Friday, 23 September 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - Ulster Hall and Parliament Buildings

After we finished our European Heritage Open Day tour of BBC Broadcasting House, we had a bite to eat across the road at Wetherspoons. Then, since we were nearby anyway and the Yorkshireman had never been inside, we popped into the Ulster Hall for a quick nosy around.

The Yorkshireman took some photos and explored the main hall, while I took to the stage and then randomly joined a small group who were being shown the pipe organ by someone who was hopefully an organist but could have alternatively been an overly-eager visitor. It was fun hearing the effects of all the different buttons on the thing resonating around the room.

Eventually we tired of the main auditorium and wandered out the side door and around to the backstage area. However it seems you're not really supposed to do that, as we were promptly escorted away by an indignant-looking security guard. We probably disturbed his coffee break or something. Or perhaps he was watching The Sky At Night. I implemented my innocent look (not very successfully) and said we were just looking around, implying we had gotten lost. I might have been more convincing if I wasn't smirking when I said it. Although it was even funnier when, while we were being shown out (clearly marked as trouble-makers), we came across an elderly couple who had also "lost their way" and were heading backstage. Hehehe. Well they should have put 'no entry' signs up or something!

After the Ulster Hall, we stopped by Apartment, which is my favourite city centre takeaway coffee spot (well, except for Starbucks) and between us went for their coffee and freshly-baked pastry takeaway offer (£1.50 for both - a bargain!). Needless to say I had the coffee and the Yorkshireman enjoyed a delicious-looking chocolate croissant. Then we hopped on the number 20 Metro bus up to Massey Avenue, as our next stop was Parliament Buildings.

I work quite close to Parliament Buildings but had never ventured inside. I wasn't too sure what exactly there would be to see but my curiosity won out and so in we went. Well, first of all we had a bit of a rushed, uphill power walk to get there on time for the last tour at 3pm, but we made it just on time. And then had to wait around for ten more minutes. Typical government inefficiency, eh? Just kidding. Our tour guide was a member of staff who actually works there and it was really interesting to hear his thoughts and anecdotes as we went around.

We started our tour in The Great Hall, which is essentially an ornately decorated lobby. Apparently the centrepiece, a huge German-made golden chandelier, was unofficially gifted to us by the royal family back in wartime (when it was probably not all that appropriate to have German stuff hanging around in the British monarchy's residences) but when they did an inventory after the fire at Windsor Castle back in 1992 and they realised it was missing, they got all huffy about it and wanted it back. The cheek! Eventually it was decided that it could stay in Belfast for now so long as we knew it wasn't for keepsies. Honestly! Like you can't afford to officially gift us a chandelier you didn't even know you had! Bah!

Our tour also covered the Assembly Library, one of the Committee Rooms, the Senate Chamber (which apparently acted as an RAF command centre during World War II!), the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's offices, the Speaker of the Assembly's office, the Assembly Chamber and finally a little café called The Long Gallery, where I happily got another little caffine boost. It was actually a really interesting tour and I learned all sorts of things I didn't know before. For example did you know that during World War II, they painted Parliament Buildings with a mixture of tar and manure to try and conceal it in the darkness and prevent it being bombed in an air-raid? Also that it took seven years to scrape it off, little by little? Imagine if that was your job!

I would highly recommend the tour to anyone who is even vaguely interested in Northern Ireland policitics. It's a great way to see where all the action (or lack thereof) happens and actually, despite the fine dining rooms and unnecessarily ornate offices, it actually serves to humanise government a little. When you see where they eat and sit and walk, it makes the politicians seem like real people rather than media-created characters spouting official lines like a robot. Some of these real people might be fairly up themselves and their opinions may make me cringe, but they're just living, breathing people like the rest of us. That's a pleasing thought but bearing in mind I avenge perceived injustices at the hand of the Yorkshireman by biting him and the fact that my colleague thinks that court cases should be decided by a magic 8 ball, it's also a bit scary.

Anyways, after the tour we made our way down through Stormont Estate, wandering through the trees (and trying not to slip on the mud), down past Mo Mowlam Children's Park and out to the Upper Newtownards Road where, predictably, we just missed a bus. Some time later (when two 4As arrived at once, as is the tradition on the Upper Newtownards Road), we finally made our way home, tired from our exertions but feeling like we'd learned lots and looking forward to learning even more the next day.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Local Tourist - European Heritage Open Days - BBC Broadcasting House

The weekend of 10th and 11th September was a really great couple of days to be a tourist in Northern Ireland, whether you're just visiting or even if you live here. It was time for the European Heritage Open Days, you see. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it's essentially Northern Ireland's contribution to the European Heritage Days programme and takes the form of a weekend once a year where lots of (usually private) heritage sites open for free to the curious public. There are free tours and the likes too. Every year I intend to go and do something and every year I forget completely about it until it's too late to make any plans. However, this year, having enjoyed my recent local tourism adventures, I came prepared!

