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A Local Gift Guide For The Last Minute Panic Buyer

A Local Gift Guide For The Last Minute Panic Buyer

I have to confess a festive habit of mine: I’m a classic last-minute shopper. I do it every year! I think I’m way ahead of myself, practically giving myself a pat on the back only to realise when I’m wrapping that I’m actually I’m a few people short. Cue a shot of me, sweat lashing off me in a packed store swearing to myself I’ll do better next year.

And here we are, the week before Christmas and I’ve given myself two challenges:

  1. Be organised enough to avoid the Christmas Eve chaos
  2. Shop local

The local high street and small businesses enjoy their busiest time of year at Christmas however in most circumstances they are out-beaten by massive online retailers as convenience is highest on the consumer list. I get it, it’s super easy to just click and order everything on Amazon but it’s the smaller guys who suffer.

We’re spoiled for choice here in Belfast and NI and just in case you’re the last minute shopper like I am, I thought I’d share my favourite local businesses depending on the kind of person you’re shopping for. There’s one for everyone on this list!

FOR YOUR DAD WHO LIKES TO BRING HIS OUTDOORS INSIDE…

Bearded Candle Makers

Michael is a true artist and has cemented himself as one of the finest chandlers in Ireland. His scents tell a story that most of us will identify with (Turf Fire is a firm favourite which no doubt your Dad would love!) and he continues to try new combinations, challenging people to tap in to memories when they take a whiff of his gorgeous candles.

FOR YOUR HUSBAND WHO WEARS A BEANIE ALL WINTER…

Bramble Green

Bramble Green is a family-run business headed by Claire from her home on the North Coast. Their knitwear is handmade by local women and they have pieces for men, women and children – their bonnets are adorable! I’ve been wearing the Donegal Hipster beanie for a few winters now and it’s kept my head toasty on the coldest of days.

FOR YOUR SUPER COOL SISTER WHO YOU WILL ALWAYS IDOLISE…

Lines & Current

A local jewellery brand, Lines & Current was started by Rebekah, quite possibly the coolest woman in Belfast. Her jewellery is simple but stunning and can be worn every day.

FOR YOUR DISORGANISED WORK PAL…

Shared Threads

Shared Threads is a wonderful community of creatives who have been brought together by Kirsty, an incredible local woman who wanted to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable women. Her team make and distribute sanitary products using second hand cotton and towels to lower the environmental impact and to help aid their work, they’ve created a beautiful calendar that you can buy over on their website. This would be a beautiful gift that would help an incredible cause!

FOR YOUR BEST MATE WHO IS READY FOR A MAJOR SHIFT…

Mel Wiggins

Sometimes all it takes is gentle encouragement to make the change we’ve been longing for. Mel Wiggins is a super talented coach from Portadown who I feel blessed to have met through the Assembly community she created a few years ago. I have been a member now for a year and I’ve been able to tap in to ideas and dreams I didn’t realise I had permission to explore. You could buy your pal a membership or a voucher for a course of Mel’s – I guarantee you it would make a life-changing gift.

FOR YOUR ECO-CONSCIOUS COUSIN…

Do Your Bit

Teal has been a huge inspiration for me in trying to make my life as plastic-free as possible (it’s HARD!). Her shop is full of alternatives to plastic products and it would help anyone who is trying to make that change too.

The Homely Haven

Laura Jayne has been another inspiration this year as she’s started her journey in sustainable living. She runs workshops from her home in Co. Armagh that teach others who are trying to rid their home of toxins amongst other creative workshops too – a voucher to one of her workshops would delight anyone who’s keen to learn a new and more intentional way of  living.

FOR YOUR UNCLE THAT IS ALWAYS RECOMMENDING YOU OBSCURE BOOKS…

Books, Paper, Scissors

This is probably my favourite bookshop to explore on a rainy day in Belfast. Located just across the road from the Ulster Museum in Stranmillis, the shop is full of books to satisfy every age and taste including some beautiful stationery too.

Turf & Grain Magazine

Turf & Grain is a beautiful local publication that’s full of stories, poems and stunning photography all told by those from the island of Ireland. An issue would make a beautiful stocking filler and will no doubt be shared by the family.

