

We decided to go a little off-grid and try wild camping in an attempt to savour the most of the Irish wilderness. I can completely understand the appeal of campsite comforts (especially when you have kiddos to keep clean!) but I love that feeling of being a little bit cut off from the world. We aren’t too knowledgeable about the best wild camping spots so I just googled a few recommended spots and found this really useful website.

We decided to head for the Spinkewee River since it looked like the easiest for rookies. It was a few kilometres walk from the Trassey carpark where we had dropped off the car which meant we had to cull a few things we could live without for a night (a duvet being one of them!). Once we were packed up like pair of wee camels, we trotted off in search of the river, stopping only a few dozen times to catch our breath and swap packs!

We hiked along a country path which soon brought in to Tollymore forest. Old stone steps took us over gateways, passed ancient burial grounds and alongside towering piles of felled logs. We eventually found the river and set up camp and began collecting firewood to start dinner.

We tend to get ingredients for a one pot dinner and this recipe always does the trick. After dinner we ate s’mores, listened to some music and chatted until the fire started to die and the wind picked up.

The next morning we woke to the sound of rustling leaves and the river flowing near our tent. Andrew prepared some scrambled egg for breakfast while I went to wash my teeth down my the stream. It was such a beautiful morning; the blue skies promised a sunny day ahead and the breeze was just enough to keep us cool.

We went for a quick hike up the neighbouring mountain after breakfast and came across an abandoned farmhouse that had the best views towards the mountains. We took a detour down through a field, said “hello” to a few sheep and dipped back in to the forest canopy to visit some of the waterfalls along the Spinkwee River.

The Tollymore forest is such a treasure trove for any outdoor enthusiast. There’s mountain biking trails, hiking trails, historical buildings and rivers peppered with the most gorgeous waterfalls. After we’d finished our small hike we started the even bigger hike back to the car. It was a warm day and poor Andrew quickly regretted wearing his jeans – another rookie error!

The walk was beautiful though; we had blue skies above and nature hugging us at every turn. We had to stop for a few breaks but it didn’t matter, we were happy to soak in as much of that sunshine and mountain air as we possible could. After all, the season is brief and each summer joy is to be cherished.

A Treehouse in Donegal

A Treehouse in Donegal

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond

I was 21 years old when I read this line for the first time. It was in the summer of 2010 and I was in a campsite in Northwestern Madagascar, swinging in a hammock with my dusty feet dangling over the side, gently scratching the many mosquito bites covering my legs. I had been in the Madagascan dry forest a few weeks as part of an ecological expedition and had already fallen in love with the landscape; the mangroves, the dense forest, the open plains. But it was the words in this book that seemed to awaken something in me and what caused me to promise myself one thing: to always live deliberately.

The thing is, it was very easy to honour this commitment back when I didn’t have any responsibilities and had what felt like all the time in the world to make mistakes. There were no bills to pay or people relying on me to make the right choices so it felt effortless to live in the moment. Now that I’m 30, I’m finding it harder to keep my promise and to remain present in my everyday life. I can get caught up in the grind with my head burrowed so far down that I haven’t really looked up for days.

When I feel a slump is lurking around the corner I usually always plan something that will wake me up again or remind me of the kind of life I want to live. It’s impossible to be always be sure of who we are or what we want because we’re in a constant state of flux; life is always changing and our hopes and dreams have to change along with it. When I feel like I need to reconnect with that promise I made back in 2010, I’ve found the best remedy is to pluck myself out of my little daily habitat and place myself somewhere new and that I know will inspire me. Well, what a better source of inspiration than living in a treehouse, right???

When I saw the Bird Box listing on a friend’s Instagram story a few months ago I went straight to the Airbnb website to book us a weekend. After checking it out we quickly realised that Andrew and I had actually stayed with the same hosts before a few years back and I had featured it in a recent blog post listing our favourite Airbnb experiences – small world!

The Old Cowshed

The hosts, Pete & Anna, are a couple who relocated to Donegal over 12 years ago to convert an old stone cottage and byre on a beautiful bit of land looking out across the Glenties towards Glenveagh National Park. Since moving there they’ve not only built a home for themselves and their family but built two lodgings as well as converting the byre which we stayed in all those years ago. The treehouse is their third and final lodging on their property and is certainly their crowning glory (in my own opinion!). The craftsmanship that Pete has taught himself is incredible and how he managed it all in the Donegal weather is even more impressive – the midges alone would break even the strongest of wills!

We booked the treehouse many weeks in advance because unsurprisingly it’s proved to be the hottest Airbnb home in Co. Donegal. I tried not to count down the days too much but by the time our weekend finally arrived I was more than ready to escape to the trees. We drove our tired bodies from Belfast as soon as we clocked off and as we edged across the map towards Donegal I could almost feel the tension leaving me – our favourite county was a-callin’.

