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Author: Alex

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.

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

Happy Sunday friends! I hope you’re feeling restful and indulging yourself in some final weekend treats. I’m currently parked on the couch in a onesie cramming as much chocolate as possible in to my gob, a real sight for the eyes I assure you. Only a mere 48 hours ago I was arriving at Ardtara House Hotel, ready for a night of food and wine amidst Victorian luxury – oh, how the mighty have fallen!

I have to confess that when Ireland’s Blue Book invited us to stay at Ardtara I had to do a quick google search because I hadn’t a notion where it was. I’m guilty of being a lover of the coast so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the countryside of Co. Derry but one look at the pictures convinced me that this was a retreat worth leaving the coast for! Open fireplaces in every bedroom, an award-winning restaurant, a huge bath to soak in – I practically Flinstoned my way there!

After a week of feeling pretty miserable I was craving a bit of pampering and when we pulled in to the drive of Ardtara I was giddy to know how much of a treat we were in for. The hotel is small with only 9 rooms so there’s a real intimacy as soon as you walk through the door with the staff treating us as if, much like the vintage furniture, we’d always been there.

We were shown to our room by Valerie, a local who was full of knowledge about the manor which had been built by the Clark family in 1895 and had made their fortune in the linen industry. The room itself was huge with beautiful big windows overlooking the gardens at the front, a fireplace I couldn’t wait to light and a bathroom that was about the size of our wee house in Belfast. We hadn’t too long to enjoy the room though as we were starving and dinner was about to be served downstairs – an event I had been looking forward to all week.

The patron chef of Ardtara is the same chef of the infamous Brown’s in Derry and all the hotel reviews I had read were outpourings of love for the food. Expectations were high and thankfully completely exceeded as we dined on some of the best food I have ever eaten – no lie my friends. We began our feast in one of the drawing rooms (fancy, I know) nibbling on homemade pork crisps with apple & pear sauce along with crispy cod and kimchi (divine!) on a cosy couch by the fireplace. We were then brought in to the dining room with our wine glasses politely topped up and the next dish promptly placed before our eyes – carrot & fennel soup accompanied by homemade breads which lasted about 0.2 seconds before being polished off.

What followed after was a gastronomic whirlwind of delight – lamb samosas, breaded roast chicken bites and a fillet steak that I am still thinking about and no doubt will forever. Needless to say my belly was fighting for space in my skirt but the real shame was that I had zero room for dessert – the first time this has happened to me in me entire life. I have never not had room for a wee slither of cake but I couldn’t swallow another bite without inducing the rest of the food to return back with it. The desserts looked incredible though as I spied other guests receiving theirs with barely contained envy.

After all that food I barely made it to the room but when I did I had just enough energy to finish my wine in front of the fire in my dressing gown. As much as I have loved the summer, it was a joy to be sitting next to a fire again to keep my toes warm and I can only imagine how lovely the hotel would be as an escape during the colder months (the hotel was recently voted as the most romantic hotel in Ireland too!)

The next morning I woke after sleeping for 9 hours, the most I had slept in weeks and surprisingly with a real hunger despite the feast we had the night before. As always we just about made breakfast and luckily for us we were spoiled again with another delicious menu full of local dishes. Andrew opted for Eggs Benedict while I being the forever sugar fiend opted for French toast and maple syrup – yum!

We were sad to pack our things after only arriving what felt like a few hours before but I made sure to get a quick morning soak in the bath before we said our goodbyes to the room and the staff at Ardtara (who were busy preparing for a wedding party with arms full of roses). We could have easily have stayed on but we had tickets for the Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace, a museum dedicated to the most loved poet of Ireland that’s only 15 minutes away in Bellaghy.

Ardtara is a small but completely charming retreat that many return to again and again (Bill Murray being one of them and that guys knows what’s what) and I could understand why. You may come for the food at Ardtara but you’ll stay for the warmth of the staff and the welcoming grandeur of its rooms. It’s a perfect base for either exploring the area or for just curling up by the fire in your room with a wee glass of wine and a full belly to comfort you.

 

 

The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

Summer holidays as a kid in Ireland can be a tense affair. Back when I was child our summer holidays were spent in the back seat of the car heading south or west, fighting for space in amongst everything our Mum packed (was there any need for the half of it?) while Dad swore he wasn’t lost when we all knew he definitely was. Most summers would be wash-outs but I only seem to remember the good ones when the sun beat down and we spent what seemed like eternity outside – mostly in the nip if our childhood photos are anything to go by.

One particular holiday that stands out is the trip to Co. Kerry. We made our way there by car of course, following the Atlantic coast through counties Mayo and Galway before stopping in Clare for a night in a B&B. We all kipped in the one room, all of us kids spread out on the floor at various angles while our parents got the bed. We didn’t mind though because at that age it felt exciting to sleep on the ground despite the hundred or so crucifixes gazing down at us from the walls.

When we finally reached Dingle it felt like we were a million miles away from our home in Co. Armagh. Tracing the map with our fingers over the pages (we had one of those maps which had a page for each county), we lost track of all the roads and coastline we took to get there. The mountains loomed ahead in the distance so we would make short trips to them, renting out ponies at the Gap of Dunloe and stuffing our faces with the freshest fish we ever tasted.