FOR YOUR MUM WHO LOVES A HAMPER…

Pomegranate & Fig

OK, I know she’s my sister and I may be a bit bias but honestly, have you seen her grazing boards?! Shannon’s boards are a work of art and a voucher would delight anyone who wants to have a board for a family event or just for a cosy night in this winter.

Neary Nogs

Nestled along the Mourne Coast, Neary Nogs is the first bean to chocolate makers that have been cultivating a variety of flavours and combinations over the last few years. I’ve been buying my Granny their drinking chocolate for her midnight cocoa for months and it’s a huge hit!

Indie Füde

In the village of Comber lies a wonderland of local delicacies and treats. The folks at Indie Füde have worked hard to curate an amazing range of food products all sourced from the island of Ireland and that change with the seasons. A perfect spot to gather goods for a festive hamper!

FOR YOUR BROTHER WHO THINKS HE’S MASTERCHEF…

The Edible Flower

Erin & Jo have opened their Co. Down home to food lovers since 2016 and since then their supper clubs have been in huge demand. They also run a variety of workshops from their home too; veggie cooking classes, thai cooking classes and even a home-brewing workshop! A ticket to one of their events would be a perfect gift to for anyone looking to branch out on their culinary skills in 2020.

Enrich & Endure

Image from Enrich & Endure

Brother/sister duo Lorcan and Sarah started Enrich & Endure with the vision of reviving the local linen industry which had all but disappeared in recent years. Their aprons and tea towels are made right here in NI and are designed to last making them a gift that will be cherished for years to come.

FOR YOUR GRANNY WHO LOVES A GIFT SET…

The Natural Beauty Pot

Shauna started The Natural Beauty Pot when she struggled to find products that didn’t irritate her sensitive skin so she made the brave decision to make her own. As a trained beautician she was well qualified for the task and she now has her own studio in Co. Fermanagh where she creates products using gentle but effective ingredients suitable for everyone.

FOR YOUR GRANDA WHO’S FAVOURITE CHORE IS WATERING HIS PLANTS…

Wild Thing

This little jungle is a haven on the North Down coastline and each visit is such a treat. Karen sells a huge variety of plants as well as sourcing a range of candles, jewellery and homeware. A new plant would brighten up a corner of any home or a voucher would mean they would get to visit the jungle themselves.

FOR YOUR WIFE WHO SMUGGLES IN HOMEWARE LIKE IT’S CONTRABAND…

Studio Souk

This is the place I recommend to visitors to Belfast who want to find something special as a souvenir because all three floors are filled with local treasures. There’s not just tourist gifts sold here, there’s also beautiful art, design and crafts all locally made and each making the gift for anyone proud of their home.

Maven

This shop is a Scandi dream and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone in to choosing a range that reflects design and purpose. Sisters Catherine and Patricia have sourced stunning pieces that would make perfect stocking fillers or, if you’re after something larger, then there’s gorgeous furniture upstairs too!

BTS Concept

Ah, I love this shop. I can’t help but call in when we’re up around the north coast and I always pick out a gift for an upcoming birthday or celebration (or just for me!). BTS offers a selection of interiors and giftware inspired by the muted tones and natural textures of the coast that draws folks that want to bring the outside in to their home.

FOR YOUR SUPER COOL AUNTIE WHO ALWAYS WEARS THE COOLEST CLOTHES…

Alf & Roe Vintage

Our local girl Cleo Parkinson modelling Alf & Roe and captured by Filly Campbell Photography

Who knew there would be such a treasure trove in the tiny village of Donaghmore?! This wee shop in rural Co. Tyrone has a gorgeous collection of vintage finds that would bring joy to anyone who loves to wear something a little different, a piece of clothing with history.

FOR THE LITTLE ONES IN YOUR LIFE WHO ARE GROWING LIKE WEEDS…

Wu Concept

Possibly the sweetest children’s boutique I’ve been to! Each item has been carefully thought of and encourages individuality and creativity. I always turn to this place when I’m buying for friend’s children and I know I’ll be back when I have my own one day.

Merry Christmas!!

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!!!

 

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! 