We arrived at twilight with the sun just starting to fall behind the mountains. The sky was tinged with gold when Pete welcomed us in that warm Donegal way and quickly took us through our own personal gate and down the woodland path to our new home. The last of the bluebells were clinging on in their small clusters and the wind was weaker under the canopy of the trees. And then I locked eyes on the treehouse! The angular lines of the roof cut through the leaves so gently with the wood of the house blending with the bark of the trees so well that it seemed as if it had always been there, somehow waiting to be discovered.

I tried to contain myself as I walked across the bridge, knowing rightly that as soon as Pete left I would be running back and forth like an excited toddler. It’s hard not to let your inner child run riot there and since children aren’t actually allowed to stay here it makes it a lot easier to relax! There is a swing chair to read a book in under the trees, a mezzanine bedroom with a sky light up in to the trees, books to read and a stove fire to tend to each night after dinner – heaven!

We spent the first 24 hours of our trip cocooned in our nest. I kept the doors wide open while I watched the rain sweep across the glen, turning the mountains all the colours of a landscape painting or making them disappear completely. I kept the blanket wrapped around me with Andrew looking over from the mezzanine to check I was still alive. I was so transfixed that I only stopped to make cups of tea or to look down at the book I wasn’t able to concentrate on, the view was just too good.

The sound of rain woke us up in the morning and then lulled us back to sleep again. Everywhere we looked we could see the canopy surrounding us – even the shower had a little window that opened up in to the trees! It was magic to be spending quality time together in such a special space which encouraged us to make the last minute decision to stay an extra night. It was the Bank Holiday and we thanked our lucky stars that they weren’t booked for the Sunday and we got a whole extra night to hide away.

We managed to leave our nest on one of the days we were there to venture out to Árrain Mhór and down to Slieve League cliffs but we were itching to get back to our sanctuary. It was the purest delight to come home to this little piece of paradise, the sun glistening and dancing across the bark with the breeze singing through the trees. We were heartbroken leaving but we knew we would be back again.

Our weekend in the treehouse was the perfect cure for a disaffected slump and on the drive back home to Belfast we were the happiest and the most relaxed we’d been in a long time – a complete tonic for tired souls.

If you’d like to see videos of the treehouse then you can find them in my Donegal highlights on my Instagram page – you can find them here

 

My Favourite Airbnb Experiences

My Favourite Airbnb Experiences

Remember back in the day when you had to rely on a grainy brochure photo to book your accommodation? I’ve a few horror stories from across the years from a grotty apartment in Santa Ponsa (we were 17 so no surprise there) to a shower that comprised of a hose wrapped in electrical wires in Cuba (I’m lucky to be alive after that one). Now we’re in the digital age it’s almost impossible to book a bad place with Tripadvisor and Google reviews giving us the heads up if a place seems too good to be true.

I love finding places for us to stay any time we’ve booked a trip because we always like to go for something a little different. Big fluffy hotel beds can be lovely but when I’m visiting somewhere new I love to live like a local and get to know the neighbourhood around me. Airbnb is the best place to find those little secrets that make a holiday memorable and we’ve had some incredible Airbnb experiences over the years. Well, except for that one time in Lisbon when we lived under the noisiest Portuguese family who might as well have been sharing the apartment with us – that was definitely one of our Airbnb fails!

I share most of where we stay on my Instagram stories but I thought I would put together a list of our favourites from trips around Ireland and abroad. It can be hard to choose from the huge amount of properties on Airbnb and by simply choosing too many filters you could be missing out on a gem of a place that’s perfect for you!

Here are a few highlights we’ve had both at home and far away, just click on the links attached to each location and you can have a look at what takes your fancy…

IRELAND

Fintown, Co. Donegal

We stayed in this converted cowshed back in October 2016 and it remains one of our favourite places we’ve ever stayed. Maybe it was because it was early in to the relationship and it felt magic to be sharing a cosy den together for a whole weekend but looking back on the photos I can understand why we loved it so much.

It had been renovated by the owners of the cottage across from the old cowshed, Pete and Anna, who have since built their own eco-hut on the other edge of the property looking over the Glenties countryside. The eco-hut is on my wishlist but unfortunately you have to book months in advance because it’s so popular, I think the next available weekend is November!

It’s no surprise that Anna and Pete are listed as Superhosts. They were super friendly when we met the pair of them, full of knowledge on how to live sustainably and DIY tips with an inquisitive kitten who I fell in love with. If you’re ever looking for the perfect base for an escape to Donegal then this is it!

Dingle, Co. Kerry

I could stay in a hedge in Co. Kerry and I’d be happy enough purely to have the scenery wrapped around me but this spot wasn’t too shabby either. The apartment, which is part of a large house that had previously been a manor, has incredible uninterrupted views out to the sea and is on the doorstep of one of the most beautiful drives in the whole of Ireland around Slea Head.

