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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! 

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: Glaslough

Local Favourites: Glaslough

A village that boasts a castle, cottage-lined streets and ivy-clad walls is always guaranteed to win me over but the village of Glaslough in Co. Monaghan is nothing short of just plain lovely. It’s a place I’ve been coming to since I was a child but the beauty of the village still manages to surprise me every time I visit. It’s without doubt my favourite village in Ireland and so had to be included in my Local Favourites.

 

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The village hugs the edge of the Castle Leslie estate which has belonged to the Leslie family since it was built in the late 19th century. Although it is more like a manor house, the castle is a Victorian vision set against the backdrop of the lake the village is named after. The castle is a very popular luxury wedding destination (Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills married here) and so it’s quite difficult to get a room on the weekends. Instead, my sister and I stayed in the ‘hunting lodge’ by the castle gates which are just as impressive and a little more convenient.

 

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The lodge has two restaurants, a spa and the stables that can be accessed via the basement. This makes staying here a little more appealing since we were able to just walk to the spa in our dressing gowns after our breakfast (AKA the best morning ever). The rooms we stayed in were stunning and were full of character just like the building’s exterior; all dark wood and heavy curtains. Double doors then opened up to a bathroom with a walk-in shower and a free-standing bath that I fell in love with immediately. The lodge is also pet-friendly which is great news to those who can’t leave their pooches for too long!

 

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Needless to say a night in the lodge is enough to delight anyone needing an escape but in case you want to wander outside or visit for the day, here are a few tips for those new to Glaslough.

 

Where to Eat

The village is tiny so outside of the castle there is little on offer. Within the Castle there are two places to stuff your face depending on how fancy you want the food to be. Snaffler’s the more upscale restaurant and is also where you eat your breakfast if you’re staying in the lodge. We didn’t eat dinner here but I have to say the breakfast selection was really impressive – make sure to grab the granola pots early!

 

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Connor’s Bar is on the ground floor and although it’s a little more low-key, the food is still incredibly yummy as the ingredients are locally sourced as they are for Snaffler’s. My sister and I took my Mum, aunt and cousin to Connor’s for Mother’s Day recently and my salad was so tasty that I found myself finishing way before everyone else! You can expect a lot more than just pub grub with the price not being too bad either.

 

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Although both of the above are great choices, my recommendation would be to dander out of the castle gates and down Barrack Hill to your right. Here you will find Ambledown Cottage which is just about the sweetest place to eat dinner. The cottage is adorned with flowers and old trinkets so I was in love at first sight before even trying the food. Inside there is an open fire and conservatory to eat in but it’s the back of the cottage that had me giddy with excitement. They have transformed the area in to a dream of fairy lights and candles with tables distributed in different outhouses making it just about the most romantic place in town.

 

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The menu at Ambledown is confined to mostly pizza but man are they scrumptious. I find it difficult to finish pizza on my own but I had zero problems that night! I also liked the fact that it was BYO which allowed us to totter back to our room and finish the bottle in our dressing gowns 🙂

 

Where to Drink

There are only two pubs in town and even on a Friday night they are very quiet. It didn’t bother Shannon and I since we were there to relax but in case you’re up for a party, you might be a bit disappointed. That said, the Coachouse Bar does have live music on a Saturday so it might be a bit busier then! It’s definitely busy on a sunny afternoon with the benches outside filling up fairly fast. Inside it’s like entering an old house with lots of wee rooms to while a few hours over some pints.

 

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The Pillar House Hotel is the second pub in the village and another place to enjoy a beer or two. I’ve been told it has a pool room if you fancied killing time on a rainy day or or doing a crawl of the two pubs in town!

 

What to Do

Cookery school – Castle Leslie has its own cookery school which offers one day or two day courses for up to 12 people. This would be a great idea to enjoy as a package when staying at the Castle, I can only imagine how amazing the ingredients would be!