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 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!

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.

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Local Favourites: Linen Hall Library, Belfast

When I enter a library I think I get the same feeling that many religious people might feel when they enter a beautiful church or cathedral. There’s a sense of calm that envelopes me and I almost feel like every cell in my body relaxes, as if I’ve arrived home. Being from the land of saints and scholars means that a love of literature is in my blood and to my luck I live on an island littered with beautiful libraries to explore, many on my very own doorstep!

 

With Valentine’s Day looming I thought it was apt that I visit the place that housed the oldest love stories in my city, the Linen Hall library. It was my first time visiting last Saturday and I almost missed the entrance entirely it was so neatly tucked between modern retail chains. Originally the library was located across Donegal Square where the City Hall now sits and while it’s current residence is a little more understated, it is still one of the most beautiful buildings in Belfast.

Founded in 1788, the library is the oldest in the city and is the last subscribing library in Northern Ireland. Inside there are beautiful desks with antique bankers lamp for the members to read their latest literary find as well as cosy chairs in different nooks and crannies for those who want to hide away from the city. You can people watch from the old stained glass windows that let the natural light flood in and spy on the folk sprawled on the grass outside City Hall.

The library was initially founded by the Belfast Reading Society but in 1792, the library became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge whose aim was to ‘improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry’, an ethos that has managed to live on and ensure the library’s survival despite attempts to crackdown on such free thinking throughout Belfast’s troubled past.

 

Their collection is impressive with the oldest book dating back to 1490 (De Avina written by Eastern physician Avicenna) but it’s their collection of Irish culture and politics that is truly remarkable. In fact, the first librarian was Thomas Russell, a founding member of the United Irishmen and a close friend of Wolfe Tone. The importance of maintaining and preserving Irish culture and her language lives on with weekly gatherings held each Saturday morning for Gaels to meet and speak in their mother tongue.

 

To find such a peaceful sanctuary in the chaos of a busy city is a rarity and one that should be cherished and protected. Thankfully the library has been able to move with the times and hosts a range of exhibitions and events all year giving more reason to return again, even if it’s just to find a quiet place to enjoy a cup of tea in the quaint café.

With free admission there is really no excuse not to visit this urban refuge. I know I’ll be back for sure, most likely on a rainy day when I can curl up on one of the armchairs and read while looking out at this ever-changing city.

All photos were taken by Marianne from Perfect Opening Line, a true local talent who I couldn’t recommend more! 

10 Festive Activities To Do This Christmas

10 Festive Activities To Do This Christmas

Happy Monday friends! Has your week started off the way you had hoped? Tired already? ‘Tis the season for constant tail-chasing after all which can often lead to us forgetting to just be and enjoy everything wonderful the festive seasons brings along with it. There is a lot of pressure, especially on parents I think, to have the most-absolutely-amazingly-fun-Christmas-ever turning moments that are supposed to be fun and light-hearted in to this mess of forced memories we are intent on making for ourselves.

How about instead of rushing around trying to tick off a crazy festive bucket list, we make time for the wee moments and not berate ourselves for missing out something that would have stressed us out? Don’t feel guilty if you don’t make it to the big Christmas light switch-on (crowds of people gathered in the freezing cold ain’t for everyone) or feel like standing in queue for another freakin’ grotto (for a photo that will probably scar your child). How about doing something that won’t stress you out or your family?

I’ve created a list of things I know will personally bring me a wee bit of happiness in between all the shopping and innumerable social gatherings (I am even socialising midweek now!). Feel free to take a few ideas for yourself but remember, don’t put the pressure on to do it all. Think about why you’re doing it and if you’re not doing it for the pure joy of it then strike it off the list.

Go Ice Skating

It’s not for everyone but I love the adrenaline of trying to stay vertical while giving my thighs the biggest workout they’ve seen all year. It’s fun (to me anyway) and is a real winter novelty that I have no shame in indulging in. For those local to Belfast there is always the trusty Dundonald rink that I’ve been going to since I was a youngster but there’s also a rink opening for a few days over the winter break at the SSE Arena OR if you want to go really crazy, grab some tickets for the Winter Wonderland at the Clandeboyne Estate which would be a real festive treat.

