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Summer at Helen’s Tower

Summer at Helen’s Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

The Best Local Places to Find Wildflowers

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

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

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

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

Happy foraging pals!

The Best Places to Find Wildflowers

Lagan Meadows (for an urban oasis)

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

Loughgall Country Park (for wild garlic and apple blossom)

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

Rowallane Gardens (for manicured gardens rustic woodland)

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

Cavehill Country Park (for bluebells)

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

Crawfordsburn Meadow (for diversity)

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

Rathlin Island (for abundance)

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

The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

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

Omey Island

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

Dog’s Bay

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

Coral Strand

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

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

Stepping in to Spring in Connemara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Favourites: Newtownards

Local Favourites: Newtownards

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

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

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

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

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

Scrabo Tower

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

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

Mahee Island

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

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

Haptik

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

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

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

Mount Stewart

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

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

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.

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! 

What Not To Worry About #46

What Not To Worry About #46

Hello fellow Monday heads. I hope this week is starting out exactly how you wanted it to, with a brain full of plans and a body that wants to play ball. These January mornings have been rough on the old motivation for this gal. Last night I went to bed with the best of intentions for my Monday but instead I woke up and subconsciously talked myself in to pressing snooze half a dozen times before I leaped out of bed in a mad panic. It’s Blue Monday alright.

January is a weird time of year for the mind, isn’t it? There’s all this pressure to reflect and better ourselves but the wildness of the outside can permeate within us, wreaking havoc while we’re in the midst of pursuing calm. The best thing we can do during this month of chaos is to practice a little self-kindness. Forget the constant need for improvement and just welcome the little moments of progress you manage to accomplish despite all that’s stacked against you.

For me, the pressure has been finding the moments to take photographs that I can share along with the words I write. It’s easy to hide away while the rain lashes outside and it’s too cold to even think about trailing about about looking for a pretty landscape. The weekend past was so dull and miserable I couldn’t summon the energy, I just wanted to stay inside catching up with friends and family over copious amounts of tea. Which is exactly what I did! No guilt trips. None.

The wind is still howling outside as I type this (slowly since I had meant to have this posted hours ago) so the wild weather doesn’t look to be dissipating anytime soon. I still have good intentions for tomorrow; a quick 10 minute meditation before breakfast, actually completing my to-do list (or even just half of it), reading my book. And if the morning rolls in and I’ve realised I didn’t start the way I had intended to then I will just try again. There is always another chance to try again, right?

And here are a few more things I’m not worrying about this week…

Compliment receiving etiquette – because the balance between being gracious and arrogant is an oh-s0-fine-line for me that I just want to roll up in to an awkward ball. Setting up a Compliment Club like Joy the Baker sounds like the way forward and might also make life a little bit cheerier.

Driving in the lashing rain at night time – driving from Dungannon to Belfast in the pouring rain on Sunday was a white-knuckled ride for sure. I used to suffer from panic attacks when driving on the motorway once upon a time but I’m a fairly confident driver now except in the rain when I find my hand going to the top of my head as a comfort like it did circa 2006.

Not starting yet another diet – I am CRAP at diets so have just tried to slowly introduce more fruit as a snack rather than resorting to half a packet of hob nobs. This article made me a feel a little better though.

Not using public transport – I work about a 10 minute drive away from my office and because Northern Irish public transport isn’t too reliable, I shamefully drive the distance most days. Public transport is such a novelty to me though and reading these stories made me smile.

Annoying habits – the joys of being in a long term relationship means that you get to know all the wee quirks your partner has, weird as they may be. Andrew for example likes to put his (freezing cold) feet up against me in bed to warm them up which will result in a row on a nightly basis. My weird one is that I will never fully finish a meal – no matter what it is I will always leave a few bites left. Reading the comments of this piece had me laughing out loud at my desk because I identified with so many!!

Have a great week pals! 

 

What Are You Taking Control Of In 2018?

What Are You Taking Control Of In 2018?

Happy New Year friends!! How was everyone’s Christmas break?? Does it all feel a million years ago like it does for me?? I took a little more time away from this space than I expected to over the festive period but honestly, it felt like my brain ceased to function once I left my office. I completely clocked off mentally which is exactly what I needed to do although not what I intended for the blog BUT do you know what?? I’ve more energy for writing now that I have had for months. All I want to do now is write and keep writing and I’m hoping that’ll encourage you guys to keep reading too. Turns out my wee brain needed a rest while my jaw went to work on all things food!