 

Horse riding – there is a well-equipped equestrian centre by the hunting lodge with a trail that takes you across the entire estate. The horses are beautiful, we even got to meet a few after our spa treatments.

 

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Spa – speaking of spa, the Victorian treatment rooms were the perfect place to start our day. We both got facials which left our skin feeling like a newborns and then relaxed in the hot tub with blue skies above us.

 

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Walking – there are many walks and trails around the Castle Leslie and there’s even an app that you can download to listen to while on your ramble.

 

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Antiques & Crafts – there is an antiques shop in town to discover some preloved gems as well as an art gallery to wander through.

 

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Despite being such a small town, Glaslough has so much to offer anyone in need of an escape not far from home. It’s a village that packs in so much character without sacrificing it’s charm and will be forever my favourite village.

 

Do you have a favourite village in Ireland? Are there any places you feel are under-appreciated? Please share!!

 

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Local Favourites: Belfast Bookstores

Local Favourites: Belfast Bookstores

As I push open the door to a bookshop, the smell transports me back to my great Aunt’s house in Antrim. I’m leafing through pages, browned from years of use and neglect, wondering who had held them before me and where they had been. The scent of adventures, laughs, tears and lives lived are on my hands. Dusty corners and forgotten words. Entering a bookshop is like arriving at my place of worship, where sins can be forgiven and the body calms.

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In a society where there is so much uncertainty, exploring a bookshop can provide us with the solace that we are robbed of in the outside world. In here we can gain anonymity and lose ourselves in someone else’s story. When I read the first few pages of a book I wouldn’t have discovered while browsing Amazon, I disappear in the aisle I’m standing in. I can’t hear anything but the words of a stranger in my head as I lose myself in another book.

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Being relatively new to Belfast meant that I had to venture out and discover places to while away a rainy afternoon and I was delighted to discover that there were plenty of literary caves to disappear in the city. Researching for this post also introduced me to a few more places that weren’t on my radar before and I feel like I’ve been welcomed in to a new clan. Because it’s not just about the shop, the smells and the books. It’s also about the people who inhabit them, who strive to keep the place alive and encourage the literary passion to every newcomer.

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With the Belfast Book Festival approaching (7th – 17th June) I thought I might share a few of the bookshops and the community of bibliophiles I have joined since I moved here. And it is a community worth joining since this wee island has spawned the world’s greatest scholars, bards, poets and legends. I feel like I am in good company.

No Alibis

Located in Botanic Avenue, No Alibis is an established institution in Belfast, most renowned for their savage collection of crime fiction novels. Dave, the owner, is something of an institution himself as he supports and engages a whole community of literary lovers in the area. He hosts a wealth of events; book readings, poetry readings and caters to the future Heaney’s of Ireland through Saturday morning kids readings.

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You wouldn’t miss the front of No Alibis

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Some of their beautiful displays

On my last visit I found a signed copy of a collection of work by Paul Durcan as well as my favourite local magazine, Freckle. Noticing my purchases Dave casually informed me that a local favourite, Sinead Morrissey, was reading her poetry up in Queens that evening and that I should take myself along. I could barely contain my glee that I had met this man!

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Making trees happy

As I was about to leave Dave asked me what genre I was in to – a question that induces a cloud of panic to come down over me because I never quite know the best/right response. Watching my eyes glaze over, he handed me a first proof copy of an historical fantasy he thought I might enjoy. I asked if it was anything like ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ – a beast of a book which took me months to finish but adored completely. His eyes lit up and answered, “Spot on – it’s serendipity, you have to take it!!”. And what he meant was for free. No charge. For a first proof! I stumbled out of his shop with my books, in a lovely cotton bag which was also a freebie, giddy with excitement that I might have just joined a community I had been yearning to be a part of for quite some time.