We visited in July last year and hit the weather jackpot the whole weekend. The sun was beating down for the three days we spent driving along the coastline and sunbathing on empty golden beaches on our snack breaks – sunbathing in Ireland?! We ate our breakfast in the courtyard and enjoyed the views curled up on armchairs with the windows down and the sea breeze pouring through – absolute bliss.

North Coast, N.Ireland

I booked Archie’s schoolhouse for Andrew’s 30th birthday party last year and it was such a lovely spot to gather some mates together for a celebration. It’s been beautifully renovated by Claire (she of the gorgeous Bramble Green knitwear) who has added thoughtful touches that honour the history of the house.

It’s a perfect base to visit all the favourite spots along the North Coast; the Dark Hedges, Whiterocks beach and Carrick-a-Rede bridge. Claire is full of brilliant tips too for local cafés and businesses to stop in to, a perfect host for the North!

Even the loo is gorgeous! 

Galway City, Co. Galway

Usually we book the entire place to ourselves on Airbnb but this was a private room in probably one of the most sophisticated houses I’ve every stayed in. The hosts, Dee & Mark, used to run an art gallery out of the house but now they just show their own private collection throughout which is a real treat for guests.

Photo taken from Airbnb 

Their bedrooms are beautifully decorated with en-suites providing plenty of privacy. It’s a short walk to the city centre to explore all the craic Galway has to offer and if you have too much craic, well then you can recover after the delicious breakfast Dee and Mark prepare for you while they play soft classical music and give you the morning papers to read. Not a bad way to beat the hangover!

We stayed in this room overlooking the garden. Photo taken from Airbnb

Photo taken from Airbnb

Co. Down, N. Ireland

For my birthday a couple of years ago, Andrew surprised me with a night away in this eco cottage tucked away in the Mourne mountains (no wonder I’m marrying the guy!). The cottage is run as part of a small organic farm which guests can stroll through and meet the neighbouring hens and horses. The hosts even run workshops on weekends if you fancy doing a spot of basket-weaving!

You can explore the woodlands or mountains on your doorstep here or you can just play with the dog, collect some firewood and keep cosy for the night. A special place that feels further from home than it really is!

Ballycroneen, Co. Cork

When my pal was coming all the way over from Australia in October 2016 I wanted to take her to as many parts of Ireland as I could. I love showing visitors from overseas my favourite spots on this island but there’s just never enough time to see them all! I found out that the annual Cork Jazz Festival was on during her stay with us and so I booked this spot which was just a half hour away from the city centre along the coast.

The home had views across the field and then out to the sea which was breath-taking even in the mucky October weather. During the day we crawled through venues to listen to jazz but soon found ourselves heading back to this place to light the stove and reminisce about our time gallivanting in Australia. The homemade bread was a special touch too and ended up being the perfect midnight snack after a few pints of Guinness!

The pretty village of Cobh is about 30 minutes drive and from there you can take one of many scenic drives along the coast. Cork is the biggest county in Ireland and covers most of the southwest of the island so bear in mind that the drives can be long and it’s best to just stick to nearby towns and villages that won’t have you emptying your tank.

house across the fields

OVERSEAS

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

I booked this trip as a present for Andrew’s 30th but didn’t realise just how expensive accommodation would cost during peak season – yikes! We went in July when the crowds fill the narrow cobbled streets – lots of cargo shorts and socks with sandals if you catch my drift. It was a stunning place though but I would recommend visiting during the quieter seasons either side of summer when it’s easier to walk the trails and enjoy the views with a little more peace (and get cheaper rates too!)

Photo taken from Airbnb

SOGGIORNO

Photo taken from Airbnb

I decided to book an Airbnb apartment in the quieter of the five villages, Corniglia, because I thought it would be a good place to have our evenings while the other towns tend to the masses. It was one of the best decisions we could have made because the apartment, which was on a tiny street with views out to the terraced hills, was a real retreat from the teeming crowds.

Well, it was quiet most of the time until the afternoon of the World Cup Final – Italians and football, eh? That afternoon, the local who owned the restaurant across from us pulled an industrial-sized TV in to the tiny street where a crowd quickly gathered to watch France v Croatia. It was a case of if you can’t beat ’em then join ’em so we bought a few beers and drank while watching the escapade below, cheering with everyone from the street and neighbouring windows when Croatia scored. Sadly Croatia ended up losing that game but the memory of drinking cold beer on our Airbnb windowsill will stay with me forever.

Bonus: our hosts even provided us with homemade limoncello which we enjoyed each night after coming home from dinner – it’s the wee things that make all the difference when choosing an Airbnb!

Dordogne, France

If you follow me on Instagram you will have seen me share photos and videos from this woodland sanctuary a few weeks ago. We were over in France to visit some venues for the wedding and I booked this Airbnb to use as our base in between days on the road.

This cabin is why I love Airbnb. It gives you the opportunity to stay somewhere totally unique and experience a place that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. No electrical sockets or wifi meant this cabin was completely off-grid but was the fact it was totally unconnected to the outside world that made it so special. Instead of scrolling through my phone there was a pond to stroll around, a woodland to explore or a boat to take out on the water – I felt like a kid again!

