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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!

 

 

 

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! 

The First Recipe I Ever Learned

The First Recipe I Ever Learned

It was on a street in Edinburgh in 2007 that I realised I was finally an adult, a proper grown up. My Mum had just managed to release me from a tearful embrace that in hindsight represented a monumental shift in our relationship. She had dropped me off at my university halls that morning and helped me carry boxes that contained everything I had cherished from home, unpacking and making my bed while I excitedly introduced myself to all my new roommates. Suddenly I wasn’t her baby anymore and I could see my whole childhood flash before her as she began to mourn the chapter of her life as my Mum. I can still remember how tightly she held me and now that I’m older, I realise how difficult it must have been for her to let go and trust that she did a good enough job raising me. I stood on the kerb and waved goodbye for as long as I had to until I skipped off, oblivious to how massive that moment was for both of us.

We were lucky growing up with the mother we have. She was always there to cook us dinner each evening, to help us with our homework and to tuck us in at night. Our meals were never anything hugely fancy, just the typical Irish dinners with about four different recipes in rotation (I haven’t been able to eat a fish finger in about 15 years).

Before leaving for university I had written down a recipe in my notebook in the hope that I wouldn’t completely starve. It was for minced meat, gravy, potatoes and carrots, a dinner most Irish kids would have been reared on and it was just about the only think I cooked in my first semester in between the mass of take away food and snacks (I had a tin underneath my bed filled with treats and after a night out I would wake up with one hand still in the tin!).

Sadly, there’s only so much mince a girl can eat and thankfully that Christmas my sister Amy bought me my very first cookbook. The book was ‘Home Cooking’ by Rachel Allen and it instantly became my bible because it was filled with recipes that reminded me of home. Anytime I felt a little homesick, all I had to do was open those flour-stained pages and cook something that resembled my Mum’s dinner. The recipes were not always executed well (I couldn’t tell you how many pans I ruined) but there was one that I managed to get comfortable with and remains my go-to comfort dish to do this day. It’s a recipe for a chicken casserole with cheesy herb dumplings and it is so yummy and so cosy that it’s impossible to ever have leftovers. It’s the ultimate winter crowd-pleaser because it just takes everyone back to their childhood, to those meals their Mums and Dads used to make for them while their legs were still swinging underneath the kitchen table.

This was the first recipe I was able to own and I remember cooking it for my Mum and sisters when I came back home for the holidays. It was (still is) a running joke in the family that I was a bit of a scatter brain and it was a miracle to them that I was suddenly able to cook and fend for myself. Eventually I learned other recipes too and even started using exotic ingredients that we definitely didn’t eat when growing up (asparagus, who dis?). I could see the relief my Mum had when she knew that I might actually be OK, that I wouldn’t develop scurvy on a Pot Noodle diet and that I would be nourishing myself with at least a few vegetables.

Now that I’m approaching 30 my Mum might even say that I’m a better cook than her (it’s a close one). I might be a little more adventurous or experimental but to me, no one can make mince and spuds like my own Mum.


Rachel Allen’s Chicken Casserole with Cheesy Herb Dumplings

I’ve tweaked the recipe slightly over the years but by and large it remains the same.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 350 g unsliced rindless streaky bacon, cut into 12cm
  • 1/2 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 large carrots, cut into 2cm slices on the diagonal
  • 700 ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme

For the cheesy herb dumplings

  • 350 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 300 ml buttermilk or soured milk
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped dried mixed herbs, such as parsley thyme, rosemary or chives
  • 25 g cheddar cheese, finely grated

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Cut the chicken breasts in half and season them well with salt and pepper.

2. Pour the olive oil into a large casserole dish on a high heat, add the bacon and fry quickly for 12 minutes or until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the chicken in batches and sear on each side until golden, and remove. Add the onion and carrots and fry for 2 or 3 minutes or until golden.