Keats & Chapman

What struck me the most when I walked in to this joint on North Street was the depth of the place. Keats & Chapman looks quite pokey from the street but the shop carries on down a long and book-crammed corridor right to the most niche genres. You could easily spend a day in here if you had the time and the owner Bill is well aware of that since he has placed a few random chairs in quiet sections so no customer feels rushed.

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The shopfront of Keats & Chapman

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And on and on it goes

The second hand books here are very well priced (usually around £2) but with such a selection you will no doubt come out spending more than you had planned. My personal favourites were the amazing collection of old Irish wildlife guides, such an Instragrammers dream! Although be warned – there is no card machine so you will have to stick to traditional cash to pay for the armful of books you decide to take home.

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Books from floor to ceiling

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A favourite guide!

Belfast Books

John of Belfast Books is a man whose passion for literacy and community is contagious. Born and bred in North Belfast, he decided to open a bookshop on his home turf as a way to engage the local community and to bring some footfall to the streets he grew up in. North Belfast is an area of the city that has been neglected in the past but it’s locals like John that keep the spirit of the place alive and there is no better way to strike up a conversation than over a decent book.

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The shelves of Belfast Books

John runs his law firm from the top floor of the three storey building and the bottom two floors are dedicated to the housing the thousands of books they have constantly streaming in. The shop is a sight to behold and steps need to be taken carefully as to avoid the tower of classics as you come through the door. To a customer this would be seen as charming but John explained how desperate they are for volunteers to step in and help catalogue the high volume they are struggling to cope with.

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“Cheaper than that South American river”

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Peter, a loyal customer with a love for World War aircraft books, stops by the shop for a coffee and a chat

And there really is something for everyone in Belfast Books. The shop is mostly known for it’s huge collection of books on the Troubles (hello tourist trap) but there is pretty much everything you can think of; ancient history, ecology, classics, sci-fi and horror (the latter being hidden in the back of the first floor like a dirty secret) which you can all buy using your trusty Belfast Books loyalty card. If that wasn’t enough, John also helps host creative writing workshops, hosts a wicked Twitter account, provides book reviews and is working with the community to start a farmer’s market in a nearby warehouse. North Belfast won’t be short of footfall for much longer!

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The Bookfinders

The outside of this popular student hole in the wall may not look too appealing but inside lies a gem that is infamous among the students of Belfast. You’ll find the overgrown shopfront of Bookfinders just a stone’s throw from Queen’s University which boasts a surprising collection of second hand books as well as a wee café down the back.

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Worth the hoke if you have the time! 

The shop itself is a bit through-other but if you have the patience and time to have a hoke then you won’t come up disappointed. It’s worth all the energy spent for a slice of cake and a big mug of tea to enjoy your new purchase – and try and squeeze in amongst the students draining the place of their Wifi!

Waterstones

I know, Waterstones is a dirty chain and shouldn’t be included in list of esteemed independent bookshops but I can’t ignore how much of an impact this shop made on me. I still remember visiting the Dublin store as a child and being completely overwhelmed with how beautiful it was to see so many books in one shop – on multiple floors!

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The Belfast branch is just as lovely today and I like to go for a wander on an afternoon when I want a few hours to myself. I might not be quite as likely to pick up a bargain like in the other shops (or be able to stay for a half a day cross-legged on the floor) but I am still as inspired by the beauty of so many books as I was as an eight year old.

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Happy reading!

Local Favourites: Hillsborough

Local Favourites: Hillsborough

OK so I was supposed to make this a monthly feature but I am still getting to grips with actually running a blog and this whole consistency thing – and it’s SPRINGTIME! So forgive me please? Thanks.

 

Up next in this not-so-monthly series is Hillsborough, a wee village that’s just a stone’s throw from the big smoke. But despite it being so close to Belfast, I only visited Hillsborough for the first time last year – gasp! When I strolled through the pristine, flower-lined streets I felt a quiet, simmering rage knowing I had gone 27 years without the place. The shopfronts are flawless, every door is a dream and there are cafés-a-plenty to wet your thirst in.