While Andrew heated up the hot tub I took care of dinner in the fully-equipped kitchen. It was like a camping trip but with all the home comforts – big cosy bed, good shower and a log stove to keep us toasty. While we finished our bottle of wine under the stars I realised how long it had been since I watched the sky instead of my phone – wayyyy too long.

 Gers, France

After the woodland cabin we had booked a private room in this beautiful home close to Toulouse. We arrived late after a long day spent in the car and when we were offered to have a home cooked dinner we leapt at the chance. Catherine and Philippe’s house was spotlessly clean and our room was better than a lot of hotels we’ve stayed in! We actually had the entire upper floor to ourselves which was equipped with it’s own stove fire and dressing gowns and slippers to change in to for the hot tub!

After we dropped off our bags and lay in a heap for a few minutes we popped back downstairs to eat with our hosts. Their French country kitchen was everything I’ve ever dreamed of and the food was even better. Andrew proclaimed that it was the best meal we had during our entire trip – four courses of food so good I was ready to burst my the time we polished off dessert. They charged us 35 euro each for the dinner but it was worth more for sure just for the chance to chat with our hosts and learn a little about the area.

Unfortunately we were so full from dinner and knackered from the drive that we didn’t have the energy to sit in the hot tub after. We promised ourselves that we’d return again only for a wee bit longer, this home was a retreat worth coming back to.

Our breakfast was fresh fruit in wee jars with yoghurt and crusty French bread (which I slathered in local honey!)

chambre

La maison et le jacuzzi

Hoi An, Vietnam

Andrew and I visited Vietnam and Cambodia in September last year and mixed our accommodation between hotels and Airbnb stays. Christina’s was a small complex we found on Airbnb located on Tra Que, a patch of land just outside Hoi An that’s been used for organic farming for hundreds of years (it’s the oldest organic farm in Vietnam!). Our room was huge here with two separate balconies looking out across the fields.

Nice and cosy

Photo from Airbnb

The staff at Christina’s were incredibly helpful, booking our taxis and renting us mopeds and push bikes to explore the farm and Hoi An. We even booked a cooking class with them at the farm across the road which turned out to be the highlight of our trip and super cheap too!

 London

Oh, London. Our favourite city that we love to visit any chance we can get. Luckily for us we have friends who we usually stay with to help with the cost but sometimes it’s nice to just book somewhere on our own in a new neighbourhood for us to explore. This Airbnb was a great find; super cheap for London with a garden to relax in after a day walking the city.

The flat had everything we could have needed and even had an apple tree in the garden which is a good way to get to an Armagh girl’s heart! I loved the sash windows which we kept open at night. We were there during the heatwave in summer 2018 that suffocated the city for weeks. Luckily our flat had a fan which we had by the end of our bed and gave us the relief our Irish skin needed.

The original floors in the hall of our London Airbnb

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

We were lucky to visit a few places in Bali back in 2017 but Ubud was the place I was most looking forward to seeing. It’s located right in the middle of the island surrounded by dense jungle and mountains – worlds away from our wee house in Belfast!

Our Airbnb was newly renovated and when we arrived it appeared as if everything was new. The rooftop pool was the reason we chose the place as it looked out over the jungle and seemed to be a good place to relax after sightseeing. When we got there we realised the pictures didn’t do the place enough justice because the sounds coming from the jungle were so incredible we just stood in silence on the roof gazing out.

The breakfast was simple but really good for what we’d experienced in Bali and was included in the room rate. We ate on the rooftop each morning, filling up on plenty of fruit before heading out for the day. The complex also had a tourist office where we could rent mopeds, book excursions and get tickets for the ferry across to the Gili islands. This saved us so much hassle and the staff were always there to help us if we ever had a question.

 

Thanks for reading through my favourites, I hope it helped give you some ideas and tips for your next trip! If you have had some great Airbnb experiences then please share them in the comments – I’m always looking for more places to add to our wishlist! 

The Podcasts I’m Recommending To My Mates

The Podcasts I’m Recommending To My Mates

Confession: I am not good in total silence.

If ever a quiet moment falls during a shared car ride I find myself frantically brainstorming conversation topics in the hope to resurrect sound again. Even in yoga I cling to the sounds around me when we’re supposed to be training our minds to be clear – I would not do well on a silent retreat at all.

Podcasts have been a huge saviour for me when I’m in need of something to fill the silence throughout the day. They are now the soundtrack to my daily life,  as reliable as a conversation with friends. I’m not the only one tuning in either because around 6 million in the UK are now listening to podcasts each week which has led to everyone and their mother launching one (quite literally the case for Jessie Ware and her Mum). There is an overwhelming amount of series out there now and choosing one has become the equivalent to mindlessly scrolling through TV channels – which one do you choose?

