London Calling 

My mum and dad recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary and to mark this momentous occasion they decided they wanted to do a family dinner together – in London! 

After lots of research, followed by lots of planning (mainly done by my sister, and organiser extraordinaire Gail), the time came to pack our bags and jet off on our first family excursion across the water to land of Westminster, Big Ben and red buses. 

Thankfully everything went like clockwork during our flight from Belfast International Airport and just over an hour later we touched down in Gatwick where we caught the Gatwick Express train, followed by the Tube, to make our way to our home for the weekend, the Corus Hotel. Situated beside Hyde Park, and beside the Lancaster Gate tube station, this hotel could not have been better located. After checking in to our rooms, which were cosy, modern and boasted all the mod cons needed including very welcoming air conditioning, we headed to the in house restaurant for something to eat. The menu consisted of traditional options as well as spicy dishes ensuring there was something for all palates. As well as delicious, flavour bursting food the staff, who found out it was also my mum’s birthday that day, presented her with a complimentary dessert, garnished with a candle, which they presented whilst singing Happy Birthday to her. 

London is one of those cities that no matter how many times you visit, there is always something new to do. This time round, I got to experience lots of firsts, these were my top five from this trip:

1. STATE ROOMS AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE 

I have been to the gates of Buckingham Palace several times but this was the first time I got to step inside during a tour of the building’s State Rooms. As we toured through the Grand Hall to the Throne Room as well as the White Drawing Room to the Music Room not to mention the jaw dropping Ballroom, to name only a few, we not only got to glimpse the fabulous spaces in which the Royal Family conduct official business as well as entertain guests, but also got to see the current Royal Gifts exhibition, which tells the story of the Queen’s reign through a vast display of official gifts presented through the past 65 years. Once we completed our tour we enjoyed a cup of tea in the Buckingham Palace Garden Cafe, which really was a spectacular way to finish this particular adventure. 

2. KENSINGTON PALACE

Our visit to London coincided with the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Although we saw a special exhibition in her honour on display at Buckingham Palace, showcasing some of her never before seen personal effects as selected by Princes William and Harry, it seemed remiss not to also visit her former residence, Kensington Palace during our stay. One of London’s central Royal residences, the Palace boasts a stunning architecture as well as a remarkable history that definitely makes it well worth a visit. 

3. MOTOWN AT THE SHAFTESBURY THEATRE 

My mum is a huge fan of Motown and so my sister and I were raised on hits such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’. To celebrate mum and dad’s anniversary, we wanted to spend the night at the West End and so tickets to see Motown the Musical were a must. Motown tells the story of Gordy Berry, a man who broke barriers and fought against the odds to define the sound of a generation with the creation of Motown Records. With a cast that gives passionate and raw performances and a soundtrack bursting with hits from legendary Motown artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and The Temptation, this show had me captivated from start to finish and dancing in my seat. 

4. HYDE PARK 

With Hyde Park situated right on the doorstep of our hotel, it was definitely high on our list of things to do. With beautiful buildings and wonderfully crafted structures such as The Serpentine Bridge, the Diana Memorial Fountain, the Peter Pan statue, the Serenity sculpture, and the Joy of Life fountain, Hyde Park and all it encompasses is a truly exquisite space that offers everything from walking / jogging routes, boating, swimming as well as areas to simply sit and soak up the atmosphere. On Sundays the Bayswater Road side of the Park also becomes the home to a wonderful street art exhibition where the artists display their works which are also available to purchase. 

5. DRINKS AT THE SWAN  

The Swan is a typically English pub which was neighbours with our hotel. With lots of outdoor seating and hanging baskets, this was a colourful spot to soak up some of the late summer sunshine we experienced during our trip. With an extensive list of cask ales and world wines, in addition to friendly and welcoming staff, I genuinely fell in love with this spot.

London is a city that never gets old however my favourite first of all during this trip was getting to explore this fabulous place with the people that mean the most to me. 