 

There are so many reasons to visit this wee gem and I’ve listed a few to help you avoid the rage I had last year…

 

Architecture

A bit like Armagh, Hillsborough is well known for it’s Georgian buildings with townhouses to drool over. The main attraction is the Georgian mansion found on the top of the hill which just so happens to be the Queen’s place of residence when she takes the rare jaunt to the North. Lizzie has good taste because the building is beautiful and you can even take a tour of the house and gardens if you want to see how the other half live.

 

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Hillsborough Fort is where the town started Colonel Arthur Hill built it back in 1650. It’s a good place for a view of the town and the countryside around it as well as some creepy gothic additions.

 

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I’ve already mentioned the beautiful townhouses in Hillsborough but my favourite street has to be Arthur Street where, as it turns out, my Aunt used to live when she was a young thing. The wee cottages and their colourful front doors is a good place for a photo opportunity (if you’re anything like me and can’t resist a pretty house).

 

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Of course you can’t visit a town in Ireland without a church or two and St. Malachy’s is a symmetrical dream. It’s a good place for a dander up to the fort and then on to the lake.

 

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Space

Right behind the fort lies the lake and Hillsborough Forest Park which I had no idea existed until my last visit. Within a few minutes you can find yourself in a woodland getting lost amongst the oak trees.

 

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As Hillsborough is only a small village, you can find yourself in the countryside in no time at all. Just make sure to bring a good walking partner with you because mine bailed and went for a nap in the car!

 

Eat & Drink

Hillsborough is the perfect spot to take your Mum for a lunch because there are so many places that do a good scone and a cuppa. Out of Habit is a great spot for a break along with with Humble Pie and Meet & Thyme. Really you could do a scone crawl and taste them all which sounds like an ideal way to spend an afternoon.

 

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If you’re after something a little more filling then the Hillside offers a bit more on the menu – it should do as it’s the oldest pub in the town. The Parson’s Nose is also a favourite for a meal worthy of unzipping the old trousers.

 

Shop

My Mum told me recently that she bought her wedding dress in Hillsborough over 30 years ago and it seems like it’s still a favourite spot for brides making big choices – hopefully luckier ones than my Mum (haha divorce joke)! If you’re not a new bride there’s still a few wee places to bide a while in.

 

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Every time I’m in Hillsborough I have to call in to the Cheshire Cat to have a gander at what’s new. It’s the best place to pick up a gift for someone, usually for myself.

 

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Twig & Twine is another place to buy things you have to have but don’t really need. The shopfront alone makes me feel giddy with the flower arrangements and the general loveliness – Andrew wasn’t quite as excited.

 

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I hope all these reasons are enough to entice you to Hillsborough next time you’re stuck for an idea for a day trip. If you have been – go back! If you haven’t – go now because there’s nothing prettier than Hillsborough in the Spring.

Local Favourites: Armagh

Local Favourites: Armagh

Up here in the North we have the fortune of having scores of towns and villages that can be so full of character and yet can go unnoticed by so many who may only live a few miles away. Cobbled streets and buildings older than Australia are just on our doorsteps however we choose to keep our heads down and take for granted what we have in front of us. I have decided to put some of my favourite towns in the spotlight to help encourage a little appreciation for these gems in our own backyard.

 

I live in Belfast but I’m an Armagh girl born and bred so I’ve chosen the Cathedral City as the first in this new series. Although the town is technically a city, the population is only around 15,000 so it can’t exactly be described as a metropolis. There was definitely a small-town vibe growing up here; I knew most people when I walked through the streets and I always felt incredibly safe even when I was a teenager running amok. Nowadays I feel a little more like an outsider after living away for so long but I think this allows me to see the town in a different light and admire the qualities of the Armagh I grew up in.

