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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! 

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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What Not To Worry About #32

What Not To Worry About #32

Happy Monday folks!

A new week is here and I am clinging on to this so-called summer with dear life. The sun has almost certainly been taking too many breaks behind the clouds and in the midst of an overcast-induced temper tantrum, Andrew and I impulsively booked flights for a holiday in less than 3 weeks. Yes, we are jetting off to freakin’ BALI people!! I am beyond excited and every day since I have woken up with butterflies just thinking of palm trees and crystal clear waters to swim in.

I promise I won’t torture you with too much gloating because I know a lot of you have already been and gone on your main trip of the year and are more than likely experiencing a very real case of the post-holiday blues. For this I would prescribe a weekend break in the autumn. Book it now so you have something, anything to keep you going until our Indian Summer arrives (she better). In the meantime try and enjoy the fact that it’s still warm enough to hear lawn mowers on a Saturday (my favourite summer sound) and there are still a few festivals happening to keep us occupied even if the rain clouds do decide to break.

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Bali-madness aside, things have been pretty dandy in all other areas and I am determined to ride this wave of positivity for as long as I can because I know life ain’t always this easy. I tend to be not so great at letting myself enjoy the good times because there’s always that bitch on my back telling me that something is going to come along and screw the whole thing up (is this an Irish thing??). That bitch has been fairly mute recently and man it’s nice to get some peace. I am happy with work, happy with Andrew lecturing me on his newest philosophies (his newest one is that we are living in a simulation – no joke), happy with my friendships and happy with my car that has no exhaust or working driver’s window.

With this lucky streak in mind I have decided to add a few things to the list of things I won’t be worrying about. Check it out:

How wonderfully united Northern Ireland really can be
Belfast Pride took place on Saturday and the city was tarted up in exactly the way it should be for the festivities. Rainbow flags were adorned on buildings and business, balloons and glitter filled the streets. Gay marriage isn’t legal here yet and the fight will continue until it is but seeing a city so united in and inclusive of all people was so uplifting. Plenty of hope here!

Being a fridge control freak
I accidentally chucked out a slice of pizza that Andrew had been saving for his evening snack last night and almost died. I tend to gut out the fridge on a Sunday and just wasn’t thinking of the consequences of my actions apparently. The man barely spoke to me for a good hour afterwards and I quickly learned that no matter how old the pizza is YOU DO NOT THROW IT OUT BEFORE CONSULTATION. EVER.
People who don’t leave back shopping trolleys

I saw a friend post a Facebook status about this and couldn’t have agreed more. And then this article came in to my life and blew my mind. Return your trolleys people!

Never feeling at home
As a person who has lived in a fair few places since leaving my childhood home at 18, I struggle with the concept of home. I could dedicate a whole post to this but until then I give you this article. This piece of writing warmed my heart so much so that it felt like home in itself. And she talks about tea which is just about perfect for me.

Not having my own home
We rent our wee house and although it suits us for where we are right now, there are times that I would just love to rip everything out and renovate it as my own. It’s so difficult to add personality to house that you can’t necessarily to do too much to especially when you have a lemon-coloured bath suite (barf) but when I do have my own house I want it to look a little like this one.

Have a great week!!

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12 Places to Eat Breakfast in Belfast

12 Places to Eat Breakfast in Belfast

It’s Friday folks; we made it! I am feeling a lot more human today after a few days of feeling very ‘meh’ and being largely confined to my bedroom with nothing but Love Island to keep me company (get off your judgement pony, the show is chewing gum for the brain!). Now I am raring for a weekend full of plans and hopefully a little bit of dancing thrown in for good measure!

 

I have a work BBQ tonight which I am nerdishly excited about (I’m on the Social Committee so extra nerd points for me, thanks) and I am just praying that the rain clouds do the cool thing and feck off for a few hours. The rest of the weekend might involve a wee local festival or an afternoon drive but will definitely include brunch with my little sister who is coming up for a wee visit to the big smoke.

 

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Since moving to Belfast over two years ago it feels like there has been a new café opening every other weekend; the options are endless and there are still plenty of places that I am yet to try. Having visitors is the perfect excuse for exploring new spots and this weekend I’ll be taking Shannon for a feed that will no doubt be a cure for the night before.

