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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! 

Local Favourites: Dunluce Castle & Mussenden Temple

Local Favourites: Dunluce Castle & Mussenden Temple

I think there are a few things that come to mind when foreigners think of Ireland (according to Hollywood anyway):

  1. Rain. Lots of rain.
  2. Green fields as far as the eye can see.
  3. Old men drinking Guinness
  4. A random person playing the fiddle in the pub
  5. Castle ruins dotted everywhere

We Irish might roll our eyes at this glamourisation of our wee isle especially when a plastic poncho-covered American tourist insists on defining themselves as Irish or asks where the best pint of Guinness is (I usually direct them to the Harp Bar or The Duke of York). But the fact is that most of the expectations of Ireland are usually about right. It does rain here. A lot. And most aul fellas in a pub probably will be propped up by a pint of the black stuff. And we really are lucky enough to have hundreds of castle ruins scattered across our hills and rugged coastlines.

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But having so much history close to home can be a hindrance here because we can overlook these beautiful castles on our doorstep just because they are familiar. I grew up in Armagh, the ancient capital of Ireland and my childhood home was about a mile or two away from a burial ground that dates back thousands of years. I only just visited this site again for the first time since primary school and felt so ashamed that I’d forgotten about such an important piece of my history.

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I lived abroad for about 6 years and I think coming back to live in Ireland awoke me to just how many fascinating sites there are here that I haven’t even been to. I have been determined to rectify this since and so on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago I set off with a begrudging boyfriend to explore the ruins of Dunluce Castle and Mussenden Temple.

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You might not know the names of these coastal monuments but you will recognise them especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. It’s difficult to find a place along this part of the Irish coastline that hasn’t been filmed for the series yet which is evident by the throngs of tour buses that descend on these shores in the summer hoping to catch a glimpse of a set now famous around the world.

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Our first stop was Dunluce Castle, probably one of the most famous ruins in the North. The castle hangs precariously off the cliffs of Antrim as if carved out of the cliffs themselves but even in its decay it still casts a foreboding figure on the jagged coastline. The castle was first built just over 500 years ago by the McQuillan clan but was seized by the MacDonnell’s from Scotland in the 1550’s who later swore loyalty to Elizabeth I and became the Earls of Antrim. Today its ruins bear a reminder of a time when every piece of land was a prize to be won with consequences more violent than any Game of Thrones episode (GOT fans might recognise the castle as the home of the Greyjoy’s). But who needs TV eh?

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When we arrived at the castle the sun was uncharacteristically beaming down which meant there were even more tourists than usual. To avoid competing for a good shot of the ruins amongst the crowds, I wandered down the road to a nearby field and clambered over the gate. I might have been trespassing (I looked for signs, I swear) but the field was empty of animals and I was able to get uninterrupted views of the castle with the waves crashing against the cliffs beneath.

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After the castle we drove a few miles along the coast to Whitepark Bay to Bothy, a wee timber gem that looks like a homestead plucked from the American Midwest. I had heard a few things about this joint before but I had no idea just how charmed I would be by the food and the people there. There is a real warm welcome upon entering mixed in with a laid-back atmosphere that feels border-line Californian. We were there on a summer’s day so the doors were thrown open to allow the sea breeze to cool the place down while the back was opened up for the sun worshipper’s to eat outside.

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Andrew and I both ordered chicken melts with tobacco onions which we devoured within a few minutes and we spent the next half hour bathing in the afternoon heat not wanting to move at all. We noticed a pizza oven outside too so I would imagine this would be a great spot for a summer’s evening and a few drinks if you didn’t have far to travel. As well as that there’s also a wee stove inside too so it would be super cosy for a winter’s day – they’ve got it all covered here!!

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After being suitably fed and feeling super relaxed we hopped back in the car and headed towards Mussenden Temple which was about a half hour away. The temple forms part of the Downhill Demesne and although it has aged much better than the manor, it is perhaps built at an even more precipitous position than Dunluce – we Irish love our dramatics don’t we?! It was built in 1785 and was to be used as a summer library in memory of the Earl’s cousin Frideswide Mussenden. Imagine cosying up to a book with almost 360 views of the ferocious Atlantic – you wouldn’t leave! These days you can actually hire the temple out as a wedding venue which would be an absolute dream location for anyone – booklover or not.

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On our way to the temple we actually picked up a hitchhiker – Robin from Toulouse – who was hitchhiking his way along the Irish coast with a tent and not much else. We brought him as far as Limavady but took him along to Mussenden which he wasn’t aware even existed. It was so lovely to discover the temple alongside a foreigner because I felt like I was experiencing it as a tourist on holiday. With the sun warming my back and standing on the cliff edge admiring the views out towards Scotland, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. How lucky we are to have all of this on our doorstep.