Being somewhat obsessive with my organisation, I perused the brochure, made a shortlist of the things I wanted to do, and then consulted the (somewhat bewildered but equally intrigued) Yorkshireman about his preferences. Our plan was thus set. In the run up to the events I got booking tickets where required and even went so far as to factor in food and coffee breaks to our busy weekend of sightseeing (well you've got to get your priorities straight!).

First up, as generally happens in your standard weekend, was Saturday, and our first stop of the day was to be a tour of BBC Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue. You may recall that whilst we were in London over the summer, we took a tour of BBC Television Centre, so we were interested to see how the local version would measure up. I have to say, it was brilliant… I actually enjoyed it more than the London tour.

First off we went into the studio they use to film Newsline, which is apparently pretty much always set up for that purpose, although everything on the set is easily moveable. We were allowed to sit behind the news desk or, like the Yorkshireman and I did, on the sofas they use for the sports news. I also must admit I had a bit of a play with one of the cameras too. I was interested to find out that the scene of Belfast city centre they show behind the news readers is indeed actually a live feed from a camera on top of the BT Tower, so if you wanted to embarrass someone in a very public way, you could just make a really big banner and put it somewhere in the camera shot. Something to bear in mind for future birthday humiliations (be afraid, friends and family… be very afraid!).

They then took us up to the gallery above the studio and let us sit behind the control desks. People, there were so many buttons and I wasn't allowed to touch any of them! It nearly killed me but somehow I survived. It all looked massively technical and the tour guide describing the jobs of the people who usually sit up there didn't make it seem any less intimidating. I don't think I could cope well with the pressure these people must be under during a live show! I'm happy to be in a job where, for the most part, ctrl + z is available whenever I muck something up, whereas if you mess it up in that room, millions of people are instantly witness to it. Eeek!

Next we went to the BBC 2 continuity room. The guy in control of the room was pretty young and obviously was very competent at his job (a Continuity Director if memory serves). He ushered our tour group of twenty people into his tiny little room and explained briefly what all the different screens and controls were for. It was all very interesting… but then it got even better!

BBC 2 NI was broadcasting the Sinn Fein Conference (ard fheis) live from the Waterfront Hall at the time and it just so happened that, while we were there, it was time for the coverage to end and for the next programme to begin. Continuity Director dude asked us to close the door behind us and make sure our mobile phones were off. Then he cleared his throat, put on some headphones… and started speaking live to the nation, telling them that, later than scheduled in some listings, The Sky At Night was coming up next on BBC 2!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, not only was this cool dude in front of us the actual guy who introduces the programmes, but we got to be there live whilst he did it… twice! There he is, sitting in front of us, speaking into a microphone and fiddling with a computer while every sound he makes and action he takes actually affects what is being displayed and heard on televisions across the country. Calm as you like! With twenty-odd people standing behind him! And then he just takes off his headphones, turns around and nonchalantly explains what he's just done to the order of the programmes on the computer. Like it's no big deal! We all just kinda gawped a little bit.

Oh, well, except for one dumbass old woman. It may not have been immediately obvious that our little room was about to go live on television, but it got to a point when the guy was actually starting to speak when, well, duh. And yet she felt so overwhelmed by the situation that she squeaked, "Oh gracious!" You. Are. Live. On. Air. Be. Silent! Another lady and I both slowly turned and looked at her with some disdain, following which she seemed to realise the error of her ways.

After our silent debut live on BBC 2, we bid adieu to our awesome host, thanking him profusely for letting us stay, and then headed round to the radio studios. Gerry Kelly was doing his Radio Ulster show from the bigger studio on the floor at the time and apparently the one that Stephen Nolan (*shudder*) uses is on a different floor (apparently not for any particular reason but I know I would want to be as far away as possible from him if I worked there), so we only got to see a smaller studio. It was still pretty cool but to be honest I've spent enough time watching the Chris Moyles Show on the red button and the web cams for this wee studio to seem pretty mundane and pedestrian in comparison.