To help make your choice a little easier, I’ve created a handy list of podcasts I’ve become dedicated to and have been begging my friends to listen to along with me. There’s one for pretty much any mood you’re in so all you need to do is listen and let me know which one is your favourite 🙂

If there’s any great ones that you think I missed out on then please share in the comments, I’m always on the look out for more!

When you feel like a break from all the Brexit crap and need to restore your faith in humanity…

Love Stories – Dolly Alderton

Dolly launched this podcast alongside her memoir ‘Everything I Know About Love’ and it’s a beautiful collection of conversations with folk about the relationships that have made them. I recently listened to an episode she did with Stanley Tucci and had a wee happy cry in the middle of tidying my bedroom and have been bingeing the other episodes since.

Happy Place – Fearne Cotton 

This is a super popular podcast so you may already be a fan but for those few of you that haven’t listened to this one: it’s awesome. It’s filled with useful advice from experts who can help when you’re feeling blue and need to see the simple joy in everyday life. I always feel a little better about the world after listening so I highly recommend it to help get you through the current nightmare that is life in the UK.

Table Manners – Jessie Ware & her Mum, Lennie

I mentioned this one earlier and really it’s one of my favourites when I just need some simple conversation to chill out to. It’s a great one when I’m cooking because it kind of feels like I’m in the room with them as they’re taking about food. Jessie and her Mum are warm and familiar,  it’s like sitting around the table with old friends ( I especially loved the episode with Nigella because she is a freakin’ goddess).

Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations – Oprah “This Woman Can Do No Wrong” Winfrey

Of course Oprah would make a podcast, everything that comes out of her mouth feels pregnant with wisdom and understanding. This podcast is a brilliant one for the airplane when you’re anxiety is up a little and you need a soothing voice to keep you from thinking how mental it is that you’re 30000 feet above ground (or is that just me?). She has a great selection of guests from Gloria Steinem to Michelle Obama who all have such great advice for navigating the obstacles in life and how to learn from them.

When you need some advice from your girlfriends about work and how to succeed like the badass you know you can be…

Ctrl Alt Delete – Emma Gannon

Emma started this podcast after she released her book of the same name a few years ago and it’s still one of my favourites. She describes the podcast as a conversation with different guests about their relationship with the internet but each episode manages to empower me in managing my own career path with more authority. She’s had some pretty amazing women as guests across all 4 series who are so inspiring in their own fields and can act as your own mentor when you need it most.

How to Own the Room – Viv Groskop

As a woman with a strong Irish accent working for a global investment bank, it felt like this podcast was created just for me! I have to lead conference calls with seniors from all of the world as part of my job, many of whom speak English as a second language. I was terrified in the beginning because I was asked a few times to repeat myself which would only fluster me all the more and this podcast was super helpful at teaching me techniques in how to feel more confident within myself. I recommend the series to those of you who are struggling to have your voice heard in work and will teach to lead with more assuredness than you realised you even had.

Goal Digger – Jenna Kutcher

I started reading Jenna’s blog a few years ago when I was trying to learn about marketing on Instagram and Pinterest and while she’s a complete guru in this area, her podcast is full of knowledge that will help you in all areas of life. I’m a fairly scatty person, in fact I would imagine that’s the first word people I know would use to describe me, and I struggle to maintain focus on personal and professional goals. Jenna provides such useful advice on how to apply these goals not just in business but also in relationships and mental health too. Word of warning, she is SUPER American in the cheeriest sense and for us Irish it can be hard to shake off the cynicism but I implore you to shake it off. Shake. Shake. Shake it off (please say you got the T-Swift reference…)

The Guilty Feminist

This show is like one of those brain hugs I get after an hours long conversation with my mates over a few glasses of wine on the rare Saturday we’re all free. The series covers a wide range of topics that prompt such insightful discussions; sexuality, the choice to not have children, how to handle criticism, what it means to be feminine. Each conversation is fascinating and feels like this wee secret safe space where opinions are expressed in a way that isn’t facilitated as often as it should be.

When you feel brave enough to learn about what’s going on in the big wide world…

The Blindboy Podcast – Blindboy from The Rubberbandits

If you’re familiar with the Irish anti-establishment rap duo The Rubberbandits (aye, those lads with the plastic bags over their heads), then I’m sure you would have heard of this podcast floating about. Blindboy, one half of The Rubberbandits, launched the podcast back in October 2017 and since then it has become one of the most popular podcasts in both Ireland and the UK. Blindboy has been described as a voice for his generation and by God the man is articulate. He has such a talent for condensing complex political issues in to what feels like a conversation down the pub (albeit a very eloquent stoner kind of one). His use of language and the huge range in topics that he covers (he’s fond of going on a bit of a tangent but it’s worth going along with it) means that just about anyone can listen and learn something. He also has Cillian Murphy on as a guest and I mean I would listen to him snore if I could.