I remember one particular day we were driving the Ring of Kerry when we pulled over to a lake which was catching the last bit of sunlight of the day. I stood on the edge of the road just drinking every bit of the view in and I started to well up with tears because I realised I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I was only about 9 (sensitive wee soul) but even then I knew how lucky I was to be from this island.

To this day Kerry can still take my breath away. I’ve been numerous times since that holiday, all with people who are over visiting from overseas because it truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have this deep need for foreigners to see it, nod with me and understand why I love Ireland so much, why I could never live anywhere else.

When my cousin was visiting from Australia a few weeks ago I knew we had to take her to Kerry. She is hugely proud to be half-Irish but to understand all those old songs that she listens to about Ireland we wanted to show her the places that inspired the songwriters to begin with. For that there is nowhere better than the Kingdom of Ireland!

While my knowledge of the whole county isn’t the best, I’ve highlighted a few spots that have given me great joy and know for sure that you would love too.

Best Drives

While the Ring of Kerry is breathtaking, it’s a route that can be very busy with tourists and can take a fair bit of time. Slea Head is a stunning drive out of Dingle with fantastic beaches and turquoise water. The last Star Wars movie was filmed in Ballyferriter, a village on the drive that is now bustling with a few more tourists than before. It’s still peaceful though and we managed to get the most beautiful beach all to ourselves for an entire morning before the buses arrived. If you make it here then you can take the boat out to the Blasket Islands for an excursion that will really blow the socks off ye!

Another drive is the Skellig Ring which takes you through Waterville, Portmagee and Glencar. You can even get to Valentia Island from here which is worth a day trip all on it’s own. Skelling Michael alongside Little Skelling tower in the distance turning completely white in the summer as the gannets take over to nest.

Ladies View is not far from Killarney and offers a glimpse of the Ring of Kerry without having to drive too far. The views here are one of my favourites in Kerry no matter the season but in the summer the drive there is incredible. Ferns grow ferociously, spilling on to the road and even through the windows of your car! There’s a multitude of photo opportunities on this drive alone so take it slow and stop as much as you can.

Best Beaches

Clogher Strand, Ballyferriter

My favourite beach in Kerry hands down. My cousin, sister and I spent nearly an entire day here with the beach mostly to ourselves save for the odd tourists coming and going. It’s not a great swimming beach due to the rocks and rip currents but the view alone is enough to keep you there – we had to drag ourselves away!

Derrynane Beach, Derrynane

Just off the Ring of Kerry drive this stunning beach is worth dipping your toes in to and feeling the white sand to calm you down.

Coumeenoole Beach, Slea Drive

On the Slea Drive route this narrow beach is perfect for swimming in the shallows. Just mind the currents because they can be a bit strong if you go too far!

Rossbeigh Beach

This beach has class views out towards Dingle and turquoise waters to swim in. It’s one of the best Blue Flag beaches in the region with a whole 8km so no worrying about feeling crowded!

Where to Eat

Out of the Blue, Dingle

We tried to get a table here but they were fully booked so unfortunately I can’t actually claim to have eaten here BUT I’ve been told by numerous locals that it’s the best spot in town. If you’re wise unlike me then make sure to book ahead!

Reel Dingle Fish, Dingle

A good spot if you fancy quick food and fish caught practically on the doorstep.

Páidi Ó Sé’s, Slea Drive

If you’re here in the winter this is a gem of a place to hole up in with great comfort to warm you up.

O’Carroll’s Cove Beach Bar, Ring of Kerry

The perfect stop if you’re tackling the Ring of Kerry drive and need to refuel.

Pantrí, Dingle

The perfect place for lunch and the most instagrammable too! The garden out the back even has a double seat swing where you can sip on your elderflower prosecco – yes, that is a real thing you can drink here.

O’Neill’s The Point Seafood Bar, Cahersiveen

If you’re on the Skelling Ring drive then be sure to call in here for delicious seafood and a spot to get cosy for an hour or two.

Murphy’s Ice Cream, Dingle & Killarney

If you’re still peckish after lunch or dinner then a cone from Murphy’s can never go wrong. The ice cream is made in Dingle and the staff are super friendly too offering advice on what flavour to go for.

Where to Drink 

J M Reidy’s, Killarney

This is my favourite pub in Ireland never mind Kerry! It’s an absolute labyrinth of nooks and crannies to hide in with the most delicious cocktails you’ve ever tasted. It used to be one of those typical Irish establishments back in the day when the grocer was also the hardware shop, sweet shop and bakery all rolled in to one. They’ve kept the old till amongst heaps of other gems from the old days which are just fascinating to look at but mostly it’s just a great place for music and a bit of craic.

Dick Mack’s, Dingle

A bit like JM Reidy’s with a huge range of whiskies that could do some damage. There’s also a pizza place and brewery out the back and even a leather shop at the side just in case you dance tap too hard to the music. Before you nab a wee seat behind the saloon doors though make sure to have cash because they don’t take card.

The Shire Bar, Killarney

Just for the sheet weirdness of it all this pub deserves a mention. They’re very much committed to the theme here with low ceilings and even some Hobbit juice to sip on while you wonder what the hell is going on. Worth it for the ‘gram if anything!

Kate Kearney’s Cottage, Gap of Dunloe

If there was ever an award for beer garden with the best view then this place might take it. Grab a pint and sit outside if you’re lucky before hiring a pony cart up the mountain.

John B Keane, the famous Irish playwright had this to say about being from Kerry,

“Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow. In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility”.