Christmas Crafting

For me, making a homemade wreath or crafting presents to hand out to my loved ones is something that can bring the most happiness at this time of year than anything else. It’s a quiet time for just me amongst all the noise which is imperative for me to keep my sanity (while making a complete mess).

Sing Carols

I am no singer and not a church-goer and yet there is something hauntingly beautiful about attending a carolling service. If you’re not part of a church like me then try something different like attending a night at the orchestra at the Ulster Hall? My favourite is ‘Fall On Your Knees’ all because of Home Alone, of course.

Local Christmas Markets

The Belfast markets can be complete madness and can actually be more stressful than fun. However smaller local markets can be just as enjoyable and filled with tasty treats that you don’t have to queue an hour for. Have a wee nosy at the Discover NI website to see when your local market is next on.

See a Pantomime/Play/Musical

Local theatres are packed with festive productions which we should make the most of getting off our couches to see. I have the best memories of sitting on the floor watching a pantomime at my local leisure centre as a kid (while losing all feeling in my ass). I’m trying to find children to borrow so I can see this musical otherwise I’ll be the eccentric lady on her own who brought her own snacks!

Watch old Christmas movies

You can do this at home of course with the fire lit and the family cocooned in a mass of duvets but some cinemas play the classics which can be a fun way to see the old favourites. I love watching It’s A Wonderful Life in the Queen’s Film Theatre each year. The theatre is a Belfast institution and has these old vintage cinema seats that feel about a hundred years old (probably because they are). They also cater for people with disabilities (dementia, autism) so everyone can delve in to a bit of nostalgia on the screen.

Celebrate the Solstice

Step back in time and celebrate the arrival of the Winter Solstice at the Navan Fort centre in Armagh. My hometown is steeped in ancient Celtic history and the Navan Fort are mirroring the customs of our ancestors through a morning of traditional celebrations followed by a lantern-lit walk up the fort were re-enactors will welcome the breaking of the dawn. The whole event is free unless you want to nibble on a bit of breakfast afterwards which you can enjoy for 4 quid – bargain!

Make homemade mulled wine

Or cider! Here’s an easy recipe for mulled wine that will scent your house like a friggin’ Christmas perfumery. Make a batch and keep some for the visitors that stream through the house. Not too much though or they’ll never leave.

Look out for others

Without sounding like a TV ad, this time of year can be tougher on those who live alongside us, especially the elderly who can be a tad more vulnerable in the colder months. We’re lucky to have Maureen as our neighbour and while she’s fully capable of looking after herself (she looked at me like I was mad when I asked if I could help her with the 10kg box of washing powder she was lugging in to her house the other day), it’s still good to check in once in a while. I would hate to think of my Granny on her own with no one looking out for her so it’s nice to treat those around us with a little more care.

Forage for decorations

We can all go a little crazy with the decorations this time of year which is the last thing our wallets need. To try and save pennies I’ve been bringing a few things back from my winter walks. A wee bit of holly, some ivy or even pine cones to roast in the oven (an idea I stole from my friend Caoimhe, you can find a way to do it here). I’ve been decorating the fireplace, the dining table and coffee table with these foraged finds which feels a bit more special than wasting money on another garland from a chain store.

 

Oh writing this list got me a little bit excited! What about you? What festive activities are you hoping to do this year??

 

What Not To Worry About #37

What Not To Worry About #37

Happy Tuesday friends, the last Tuesday in September… How did this happen?! Despite writing this from a hospital bed, I am feeling more invigorated than ever after a weekend full of creativity and inspiration. It is truly amazing how things land in our lap in abundance when we need it most and what I needed more than ever was to feel inspired in this little moment of vulnerability.

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I was admitted to hospital on Wednesday evening and although it’s never a nice experience being hooked up to an IV drip or to sleep on a squeaky plastic mattress, it has been a restorative week and I am feeling more like myself again. Thankfully I am not chained to the bed and I’m allowed to ‘escape’ for a few hours during the day to inhale real fresh air (man, hospital air can drain the very moisture from your bones) which has saved me from going a bit mad.