Posted: 4/9/2017

Advertisements

#AnswerTheCall: Whiskey & Muses

Whiskey and Muses Image 16
Marie-Louise Muir talks to Dean Kane AKA Visual Waste at the preview of his first exhibition, at The Gallery, Belfast as part of the Bushmills® Irish Whiskey #answerthecall series.
I love street art. When I got my own house, the first thing I bought was a Banksy canvas. One of my all time favourite documentaries is Exit Through the Gift Shop. I am no wizz in the kitchen but when I do decide to cook up a storm it is a recipe from The Urban Cook Book: Creative Recipes for the Graffitti Generation. What I love most about street art is that by its very essence there are no rules. A piece can be a colourful homage to a much loved cultural icon or it can be a commentary on the mood of a nation. By turning the buildings and landscapes of a city into life-size canvases, street art is a way to provide a talking point for every section of a community.
       To further celebrate creative visionaries, the latest in the  Bushmills Irish Whiskey® #AnswerTheCall series is a unique collaboration with street-artist, Dean Kane AKA Visual Waste. Entitled ‘Whiskey & Muses’, Visual Waste was tasked with bringing his unique style of art from the street of Belfast to the walls of The Gallery, Belfast for his first ever exhibition. Having spent months creating this urban interpretation which features portraits of artists who have inspired his career, as well as Northern Ireland legends who have defied convention and answered their call, Visual Waste’s foray into fine art is definitely one to get excited about as I discovered when I was lucky enough to attend a preview of the exhibition last night alongside my husband Keith.
       In addition to being treated to a selection of Bushmills Irish Whiskey cocktails and canapés, we also were treated to a Q&A between broadcaster and art lover Marie-Louise Muir and Dean Kane, where he discussed how the birth of his child gave him the push he needed to quit a job he loved to pursue his passion as well as discussing some of his own creative influences. After Dean announced the exhibition was officially open I couldn’t wait to get a peek at the works on display. From an exquisite portrait of Seamus Heaney to a dramatic rendering of Andy Warhol, plus so many more, each and every piece is bold, colourful and remarkable.
       #answerthecall is without a doubt one of my favourite series of events to have come to Northern Ireland. This has been the second one I have been lucky enough to attend and in addition to feeling proud of the talent on display in our wee country, I felt truly inspired to answer my own call and make my mark on the world.
       For a taster of the event, check out my video below, but don’t miss your chance to see it in person if you can!
The ‘Whiskey and Muses’ exhibition runs in The Gallery, Belfast until 31 August 2017.

For more information on the #AnswerTheCall event series, visit answerthecall.co.uk

Girls’ Night

Cheers: Suzan, Gail, Heather, Helen and Kellie.

Anyone who reads the blog regularly may know about the ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ afternoons that I enjoy with my sister Gail and my oldest friends Heather, Helen and Suzan. Whilst our lunchtime dates are often in the company of three little ladies (Lucy, Rachel and Ruby), who are the newest members to the group, mummies and aunties alike thought we were long overdue for an adult only catch up.

I first came across Yum, on Stranmillis Road, Belfast, when enjoying the pre-theatre menu before a trip to the Lyric Theatre with my culture buddies Andy and Mark. The cosy atmosphere, fab food and special offers made it the perfect spot for a catch up with the girls and so we booked a table for last Friday night. When we arrived we were shown to our table by the lovely Louise, who, although clearly swamped as the restaurant was busy, was welcoming, friendly and professional. After looking over the menu it was hard to ignore the exceptional offer of a 3 course meal for 2 plus bottle of house wine or 4 beers for £42. As there was five of us, we had a slight predicament, however this was quickly remedied by the quick thinking of Heather: both Heather and Helen and Gail and myself ordered the three courses and a bottle of wine, whilst Suzan ordered two courses for £15.95. As Helen and Suzan didn’t want three courses each, they split a starter and we shared the two bottles of wine between the five of us – simples!

The menu is bursting with delicious sounding options and we were spoilt for choice. I opted for the Crispy Asian Sesame Chicken, Sticky Asian Sauce & Napa Salad to start, which was colourful, flavoursome and had a lovely spicy kick. For mains I wasn’t alone in thinking the Daube of Beef, Garlic & Rosemary Dauphinoise Potato, Crispy Root Vegetables & Guinness Jus sounded amazing as four of the five of us ordered it! The beef was tender and melt in the mouth whilst the potato was moreish and I simply could not get enough of the Guinness jus. Although after two courses I was starting full, I could not say no to the cheesecake of the day, which on Friday was one of my all time favourites, Oreo. Served with a luscious dollop of ice cream in a brandy snap basket, this really was the perfect sugar rush to end the meal.


It was too early to call it a night and so we headed to House bar, which is about a five minute walk from Yum, for a night cap.  As we reminisced about the nostalgia of our youth as well as swapped stories about the shennanigans the little ladies get up to, I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of our first full throttle girls night in two years. There is nothing like fine food, good drink and the best friends in the world to put a glow in your heart and a smile on you face. Here’s to the next one!

Posted: 22/08/2017

Tea x Two

It is now a running joke how much my sister Gail and I love afternoon tea and we really put our love for finger sandwiches, scones and sweet treats to the test recently by indulging in not one, but two sittings during a long weekend.