3. Return the bacon and chicken to the dish, pour on the stock, add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring slowly to the boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

4. For the dumplings, sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl add the herbs, mix, then make a well in the centre. Pour in most of the buttermilk or soured milk (leaving about 50ml in the measuring jug). Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding a little more buttermilk if necessary. Don’t knead the mixture or it will become too heavy. The dough should be soft but not too wet and sticky.

5. Tip the dough onto a floured work surface and bring together. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to about 2cm thick. With a scone cutter or cup stamp out 10 to 12 dumplings, or divide the dough into 10 to 12 small balls.

6. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and turn the heat up to 230C/gas 8. Arrange the dumplings on top, leaving a slight gap between them to allow for spreading. Scatter with the cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 200C/Gas 6 and cook for a further 20 minutes until the dumplings are crisp and golden and the chicken is cooked through.

 

A Wheaten Bread Recipe

A Wheaten Bread Recipe

Growing up in Ireland has meant that I have a natural affinity for bread products. Just take a look at the classic Ulster Fry and you will see a plate riddled with carbs; toasted soda farl, potato bread, pancakes and a few rounds of toast. For me though the crowning glory of Irish bread has to be the humble wheaten. As a child I would always go straight for the wheaten loaf in my granny’s house where there would always be a stock kept high on the counter wrapped in a kitchen towel. I would slather it in butter followed by raspberry jam and wash it down with a mug of tea (you cannot have a toasted wheaten without tea and that’s a scientific fact).

For the unfortunate amongst you who don’t know what wheaten bread is (oh my, what you have been missing out on), it’s a bread (duh) made from wholemeal wheat. What makes it different to other breads (and therefore easier to make) is that it doesn’t contain yeast; bicarbonate of soda is used instead as the leavening agent. Buttermilk is also used instead of regular milk which reacts with the bicarbonate of soda which gives it it’s distinctive consistency (and yumminess).

To this day, wheaten bread remains one of my favourite snacks, especially at this time of year when the nights are begging for a nostalgic treat. It was the food I missed the most when I lived in Australia; so much so that I actually packed a couple of loaves in my suitcase to take back with me when I was home visiting. It was and still is the food that tastes like home to me.

Another reason why I love it is because it’s so freakin’ easy to make. No yeast means there’s no temperature controls to be monitored or waiting around for the rise. You can throw this recipe together in the space of an hour and serve it to guests who will think you are a culinary goddess (as well as creating a smell that will make your house smell divine).

I’ve included the standard recipe that I tend to use though of course there are a few local twists you can make to it according to where you’re from. It’s a recipe that’s as old as the hills and every family likes to garnish it their own way. Toast it and slather with butter and jam or eat it with some slices of mature cheddar or add some salmon and dill and serve as a festive amuse-bouche if you don’t mind or serve it as a side to some hearty chowder or soup on a winter’s evening.

It can be sliced gracefully or it can be ripped apart while you stand in the kitchen holding a jar of jam. What it will always be though is a recipe that will make you feel like you’re at home, even when you aren’t.


Irish Wheaten Bread

Ingredients

  • 300g wholewheat flour
  • 100 grams plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 300mls buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon rolled oats

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 200ºC/gas mark 6.
  2. Place the flours, salt and bicarb in a bowl, stirring to combine.
  3. Using your fingertips, rub in the margarine until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Add the sugar and stir to combine.
  5. Gradually stir in the buttermilk until you get a soft, but not sticky, dough. You won’t need to use all of it. Don’t worry too much if it is sticky -just dust with some extra flour!
  6. Turn out onto a floured surface, and briefly knead the dough (with your knuckles). Pop the dough into a lightly floured 20 cm cake tin or bread loaf tin, and shape into a round.
  7. Using a sharp knife, mark the dough into four farls or slice if using bread tin. Brush the surface with a little extra buttermilk, then sprinkle over the oats (or some additional flour).
  8. Bake for approximately 40 minutes. A cake tester should come out pretty much clean when it is ready.
  9. Leave to cool on a wire rack for as long as you can bear. Enjoy!

 

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