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And so I took myself off on Friday evening to the streets of Belfast and decided to explore everything Culture Night had to offer. For those of you who maybe aren’t local to the city, Culture Night is a one-night-only event that happens every September and sees Belfast come to life with over 250 free events taking place in venues scattered across the city. The organisers were expecting up to 100,000 people to attend this year and I think they might have been about right as I squidged myself between hoards of people carrying maps in their hands, hunting down the next event they wanted to get to.

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The night was a real success and walking through the streets reminded me of the reasons why I love Belfast. It is a city that is at it’s best when celebrating diversity and rejoicing in the unique. Over the space of a few hours I roamed from a cathedral hosting a youth jazz orchestra to watching a swing dance competition, to listening to psychedelic rock in a hairdressers bathed in red light, to an Afro-Caribbean festival, to a drag queen street concert.

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I went on my own as a last minute decision which was possibly the best way to experience the night since I could wiggle my way between the crowds and pick and choose what I wanted to see while stumbling upon events I had no idea were happening. It was a fantastic night and could possibly be the most positive and happy event the city has each year.

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Keeping in tune with my new love affair with Belfast, I visited the Tesco Taste Festival at Custom House Square with my cousins on Saturday. A love of food is in our genes and we fully encouraged one another to eat as many samples as we could fit in our bellies – not an ounce of shame between us! The scale of the festival was a real surprise, I hadn’t expected such variety and there were Michelin chefs cooking for an audience live – not something you see every day!

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And then Sunday happened, a cherry on the top of a weekend that made my soul happy. Emma who writes the Life at Littlewood blog (beautiful writer – go read her work!) had organised an event for other bloggers called the ‘Country Blog Retreat’ which was aimed at bringing a group of creatives together who are perhaps needing a little inspiration with their blog or in any part of their lives. We can all struggle with believing that our voice has the right to be heard and the event was full of like-minded people who had this common desire to create something of meaning to themselves.

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As we found our seats (and practiced some self-control with the gift bags) there was a collective murmur that descended within the room. People began exchanging advice on where they were at with their Instagram account, how they were struggling with photography, how disillusioned they sometimes felt with writing blog posts and whether they should be writing at all. There was an immediate atmosphere of support and it felt like a community had just been created within that room that only strengthened as the afternoon wore on.

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The knowledge the speakers had was invaluable and I know that it definitely shook me out of the ‘creative coma’ I’ve been feeling for a number of months. I had been struggling massively with writing good content and feeling a little adrift in terms of what I wanted to be writing about so when Mel Wiggins spoke about writing for ourselves, writing content that we would want to read, it felt like a switch went off in my head!

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So here I am, feeling rested, inspired, invigorated and ready to write more than ever. As well as that I have a few more worries that I will be leaving behind this week. Here they are:

Knowing how to cool down a cup of tea – I am one of those people that leaves their tea for a few minutes so it’s just warm and then I drink it all in one go. The danger in this is that I often forget I have the tea to drink and when I go to drink it I’ve left it too long and it’s like dishwater – the horror! I recently read this article about lessons readers had learned and I found that adding 2 ice cubes is perfect for cooling down tea quickly – who would’ve thunk it?! Read the article for more ingenious insights and lessons.

On having regrets – We all have them don’t we? One of my biggest regrets is missing all those lectures in University because I would give anything to immerse myself in knowledge like that again. The lesson is to learn from these regrets and here are some amazing women who have their own thoughts on how to do that.

Attractive physiotherapists – I had a not-too-shabby physiotherapist pop in to my hospital room on Sunday to perform some physio on my chest which would have involved him actually laying hands on my chest. Eh, don’t think so pal! I kindly told him to come back in a while and then promptly did my own physio to avoid any embarrassment and humiliation. Crisis averted.

Having a purpose – turning 29 has made me very contemplative and wondering where I fit in the grand scheme of things. I think this is fairly normal the older we get and it’s nice to know I am not alone in this. I’ll probably write something of my own regarding this communal symptom of age but for now, read this if you fancy delving in to something uplifting.

Hospital food – Because no one wants to have to slice their mashed potato like it’s a cake.

 

Have a great week folks! 

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