First up, during a much anticipated weekend to see the gorgeous Frankie, our sister from a Geordie mister, we, joined by the lovely Suzy and Kirsty, headed for Tipsy Tea in 97 & Social. This cocktail and gastro bar, which is located in the Jesmond area of Newcastle Upon Tyne, combines innovative drinks and delicious food with a charming interior and relaxed atmosphere; I fell in love with it as soon as we entered. And with small and quirky touches, such as a moustachioed Mona Lisa, it oozed a fun vibe from the get go.

The menu was just as fun as the decor and with such offerings such as ‘The Limited Darjeeling’ tea (which combined a blend of Indian whiskey with Darjeeling reduction, mango juice and lemon, finished off with a hint of spice) to ‘It’s A Jamaica ‘Ting’ tea (which mixed Appleton white rum with Velvet Falernum, sorrel squash and sparkling Ting), all served alongside a fresh selection of sandwiches, scones, macaroons and sweet surprises, we were spoilt for choice. After much debate (I would have been happy to sample all of the teas if I am honest), I opted to share a double teapot of the ‘Old Blighty’ tea with Gail which included Tanqueray gin, elderflower liqueur, orange marmalade and Earl Grey tea topped with Fentimans Victorian lemonade. The teas were served in gorgeous China teapots, which really added to the afternoon tea vibe whilst the contents offered a quirky twist.

IMG-20170730-WA0014
(Left to right) Kellie, Suzy, Frankie, Kirsty and Gail.

The pairing of the continental inspired cocktails with the delectable selection of food, as well as the addition of attentive service from our entertaining waiter, made for the perfect girly afternoon. And, at a very reasonable price (Tipsy Tea with a single teapot for one was £9,95; a double teapot for two was £15.95; and two double teapots for four was £29.95), I would definitely recommend giving it a go if you find yourself in the toon!

For more information: https://www.97social.co.uk

Our second sampling of all things sweet took place back in Belfast. For a while now we have been trying to plan a family trip to Parliament Buildings at Stormont Estate, but we haven’t been able to get the timing quite right. However, as my sister and I had booked the Monday we returned from Newcastle off work, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to get the parents, as well as my brother in law and niece, together for a trip ‘up the hill’. As well as offering free tours inside this iconic landmark, Parliament Buildings also offers Afternoon Tea in its Members’ Dining Room on Mondays to Fridays from 2-4pm, and so we thought we would make a day of it and try both!

When booking in for Afternoon Tea at 3pm, we were informed that a tour of the Buildings was scheduled for 2pm which would last for a maximum of 50 minutes, and so it would be over in perfect time for Tea. After clearing security on arrival, we picked up visitor passes at reception before joining the tour in the Great Hall. Mark, our tour guide, was extremely knowledgeable and engaging as he took us through the history of this remarkable building. From pointing out the several examples of the striking symmetry and symbolism in the architecture, to explaining the many uses it has undergone over the years as well as allowing us a behind the scenes look at the Senate and Assembly chambers, which you can usually only see on the news, the tour offered an informative and fascinating insight into one of the best known structures in Northern Ireland.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 21.30.14
Afternoon Tea for one at Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate.

Tour done, and photographs a plenty snapped, it was time to make our way upstairs to the Members’ Dining Room for Afternoon Tea. We were shown to a table that was beside stunning floor to ceiling windows that offered fabulous views down the mile hill stretching from the front steps of Parliament Buildings to the bottom of Prince of Wales Avenue. As well as gorgeous views, the Members’ Dining Room boasts an opulent interior befitting such a noteworthy building. As well as tea and coffee served in individual pots, the selection of food on offer consisted of sandwiches (including smoked salmon; roasted Angus beef; Hillsborough honey roasted ham; organic duck egg and Heggarty’s vintage cheddar), fresh scones served with lashings of jam and clotted cream and a choice of pastries (including a Choux bun; Green Tea cone; mandarin and spiced fig tart; fig compote with mandarin curd and orange glee and a Macaron Éclair).

SAMSUNG CSC
The view from the balcony outside the Members’ Dining Room.

With a serving of decadent afternoon tea and a dollop of history, I loved every minute of our visit to Parliament Buildings. The highlight for me however, was being allowed onto the balcony outside the Members’ Dining Room to not only soak up a rare burst of sunshine but to also enjoy an unrivalled view of Belfast and its surrounding areas. If you haven’t been before, it is really a must do whether you live in Northern Ireland or are simply visiting.