My Mum, sister and I rented a house up on the Donegal coast over the Christmas break which was unexpectedly one of the best holidays I’ve had in a long time. We had the most spectacular view over a wee bay that changed with every hour as all kinds of weather battered us from the Atlantic. We had rain lashing against the sky light of the bedrooms; we had crazy winds practically shaking the house; we even had hail for feck sake which we watched from the living room, making sure to stay warm by the log burner of course. When the sun did decide to shine for a millisecond we would throw the coats and boots on us and run down the lane to an empty beach with our collars pulled up around our ruddy faces and hands jammed in to our pockets. We would return home, wild and weather-beaten, with a hot mug of tea to bring our fingers back to life.

The thing that struck me the most during our week in Donegal (aside from the winter winds) was how in control I felt of my own time. Moments melted in to one another without a single thought towards the next one. We didn’t need to plan ahead or stress about cramming in activities. We slept for as long as we wanted, had meals at screwed up times, took a spontaneous drive if we felt like it. For a person whose life is so wrapped up in plans it was the most liberating feeling to be totally living in the moment.

Now that I’m home in Belfast again I wanted to hang on to that liberation a little longer and drag in to to 2018 with me. I want to take control of how present I am in the here and now. My brain is so full of what lies ahead that I’m never fully engaged with what I’m doing at that moment in time. Books are scanned too quickly instead of absorbing each word that moves me. Music isn’t really listened to in the car because I’m too busy thinking about the destination. Cooking is rushed so I can sit down and eat rather than enjoying preparing the food that will nourish me. All these small moments make up the life I’m living and it has dawned on me that if I’m not truly present in those small moments then I’m not truly living either.

I suppose not having control is something I have been aware of for so long that it’s perhaps warped my own ability to live presently. Being born with CF has taught me that no matter how much I plan, my health can turn in the opposite direction so I try to pack in as many experiences as I can to make sure I’m living as full a life as possible. It’s been my way of taking control and yet in a way it’s prevented me from really experiencing the here and now. Being able to just sit and be mindful of what’s directly in front of me, who I am with, that is surely having a full life.

So that’s what I’m taking control of this year: my present, my here, my now. Old habits die hard so I’m not expecting this new mind-set to come easily but I want to at least try. Instead of always chasing the next experience I want to live as if I have already arrived at the destination. I’ve a wee feeling this will make me a lot happier!

I’d love to know if you’ve decided to take control of something in your life this year so please share! Will you be taking more control of your actions? Your treatment of others? Your choices? Your time? 

Will you be saying no more? Yes more? 

I want to know!

And a little thank you to all who took the time to read this wee blog last year. Every comment, every like or message that you send means the whole world to me and reminds me that I’m not just sending words in to an empty space, that there are wonderful people listening. Thank you so much and I so look forward to sharing more yarns in 2018!  

 

 

What Not To Worry About #44

What Not To Worry About #44

Happy Tuesday pals!! It’s been a chilly few days here in Belfast with the snow arriving and characteristically playing havoc with everyone’s lives. I secretly love how people suddenly lose the ability to talk about anything other than the snow and each conversation includes a rotation of the following:

“Did you get snow where you are?” – My Mum

“Mind those roads” – My Dad

“Traffic was mental this morning!” – My colleagues

“Thon road is like an ice rink!” – My country friends

“It’s fairly coming down out there” – My boyfriend

“It gives it to snow all night!” – My little sister

“Ye daren’t leave the house if this carries on…” – Me

Everyone I know becomes an expert meteorologist overnight that can judge the severity of the snow based on the shade of white the clouds turn. While this can be a little irritating (especially when the drama can reach apocalyptic heights – it has snowed before people!), the sense of excitement can be contagious and can encourage festive magic to spread across to even the Scroogiest of Scrooges. On Friday it felt perfectly acceptable to blast Christmas music all day long (the office was practically empty anyway!) as we spent most of the day with our noses pressed up against the windows gazing up at the torrent of snowflakes.

