Holiday Reads

I was on holiday at the start of the month and as an avid bookworm, for me no suitcase is sufficiently packed without the presence of several books (hard copies for me as I am still resisting the call of a Kindle). These are my top four reads that kept me fully engaged whilst I relaxed on the beach and by the pool.

1: A TIME TO SPEAK – HELEN LEWIS
Synopsis: A remarkable story of courage and endurance during the Holocaust. Helen Lewis, a young student of dance in Prague at the outbreak of World War II, was herded, like Madeleine Albright, into the Terezin ghetto, then deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Separated from her family, she struggled to live amidst the carnage of Hitler’s Final Solution. How she did so, and what she did in order to survive, is a gripping story, told with wit, candor, and controlled anger.

What I thought: World War II is a period in history that has always fascinated me; at its heart, this War highlighted the complexities of human nature. So many years later, it still baffles me how so many ordinary and sensible people could be blindly swept up in a movement that saw them turn on former friends and neighbours and willingly herd them to ghettos and concentration camps from which it was unlikely they would return. Whilst A Time To Speak does mine the depths of depravity a human can inflict on another, what makes it such a compelling read is how strong and brave people like Helen Lewis were, who refused to give up or give in. It also highlights that the War was not simply a case of good versus bad; for every bitter betrayal there are uplifting instances of kindness, from brave neighbours who put themselves in danger to try and protect Lewis to the few guards in the camps who showed mercy to their prisoners rather than tormenting them, such as the kind officer who went out of his way to discreetly feed the starving prisoners of war in the concentration camp. This is a remarkable story that needs to be read and remembered; not only does it teach a valuable history lesson but also offers an invaluable insight into how to be a better human.

 

2. FINAL GIRLS – RILEY SAGER
Synopsis: The media calls them the Final Girls – Quincy, Sam, Lisa – the infamous group that no one wants to be part of. The sole survivors of three separate killing sprees, they are linked by their shared trauma. But when Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Quincy must admit that she doesn’t really know anything about the other Final Girls. Can she trust them? Or can there ever only be one Final Girl?

What I thought: Final Girls is a gripping and taut thriller that had me hooked from the get go. I loved the fact that Quincy is an unreliable narrator; whilst she is famous for the tragedy she survived, no one really knows what happened that night in the woods when all Quincy’s friends were butchered but she survived, including Quincy. With a bad case of amnesia, Quincy refuses to embrace the title Final Girl, instead opting to focus on her career and her quest to be normal. However, when Sam turns up on her doorstep after the death of Lisa, Quincy is forced to look at who she is really and confront the secrets lurking beneath the surface. As the layers from her past start to peel away, the reader takes the journey of self-discovery with Quincy. This is a superbly crafted thriller that taunts and teases and had me frantically turning the pages until I found out how it finished.

 

3. HERE AND GONE – HAYLEN BECK
Synopsis: Audra has finally left her abusive husband. She’s taken the family car and her young children, Sean and Louise, are buckled up in the back. This is their chance for a fresh start. Audra keeps to the country roads to avoid attention. She’s looking for a safe place to stay for the night when she spots something in her rear-view mirror. A police car is following her and the lights are flickering. Blue and red. As Audra pulls over she is intensely aware of how isolated they are. Her perfect escape is about to turn into a nightmare beyond her imagining. . .

What I thought: Haylen Beck AKA Stuart Neville is one of my favourite thriller writers. Whilst this is his debut novel under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, I had high hopes for this novel before I even started it. With the change of name comes a totally different direction. Switching the Northern Irish setting synonymous with the writing of Neville, to that of a small town in America, this standalone thriller allows Neville, as Beck, the opportunity to explore his love of American crime fiction – and the result is phenomenal. From the opening, this book chilled me to the core. Beck is more than adept at ratcheting up the tension throughout the book, to the point I was dreading how it might end but I couldn’t stop reading. Audra and her children, Sean in particular, are fabulously constructed characters that are impossible not to care for. As well as solid characters, Beck’s strength lies in making everyday scenarios seem sinister by showing how vulnerable we really are, making us question who can really be trusted and showing the lengths we will go for to protect our loved ones. This is an absorbing, adrenaline-fuelled tale that gripped me from start to finish.

 

4. THE ESCAPE – CL TAYLOR
Synopsis: When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn’t. The stranger knows Jo’s name, she knows her husband Max and she’s got a glove belonging to Jo’s two year old daughter Elise. What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo’s own husband turn against her. No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there’s only one way to keep her child safe – RUN.

What I thought: CL Taylor is the queen of the slow but fierce burning thriller, and this is no exception. With a protagonist that suffers from agoraphobia, Jo’s reaction to the initial threat posed against her family is to construct metaphorical wall after wall to keep them safe. CL Taylor’s exceptional pacing means that the book feels more and more claustrophobic. However, as the threat gets closer, Jo’s need to protect her daughter is that fierce that she finds herself doing the impossible in a bid to keep her daughter safe. CL Taylor adds twists and turns in all the right places so that it was impossible to predict how the book would end, a major plus for me. Combining suspense with heart and soul, thrills with an examination of the love a parent has for a child, this is one book that will affect you on a totally different level.

Posted:17/10/2017

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Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

Review: Monty Python’s Spamalot

I feel very ashamed to admit I know very little of the work of Monty Python; the closest I have gotten to exploring their comedic offerings was catching ten minutes of The Life of Brian when I was a student. It therefore seemed very opportune when I got an invite to see a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, which is being performed by the Ulster Operatic Company at the Grand Opera House until Saturday (14 October).

Adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Spamalot is a musical comedy which tells the story of King Arthur as he travels around the land gathering his Knights of the Round Table. This band of hapless adventurers is then tasked with a divine mission to locate the elusive Holy Grail – with uproarious consequences. On arrival, I wasn’t sure what I had let myself in for, but a few minutes into the production and after the absolute surreal rendition of ‘He’s Not Dead Yet’, I soon knew: prolonged fits of laughing which ultimately resulted in a stomach ache. It is fair to say Spamalot was bonkers from the get go, but it was the absolute best kind of bonkers; slapstick comedy, hilarious musical numbers and physical comedy all combined together to create a performance than had me grinning from ear to ear.

Superb guidance from director Neil Keery, musical director Wilson Shields and choreographer Brooke Allen was evident from start to finish; in my opinion the overall performance would not have looked out of place on the West End. The cast likewise put on exceptional performances. From the authoritative and determined King Arthur (Colin Boyd) to his ‘trusty’ Knights; Sir Robin (Brian Trainor), Sir Lancelot (Jamie Johnston), Sir Galahad (Ross David Chambers) – who looked like a medieval Thor, and Sir Bedever (Paddy McGennity), each brought a high energy and pitch perfect performance that thoroughly entertained me; there were that many stand out moments that I can’t even list them all. It is hard to think how Spamalot could be made even better, but the seemingly impossible was accomplished by the stellar performances of Jordan Walsh as Patsy and Ciara Mackey as the Lady of the Lake. From the outset Jordan had me in hysterics through his expert use of coconuts, whilst his ability to convey as much with his facial expressions as his lines was a remarkable feat. Ciara Mackey completely mesmerised me as the Lady of the Lake. Unbeknownst to me at the time of viewing, I have had the pleasure of seeing Ciara perform several times as part of the excellent Pleasuredome band, who are regulars at The Belfast Empire. I already knew she was a talent but after Spamalot my eyes have been well and truly opened; not only is she a phenomenal singer, she is also sassy, cool and has impeccable comedic timing.

Whether you are a Monty Python super fan or only being introduced to their work, Spamalot is definitely for you. This superb piece of comedy is clearly in capable and trustworthy hands with the Ulster Operatic Company. After an evening that was spent literally laughing out loud (a lot!), Spamalot has shown me what I have been missing when it comes to Monty Python. Right you book your tickets to Spamalot and I am away to check out the remaining 85 minutes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Monty Python’s Spamalot by the Ulster Operatic Society runs until Saturday 14th October at the Grand Opera House. For more information: 

https://www.goh.co.uk/spamalot

Posted 12/10/2017

Review: The Weir

Review: The Weir

 

I have been quiet of late as I have been on holiday (posts on that coming asap), however to give me something to look forward to, and to make the thought of the return to Belfast and to Northern Irish weather less painful, I booked a trip to the Lyric Theatre with my culture buddies to see The Weir last night.

The play is set on a balmy but stormy night and sees the local men of an isolated Leitrim town gathering in Brendan’s pub for a pint and a bit of banter to wile away the lonely hours before bedtime. However, with the arrival of a mysterious woman, talk turns to the history of the town and its folklore. As each man tries to make an impact by recounting tales, which flow from ghost stories, to those of personal loss, in order to impress the beautiful stranger, one story is more chilling, more sinister and more real than any of them could have foreseen.

Written by the talented Conor McPherson (who also penned The Night Alive, which is one of my favourite productions that I have seen staged in the Lyric), The Weir, which won the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Olivier award for Best New Play, is storytelling at its finest. The pacing, the interaction between the characters, the humour and the carefully crafted tales they tell all combine to create a play that is compelling, captivating and utterly chilling. The fantastic writing is complemented by wonderful direction from Andrew Flynn, who ensures each nuance of this classic tale is perfectly measured to have ultimate effect.

In addition to the exceptional writing and direction, the play is brought to life by the fantastic performances from each member of the accomplished cast. Patrick Ryan provides laughs as the ever ‘debating’ bar keep Brendan, a young single man who is set in his ways. However, behind the laughs we are also offered glimpses of a serious man who is lonely and adrift when his locals are absent from his bar. Garrett Keogh excels in his representation of Finbar, a local who has left the country behind for the bright lights. The only married man in the bar, Finbar sees himself having attained loftier heights than is former neighbours, however as the tale unfolds Keogh expertly unveils the cracks in Finbar’s carefully polished veneer. Marty Maguire offers a layered portrayal of scene stealing, confirmed bachelor Jack, the joker of the pack who uses humour to mask an underlying hurt, whilst Frankie McCafferty serves a subtle and incredibly natural performance as straight shooting handyman Jim, who is kind hearted and acts as the peacekeeper trying to keep the egos in the bar in check. Kerri Quinn, who I have seen in a few productions now, simply mesmerises as mysterious stranger Valerie, a woman with a story to tell but who longs for nothing but peace and quiet in this small, rural community.

The Weir is a chilling yet beautifully told story that explores universal themes of loneliness, loss and community, and so like all great ghost stories, has maximum impact because the threads that weave it together are so believable. Perfectly paced to continually ramp up the tension, the punctuations of humour add much welcomed light relief to this captivating production. The Weir only runs until 30 September, so be quick and catch one of the last performances before it finishes; I can’t recommend it enough. https://lyrictheatre.co.uk

the weir

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

#AnswerTheCall: Whiskey & Muses

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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.

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(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.

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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).

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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