About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

This podcast could be described as an extension of Reni’s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ as she continues the important conversations around racism in modern society. At a time when the subject of white privilege is finally being discussed within mainstream media, I felt it was necessary for me, as a white person, to do the work and educate myself on what it means to benefit from white privilege. Despite only recently launching the podcast in March, the podcast has been a big hit and has helped bring the topic of racism in to the public conscience. She also recommends other podcasts from POC on her website which I found really helpful.

The High Low – Dolly Alderton & Pandora Sykes

OK I know that I’ve already another of Dolly’s podcasts in the list but honestly this show is perfect when you need a bit of light briefing on what’s going on in current affairs. The hosts are a fast-talking whirlwind who go from talking about the Kardashians one minute to the Suffragette movement the next with an ease I thought only my own mates could manage. The pair are obviously friends because they seem to be able to talk about anything that comes to mind which makes for great listening. I’ve now taken to listening to the pair on my commute when I want to be kept informed but in a gentle way that won’t scare me too early in the day.

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness – JVN

It’s no surprise that JVN was and still is a hairdresser because honestly it feels like I should have my head in a sink anytime I’m listening to him. He has been a breath of fresh (h)air in so many ways but the thing I love most about him is how interested he is in just about anything. He welcomes experts who have a wealth of knowledge in their field and is able to hold conversations in a way that allows for us regular folk to feel empowered and engaged with current events. He’ll also transform your vocabulary in a way you never imagined – can you believe?!

For when you want to listen to a true story that will either scare the bejaysus out of you or make you wonder if all people are secretly crazy…

Criminal – Phoebe Judge

Phoebe Judge has a voice so pacifying that it’s rare that I last more than a few minutes in to an episode before I’m lulled in to sleep. Which is weird because most of the stories that Phoebe narrates are definitely not for bedtime. This podcast is so addictive though and the stories are so bizarre it’s hard to believe they’re actually true. Definitely a good series to listen to on holiday!

Dr Death – Wondery 

Dr Death was one of the most popular true crime podcasts of last year and one that Andrew and I binged during a road trip. At the end of each episode we would turn to each other with mouths gaping and would just click on through to the next one to find out what happened next. A few words of advice though: if you already have a fear of doctors then you will definitely not feel great about them after this podcast.

In The Dark – APM Reports

I discovered this podcast while in Italy last year and instead of reading the book I took with me, I blasted through both series in the space of a week. Each series centres around two different true crime cases that highlight systemic problems within law enforcement and failures within the justice system in America. The reporting in both series is astounding with the first series winning the Peabody award back in 2016. It’s my favourite true crime series and the one I will always recommend to podcast newbies.

Root of Evil – TNT

I wasn’t even going to share this one because honestly, the content can be so disturbing at times that even I have found myself having to pause for a little while to get a breather. The podcast might be unsettling at times but it is so fascinating especially since it involves one of America’s most famous unsolved murders. If your new to podcasts then I would maybe build up to this series but if you are already a true crime fan then this will definitely not disappoint.

Local Favourites: Crawfordsburn

Local Favourites: Crawfordsburn

It’s been a while since I put one of these wee guides together and I had forgotten how much fun it was to show off a place a few of you maybe haven’t explored yet. For such a small island it’s amazing how many hidden secrets there are that don’t require hours in the back of a car. All you need is a free afternoon and a thirst for a bit of adventure!

This guide is dedicated to the village of Crawfordsburn. Located only a few miles from Belfast on the North Down coastline, it was a place I had never even heard of before I moved to the city a few years ago. Now it’s my favourite haven for winter walks on the beach or for an afternoon spent over a coffee and a scone. There isn’t much to the village itself but there’s enough character to charm the pants of you – well worth a weekend trip this Autumn!

Loaf Pottery

This café and pottery is worth a trip all on it’s own to be honest. It’s part of a wider social enterprise that started in Belfast over 10 years ago that helps  young people with learning disabilities and autism receive training and jobs in the catering industry. Creating these employment opportunities has been made an incredible impact on the community and has revived an old pottery that locals feared would fall in to disrepute.

The pottery studio at the front of the cottage hosts classes 7 days a week as well as a variety of pop-up events that have garnered popularity in the few months they’ve been open. This autumn and winter there will be pizza and pottery nights, supper clubs and Italian wine sampling evenings of which you can find out more about here. Anyone fancy a date to the autumn supper club??

If you don’t make it to a class then you can at least enjoy a delicious coffee out the back which is perfectly cosy on an autumn afternoon.

The Old Inn

This thatched piece of loveliness is like something straight out of a George Eliot novel – I half-expect a horse and cart to pull up alongside it rather than the Range Rovers the folk drive about the village! In fact the thatched portion of the hotel is it’s oldest part – around 400 years if you don’t mind. Plenty of ye olde celebrities frequented it’s doors including Swift, Tennyson and the very man himself – Charles Dickens.