The tour of Parliament Buildings runs Monday – Friday at 11am and 2pm (or on the hour from 11am to 3pm during the summer) and is free of charge. Afternoon Tea costs £15 per person (or two for £25, with a children’s option for £6). For more information visit: http://parliamentbuildings.org

Posted: 07/08/2017

Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival

IMG_20170731_201330
The beautiful town of Dún Laoghaire.

When it comes to a genre of choice when perusing a bookshelf, my eye always goes straight to the crime fiction selection. I love all the different aspects this genre encompasses, from mystery to law, crime procedure to the exploration of an ‘evil’ mind. So, when my friend and fellow book worm, Bronagh, told me about Dead in Dún Laoghaire, the inaugural crime writing festival by Penguin Random House Ireland, in partnership with The Irish Times, I jumped at the chance to attend.

After a bleary-eyed early start, I caught the 7am bus from Belfast to Dublin, which also stopped in Newry, where Bronagh, my partner in crime (pun fully intended), hopped on. Once we arrived at the Busáras Bus Station in Dublin, it was a five minute walk to Connolly Train Station to catch the DART which took us the rest of the way to Dún Laoghaire. By 10am we were sipping coffees and enjoying the picturesque views this suburban seaside town has to offer (I have not been to Dún Laoghaire before but it is such a quaint town and I instantly fell in love with it).

DSC_6889
Paula Hawkins (right) in conversation with Kathy Sheridan.

The festival consisted of four events taking place across one day (Saturday 22 July) at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. First up was a Q&A with global crime writing phenomenon Paula Hawkins, who not only discussed her massively successfully novel The Girl on the Train but also discussed her follow up, Into the Water. As well as touching on ‘second novel’ pressure, Paula, in conversation with Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times, also discussed her career which veered from journalism to writing under a pseudonym before finding her true voice in crime fiction.

DSC_6891
John Banville (centre) and Stuart Neville (right).

After a short break, it was time for event two: Stuart Neville aka Haylen Beck with John Banville aka Benjamin Black. I first encountered Stuart Neville’s work when I reviewed his debut novel, The Twelve, for Ulster Tatler in 2009. Whilst  I have been lucky enough to attend several of Stuart’s readings over the years, in particular as he is a regular at my favourite literary spot in Belfast, No Alibis bookstore, I have not had the opportunity to see John Banville in conversation before and so it was very interesting to see these two authors sharing a stage to discuss their latest works Here and Gone (Haylen Beck) and Prague Nights (Benjamin Black). What intrigued me most was to hear how different both authors’ writing processes are. Whilst Stuart Neville spent weeks in Arizona, the setting of the new Haylen Beck book, to allow him to fully translate that experience onto the page, John Banville explains that the Prague he depicts on the page is the one he conjured up from his imagination as opposed to one he had experienced first hand.

DSC_6911
Liz Nugent (second from left) with Paul Perry and Karen Gillette aka Karen Perry (right).

The penultimate event featured prize-winners, bestsellers and book club favourites, Liz Nugent and Karen Perry (who, I didn’t realise, is actually two writers, novelist Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry). As well as discussing their new works, Lying in Wait and Girl Unknown respectively, they also discussed how they deal with delving into the minds of the psychopaths that feature in their works. After several probing questions from the audience, Liz Nugent also discussed how, for her, persistence was the key when it came to getting published, whilst Karen and Paul explained the process they undertake for to write as part of a team.

DSC_6917
International bestseller Kathy Reichs closing the Dead in Dún Laoghaire festival.

The final event of the festival was international bestseller and real life forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. As well as the creator of the hugely successful Temperance “Tempe” Brennan series of books, she was a producer for the TV series Bones, which was loosely based on her novels as well as her career. This really was a fascinating, and very humorous, Q&A which saw Reichs touch upon how her real life inspired her writing, how she has written books alongside her son as well as what inspired her new book, a standalone thriller, Two Nights, which features a smart, tough, talented heroine whose thirst for justice stems from her own dark past.

Dead in Dún Laoghaire was a truly remarkable festival which provided a unique and inspiring look into the writers behind some of the top offerings in the crime genre. Whilst the festival very much shone a light on the literary merits of crime writing, it also delved into a range of subjects from why established authors write under pseudonyms, how to forge a career as a writer as well as exploring how vastly different the writing process can be for each author. With the opportunity to meet the writers after each event as well as to get books signed, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and fantastically organised event and I for one hopes that the ‘Dead’ once again returns to Dún Laoghaire next year.

DSC_6910
Partners in crime: Bronagh and Kellie.