As a blow-in from the North I might not be able to experience the weight of being a native of Kerry but every now and again, just for a wee while, I can pretend that I do.

Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

Summer Staycation at Titanic Hotel Belfast

There are some moments in life when the littlest of things can seem so deliciously self-indulgent. Moments that feel almost laughable at how gorgeously simple they are. Drinking a cold glass of wine in a hot bath. Spending a long morning curled up in bed with breakfast and books. Sitting on the back step to soak in the last golden light of a blissful day. But do you know what I recently discovered to be the ultimate summer indulgence? A staycation at a luxury hotel a stone’s throw from my house!

Titanic Hotel Belfast is really the dream hotel if you want to experience the old and new of Belfast. Despite only opening in September the hotel has helped transform the Titanic Quarter in to the tourist haven it is today and has encouraged a multitude of businesses to spring up around it. As a local I have witnessed the impact the hotel has had but would never have dreamed I could play tourist there so when the lovely folk from Titanic Hotel kindly invited me to experience my very own staycation you bet your Jack Dawson I jumped at the chance!

Driving the 0.8 miles from our wee house in Sydenham to the hotel was a strange journey since it’s the route I take every day from work but as soon as I walked through the huge glass doors I instantly felt a million miles from home. The staff welcomed us both like we were newcomers to the city which was a real treat and made us both feel like we really were on holiday. What surprised us even more though was the level of detail in every inch of the building. Belfast’s history poured out of every corner and it’s charm out of each and every one of the staff we met.

Authenticity has obviously been crucial in the success of the hotel. In a city that has received flack for milking it’s Titanic connections, the Titanic Hotel has managed to strike a balance between celebrating the past and welcoming the future of Belfast. The building itself was once the bustling headquarters of Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who turned Belfast in to an economic empire in the early 20th century (and whose yellow cranes still form the city skyline today) and it’s unique features have not only been conserved but celebrated throughout.

While the Titanic is the shipyard’s most famous commodity, hundreds of ships were designed in the Drawing Offices of the building that now act as a function room and a bar in the hotel today. The Victorian barrel-vaulted ceilings have been preserved and updated with skylights allowing natural light to flood both rooms making them an absolute dream to photograph (while drinking cocktails of course). In fact, the tiles that decorate the front of the bar are the same tiles that were used in the Turkish baths of the Titanic (and were found in dusty boxes while the building lay derelict!).

After checking in we were shown to our room by Paddy, a bell-boy who knew more about the building’s history than most tour guides. He was even generous enough to give us a quick tour of rooms that hosted key moments in the past before he clocked off; the Presentation Room where plans were dissected and bought (and where you can enjoy Afternoon Tea today), the old telephone exchange which acted as the communications hub for the shipping offices (and where the first call announcing the sinking of the Titanic was received) and the original staircase decorated with the flax flower to commemorate Belfast’s textile industry.

While artefacts and paintings line the corridors of the main building, upstairs the design cleverly shifts. The halls are long and dark and the doors to each room are bolted like that of a ship. Inside the room the style is very much art deco but with subtle nautical accents that doesn’t feel too try-hard. We were lucky enough to stay in room 401, a spacious suite looking out to the sharp lines of the Titanic Museum (named the top tourist destination in Europe in 2016) as well as the shipping channel and Belfast hills.

It was tempting to cosy up here for the night and watch the sun set over the mountains but our bellies were rumbling and the Wolff Grill was calling. The fine dining restaurant of the hotel is another interior design feast for the eyes and was drenched in the evening light as we were shown to our table. The menu boasts local ingredients that were kindly explained by Norbert our waiter, an absolute gem of a man who had both of us laughing and grinning all night. I started off with cod & caviar (if you don’t mind) while Andrew went for arancini balls; both very delicious and both wolfed down faster than I’d like to admit. We both went for beef for main (we were on our holidays after all), a decision neither of us regretted. Full to the gills we decided to share dessert, a white chocolate pot with homemade peanut butter fudge which we almost licked off to finish but decided not to for fear of judgement from Norbert (although I’m sure he would have loved that).

After dinner we waddled out to the slipway for a dander and to watch the sun set. I had worn my fancy dress and thanked the heavens I wore Spanx even though I could barely breathe and needed to sit down after a few steps. Once the sun had gone down we found ourselves at the bar with the speciality cocktail list in our hands. The bartenders clearly liked to experiment and encouraged us to let them make us something off the menu (although the Jack & Rose did sound delicious). We were treated to the tastiest drinks (Andrew particularly loved is strawberry-decorated delight) and parked ourselves there for an hour or two chatting with other guests until even the Spanx couldn’t contain me.

The next morning we felt refreshed taking our time to enjoy the room while we still had it. The bath was a particular treat for me since my own resembles something your Granny would have sported in the 1980’s (lemon, it’s lemon – damn rental). We pottered down to the Wolff Grill again for a huge buffet breakfast; an impressive selection that I got shamefully excited about. Looking out over the slipway we felt relaxed and almost forgot how close our journey home was.

We took another walk round the building before we left not wanting to cut the trip short just yet. I found myself thinking about all the memories that the marble walls held and how much this city has changed since then. These stories would have been lost if the building hadn’t been preserved so thoughtfully and as a local this was something I felt very proud of and wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t have stayed there.

