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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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

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

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

Celebrating: From Hong Kong to Belfast


The gang back together at Molly’s Yard. Picture courtesy of Gavin and a nifty selfie stick all the way from Hong Kong. 

In any large group of friends, there is always that one person that acts as the glue that keeps everyone together. Our human shaped Pritt Stick is Aaron Sloan.

I have known Aaron since I was about 20 years old having met him through my uni friends Suzan and Adrian (the same two people who are also responsible for introducing me to Keith, when he was Burchy, long before he was the husband). Aaron is the sort of person that people are drawn too; he is the most genuine, friendly and witty person you could have the pleasure of meeting. Over the years he was always instrumental in arranging nights out, get togethers and general shenanigans which ensured that our ever expanding group of friends met up for revelry, giggles and merriment on a regular basis. However, Aaron then got swallowed up by the travel bug.

After several jaunts to distant lands he eventually settled in Hong Kong and found the ying to his yang: Charlene. Since they have been together, we have had the enjoyment of getting to know Charlene, both when she has travelled back to Northern Ireland with Aaron and when Keith and I visited them in Hong Kong almost two years ago (which is without a doubt one of my favourite ever holidays!). From the get go she has just clicked into the group like a missing puzzle piece; she is funny, beautiful and smart and it’s indisputable that her and Aaron are the perfect match, so no one was surprised when they tied the knot last year. Whilst the ceremony took place in their adopted home of Hong Kong, they flew into Belfast last week for a ‘Norn Iron’ style celebration.

The evening kicked off with drinks and nibbles in the wonderfully unique Molly’s Yard which offers quality food, local beers, a superb setting and professional service. When we arrived I was delighted to see Aaron and Charlene as well as so many friendly faces I haven’t seen in (gulp!) years (probably since Aaron and Charlene’s last visit to Belfast!). It was awesome to catch up with the loveable BFG that is Adam and his epically cool wife Orla; Gavin and Lynsey, who have been setting the standards of kick ass parenting for the group since they had their little dude six years ago; the ever smiling Ryan and his adorable wife Helen, who I feel a kinship with over our shared love of social awkwardness; the effortlessly glam and super sweet Sheila and her new beau Stuart; and Dave, who not only has a wicked sense of humour but is also partly responsible for the name of this blog as he’s always referred to me as wee/little Burchy whilst Keith, of course, is the OG Burchy. As well as the mates I haven’t seen in a while, it was nice to get out with old friends and new parents Suzan and Adrian (and of course baby Ruby) as well as Johnny and Hilary who were enjoying a night off parenting duties. It was also nice to meet new faces, in particular Charlene’s parents who flew in from San Francisco, and her brother who made the trip from New York, to not only meet us all but to also explore all Belfast has to offer.

After the reception at Molly’s Yard came to a close we headed to the Barking Dog where the drinks continued to flow and good food was enjoyed by all. We had an amazing space to ourselves and so once the meal was done and dusted, there was dancing, a bit of a sing song and just generally good craic into the wee hours.

As the celebrations came to an end, I can honestly say it was no surprise that so many people would turn out to celebrate (in legendary style) the union of Mr & Mrs Sloan, who, even though they live so far away, continue to act as the glue that keeps bringing us all back together.

Alicante in Pictures 

It’s a beach life; soaking up the sun in Alicante.

I am still walking on sunshine after spending the weekend in Alicante. I was invited to spend 48 hours in this port city, which is located on Spain’s Costa Blanca, as part of a press trip organised by Aer Lingus. I had not been to Alicante before and so I was super excited to get to explore all that this city has to offer, from sandy beaches to unique culture as well as gourmet food and wine to a remarkable history and stunning architecture. Whilst I am writing a full travel review on my experience for Ulster Tatler, I fell so in love with Alicante, which offers everything you could want from a city break, that I just had to share a little video collage I made of my time there. I hope you enjoy it…

Aer Lingus fly from George Best Belfast City Airport directly to Alicante. For more information on flights visit: http://www.belfastcityairport.com

Animal Farm

Fun on the farm at Mount Panther

There seems to be a bit of a tradition in my destination choice when I’ve a day off work. On Bank Holiday Monday I made my way to another haven for animal lovers: Mount Panther Farm Park

As the sun made an unexpected appearance, myself, along with my sister Gail, bro-in-law Alan and their tiny human, left Belfast, and thousands and marathon runners behind, as we headed for Co Down. (Regular readers will by now realise ‘auntie Kellie’ is a regular gatecrasher on these family adventures, possibly because I have the same amusement level as my two year old niece.) 

Mount Panther is situated on the outskirts of Clough. I have passed the grounds many times, taking great joy whenever I glimpsed a herd of deer relaxing on the grounds, and whilst I was aware of the Mount Panther stately home which is the pinnacle of the estate, I had no idea of the family-run farm park which was recently opened on the grounds. 

When we arrived we followed the sign posts to the car park before making our way to the reception area. Once we paid our entrance fee, we were told what all experiences were available on the farm, before being given bags of food to feed the larger animals. 

Our first step was the petting farm where you could get upclose with a range of animals such as chicks, rabbits and, for the brave, snakes. There was also a majestic eagle and adorable ring tailed lemurs in the enclosures. 

From here we went to the next stage of farm which contained a large sandpit with plenty of buckets and spades as well as an indoor track for go karting. However, what was the best thing here, for me, was a beautiful, baby pygmy goat called Bambi. I was lucky enough to be able to hold it and I instantly fell in love; it was the sweetest wee thing and I was all for recreating The Goat Escape but the staff were to wise to my attempts to smuggle Bambi home. 

Bambi the Pygmy Goat

As we made our way to the outdoor enclosures of animals, we got out our bags of food and had a hilarious time feeding the animals, which included pigs, a donkey and pony, amazing llamas, lambs and even more pygmy goats (there was even one with a quiff that would have put Elvis to shame). The highlight of the trip for the tiny human, however, was the large outdoor play area which had everything from slides and a climbing frame to the very cool looking jumping pillow!

After a fun day filled with sunshine and furry friends it was soon time to head back to Belfast. I would recommend a visit to Mount Panther: it’s only about 40 minutes from Belfast, has super friendly staff that are happy to assist if you want to pet a chicken or cuddle a pygmy goat, and has plenty of space so you can easily see all the animals, even if it’s busy! 

Prices

  • Adults: £7.50
  • Child: £6.50

https://m.facebook.com/Mountpanther/

Posted: 4/5/2017