After the radio bit we were all finished with our tour but had had a blast: I would thoroughly recommend the tour (especially if it's free!). Then it was off on our next European Heritage Open Day adventure… onwards!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Bring on the Zamboni: it's hockey time once again!

You may have gathered from some of my previous posts that I'm a bit of an ice hockey fan, although it's really only been the last year or so I've gotten very into it. I felt a strange sense of emptiness when the Stanley Cup Finals finished back in June because I realised that the new NHL season wasn't scheduled to begin until October, which was months away. I'm quite an impatient person and that's just too damn long to wait!

Happily the Elite League couldn't wait that long either and the first Belfast Giants home game against Sheffield Steelers was on Saturday 3 September - yay! So last Saturday, the Yorkshireman, sister dearest and I had a few pre-face-off drinks at home and then headed over to the Odyssey Arena for some pucking good fun.

First face-off of the season

The first thing we noticed was that the drink prices seemed to have increased somewhat at the bar since last year (£4.20 for a small bottle of wine!) and also that they stopped selling Coors Light (probably due to their change of sponsorship from Coors to Stenaline). Neither of these things made us particularly happy but we figured, hey, we were there for a good time, not for a long time, so we sucked it up and bought some more drinkies anyway. We also bought some tickets for the 50/50 competition and a puck each for the chuck-a-puck competition and then settled into our seats for the game.

Die-hard Giants fans seemed to be somewhat disappointed with the team's performance on the night, as apparently was their coach, judging from his decision to cancel their day off in favour of some good hard practisin'. However despite the shortage of goals I don't think it was that bad a game. I've stayed up til 3am to watch worse from the NHL. There was also a disappointing lack of fights or people being smacked up against the plexiglass but it was still entertaining. Sister dearest and I spent most of the game chanting, shouting, singing and screeching. It took about two days for my voice to recover.

After the game (which the Giants lost on a penalty shoot-out) we ventured next door to Rockies Sports Bar in the Odyssey Pavillion, where we finally got some decent (and cheaper) beer to prepare us for the long walk back into the city centre to get the bus home.

I had a great time at the game, even though the Giants lost and I lost the 50/50, chuck-a-puck and also my voice. I absolutely cannot wait to go back again. At £15.50 a ticket I'm afraid I can't quite afford to be a regular, but I'd love to try and get to a game once a month or so.

In the meantime the first New York Rangers game of the season is on 7 October so I'll be frequently checking out the ESPN America listings looking for that first televised game that will keep me up until ridiculous o'clock, waiting with baited breath for the Rangers to score and also to see what delightful outfit Don Cherry has in store for me this time.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ten years

Ten years ago today. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago and in others it seems like yesterday.

At work all week we've had conversations about what happened that horrible day, why it happened, what happened afterwards... but none of us were actually there, so it's all based on conjecture and whatever we've read or heard or seen on the thousands of documentaries about the events. But everyone has their own story about where they were and what they were doing when they first heard.

It's one of those breaking news stories of such gravity that you actually remember those details. For older generations the question was always what you were doing when you heard that JFK had been shot, but the only other story of such huge importance in my lifetime was when Princess Diana died. Two events in the course of my life isn't even one a decade, which I guess proves how significantly grave and rare such occasions are.

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, I was at school. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I had a music lesson after school on Tuesdays. I remember someone came and told us about it and we followed them back to the little media room we had in the school library to watch it on television. The rest of the school had gone home but there were maybe around ten to fifteen of us stood in that little room, staring at the screen in horror and not really understanding what was going on.

I was seventeen at the time. I was vaguely aware of current affairs but, given the rather delicate state of my own country's political system at the time, not really interested in politics - I reckoned it was just a lot of people arguing about nothing. I think 11 September 2001 was significant enough in my life to change that.

I didn't personally know anyone who died in the attacks (thank God) but it struck me hard that literally thousands of innocent people had just been killed in cold blood. Some people out there felt so strongly about something that they were willing to kill not only themselves but thousands of strangers, just going about their lives. I wanted to know what was so important to them to warrant such action. I guess I understand it better now than I did back then but I will never fully understand it.

In the years since the attacks, I've driven the Yorkshireman mad watching hundreds of documentaries and movies about what happened. I can't really articulately explain why it interests me quite so much but it's such a sad and awful story, and thanks to the media age we can not only hear about it, but see it.