 

Here are the things I love most about my hometown…

 

Architecture

Armagh is built on seven hills which can be hard on the old thighs but can give you wonderful perspectives of the city and it’s countryside. The most notable buildings are of course the two cathedrals which dominate the Armagh skyline like two imposing grandfathers. Both cathedrals are named after St. Patrick (he was a popular man in these parts) however the older cathedral belongs to the Church of Ireland denomination and the younger is Roman Catholic. I adore both of these buildings for different reasons. The older dates back to 445 AD and has withstood monumental changes in Irish history – it even has a High King of Ireland in it’s grounds! The younger cathedral which dates back to the 19th century is also special because my own family history is tied to it. My parents were married here, I was christened here, made my first Communion and Confirmation here and I said goodbye to my sister all in the same colossal space. It’s gothic walls contain so many local memories within them and the intricate ceilings have my jaw hanging open every time.

 

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St. Patrick’s Cathdedral (The Older)

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral (The Younger)

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Armagh is also know for it’s Georgian architecture which can be best found around The Mall. The Mall is a public space with the Gaol on one end and the Court House on the other. Alongside it there are some beautiful Georgian houses as well as the Armagh County Museum – the oldest county museum in Ireland! Another example of some Georgian architecture is the local library found on Market Street where you can pick up a few spuds, a carpet and a bunch of flowers if the mood takes you.

 

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Georgian House by The Mall – swish!

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The Library on Market Street – a great place to people watch!

The Palace Demesne is another great place to explore especially during Autumn. The grounds are lined with trees that turn the most amazing colours around October and behind the palace itself are some gardens that many locals don’t even know about. By the gates of the Palace you can find ruins of a Franciscan friary which is a great place to take some snaps before nipping to Friar Tuck’s across the road (it’s a fast food joint so don’t get your hopes up).

 

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The Palace from the Palace Gardens

History

Armagh was named after the ancient goddess Macha (the Gaelic translation of Armagh is “Ard Mhacha” or “Macha’s Height”) who appears in a few different Irish myths. My favourite story of Macha is when she appears as a wife to Cruinniuc who boasted at a chariot race that she could run faster than even the King’s own horses. She begged him not to but she was forced to run despite her carrying twins. She won the race and gave birth on the finish line to Fir and Fial which means ‘True’ and ‘Honest’. She then cursed the men of Ulster to suffer her labour pains in the hour of their greatest need. What a woman!

 

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Armagh was also once the ancient capital of Ireland and you can actually witness a little piece of that history by visiting the Navan Fort, a ceremonial monument that was a royal site in Pre-Christian Ireland. There is a visitor centre here that has lots of information on the importance of this site and you can climb to the top and imagine yourself as a Gaelic warrior looking out over your lands. Or you can just take a wee photo for Instagram.

 

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Me pretending to be an Irish warrior

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View from the Navan Fort

Food

For breakfast you can’t beat a bagel and Armagh has the infamous Bagel Bean to ensure you start the day off well. There are now two Bagel Bean’s in Armagh on Market Street and English Street in case you needed a choice but most importantly the bagel you have to choose is the BC because it is AMAZING! They do some pretty tasty smoothies too in case you need to wash it down with something nutritious.

 

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There are more and more wee lunch spots popping up around Armagh including the Craic’d Pot which is an absolute gem. It’s not like anything else in town and to top it all off it moonlights as a wine bar at night – hurrah! Other great places include Embers and Rumours that both serve hot food that will warm your tummy in the chilly weather. The 4 Vicars is another wee gem that’s behind the Church of Ireland cathedral. It’s a tea room with quaint decor and great views at the back.

 

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If you find yourself in Armagh to catch a play or concert at the Market Place Theatre you will surely need to refuel beforehand. The Moody Boar is a favourite of mine even just for the surroundings alone. The restaurant is in the Palace Stables and the courtyard is just a little bit lovely on the off chance you get some good weather – and the food is super tasty! For a good steak then the Aussie restaurant Uluru won’t disappoint or The Castle Tower both a stone’s throw from the theatre for the wino’s amongst you.