 

Venturing out of the house for breakfast is a real treat and not something we do too often but when we do I like to really take my time to enjoy it. There are a few places that I definitely would recommend and so I thought I would include them in a post for those of you in need of a little inspiration for this weekend or for the next time you’re visiting this vibrant wee city of ours. I’m no fibber though so there are a couple here that are still on my hit list but that I’ve heard such good things about them that I’m sure you are bound to love them too. I hope.

 

Wishing you all a lovely weekend filled with whatever makes your heart and face happy 🙂

 

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If you’re lookin’ for a fry…

It wouldn’t be an Irish breakfast post without a mention of the Ulster Fry. When we were growing up my lovely Mum used to cook a full fry for us without fail every Saturday morning with enough carbs to fill a horse. Soda bread, potato bread, pancakes… no wonder I was an absolute puddin’ as a child. If you’re in the mood to have a feast then definitely give this lot a go…

Baker Street

This joint is in East Belfast so might not be too handy for some of you but for the likes of me on that side of town, this place is perfect for a weekend treat. There is a great variety on the menu in case you’re after something different but I would definitely recommend going the traditional route!

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Café Conor

An old reliable found in the Queen’s Quarter of town that always has a great wee buzz about it. It’s a handy place to go before going across the road to the Botanic Gardens or Ulster Museum to walk off the feast.

Town Square

Found beneath the trees of Botanic, this corner spot is a place I keep returning to. The food is always delicious and they have plenty of events on in the evenings in case you find yourself staying on for an all-day session!

 

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If you’re lookin’ for something guilt-free…

Going out for a heavy fry can sometimes feel a bit too much, especially when we’re supposed to be maintaining these summer bodies (ahem). The places above still offer a few healthy options but if you’re after some fresh seasonal ingredients then be sure to try either of these two.

The Skinny Kitchen

I’ve been hearing really great things about this from my healthy friends and I keep meaning to give it a whirl but I never seem to make the trek across the city. It’s on Boucher Road so it’s perfect if you’re planning on doing some shopping after but since it’s on the opposite side of town, I haven’t quite made it yet. Soon though!

 

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The Little Pink Kitchen

If you’re in to something a little bit different then you should check out The Little Pink Kitchen where you can enjoy a healthy home-cooked breakfast in Sarah’s very own kitchen. I’ve been lucky enough to taste Sarah’s food before at an Assembly Gathering I went to last Autumn and I practically licked the plate (her wild garlic dip was the talk of the event). You have to book but for £15 you will be fed very well. The next breakfast is on the 9th July and I think there’s a good chance I will be there!

 

If you’re so hungover all you can stomach is coffee…

As a non-coffee drinker (SHOCK! HORROR!), I tend to go by Andrew’s feedback as to which places do the tastiest coffee. There’s even a Belfast coffee map app now which is proof that the city is a hotspot for coffee-lovers!

Root & Branch

These guys have their own roastery on site so there was no doubt that their hole in the wall would go down a storm. Here you can grab a coffee, tea or small snack before exploring the rest of the Ormeau Road.

 

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5A

When I lived in South Belfast this was my Sunday favourite despite it always being so busy. There is a reason why customers come in their droves because their coffee is the best in the area but my reason was because of their foccacias which are unbelievable. Definitely worth a try before going on a wee dander down the Lagan towpath!

District

The second place in the list from the Ormeau Road but another popular coffee joint. There are plenty of others that are cropping up nearby too so you could do a wee coffee crawl if you’re tempted (although maybe go decaf for one or two stops).

 

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If you want to be really naughty…

Sometimes you want to just skip breakfast and get straight down to the bad stuff. There’s no judgement here. If it’s doughnuts, gelato or waffles stacked with sugar then these three are good places to start.

Guilt Trip

This joint is the new kid in town which is popping up everywhere on my Insta feed. I don’t know why I haven’t tried their doughnuts yet but it is something I’m very ashamed of so I will have to remedy it this weekend!

Indigo Coffee & Gelato

Another new-ish café to the scene but as someone who has recently tasted their salted caramel gelato, I can truly attest that this will be a firm fixture on my summer circuit.