Nowadays the hotel is a favourite among locals for a Sunday roast and is especially cosy in winter with the fires lit and the lights low. It’s still as popular as ever amongst the travellers though and was voted AA Hotel of the Year in 2018 – good job folks. For me it provides a perfect nook to enjoy a quiet pint before a long walk down on Crawfordsburn beach. Sure ye couldn’t beat that.

Cottage Crafts

This wee gem is found right beside Loaf Pottery and is full of beautiful pieces to buy. It’s not open on a Sunday so be sure to pop down on a Saturday when you might be tempted to make a few selfish purchases.

Crawfordsburn Country Park

Ah, my happy place. This woodland never fails to clear my head and each time I go there’s another new path to explore. There’s no better time to visit than in autumn when the leaves turn gold and the evening light is that bit more golden. My favourite part is the beautiful archways that carry the train overhead, like ancient brick giants.

If the woodland itself wasn’t enough to make your heart swoon then all you have to do is inch yourself a bit further to the coastline until you hear the sound of crashing waves. Soil gives way to sand and suddenly you’re out in the fresh Irish sea air trying your best not to hug ALL OF THE DOGS. This is where I take Andrew each time I try to convince him to get a pupper but then all he sees is the absolute mess the dogs make of their owner’s car. Sigh.

I hope this guide has tempted ye up to the coast but if you have your own hidden gem then why not share your secret in the comments below? Share the love! 

Apple & Blackberry Muffins

Apple & Blackberry Muffins

September is my January. Maybe it’s that crispness that suddenly arrives out of nowhere (crisp air, crisp leaves, crispy-clean duvet sheets after a summer without one) or maybe it’s that back-to-school-ness I still feel aged 30. Whatever it is I feel ready to start all over. Fresh new notebooks are bought by the armful and immediately filled with lists and ideas that I was too busy to write down all summer. And this renewed sense of purpose doesn’t just stop at stationery my friends. Oh no, no, no. I also remember that I have a kitchen! And that I love baking! I think! Unsurprisingly this newfound desire to cover myself in flour also coincides with Great British Bake Off arriving on our screens to help welcome in those dark cosy nights and when I, yet again, truly convince myself that I am a domestic goddess.

The thing is though, I’m a bit of a crap baker. There is no rhyme or reason with the way I create anything so baking for me is a step too scientific. I prefer to whack things in a bowl rather than measure too accurately which sometimes works but sometimes really doesn’t. With that in mind I dusted off the cookbooks that had been deserted (geddit?!) and leafed through until I would come across a recipe that didn’t seem too easy to screw up.

When that failed I knew I needed to think smaller and instead re-focus on easy ingredients. With it being September I realised that it gave me the perfect excuse to pretend that I am a real forager and head home to Armagh to pick some apples, one of my favourite autumn things to do. My home county is bursting at the seams with fruit this time of year and I always head to Andrew’s friend Thomas’ orchard (#connections) to pick a few Bramley’s to bake with and to just generally take a gazillion photos of apples. His Dad is pretty used to this kind of thing since his daughter-in-law is a fashion and lifestyle blogger herself and when we popped down last weekend for the annual visit his face fell in apparent recognition. “I remember you”, said he with a painted smile.

David is a dote though and he very kindly pointed us in the direction of the trees with the best fruit (he’s well trained) and we skipped AKA drove down the lane to pick a few while taking a few very causal and very natural snaps. Only thing is I forgot an Instagram-friendly prop to collect my Bramley’s in – d’oh! So I collected a few using my dress like a basket – cute, right? What’s not so cute is climbing apple trees in tights – those darn things will catch like nobody’s business.

I picked a fairly modest dress-load of apples and headed back up the road to Belfast with them thrown in the bottom of my camera bag. The next evening, with still no recipe in mind, I went for a wander round Crawfordsburn Country Park and spotted blackberries out of the corner of my beady eye. They had arrived early this year and I was warned by Andrew’s parents that they’d likely be all gone by mid-September. They’re usually right on the money with this sort of thing, like a pair of botanical forecasters they are but thankfully they were wonderfully WRONG this time. There were loads!! I hit the freakin’ berry jackpot and again ripped more tights as I tramped through brambles to get to them (also stung myself with nettles which was sort of lovely because it made me feel about 8 again). I collected them in a nifty old pick ‘n’ mix bag I found in my car door (note to self: buy some cute props for next years forage) which then proceeded to seep all round my fingers staining them bright purple which again made me feel about 8.

Now that I had the perfect autumnal crop to bake with I went back to the drawing board and tried to find an unintimidating recipe. This time I used the power of social media and asked if anyone knew of any good recipes that a gal like me could use and holy smokers did I get recipes o’plenty. There were dozens of crumble requests but since I gave that a whirl last year I decided to try something new. I finally landed on Apple & Blackberry Muffins since these could be easily shared with my work chums or else just eaten entirely by me while I watch another Bake Off episode – let’s not think about which option I went for.