Every time the TV shows that first plane flying into the tower and turning into a fireball, my stomach drops. I can't help but picture how terrified those people on-board the plane must have felt, watching the buildings below get closer and closer and know that there's no where to land - the plane is going to crash at any second. How terrified the people were, trapped above the floors where the plane crashed. The footage shows them waving clothing to try and get attention from the rescuers when, in hindsight, we know it will never come - they too will die. You see people, trapped in a burning, smoke-filled building, driven to the choice of burning alive or jumping out, and horrifyingly choosing the latter.

I am so very grateful that it wasn't me or anyone I know. But the one thing these documentaries do prove is that there are so many people who were directly affected. I can't help but feeling so, so sorry for them. Especially today, ten years on. I can't imagine that time really does much to heal in a situation like this. I would feel angry forever.

When we were in New York last November, we visited St Paul's Chapel, just across from the site. Watching the footage of the buildings collapsing, it's amazing the Chapel wasn't obliterated, but instead it stood proud and served its community in the day after, when people were afraid and confused and mourning. Today it still houses emotional displays of all sorts of memorabilia relating to the events and I would highly recommend spending some time there if you happen to be in New York.

But whilst it's important to remember what happened and to be sad about it, it's also important to move on. You can say what you like about the human race but we're resilient when the going gets tough. That's why I'm really glad about the 9/11 Memorial. It's a fitting tribute to those who sadly lost their lives but also a sign that New York will not be intimidated and that it will dust off its hands and get on with things. Not that it's just about New York of course - it's important to remember those who were lost in Washington DC and the brave passengers on Flight 93 too.

Today Belfast held a memorial service in the grounds of the City Hall. A gospel choir sang comforting songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Something Inside So Strong. The Fire Chief from New York's Fire Department sent us a message thanking Belfast for its support fundraising in the days after the attacks. There was a minute's silence to mark the time the first plane flew into the first tower. The Yorkshireman and I were there. It felt like a nice way to mark the occasion and I'm glad I went. It was nice to see people gathered together purely in the name of support and comfort for a change. I hope those who were affected by those awful events ten years ago do take comfort from all those who send their sympathy. We are so, so sorry for your loss.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Belfast Foodie Chronicles - Victoria Square Meal for One

I've spent my last couple of posts reliving the tastes and textures of my recent bank holiday foodie tour through Belfast city centre and the surrounding area. You see, I don't get to go and try out all the new treats in town very often, partly because I can't afford it but mainly because the Yorkshireman, being a Yorkshireman, gets all itchy when I suggest that we spend money actually eating out somewhere. Therefore if he is with me I can only rarely subject him to such tortures.

Happily for me but not for him, he had to work on the last bank holiday and I didn't, so I had planned a day of indulging at my own whim, taking advantage of the only "alone time" I anticipated for the foreseeable future. However when he declared he was also off on night out with his workmates, I got another unexpected opportunity to explore what culinary delights the city had to offer.

Unfortunately money and time were both in short supply at the time, so my options were a little limited. It had to be dinner because I had a Crusaders match to get to later than evening so wouldn't have time to eat anything else beforehand, and given my time and cost constraints it had to be somewhere in the city centre and preferably not much more than £10 in total. Challenge accepted!

I actually lucked out a little because I found a voucher online for Pizza Express where I could get 40% off any main meal, so I decided, hey why not? I always jump at the chance to get pizza when I'm not dining with the Yorkshireman because, as I've mentioned before, he has inexplicably taken agin' pizza (the weirdo) so we don't eat in pizza restaurants very often. I, however, have eaten far too many garlic dough balls and imbibed far too much drinkable red wine at the Pizza Express on Bedford Street with my friends over the years but for some reason I've never been to the Victoria Square restaurant. Time to change that!

The Victoria Square Pizza Express actually has a completely different vibe than the Bedford Street one. Bedford Street is quite definitely pretty upmarket, full of young professionals on dates or enjoying a leisurely night out with friends. It is family-friendly and you can bring children, but I have to say I've rarely seen many there, especially in the evening. However Victoria Square was different. For one thing you can dine outside, although only one family seemed to be taking them up on the offer (it was pretty chilly). Inside there seemed to be two different areas: in the back there were little tables for smaller groups, where younger couples seemed to be grabbing a quick bite to eat on their way to doing something more exciting; whereas at the front there were big tables full of families cutting pizza into bite-sized pieces and battling with spaghetti. It was kind of like two different restaurants squished into one, both of which were completely different than it's sister restaurant across town.