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Local Favourites: My 5 Favourite Local Beaches

Local Favourites: My 5 Favourite Local Beaches

Growing up in Armagh the only time I got to a beach was during the summer or when we were lucky enough to hop on a plane so it wasn’t until I lived in Australia that I fell in love with the ocean and feeling of sand between my toes. It became the place I sought solace and whenever I felt a little homesick I would get in the car and drive to the nearest beach, park myself in the sand and watch the sea pull back and forth from the coast for hours.

Now that I’m home I’m not quite as free to jump in the water but the draw is still there. We’re lucky to live within a 10 minute drive of some lovely beaches and I have been able to take full advantage of losing myself for an hour or two by the Irish Sea. Sometimes I bring Andrew along with me so we can catch up on our days but mostly I’ll come on my own with a blanket or towel, watch the ferries slowly gliding out of the Lough and let the sound of the waves soothe whatever wild thoughts need taming.

If you’re in need of some inspiration, I’ll clue you in on a few spots close to where we are in Belfast and a bit further beyond. There are hundreds of beautiful beaches around the northern coastline but these are just a few of my favourites…

Helen’s Bay

This my hiding place. I will take myself off here and do a bit of a yoga, read or just stare at other people’s dogs so I can play with them. Not pathetic at all but I hope that if Andrew sees my pitiful ‘I reallllly want a dog’ face for the millionth time he might give in! It’s only about a 10 minute drive for Belfast so it’s perfect for us city slickers when we need a decent head shower. Crawfordsburn Park is right behind the beach as well and is a great place to take cover if the rain ever descends.

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Seapark

Just beside Holywood, Seapark is a bit of coastline that makes a great wee walk and takes you past the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club – a century old institution with original buildings. Watching the yachtsmen haul their boats in after a day at sea is quite lovely and I like to walk out to the end of the jetty so I get a good view of our wee Belfast.

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Groomsport

About 25 mins from Belfast, Groomsport is a very cute village with a lovely harbour hidden within it. The beach is small but delivers just what is needed along with plenty of places for a wee ice cream after. Even if it does have to be eaten in the car because it’s Baltic outside!

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Murlough Bay

Without doubt my favourite beach in the North! It’s found just outside Newcastle so about 50 minutes drive from Belfast. It’s a perfect sandy stretch you can reach after climbing over some very old dunes and once you’ve reached the top, you can look up to find the Mourne Mountains towering over you. It is everything I love about Ireland – wild and endless that makes you feel like you’re the first person to discover it.

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Ballygally Beach

About a half hour north of Belfast, this wee beach is found along the Causeway Coastal Route. We stayed in a haunted tower within the hotel across the road back in January which was so beautiful. In the morning we walked along the beach in the freezing cold, blinded by the white mountains covered in snow. It’s just as beautiful in the summer under blue skies but in the winter, you can have the entire beach to yourself.

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Have you got any favourite beaches of your own that you escape to?? 

 

 

 

Local Favourites: Carlingford

Local Favourites: Carlingford

Carlingford is like taking a step back in time and seeing the Ireland that would have been half a millennia ago. Except if you visit on a Saturday in the summer and then it’s more like taking a step on to a Geordie Shore night out. This is because the town has seen a surge in hosting hens and stags and because it’s so small, there’s not a lot of room to avoid them. Please don’t let this put you off though because the town is truly beautiful and if you go mid week or on weekends off-peak then you will experience the serenity it can offer.

Carlingford is situated in Co. Louth on the east coast of Ireland and is only an hours drive from Belfast making it the perfect spontaneous destination for us city slickers. Andrew and I drove down on a random Sunday in February that saw the sun come out and gave everyone the hope that the winter was finally coming to a close. The breeze was cool and we were able to stroll in the sunshine through the ancient streets hunting for a good scone and a strong cup of tea.

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We managed to find the sweetest tea rooms called Ruby Ellen’s that had very tasty scones with fresh cream and homemade jam. It felt like walking in to my granny’s house with floral wallpaper, a dresser full of cakes and buns and mismatched teacups. Definitely a place to take the women in your life although Andrew didn’t seem to mind throwing the scones in to him at a rapid rate. They also had such friendly staff with an old doll manning the till. I think it took her a good half hour to calculate our bill but she was so lovely and the place felt even more authentic for it.