Staycations are a real treat not just because it feels super luxurious but also because it can help us fall in love with our own city. For me it was an absolute game changer and I’ve a feeling I’ll be good at playing tourist in Belfast from now on especially with hotels like the Titanic to welcome me.

Note: the Titanic Hotel invited us to stay and have dinner however all opinions in the post are of course my own! If you would like to experience the maiden summer packages the hotel are offering this season then you can check out the special offers here

 

Summer at Helen’s Tower

Summer at Helen’s Tower

It took me a few wrong turns and nearly becoming a trespasser before I finally found this place. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had one of those mad impulses to take my camera out on my own and explore but not really having any particular destination in mind. I get like this sometimes; restless to explore a place I haven’t found yet with an impatience that’s hard to contain. I poured over the map on my phone while I sat in the front seat of my car, my foot on the pedal ready for adventure. I didn’t have to search for long until I saw a pin for Helen’s Tower, a Victorian piece of history only a few miles away that I’d amazingly not hunted down yet. It was perfect! So off I went, tripod in the backseat just in case I got lucky.

Google maps took me in the direction of Newtownards and then up a tiny country road that I knew instantly I didn’t belong on; the big red letters saying “Private Road” being enough of a warning. But oh my the views! I could see right over Strangford Lough and hills that rolled for miles, peppered with the bright yellow gorse bushes that take over this time of year. I even came across deer roaming between fields and rolled down the window holding my breath to get a better look.

Realising that I’d have to find an alternative route to the tower without having an angry farmer chasing me down the lane, I took a few random turns before finally noticing a tiny, completely missable entrance on Crawfordsburn Road with two or three cars parked beside it. Swinging the tripod over my shoulder like Huckleberry Finn I optimistically made my way up the windy path, hoping I was heading in the right direction (there was no real sign letting me know I was in the right place!).

A few minutes in to the walk I was smitten. The path shone gold ahead of me with the summer afternoon light speckling through the leaves above me. Every now and again the trees would give way to something new; a meadow full of wildflowers or a lake full of nosey swans with a path cutting across the middle. The further I walked the more lost I felt in this new Narnia land that I had all to myself.

Eventually the path turned in to a hill and I knew I was coming close to the tower. Panting and cursing the tripod that was now burrowing a hole in my shoulder, I climbed over root-covered paths that threatened to trip me if I wasn’t careful. Rhododendrons seemed to spring up out of nowhere and bluebells were out in full force. Sweating like pig I wasn’t exactly feeling princess-y but I could see the roof of the tower between the trees! It was beautiful and I gazed up at it while I splayed out on the grass recovering from the unexpected hike.

This place is a true gem and each time I’ve been it’s been practically deserted of people. An even bigger surprise was learning that you can actually rent this spot out via the Irish Landmark Trust – can you imagine?!! It would be the perfect romantic getaway for two with the rooftop providing the perfect spot to survey “your” land while sipping on a few glasses of wine. While I was forced to make do with being a lowly civilian I could still see why there were numerous poems written about this place (Tennyson himself penned one in honour of the tower); the woodlands surrounding it are full of magic and even today it feels like you’re a million miles away from anyone else.

I started to make my way back to the car when the sun started to fall low and I remembered with a panic that I was all by myself in a place devoid of people. I half-ran half-skipped back to the car and promised myself that this would be my secret space this summer (a secret that I definitely couldn’t not share it seems!) and that I would be back to explore more. But maybe with Andrew next time as my Tower bodyguard/photographer…

P.S. The Irish Landmark Trust have a tonne of properties you should have a look at if staying in a ridiculously romantic location is your thing! It’s not an ad but just a vital piece of information I’ve newly learned!

 

 

 

The Struggle With Being Present

The Struggle With Being Present

Hello friends! It’s been a while hasn’t it? I so hope that you’ve been enjoying all the amazingness May has brought with her; wildflowers, blossoms, SUNSHINE! My goodness it feels great to be able to swish about in dresses again but not so good for the lazy git in me who hates shaving her legs (I flat out refuse to go above the knee).

While I would use this chance to apologise for my unplanned stint of absenteeism, I am choosing to forego excuses and admit to you that I was just busy living as best I could now that the longer evenings have slipped in and cold afternoon beers are perfectly acceptable. This refusal to apologise ended up being the basis for this post as I began to feel the familiar guilt creeping in when I realised I hadn’t written anything beyond work emails and social media captions in weeks.

Truth be told I am consciously trying to enjoy the perks of Spring with no strings attached. This might sound ludicrous to some people but for those of us who are on the never-ending hamster wheel of social media the struggle to keep up is very real. There’s a running joke amongst many that if you didn’t put it in on Instagram then it didn’t happen which is a frightening truth I have come to see in myself.

A few weekends ago Andrew and I took a stroll to a local woodland to see how the bluebells were coming up. I had taken the camera to snap a few photos and asked Andrew (the ever-patient Insta partner) to take a few portraits of me while I was there. Now this is nothing new for either of us but Andrew nervously commented how he would like to go somewhere just once without the need to document it and felt that I wasn’t being present when we were exploring these places together because of my addictive need to get as many beautiful photos as possible.

I might have looked hurt for a second but the truth was he was right. I’m not sure if this is because of social media or because I truly love photography but it is an obsession I am becoming more and more aware of. I have definitely been that friend at dinner who takes a quick video or photo of the food before we eat and I have definitely visited a place based on how Insta-worthy it is. And while I know there is no real harm in this (and I am certainly not alone!), I am only recently seeing how it’s beginning to affect my own ability to be present especially when I am with the people I love.