 

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The Pocket

The waffles here should be enough to entice me but the chance to people watch by their window is an added bonus. As an avid tea drinker, I fully appreciate the wee hourglasses they bring out so you can time how long to stew your tea for. It’s the little things!

 

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Have a lovely weekend!

 

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!

10 Pubs To Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

10 Pubs To Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh! Or Happy St. Patrick’s Day for those of you who aren’t as familiar with the Gaelic language – ye poor sods. Today is the day we celebrate the shamrock, the day we paint ourselves green and the day we permit ourselves to drink bucketfuls of Guinness (even though a lot of us out there don’t even like the taste that much).

Personally I actually love a pint of the black stuff and plan to consume several over the weekend while I act the young thing with my best friends. We’re headed south for our girl Louise’s hen party and I’m a big ball of excitement/fear for the activities ahead of us. What I’m most looking forward to is being wedged in between the gals. roaring over our drinks while we listen to the same traditional music that’s been listened to for generations.

It’s a cliché I suppose but there is no greater place to be in Ireland than in a pub on St. Patrick’s Day. When you pick the right one you find yourself not wanting to leave, soaking in the atmosphere that’s thick around you while trying to say sober enough so you remember it all. It doesn’t even have to be a session, it may only be for a wee sensible skiff of a drink but it’s sure to be enough to fill your heart with as much patriotism as you need.

As well as being lucky enough to be born here, I’ve also been lucky enough to have had my fair share of pints across the island so I’ve decided to share some of my favourites from over the years. Obviously there are hundreds of establishments that are stupendously wonderful so please share if you have any tips of your own but for now, here are mine. Wishing you all of the luck this St. Patrick’s Day wherever you find yourself!

Fitzpatricks – Carlingford, Co. Louth

This is the best place to go for a pint with your Granny. It’s coming down with old artefacts from across the years and it even has a pet farm out the back to keep the kids entertained! If you don’t make it this Paddy’s Day be sure to pay a visit over Hallowe’en. The owners go all out with decorations and spooky scenes across the whole site – definitely something to be seen!

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Kelly’s Cellars – Belfast, Co. Antrim

As a new local to Belfast I could list a load of pubs here that are good enough to pay a visit to but for now I’ll choose my favourite. Kelly’s Cellars is a great spot for a lit fire and when you walk through the doors it feels like you’re in the middle of old Ireland. It’s a great place to escape the city pace and slow down over a few cold ones.

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Singing Pub – Downings, Co. Donegal

This is a gem to be found on the Wild Atlantic Coast and well worth the trek to. The place is family run and the manager, Tony, makes you feel like a local anytime you drop in. Whatever you do, please order the seafood chowder. It’s without a doubt the best chowder I’ve ever tasted and the portion size will surely soak up whatever you’ve been drinking.

 

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Matt Molly’s – Westport, Co. Mayo

I remember walking in to this place after stopping off on a road trip. We walked to the very back of the pub to pick out a seat and found ourselves parked beside the local musicians who had dropped in for a session. More and more players joined and soon the entire place was filled with music so amazing my eyes filled with tears. It’s a place I can’t wait to go back to.

 

Peadar Kearney’s – Dublin, Co. Dublin

This place has been hiving both times I’ve been in it but the live music was sensational. It’s a good place to start a night out but I wouldn’t blame you if you found yourself still there at closing time.

 

Tig Cóilí – Galway, Co. Galway

I was in this pub on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013. The sun was splitting the trees that day as we sat by the windows that were open on to the famous Shopping Street of the city. The pub was jammed with people and we were delighted to have scored some seats when all of a sudden the crowd fell silent. An aul fella who was propped up at the end of the bar had started singing an old Irish song, the words of which I can’t remember. What I do remember was the feeling in the room as every man, woman and child had been hushed by these gorgeous lyrics. Once he finished, the pub erupted and it was probably the best St. Paddy’s moment I ever had.

 

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Tynan’s Bridge House Bar – Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny

This pub is off the main street but I loved it for it’s simple charm. The floors were uneven which did nothing to help the inebriated among us but it was quiet and had plenty of dark corners to hide in. Sometimes the best pubs are the quiet ones; where you’re free to have a relaxed chat and the whole place is yours to fill with forgotten conversations.