Being a loner for the evening, I was sat at one of the tables in the back beside the cash register and promptly ordered myself a large glass of red wine and an American (pepperoni) pizza. They arrived pretty quickly and I munched my way through my pizza and sipped my wine with one hand whilst playing on my smartphone with the other. Well, you've got to have some kind of entertainment if you're dining alone. It's either that or give the evil eye to any small children that might be staring at you for no apparent reason. I did both.

The pizza wasn't bad - a little lacking in toppings but if my recollections are correct that's always been the case with Pizza Express. I'd rather have a Domino's pizza, or actually preferably my favourite frozen pizza (Chicago Town Takeaway sauce-stuffed pizza nomnomnom), but for a quick dinner out and about it was ok. At 40% off it was a bargain too and my whole bill came in at £10.32 for the whole pizza and a large glass of wine. I think next time I would actually head back to Little Wing though and try one of their whole pizzas instead - the prices are similar and it's good to support local enterprise.

The pizza and wine might have been gone but I had another cunning plan that meant dinner wasn't over. Yogen Früz opened in Victoria Square a few months ago and ever since I had been hearing tales of the expensive but delicious frozen yoghurt within.

I'd first tried frozen yoghurt in the USA when I was about eleven years old and always actually preferred it to ice-cream but it wasn't really available over here until recently. Even now whilst you can buy Ben and Jerry's frozen yoghurt, I can only ever find flavours that somehow incorporate chocolate, which doesn't really work for me. So the addition of Yogen Früz to the Belfast snack scene was good news indeed.

I must admit I found it all a bit confusing. Some things are on a big menu board (like set combinations) and other things (like the list of toppings) aren't. I wasn't quite sure how or what to order and I'm sure I came across as a total dork, but the friendly server dude helped me through it. I ended up with a medium tub of non-fat frozen yoghurt topped with blueberries and strawberries (so I could kid myself it was "healthy"), which cost something like £3.75.

I found it a bit of an odd taste to start with. It sounds obvious in retrospect but it actually just tasted like plain yoghurt, whereas I think the frozen yoghurt I've had before was probably loaded with sugar, so I had been expecting it to be sweeter. However once I got over that initial surprise, I found myself quite enjoying it. The strawberries and blueberries gave it a sweet edge anyway but it was quite refreshing to have a dessert that didn't taste like a sugar overload. I'm torn about the price though. On one hand you could buy a whole pint of luxury ice-cream in the supermarket for the price of one of these tubs. On the other hand if you were having dessert in a restaurant you would expect to pay anywhere between £3-5 anyway. I guess it's another entry on the "occasional treat" list for me but definitely worth trying at least once.

While I was at Victoria Square I also bought a little treat to take home. Hotel Chocolat opened near the William Street South entrance of Victoria Square a wee while back and people I knew were raving about it. Clearly people with more money than I have because I decided to purchase a little box of six white chocolate strawberry creams and it cost me £3.50 - yikes!

Later I sampled them whilst watching TV and I have to say they were absolutely delicious. White chocolate can have a tendency to be too sickly if you get the balance of sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla wrong, but these were pretty much perfect. Still very sweet, don't get me wrong, especially with the strawberry cream filling, but I managed all six without a problem and was sad when they ran out. I won't be rushing to spend that much on chocolate again any time soon but next time I want to treat myself or someone else, I'll know where to go!

Thus my cheapie foodie adventure ended on a sweet note, leaving me satisfied but yet wanting more. Now, what to try next..?

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Belfast Foodie Chronicles - City Centre Snacks

On my recent crusade to sample some of the recent and reportedly delicious additions to the Belfast food scene, I finished my yummy breakfast at Bennetts and then headed into town. After an hour or so of shopping (what, there were sales!) I started getting peckish again and contemplated which of the snacks on my list should be the first to be devoured… all in the name of science you understand.

First up (and not particularly new really but I'd never tried them) was Auntie Anne's pretzels in Castle Court.

Every time I'm going up or down the escalators at the Royal Avenue entrance of Castle Court, a sweet, rich smell envelops me and tries to draw me closer to the Auntie Anne's stand at the bottom. Usually in a hurry (or more likely on my way back from Starbucks), I had managed to resist its siren call until now.

Apart from the rather generic description of "pretzels", I wasn't entirely sure what Auntie Anne's actually sold that smelled so good. I'd tried my first ever soft pretzel at the New York Rangers game when we went to New York last November and I was rather impressed with its pleasantly doughy texture, but all of my other experiences of pretzels had been those hard, crispy, salt-covered snacks you find on buffet tables at parties and they've never held much appeal for me really. Which side would Auntie Anne's come down on..?