Doing it for the ‘gram is not something I want to be known for. I recently read a piece by Mel Wiggins recently where she spoke about adding value and being more conscious about what we decide to share with the world be it through blogging or social media and it made me think about why I started blogging in the first place. I have always wanted to use this blog as a way to make a connection with someone else, share my thoughts and discover places that you or I didn’t know about. However I also want to keep that separate from my own wee moments that I have to myself or with those close to me. I don’t want to interrupt that time just because I see an ivy wall and think “OMG I HAVE TO GET A PHOTO HERE!” because does it actually matter if I keep something for myself?

I want the people I love to get all of me when I’m with them, not a half-present scroller who is double checking if she got a decent photo or replying to comments on her latest post. I also want you guys, the folks who I love to share stories with, to see the real genuine side of my life. While it might be hard to believe, I actually do love to visit the apple blossoms when I go to visit my family in Armagh and I live for exploring new places on my weekends. However I will be making a conscious effort to not put pressure on my spare time to produce pleasing content proving I did something worthwhile with my time because we all deserve time to just be, right??

Don’t get me wrong, I will continue to share photos and words from places I want you to see and I think are beautiful because that brings me immense joy! Sitting here writing and editing cross-legged on the sofa after a day of work (with jeans unzipped naturally) makes me stupidly happy because I love nothing more than being honest whether it be through my writing and photography. I also want to be able to forgive myself for the moments of supposed weakness when I see something beautiful and want to capture it. There is absolutely no shame in doing something that makes us happy so there should be no shame when we want to record or share it but for me the key is creating those boundaries where I don’t feel like I’m living my life through a screen.

With that in mind and in the spirit of Mental Health week I have decided to set myself a few boundaries in the hope it might help me become a more present person but also become more relaxed and focused. In case you’re feeling the same I’ve decided to share them but please let me know if you have any of your own thoughts that you’d like to share too!

Allocate Time for Social Media

For a while I was sharing on IG stories, Instagram and Facebook multiple times throughout the day but now I allocate a short time in the evening after dinner to do all of this. It means I’m not having to constantly check my phone for replies or comments and I’m spending a lot less time on my phone because of it.

Leaving My Phone Behind

I’ve been doing this recently when I go for a big walk or get out in nature. I’ll take my camera just in case but just not having my phone in my pocket removes the temptation to check for updates and allows me to feel so much more present.

Posting Less

For a while there I was completely guilty for buying in to the social media climb. I really wanted to see my numbers grow which convinced me that I had to be present on social media throughout the day and post a photo at least once. This pressure meant I was posting photos and content that felt rushed and irrelevant which meant that my following weren’t really seeing me. At the end of the day, an authentic following is one who you engages with you naturally and who continue to support you no matter how often you post. This is a lesson I am so glad to have learned and now I’ll only post a few times a week when I have the time.

Using Apps

I downloaded the Forest app to help gain a bit of willpower in my moments of weakness. The app allows you to plant a seed and the longer you manage to leave your phone the seed will grow in to a tree. It’s been a great tool for me because I’m a visual person who needs to see the reward so I’ll be keeping it up (especially in the office!).

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

Fun fact: one of my first jobs was in a florist. OK maybe not that fun but it’s true! Back in yesteryear when I was 16, I worked each Saturday and Sunday in a wee shop called The Flower Bowl in Armagh for the grand whopping sum of £3.50 an hour. While the money sounds like absolute pittance now, in my mind I thought I was rich (it funded my addiction to Natural Collection lipgloss).

What brought me the most happiness though was the fact I was being paid to be surrounded by all kinds of beautiful flowers. Each weekend my fingers turned green and numb making up bouquets in a room that was freezing cold to keep the flowers fresh. I got to know the names of weird and wonderful exotics (Bird of Paradise, Proteas) and discovered that there were about a million species of Chrysanthemum. I beamed as I saw the bouquets I had created being sold because I saw how they brought such a simple joy to people’s day. As a teenager it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for flowers and nature and was probably one of the reasons I ended up studying Ecological Science at university a few years later.

Now that I’m an old lady that love for flowers is still there. I buy fresh flowers almost every week, breaking up a bouquet in to glass jars and dotting them around the house. I’ve even been known to dabble in a bit wreath making if you don’t mind. However when Spring arrives I stop buying and start foraging. Our woodlands, gardens and even roadsides come to life this time of year which makes it an absolute dream for gathering. ‘Tis the season for colour and beauty and in light of this I’ve decided to share a few of my favourite local spots with you lovely lot!

While it’s OK to pick flowers in most of these places, some of the areas are protected so the wildflowers are just for gazing lovingly at (and for plenty of Instagram pics of course). If you’re ever unsure about picking a wildflower in case they could be endangered, it’s best to look it up or just leave it but don’t worry, there are plenty of flowers that are free to collect (within reason, please don’t go mad and completely devastate a patch to fuel you’re habit, OK?)

Happy foraging pals!

The Best Places to Find Wildflowers

Lagan Meadows (for an urban oasis)

This oasis in the centre of Belfast provides the best spot for foraging and for finding a quiet place for a picnic in the city. The place comes to life in Spring with butterflies everywhere but just mind the local cows since they’re known to wander around the meadows too!