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The town itself was first settled in the 12th century and there’s evidence everywhere of a town that was once a thriving trading port. Some places you should definitely try and see are:

  • The Mint –  this limestone stone house dates back to the 15th century and has amazing Celtic design around the windows
  • Taafe’s Castle – thought to be owned by the Taafe family, a rich merchantile family who later became the Earls of Carlingford
  • The Tholsel – this is the town gate where the taxes used to be levied against goods entering the town. It’s amazingly terrifying to walk under – it’s bound to crumble on of these days!
  • Dominican Priory – believed to have been founded by Richard de Burgo around 1305 but after the dissolution of the monasteries the priory fell in to disrepair (blame Henry VIII the wee skitter)
  • Church of the Holy Trinity – this medieval church has been restored and has a heritage centre detailing the history of Carlingford dating back to the Vikings. It has an amazing stained glass window at the back which I loved 🙂

There are also lots of antique shops dotted around the town that you can pop in to as well as artisan shops selling local products. It’s a perfect spot for a dander because of it’s size but there’s also a great walk between Carlingford and the neighbouring village of Omeath. The trail is about 7km and follows disused railway tracks that used to connect the marina to the village. It has some great views across the lough to the town of Warrenpoint and the Mourne Mountains towering behind it.

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Visit Carlingford if you fancy an impromptu adventure in to a forgotten past or pop down for a session on a weekend where you won’t be short of a few pints of the black stuff.

G’luck

xx

Local Favourites: Rathlin Island

Local Favourites: Rathlin Island

Have you ever seen a puffin in real life? Until recently I never had and almost thought they were mythical with their wee red beaks on them – they look like they should be nowhere near the Irish coastline, much too exotic for our island! But you can find them here – on an even smaller island off the north coast of Antrim actually.

Rathlin island is only a 20-minute ferry journey from Ballycastle and really you had me at ferry. I will find any excuse to be on a boat and feel the salty air whip around me, it can really awake something in me – which was breakfast for poor seasick Andrew.

We set our alarms early on a Sunday morning (!) in May to make sure we were there brave and early to see these elusive sea parrots. The forecast was promising to be a good day and even though the sun still hadn’t appeared when we boarded the Rathlin Ferry, I was feeling optimistic. Sure I’d packed a picnic and everything!

What struck me when we approached Rathlin was how it was much bigger than I expected. I half thought I could stroll quite easily around it and I had that anxious feeling I get when I know I might have to exercise too much. The horror! Luckily there was a bus waiting for us when we got off that could take us to the RSPB seabird centre on the other side of the island so sighs of relief all round.

The bus driver was terrifically cheesy, pointing out Rathlin University (the local primary school – hardy har har), the place where the last bus fell off the cliff (Jaysus you’re killin’ us here) and the island’s all weather pitch which was actually a tennis court (OK now let us off). We courageously bought a single ticket even though I was eyeing up the picnic basket thinking there was no way I was carrying that for over 4 miles.

We bought our tickets and trotted down the steps to the centre. Before I could see the birds I could hear them. It was like walking in to an ornithological metropolis – so much going on, birds on the move everywhere around me and so much noise. It was amazing. Then I was struck by the beauty of the coastline, the dramatic cliffs and sheer drops. It reminded me a little bit of the Cliffs of Moher, that dramatic end to the earth with endless blue sea ahead.

I couldn’t get the binoculars on me fast enough. I haven’t got the best eyesight so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see the puffins and I’d have to do the whole “Oh yeh I see them there, yeh over there near that thing” bit when I really can’t see a damned thing. I scanned past the guillemots, the razorbills and the kittiwakes (don’t get me wrong they are lovely birds but I wanted to see the top bill..pun intended) and searched for a splash of red. Admittedly I did have to be pointed in the right direction but I saw them! And they really are real!!

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I was so excited and watched a few of them flapping their wings, enjoying the sun and dipping in and out of their burrows. Yes, they nest in burrows – the mad eejits. Apparently they do so well here because they have limited predators so the burrows can remain protected. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a decent photo of them – the wee rascals stayed down on the flats and there was no amount of zoom that could capture them. I could’ve watched them all day but the 4-mile trek back to the harbour was looming and we wanted to get there by Monday so I said bye bye to the birdies and left with a huge smile.

So off we went like the hobbits on an adventure practically skipping with the picnic basket. We stopped off for food at the first picnic bench we saw. It was a bit nippy when we sat down so Andrew draped the blanket around him like he was about to be shipped off from the famine. He cleverly forgot his jacket and TEA BAGS. He had to get Earl Grey tea bags from the centre and we used luke warm water from his flask. The most horrific cup of tea I have ever had. But at least I got to drink it from an adorable picnic cup.

We also kept bumping in the same people. Although Rathlin Island was bigger than I had expected it took on a supermarket feel where you keep bumping in to people you’ve already said hello to. Eventually you get to the point where you do anything to avoid saying hello for the hundredth time, stopping short of hurling yourself over the nearest hedge.

And do you know what else? The walk was really really nice! I enjoyed it! We dandered along the lane, talking and not talking. Mostly not talking but not because we didn’t want to but because we were so relaxed. All we could hear was the breeze, the trees and the waves. I have not been able to shut off like that for a long time and we even had a nap in the sun (it finally showed up).

By the time we reached the harbour I felt rejuvenated albeit a little blistered. To be honest I was blissfully happy. And I got to go on another ferry!! Good day all round.

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