 

If you are a hallion like me and might still have room for something sweet after a day of eating then please head to Macari’s for ice cream. The place is an institution in Armagh and I will forever have space for a tub of vanilla ice cream topped with melted marshmallow (insert pig emoji here).

 

Craic

Armagh is not short of pubs although there are a few that I would recommend more than some. Red Ned’s is an establishment that is a regular for many in the town. It’s argued they serve the best pint of Guinness in the town and they have regular folk and traditional music in the corner to keep the spirits up.

 

The Hole in the Wall is another classic and has been voted Pub of the Year on numerous occasions. The pub is set in an old jail that dates back to 1615, hence the bars on the windows, and is steeped in history. The pub is said to be haunted but what should give you more of a fright is the pub’s pet parrot, Casper, who will scare the bejaysus out of you when you come through the door!

 

Space

The beauty of a small town is that you don’t have to travel too far to be surrounded by fields and silence. There are a few beautiful locations so close to town where you can shower the head and see the county countryside at it’s best. Since Armagh is the Orchard County of Ireland, I have to recommend a visit during the apple blossom season in May when the county’s roadsides turn different shades of pink. Come again in September when the apples are ready for pickin’ and you get some of the best weather of the year.

 

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Some other great spaces are Gosford Forest Park or The Argory which is pictured below – no matter how many times I was dragged to this place for school trips I still love it.

 

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Well that’s Armagh in a nutshell. If you haven’t had a dander around the streets of saints and scholars yet then I hope this post might give you a bit of encouragement to get in the car and make the trip. It will be well worth it I promise 🙂

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 the 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?? 

 

 

 

Camping on the Antrim Coast

Camping on the Antrim Coast

So my Halfway Summer Bucketlist has been sitting all sad and unticked since I wrote it as I have been waiting unpatiently for the last of the summer sun to arrive. Turns out I might be waiting a long time because the weather has been relentlessly grey and unaccommodating. August has been hammering past us though so it’s time I realised I live in Ireland and to not ever depend on the weather!

 

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Camping has been my biggest priority this summer; I’ve been aching to sleep outside and wake up hearing nothing, absolutely damn all as the sun comes up. We’re so lucky to be close to many beautiful spots where heading off for a night’s camping is super easy, shameful really that I’m leaving it until now to finally get moving!

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A Weekend Guide to Belfast

A Weekend Guide to Belfast

Belfast is a city that has seen the best of times and the worst of times – you can see its past in the ashes of the shipping industry left in the docklands, in the murals on the walls of the east and west and in the songs of the aul boy in the corner of the pub. Now the city is firmly looking ahead and there are new places popping up every weekend – so many activities!

 

When I moved to Belfast about a year and a half ago I was starting from scratch and I have loved getting to know it, make it mine – the oases among the concrete, the independent shops, the markets. There are so many hidden gems that many people don’t get the chance to see here so I thought I’d create a little weekend guide so any newcomers can make the most of their visit and see the best of Belfast.

 

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Friday

If you’re landing in the evening try and plan ahead by booking a dinner and a show for the night. The Lyric Theatre has some fantastic productions run all year by local theatre companies and it’s a great opportunity to see Irish culture come to life. In August the Lyric is showing God Bless The Child, a play based on the stories of Frank O’Connor – I’m promising myself to book a ticket!

 

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Before you hit the play, grab an early dinner at Molly’s Yard. This small restaurant is found around the corner from Queen’s University and offers some great simple dishes that will fill your bellies up before your show. After dinner, take a walk through the grounds of Queen’s University and on through the Botanic Gardens. This little dander will not only help you walk off the calories you just consumed at Molly’s, it’ll also give you a look at locals going about their daily life. Once you’re through the park you you just have to walk along the river a little further to get to the Lyric – all very handy.