Loughgall Country Park (for wild garlic and apple blossom)

In my native Co. Armagh there are a few local woodlands to explore but this is one of my favourites since you’re so close to all the local orchards that come to blossom in the Spring. If you’re feeling brave you might find the courage to ask a local orchard farmer for a photo and some blossom to take home with you! I foraged for wild garlic here last year with my pal Rebecca taking the photos which you can see more of here as well as a wee recipe for wild garlic pasta too.

Rowallane Gardens (for manicured gardens rustic woodland)

While you can’t pick flowers in the gardens, this remains one of my favourite gardens in NI which comes to life in the Spring. There’s even a rustic conservatory with climbing foliage, a perfect Instagram scene! To find the wildflowers you have to walk up around the house to the woodland that spreads behind it. This is my favourite part and is a lot quieter than the gardens.

Cavehill Country Park (for bluebells)

A carpet of bluebells dominate the floor of the woodland for only a few short weeks but it’s worth a visit this time of year to see the sea of blue. Make sure not to pick the Spanish bluebells though since the species is endangered! You can find wild garlic here too which you will probably smell first since it’s so sweet.

Crawfordsburn Meadow (for diversity)

This reserve is protected so unfortunately you can’t forage here but it’s a beautiful place to admire this time of year and take plenty of photos! There aren’t many meadows left in Ireland so this place is really special especially since the woodland connected to it is just as beautiful. You can even hear the waves crashing on Crawfordsburn beach too!

Rathlin Island (for abundance)

This has to be my favourite place to scour for wildflowers since there is just so many different species to discover. The remoteness of Rathlin Island means that the wildflowers have the opportunity to really take over the island so while everyone is searching for the puffins, you can hunt for all the pretty flowers on the rest of the island!

The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

To be barefoot on a Connemara beach in April is the closest I think I’ll ever get to a miracle. We had driven down to the west coast from Belfast the night before and the weather had been wild as we arrived in to the mountains. The wind was howling and the rain turned the landscape in to a muddy watercolour painting with hundreds of waterfalls washing across the roads taking us to Letterfrack. April showers take on a new meaning in Connemara and it was safe to say that expectations for the weekend had taken a back seat as we finally approached Rosleague Manor, our base for the weekend. We ran up to the entrance to avoid getting soaked and when entering the hallway it felt like the antithesis of outside. There was an instant feeling of warmth from the open fires burning in the drawing rooms to the friendly welcome from Mark (a third generation member of the Foyle family who runs Rosleague) and I thought to myself, “even if it rains all weekend I reckon we’ll be just grand in here”.

We had gone to bed early that night, weary from the long drive and hours of conversation on the road. While I was delighted to be curling up in a beautiful bed in a manor house, I secretly hoped for a miracle, just a patch of blue sky so we could see the views that I knew were around us. The next morning I was woken up by the sunlight streaming through the curtains at about 6.30am and it took me a moment to register why I was awake so early. I eventually realised that it was sunlight, SUNLIGHT, that woke me up! I bounced out of bed and practically ran to the lake to soak in the morning (you can hear more about this walk and see photos in my previous post here).

After breakfast we set off on our drive, energised by the sun that continued to beat down with no cloud in the sky for competition. We took the Sky Road, an obvious choice on a day like this which provides the most amazing views of the Atlantic and the hundreds of islands that seem to hug the coastline like barren satellites. We stopped off at as many beaches as we could as the temperatures started to rise to a balmy 15 degrees and that’s when I found myself at Mannin Bay, barefoot without a cardigan or goosebump to be seen!

Blue skies met even bluer waters and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the same part of the world I fell asleep in. Connemara is truly a land of contrasts with a clear day completely transforming the coast and the mountains that loom over it. The mountains became golden with the few clouds creating shadow shows as they drifted lazily across the sky.

We drove most of the day beach-hopping and stopping off for seafood when our stomachs began to rumble. We ate outside on the streets of Roundstone at O’Dowd’s; me wolfing down crab claws and Andrew his staple of battered fish and chips. I drank a glass of white wine and could feel my chest burning a little as the sun bore down and not a trace of wind could be found in the air. I felt unashamedly smug as I closed my eyes and soaked up every ounce of vitamin D I could manage since it had been about 6 months since my poor bones felt anything like it.

Connemara is famous for its wild weather and landscape but few know the Connemara we got to experience last weekend. The turquoise waters, the white beaches, the burned cheeks from the Spring sun. If you ever find yourself as lucky as I was then please make sure to visit the beaches I have listed here. I’m sure they’re just as beautiful when weather is bit more turbulent, the seas furiously stormy and the wind blowing because that is the romantic view most have of the west coast but when the winds settle, the clouds part and the sea calms, well you have a pocket of paradise right before you.

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

The water here is spectacular so no surprise that it’s a favourite spot for water sports. If you’re not too keen to brave the water by snorkelling then you can take a kayak out and spy the marine life swimming beneath you in crystal clear waters. It was empty when we were there and incredibly peaceful too so you might just get the water all to yourself.

Omey Island

The island is connecting to the mainland by a tidal strand that is only permissible during times of low tide. The strand is popular for families who fancy a bit of sand castle building and beach combing but we ventured on to the island itself with hardly a person in sight. There’s a beach on the far side of the island which was deserted and felt incredibly private save for a few neighbourly heifers and their calves.