 

Red Ned’s – Armagh, Co. Armagh

Of course I had to include Ned’s – a pub I’ve frequented since I was a child with a Club Orange upper lip and wee legs swinging from the benches. The pub has plenty of familiar faces for me but it also has some fantastic live music that would attract any from outside the town. Definitely a recommendation if you’re about the Orchard County.

 

The Mutton Lane Inn – Cork City, Co. Cork

We were in Cork for the Jazz Festival in October and this was the pub that stuck out for me. It’s one of the oldest establishments in the city which is just bursting with tradition. You’re really spoiled for choice though around the Oliver Plunkett area so you can find yourself doing a pub crawl that could last for days.

 

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McDermott’s – Doolin, Co. Clare

A class wee pub that I stumbled upon once with friends while visiting the Cliffs of Moher. Doolin is a really sweet village and this place is perfect for resting the hooves and whiling away an hour two with some drinks in hand. It’s also a great place for a feed if you find yourself staying on for dinner – which no doubt you will!

 

Where are your favourite pubs in Ireland?? Will you be celebrating this year?? 

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St. George’s Market Salmon & Veggies

St. George’s Market Salmon & Veggies

I’ve made no secret of my love of St. George’s Market and after the loveliest trip on Saturday, I won’t be climbing down off my soapbox anytime soon. It’s the one place that is sure to pick me up on these ceaseless grey winter weekends when straying too far from the house is out of the question.

 

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I dragged Andrew for a mooch around the stalls after lunch when I knew the crowds would have quietened down and he wouldn’t have to stress about pushing past a load of tourists hovering over loaves of soda bread. As I drooled past the display of cheese and chutneys, I made a bee line for the vegetable stands (I have eaten a lifetime of smoked cheddar over the holidays) where I knew I would be in safer hands.

 

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I love buying my vegetables from the markets when I’m able to. Getting to meet the seller and have a conversation with them is such a rarity these days and I take real pleasure in getting to meet local business people. I picked up sweet potato, a massive bunch of fresh dill, onion, a load of asparagus and when I didn’t have enough change to cover it all, I was shooed away with a flick of a hand. That’s Belfast all over.

 

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After I picked up my veggies I splurged on some salmon and had to restrain myself from buying a kilo of mussels and scallops. Fresh seafood is such a luxury for me and this year I am trying to introduce a little more in to my weekly cooking to try and inspire some new techniques. I can rely on the same dishes to carry me through sometimes (oh hey cottage pie) so a little shake up can only be a good thing.

 

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Last night I unveiled the beauty and roasted the fish in foil slathered with a delicious marinade. It was extremely quick and easy that I’m even thinking of going completely wild and making fish cakes from scratch later in the week. With fresh breadcrumbs! Too much?

 

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I’ve included the ridiculously simple recipe below in case you feel like trying something other than a stew/casserole/pie – unless you’re a much more accomplished chef than me and a recipe like this is laughable! Above all else if it encourages you to take a trip to your local markets or even just to the fishmongers down the road to have a chinwag about anything other than Brexit (fishmongers are quite passionate about EU quotas I feel so keep it light) then this would make me silly happy.

 

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Happy Tuesday y’all!


Roasted Fresh Salmon & Veggies

Feeds 2

Ingredients

  • 600g fresh salmon fillet
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 150ml melted butter
  • 1 tablespoon dried mixed herbs
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill
  • Cherry tomatoes on the vine
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon
  • 10 asparagus stalks

Method

  1. Cut the sweet potato in to chunks roughly an inch thick and drizzle with olive oil in a baking tray before sprinkling with cinnamon.
  2. Place in an oven heated to 200 C and leave for 40 minutes, shaking after 20 minutes.
  3. Mix the butter, sugar, lemon juice, dried herbs and salt and pepper in a small bowl.
  4. Lay the salmon in foil in a baking tray and pour the mixture over the salmon.
  5. Wrap the salmon up and place the cherry tomatoes beside the salmon in the tray. Drizzle with the tomatoes with oil and season with a little salt. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
  6. About 5 minutes before everything is ready boil the asparagus until just firm.
  7. Stuff your face.

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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 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??