 

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If you’re still feeling a little thirsty after the Lyric, then take the short walk further down the river to Cutters Wharf – a bar that sits in the reeds of the Lagan. In the summer this is the best place to enjoy the long evening sun and watch the rowers from Queen’s University doing their practice runs along the river.

 

Saturday

When you’re in Belfast you have to make sure to find a place that does an Ulster Fry – the staple weekend breakfast for most of us here! Maggie May’s or Conor’s, both beside Queen’s University, are great places that see the hangover troops descend. If you fancy something not quite as greasy, then try 5A which is found a little further in to Stranmillis. This place does AMAZING coffee and AMAZING foccacias. Please don’t leave without trying their salted caramel brownie either because it would be absolute sacrilege.

 

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After your brekkie, you have many options. If you feel like doing a bit of shopping (or shappin’ as the locals call it) then you can hit Victoria Square. My favourite shop is Avoca just behind Victoria Square – it takes all my power not to spend my tiny fortune in there. For independent shops, I love the Kiln & Loom found on Ormeau Road. It’s a wee shop that sells fantastic local craft, jewellery, bath products and local magazines like Freckle.

 

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If the sun is out though, first of all count yourself lucky and second of all make the most of it! Cavehill is the spot to climb and get the best views of Belfast. The Antrim Castle lies up in the hills and from up there you can see across to Stormont, down to the docks and across the Belfast lough that carried the Titanic for the first time. Make sure to make the big climb to the top though, through the woods and past the caves, it’s wild but beautiful. A bit like Ireland really.

 

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If you fancy getting up close to where the Titanic was created then there are great tours to enjoy down in the Titanic Quarter. There’s a bus that can take you round the different spots and the Titanic Centre itself. You can see the Harland & Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, up close down here. These huge monuments as they now are, can be spotted across the city and when I spy them flying in to the City airport, I know I’m home.

 

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You’ll be deserving a cold drink after all that activity and the city centre is coming down with places to quench your thirst. For cocktails outside, the Perch Rooftop bar is a great spot that has a long list to keep the picky happy. From around the corner you can fill up on food at James Street South for a fancy option or there’s Coco’s, Deane’s or Stix & Stones that are only an arms throw away.

 

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For the rest of the night you can only choose the Cathedral Quarter. This an area in Belfast that seems to have sprung out of nowhere and there are countless bars to entertain yourself with. There’s the Spaniard for the rum drinkers, Muriel’s for the gin drinkers, the Harp Bar for the beer drinkers and the Dirty Onion for the anything drinkers. If you find yourself not content on going home when the pubs start closing, you can pop your head in Love & Death to dance those little hooves off until the wee hours.

 

Sunday

Sunday is a slow day in Belfast – you won’t catch people moving too fast for fear that Monday will come quicker. St. George’s Markets is a sheer delight for the weary Sunday head and the buzz will revive what energy you have left. There is food from all over the world (Cuban sandwiches are not to be missed), local products to be bought, fresh bread, art, books and homemade fudge that you will promise to save but you definitely won’t…

 

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If it’s the first Sunday of the month head to the Sunflower Bar to check out the vintage gear on offer or even just to get the cure if the headache hasn’t desisted yet. This bar is an historical monument in itself, still bearing the security cages featured on most pubs during the Troubles.

 

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What you can’t miss though is a good traditional music session before you go. Fibber Magee’s, The Garrick and The Duke of York all have sessions that start early in the day so you can get to your bed early. Listening to traditional music in the corner of a tiny pub packed with people is the ultimate Irish experience and it doesn’t matter how predictable it might seem, the music can move the hardest of men. Anyway, it’s a good excuse to get the last Guinness in before you go and sure what more could you want?

 

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A weekend in Belfast is a good way to introduce yourself to the city although there is so much to see beyond the things I’ve spoken of. There’s Black Taxi tours of the troubled areas, museums, gigs, or festivals that seem to be on all year. Whatever you do, come prepared to see a city that’s found its feet after years of being dragged down. And a place where the craic is always mighty.