Dog’s Bay

This is probably the most popular beach in the area and for good reason. The bay provides safe calm waters for young kids to splash about it and the water is just as clear as Mannin too. The long white sandy beach is great for walking off a lunch and the mountains behind you provide a stunning backdrop to gaze up at when you walk back to your car. Roundstone is close by too and a lovely harbour town to grab some lunch in.

Coral Strand

Typical of Ireland this beach is known for its folklore since it’s said that if you pick up a fistful of coral sand in each hand you have two choices. If you want to have luck in love then you through the sand in your left hand over your left shoulder. If you want luck in money then you should through the sand in right hand over your right shoulder. You can’t do both though, sure ye can’t have too much luck! Apparently this beach has some of the warmest waters too so shouldn’t be too terrifying to take a dip in if you’re feeling the need to cool off from the Connemara heat.

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

It was Friday last week when we found ourselves making the 5 hour trek to Connemara. We’d deliberated over the trip for a while because it was a fair jaunt to go for only two nights and since Andrew is a freak when it comes to devaluing his car he worried that his precious might suffer with the distance (is this a guy thing or what?!). What convinced us though was our desperate need for a change of scenery and there is truly nowhere else for scenery in Ireland but Connemara! So off we went with the car packed and lovingly checked over by Andrew (she gets treated nicer than me sometimes) with podcasts at the ready to keep us occupied while we made our way south west.

We had been invited down to Connemara by Ireland’s Blue Book who I had worked with before when I had visited their beautiful Castle Grove property back in February. They have a collection of 54 historical houses, castles and manors scattered across the most romantic locations in Ireland and they had asked us to visit Rosleague Manor House, a pink ivy-clad piece of gorgeousness found just outside Letterfrack on the banks of Ballinakill Bay.

Before our trip we tried to plan for all sorts of weather since Connemara is well known for it’s unpredictable climate. You might as well forget any sort of forecast checking because it seems to change every hour and you kind of just have to roll with the punches be it rain, hail or sunshine. We hadn’t our hopes set very high coming in to Co. Galway that evening since the wind was howling through every gap in the car and the rain was lashing against the windows making the mountains look like sad brown smudges. Andrew wasn’t too impressed after having driven half the day but I had this doggedly annoying positivity that we might get a glimmer of sunshine, even a pocket of blue sky would make it all worthwhile!

We finally arrived at the manor just after sunset (or at least we thought so since we hadn’t seen the sun since we left Fermanagh) and were met by Mark at reception, a third generation owner and member of the Foyle family who took over the house 50 years ago back in 1968. Mark is incredibly warm and seeing how knackered we were from the drive, took us off to our room and organised a table for us to eat once we’d rested our bones for a minute or two.

The room wasn’t so much like a bedroom but more like a small apartment (my university flat was definitely smaller) with beautiful French windows that opened up to a private patio overlooking the bay. I looked at the huge bed and wanted to collapse in it immediately because who doesn’t need to sleep at least one night of their lives in a curtained bed?? But we had dinner to eat first so we dragged ourselves to the dining room which, to our sweet relief, was surprisingly casual given the surroundings.

We settled back and ordered some French wine before tucking in to some local dishes. The manor restaurant takes advantage of the landscape surrounding them so all their dishes include the freshest ingredients from the doorstep. I went for the monkfish and Andrew opted for the Connemara lamb rack which we practically inhaled after a day on the road. Feeling very relaxed after a few glasses we went all the way and ordered desserts; creme brûlée for him (always if it’s on the menu) and for me a chocolate piece of deliciousness that I can’t remember the name of (it sounded French!) along with caramel ice cream – YUM!

We trotted off to bed after we licked our plates and pretty much passed out as soon as our heavy heads hit the freshly plumped pillows. Having fallen asleep so early, I woke up just after sunrise much to Andrew’s annoyance. I think his least favourite trait of mine is the fact I wake up early when we’re supposed to be on our “holidays” while he wants to savour the lie-in as much as possible. My argument is I find quiet mornings to myself the biggest luxury of a holiday and when I woke up to see the sun beaming through the curtains I couldn’t contain myself!

To give the man some peace I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and opened the french doors to explore the grounds of the house. I found a garden path that took me down to the bay and followed it as the golden light of sunrise bathed everything around me. When I reached the water it was like glass, the mountains reflecting like a mirror. I was dumbstruck for a few minutes as I tried my best to soak every second in because I had it all to myself and that felt so special.

I watched the mist rolling across the far side of the bay for a while and kept walking along the beach to take a few photos. I was wearing pumps (rookie) and nearly lost them a few times in the beach which technically was more bogland in parts. I did as best I could to walk around but suddenly came to a stream that was pouring in the bay which was blocking my path. I was determined to see more of the view and I must have been still been half asleep because I just walked on through the stream like a complete eejit asking for a good dose of pneumonia!

It wasn’t so much cold as physically painful but I continued on because I’m a nutcase and tried to convince myself that this is what real photographers do. Or at least people with half a brain anyway. Wiggling my toes to bring them back to life I walked on round the bay and stood for about an hour in complete quiet, listening to the soft sounds of Connemara and smiling up at the blue skies that looked to be staying for the day. It’s times like this that I’m glad I’m a morning person.