If you fancy trying your hand at some apple pickin’ too then you might just be interested in the Armagh Food & Cider Festival that’s happening this weekend. There are heaps of events across the entire weekend including foodie film nights (The Godfather is being shown in an actual pizza joint, I mean?!), sunset markets, harvest suppers and so much more. What’s really great is that a few local orchards are hosting tours so you’ll get to have your very own orchard photo shoot if you so choose. Otherwise you can take a few Bramley’s home and try your hand at this recipe which thankfully, tasted amazing!


Apple & Blackberry Muffins

IngredientsMakes 12 muffins
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup superfine sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 medium grated Bramley apples
  • ½ pint blackberries (washed dried and floured)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ⅛ cup brown sugar

Method

  • Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 and paper a 12 cup muffin pan.
  • Combine the dry ingredients.
  • Combine the liquid ingredients (I measure the milk in the measuring cup and then add the butter and egg). Add the liquid ingredients to the dry and combine in a few strokes.
  • Add the blackberries and the grated apple and mix quickly. Spoon the batter into the cups. Mix together the brown sugar and the cinnamon and sprinkle over the tops of the muffins.
  • Bake at 400F/200C for 25-30 minutes.

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

To write about Seamus Heaney feels somewhat of an empty feat, he of so many words and I of so few but sure, here I am trying. In our family Seamus is spoken of like another family remember, his quips and musings repeated at gatherings like a shared memory that we never tire of hearing. ‘Digging’ is a firm favourite of ours as it is amongst most families in Ireland who identify with the audible descriptions of our ancestors who toiled the land before us while we, the fortunate ones, escaped the fields,

“By God, the old man could handle a spade”

While I struggle to resurrect the words to describe the impact Heaney’s work has had on me, I’ll settle for telling you all about the wonderful museum, HomePlace, that is dedicated to his life’s work and his legacy. My Granny and Aunties had been to HomePlace earlier in the year and had raved about it for months afterward. The extensiveness of it is what impressed them most, so much so they didn’t even have time to visit the upper floor as they had scheduled tickets for a talk given by Jennifer Johnston not long after arriving.

After hearing so much about the museum from my family I knew I had to darken its doors eventually and when Ireland’s Blue Book invited me to go the morning after our stay at Ardtara, well of course I leapt at the chance. To be amongst his work on the very bit of land that spawned him and the words that inspired him felt important so off we went to drive the 15 minutes up the road to Bellaghy.

When walking through the doors of HomePlace you are greeted by a portrait of Seamus himself in his later years with another old photo from his youth placed just behind close to the words:

“I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing”

To read Heaney’s words is one thing but to hear his own poetry spoken from his own mouth, forming the words he himself had written, is another thing entirely. And yet, before even knowing what his voice sounded like it was as if I was already reading his poems with that same deep gruff voice that hadn’t lost it’s Derry drawl; it was warm and familiar. As we walked around HomePlace we were prompted to listen to many of his poems read by Seamus at various parts of the exhibition like Midterm Break when we revisited his childhood, Route 101 which he wrote for his daughter and In The Attic, one of his final poems.

There was so much of his work that I hadn’t read before and what struck me most as I listened and watched the videos of fans who have been influenced by him (ranging from famous figures to schoolchildren) was just how accessible Heaney’s work is. It has no airs or graces but rather it’s its very earthiness that enables any reader from across the board to feel the weight of the words. The ordinary is celebrated and the truth pours out in torrents making it impossible not to see yourself or others you know in them.

 “Walk on air against your better judgement”

What perhaps isn’t as well known is how harsh a critic he was of his own work. On the upper floor of the museum you can stand in a room that mirrors the attic where Seamus spent his time writing at home, skylight and all. In the replicate you can see copies of work Seamus corrected and re-corrected even after it was published. He never stopped editing and even criticised previous work in later poems.

“But when the slates came off, extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open”

Seamus’ use of language has the capacity to transport so many of us back to memories we maybe thought were lost forever and HomePlace provides the most beautiful journey to take us there. However I wasn’t just left lamenting for my own youth after pouring myself over his poems; what I also felt was a real surge of gratitude to this man who provided us with so much. From watching old footage of him filmed in the days after he won the Nobel Prize in 1995 to reading the last words he texted to his wife right before he unexpectedly passed (Noli timere, Latin for “Don’t be afraid”), I was so moved by the gift he has given so many and also the man who was behind the iconic words.

You might not know a lot of Heaney’s work save for a line or two but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting HomePlace. For any of us that were reared in Ireland it should be a national necessity to walk the grounds that inspired poems that have dominated Irish literature and the most important poet and wordsmith of our own lifetime.

As I left HomePlace I was thinking of my Granny who has encouraged my love for poetry and reading throughout my adulthood and who has been struggling with illness the last few months. One poem stuck out the most that reminded me of her and how lucky I am to have had all those small moments with her by the stove in her kitchen, especially those moments shared in silence as I watched her finish the Irish Times crossword by the window and the light falling around her,

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.