On Saturday we woke up to a blanket of white and I was practically giddy as we drove down to Murlough Bay to walk along a snowy beach. The air was icy but it felt wonderful to walk through the dunes with our coats wrapped up to our chins, spying a few snowmen along the way before reaching the sand. We walked along the waterline, taking pictures of the beach and the snow-capped Mourne mountains towering above us while we still had sensation in our fingers. Feeling thoroughly frozen, we sought refuge in Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum to warm our toes and our bellies. We sat beside the log burner which thawed us out in no time and I ordered seafood chowder which, although advertised as a starter, stuffed me to the brim along with the pint of Guinness I washed it down with.

I begged Andrew to take us the scenic route through the mountains to Armagh where we were headed to catch up with family. He eventually relented under the agreement that I would pay for any damage if he was to slide right off the mountain (another snow drama queen). It was worth the risk because it was a winter wonderland up there. Spelga Dam looked like something from a Christmas card with the evergreens dusted with snow alongside the water which was turning gold as the sun set over the mountain. Who knew Ireland could resemble a Nordic paradise?

On Sunday there was more snow and more pictures and more delight from me as I watched the sunrise from the country lane by Andrew’s parents’ house (who are always so dumbfounded by my glee at the scenic views they are spoiled with). After a walk with friends, I headed to Downpatrick for an afternoon of pure magic. I have spoken about Mel in the blog before and the Assembly Gatherings she organises for the creative women who are craving connections with other like-minded souls. I attended my first Gathering back in February and it filled me up with so much inspiration I felt capable of just about anything.

This Gathering was for the festive season and was focused on finding time for ourselves before the whirlwind of Christmas consumes our lives completely. We were told to gather in the hills outside of Downpatrick at Laura Bayley’s farmstead where the roads were just a little bit dicey in my new wee Polo! After a white-knuckled drive I arrived when everyone was just sitting down to dine in Laura’s stone barn that had been beautifully styled by Grace & Saviour (an Instagrammer’s dream!). We ate the most delicious organic food cooked by Laura while I forged connections with the new faces around me (and put faces to Instagram handles!).

After being stuffed with amazing food, we shuffled in to another room in the barn where we learned about organic chocolate from the lovely women of Nearnógs. We learned how to identify tastes within chocolate and were even given some truffle balls to take home with us which we rolled in our favourite flavouring – yum!

Having been well educated in deliciousness, we braved the bitter cold to go out to the nearby wood to forage for materials to make our own wreaths – you know I love to make a wreath! Janice from Gathered Threads showed us the best pieces to search for while the sky above us turned a crimson pink and the light started to fade. We had our very own workshop to work in after the sun went down, turning a bunch of ferns and evergreens in to something beautiful (if a little rustic in my case!).

As the temperature plummeted we gathered around the firepit and drank hot chocolate to keep warm. There was a gentle murmur of shared gratitude amongst the group as if we all felt the weight of such a golden afternoon and weren’t quite ready to let it go. Eventually we had to head on home to save us losing toes and fingers but I am still feeling the weight of that afternoon and have been carrying it around with me to keep me going during this crazy season.

The wreath is hanging above the fireplace too 🙂

And here’s a few worries I am letting go of this week:

Getting frustrated at Andrew when he is sick – I have zero sympathy when it comes to colds and flus but it turns out some guy actually went out and conducted a study to actually prove that men suffer worse than women when they have flus! I’m still dubious but maybe I should be a little kinder when it comes to sickness, just in case.

Having it all figured out – there is so much pressure to know exactly where you are meant to be going and what you’re meant to be doing but in reality a lot of us are winging it most of the time. What’s encouraging is to know that even some of our personal idols feel the exact same which was why I just loved reading this article. Joanna Goddard is someone who I have looked up to since I started reading her blog Cup of Jo a couple of years ago and it was great to know she’s as personable in real life as she is through her words.

Blue Planet – the series finished last week and it ended with a pretty ominous message that the plastic crisis is severely affecting the world’s oceans and all that live there. This is a very real problem that affects all of us but we can do something, even little things to help improve the future of the world’s oceans. Find a few tips here if you want to find out how you can help too.

Not reading enough books by women – I have read a lot more books written by men than women; not because I prefer the words of male authors but because it is so much easier for a male to be published than female. John Boyne wrote a great article on why he thinks women are better writers than men and how often he encounters men who write for the prizes rather than for the connection with the reader.

Not staying in a tree house – sometimes you just want to run away and live in a treehouse and live up high above the ground. Or even just pay a load of money to stay in a fancy adult version! Check this piece out for some serious treehouse-envy.

Have a great week!