Eventually I realised I needed to head back and get a hot shower to warm my wee hooves and after that I tucked in to breakfast which consisted of the following: 2 x croissants, granola with yogurt and berries, local salmon with scrambled eggs, local apple juice and lots of tea. While I was making my way through my feast (while Andrew was still tucked up in bed) I noticed that the same staff were serving me as the night before. Over the course of the two days the people who worked there became so familiar it was as if I joined a small family in this beautiful big house. They would chat away to us, filling us in on local favourites and where we should head off to. Even the guests became familiar (and as the hotel is dog-friendly, their pets too!), with one particular German couple being my favourites. Later that evening I would walk past them on the front lawn where they had parked themselves facing the harbour with a beer to watch the sun go down. They called out to me, “We are like a couple from the 1930’s!” as they both laughed together. My heart fell to pieces.

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the beaches and roads of the countryside while we thanked our stars for the change in weather. Connemara truly shines when the clouds decide to part. l mean literally shines as the brown landscape dazzles gold in the sunlight. The colours that were muted on our arrival became saturated and I understood why so many poets and artists and writers have used this land as their muse. It awakes the dreamer, the wild restless soul seeking for something to make them feel alive. At the very least it made me feel so lucky to be able to call this island home and to have the bed at Rosleague to sleep in after a day of adventure.

I would massively recommend using Rosleague as your Connemara base if you ever find yourself tempted by an escape to the wild Atlantic coastline. I can genuinely say that we’ll definitely be back again and I can only hope that we have the sheer luck to have blue skies the next time too!

I’ll be posting more photos of our trip including all the secret and no-so-secret beaches we managed to squeeze in one day but for now enjoy some of our memories from Rosleague and the grounds we explored while we were there.

Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

After the last big chill of St. Patrick’s weekend, Spring has decided to grace us with her presence here in Ireland – finally! The days are suddenly a wee bit longer, a wee bit warmer and a wee bit sweeter. Maybe we can all stop talking about how freezing that winter was now?!

We had the Monday off after Paddy’s Day and after waking up to snow in Dublin the day before, our expectations were fairly low for weather at home in Belfast. You can imagine my giddy surprise then when I saw actual sun-rays beaming through the curtains the next morning; I could even hear birds singing outside! Andrew wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the glorious day that stretched ahead of us as he tends to be fairly melodramatic in the mornings. He even purchased a black-out eye mask recently for his delicate peepers and wears ear plugs so the kids next door don’t wake him up – not exactly a morning kind of guy (and a guy who will get a major shock when he becomes a Dad one day).

After he managed to peel himself from the scratcher I immediately told him we were headed for an adventure in the spring sunshine (he is so lucky to have me, I know). I knew he wouldn’t have wanted to head too far but lucky for us there are tonnes of pretty spots within quick driving distance of Belfast.

I chose to heads towards Newtownards which is about 15 minutes from Belfast and sits at the very northern tip of Strangford Lough. It’s a town I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more and the area around it is full of places to explore, some of which are fairly unknown to those living in the city up the road.

I’ve listed a few of my favourite locations in the area for food, photography and views to help entice you towards the Lough. It’s definitely a place worth venturing to now the brighter days are among us, even just to catch a glimpse of an Irish golden sunset melting in to the Mourne mountains on the other side of the water.

Scrabo Tower

The tower is an imposing presence above Newtownards and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the North Down area. This means that there are killer views the lough and on a good day you can even spy Scotland in the distance if you squint hard enough!

The hill is a bit of a steep climb so your thighs won’t thank you but you can rest them at one of the picnic stops on the way. You can actually wander inside the tower during the summer months to learn a bit more about it’s history too but mostly I like to admire it from outside where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.

Mahee Island

About a 5 minute drive outside of Newtownards lies Mahee Island, an island connected to the mainland by a tiny wee road that seems to lead to hundreds of wee islands. There is something very secretive about these islands, most of them are privately owned so you can’t be too nosy but Mahee Island itself is welcome to tourists and is perfect for getting to know a completely different side of Co. Down.

There are castle ruins to explore, empty beaches to stroll on and clear blue waters to canoe your way through to get a better view of all the islands. There’s even a wetland centre too which showcases the huge variety of wildlife in the area too. It’s definitely a hidden gem on the banks of the Lough and a perfect place to take the bikes out to if we’re ever blessed with a good day.

Haptik

Do you know those cafés you visit for the first time that make you think to yourself: I would love to run a place like this? Well Haptik is one of those places. We ate there for the first time recently and as soon as we walked in I knew I would be back many times.

The industrial décor was right up my street (anyone who follows me on Instagram will see this in my stories!) but the food was what impressed us most. The menu had an Australian brunch feel to it with Andrew practically licking the smashed avocado off his plate. Johnny (who runs the place along with his wife) was super friendly and told us they do monthly supper clubs too so I’m now following them on Facebook to make sure I can book on to the next one!

The best surprise of all though was upstairs where they have an ongoing art exhibition and amazing children’s shop call Wu Concept. It’s the perfect place to pick up a gift for a wee one or just to go and feel extremely broody (which was what I did).

Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart is a National Trust favourite and a popular summer destination epecially among families. The gardens come to life in the warmer months with a lake to stroll around away from the crowds.

The house is now open for tours too if you’re feeling particularly aristocratic with events running throughout the year too. I tend to visit the house in the late afternoon because it has the perfect sunset view over the water which is always the perfect way to end a day of adventure.