Posted: 31/07/2017

More Than Milk: Breastival 2017

MamaMilkSmile

I don’t have children and so I have no personal insight in the bottle versus breastfeeding debate. What I do know however, especially after my sister and several close friends had their babies recently, is that the choice should be very much one that every mother should be allowed to make based on what works best for her and her baby, and that as a society we should respect and support those decisions. As a result, when my friend Petrina, a new mother herself, told me about Breastival, a celebration of breastfeeding taking place on 5 August at The Mac, Belfast, aiming to normalise what has often been a controversial issue in Northern Ireland, I couldn’t be more supporting of the idea.

So what is Breastival? According to its founder, Belfast based mum Jennifer Hanratty, “Breastival will be an opportunity for everyone to learn and celebrate the amazing experience breastfeeding can be when it is well supported.” Supported by Cllr Nuala McAllister, Lord Mayor of Belfast and featuring renowned pharmacist Dr Wendy Jones alongside local experts from Parenting NI, Bravissimo and breast surgeon Ciara McGoldrick, Breastival also aims to break the Northern Irish record for ‘The Global Big Latch On’ where women around the world gather together to breastfeed at 10.30am. Cllr Nuala McAllister, who will also act as the official counter for this remarkable record attempt, said: “As a mother who breastfed, Breastival has my full support.  Belfast City Council has always been extremely supportive of mothers who choose to breastfeed.  In 2014, we signed up for the Public Health Agency’s ‘Breastfeeding Welcome Here’ scheme, which aims to increase the number of premises which welcome breastfeeding mums.  Thirty-six of our buildings, including the City Hall, are signed up to the initiative, helping mums to feel more comfortable doing something in public which should actually be seen as perfectly normal. Events such as Breastival can only serve to show that breastfeeding is becoming increasingly socially acceptable in our modern society, as well highlighting the health benefits that breastfeeding can bring to both mother and baby.”

Breastival already has over 500 people registered to attend, including nursing mothers, expectant parents, kids, friends and family. As well as discussions, interactive workshops and demonstrations, an exhibition entitled ‘More Than Milk’ will be on display featuring contributions from over 100 local parents showcasing the realities of breastfeeding as part of everyday life.

Breastival is a free to attend event and  open to everyone but pre-registration is required at www.breastivalbelfast.co.uk

New Lord Mayor of Belfast_008
Cllr Nuala McAllister, Lord Mayor of Belfast, who has lent her support to Belfast breastfeeders.

Posted: 27/07/2017

 

I’m On A Boat ⛴ 

The Mona, the Lagan Boat Company vessel we sailed on.

For a recent family day out we decided to try and do something we haven’t experienced before in Belfast. After much Google research, I came across the Lagan Boat Company. Established in 1998 by Derek Booker and Joyce Anderson, the company offers daily sailings upon which you can hear the ever changing story of Belfast’s rich maritime heritage and industry and how the Port has developed and changed from its ship building roots to a major tourist attraction. 

After collecting our tickets at the ticket office, a few minutes away from the ‘Big Fish’, it was all aboard The Mona to embark on The World’s Only Titanic Guided Boat Tour. We hit it lucky weather wise as we were treated to the sun shining and clear blue skies and as we were setting sail from Donegall Quay, my two-year-old niece was delighted to spy a seal playing in the water around the boat. 

As the boat, which was filled with families, friends and tourists soaking up the city’s history as well as the sun’s rays, set sail along Belfast Harbour, we were provided with unrivalled views of the the Harland and Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, as well as the Titanic Quarter. From the SSE Arena, to Titanic Belfast and the Titanic Studios as well as T13 it is remarkable to see how thriving this area, which was forgotten about for a long time, now is. 

The Titanic Quarter

It was also lovely to pass active fishing boats, as well as to spy other nautical draws to the area, such as The SS Nomadic and the new HMS Caroline. The highlight of the tour for me, however, had to be when the boat cruised along the Musgrave Channel. The Lagan Boat Company is the only pleasure craft operators that have access to this wonderful area where you can view Belfast’s large breeding seal colony. I was as excited as the two year old when we saw several seals resting along the shore as well as some mischievous pups having a splashing good time in the water. 

The seals relaxing in the Musgrave Channel.

As we headed back to Donegall Quay, with the sun shining, a refreshing breeze coming from the water and exceptional scenery that had me snapping picture after picture, it made me appreciate what we have on our doorsteps. I hadn’t heard of the Lagan Boat Company’s Titanic Guided Boat Tour before and so I wanted to spread the word for anyone else who isn’t aware of it as it is a fun adventure, made all the better by the friendly and professional tour guides, and I couldn’t recommend it more! 

The HMS Caroline.

www.laganboatcompany.com

Posted: 18/07/2017