I was surprised to see quite so many varieties of pretzel on their menu: there were sweet pretzels as well as several savoury options, and some that could even be baked to order. Battling fellow sales shoppers for the best items on the rails had taken it out of me and I decided I needed a bit of a sugar hit, so I ordered a cinnamon sugar pretzel and resumed shopping.

As I walked around Wallis eyeing up shoes and dresses I couldn't afford (even on sale), I took my first bite of my pretzel. Wow, it was like a flavour explosion in my mouth. First of all, it was still warm, which was like an instant hug from the inside. The texture of the soft, fried dough was comforting yet light - almost like a thin doughnut. The sugar of course made it hugely sweet but the cinnamon cut through it a little and provided some spicy warmth too. I couldn't believe I hadn't tried one of these before and I was actually a little sad when I realised that my diet was due to resume the next day and so yummy pretzels would be off the table for the foreseeable future. Woe and alas!

After a little more shopping I decided I was craving something savoury. Next on my list was Little Wing Pizzeria.

Describing itself as "a taste of Naples in Belfast", there are a few Little Wings in the city as well, as one in Bangor, and I'd heard and read great things about them, but with the Yorkshireman not liking pizza (I know right, what's wrong with him?) I hadn't had the chance to try any of them yet. I noticed that the one on Ann Street had a lunchtime takeaway offer on: a slice of pizza and a can of soda for £2.75. Sold! It's just as well I wasn't sitting in though - they were telling people it was a half hour wait for a table as I waited for my order - evidently popular!

I got my slice of pepperoni pizza and my diet coke after a minimal wait and my first thought was, "what a huge box for a single slice of pizza!". My second thought, upon opening said box was, "ah, it clearly needs to be a huge box to fit the huge slice of pizza in it!" Seriously, this was not a slice of pizza; this was a whole pizza shaped like a triangle! And so, sitting at the little tables outside, I tucked in.

The pizza was very nice. The crust was the thin, cripsy, stonebaked kind, which I'm not usually a fan of, but it wasn't too hard to chew nor did it taste burnt like a lot of thinner crusts do. There was a little less tomato sauce than I usually like but you really don't need much of it anyway - it's the perfect balance between tangy and sweet and the flavour really comes through. There was a great amount of cheese for me actually - I think too much cheese overpowers a pizza and makes it too sickening, but this was covered to perfection. The pepperoni was just right too: nicely spicy but not too hot so as to stop you tasting the rest of your slice.

It's not the best pizza I've ever had but I think that's only because my personal preferences (softer crust, more sauce, etc) are a bit different, and yet even I would still rate it highly. If you're a fan of thin crust pizza and you're looking for a quick, cheap and yet delicious lunch, I would highly recommend it. Personally I'm itching to go back and try their toffee apple stromboli.

As I left the seating area outside Little Wing (fresh from an ongoing battle with a wasp that kept stalking me, which affected me deeply given recent events), I headed a little further up the street to my next port of call: The Cookie Box.

I have a teenage brother and it seems like milkshake and cookie shops are, like, the place to be these days for that age group, and The Cookie Box beside the Ann Street entrance to Victoria Square is especially popular. Given the price (and the calorie content!) of these shops' wares I'm always a bit stunned that teenagers can afford to indulge in them on a regular basis, but then I have to remind myself that it's a different generation, for which Starbucks after school is a right and not a privlege. I couldn't even afford one of those milkshakes with the pocket money I used to get each week! However, in the name of fair and equitable research, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before but I have a weird kind of intolerance to chocolate. It started suddenly at Easter about five years ago (and involved a fun trip to A&E) and since then I've established that whilst white chocolate is fine, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even flipping Baileys Irish Cream will have me bent double in no time. The latter was discovered a couple of Christmases having downed a whole bottle of it throughout the day without knowing it even had chocolate in it - surprise!

So yes, The Cookie Box's menu (which, by the way, takes up a whole wall and is essentially a glorified list of confectionery that they will happily blend with milk and ice-cream or frozen yoghurt) was somewhat limited for me. I decided against a Love Hearts or Wham Bar flavoured milkshake (how do you even..?) and instead opted for a more classic-sounding white chocolate cookie and a white hot chocolate as part of their £2.50 for any hot drink and cookie offer.

Leaving behind the two teenagers who had just ordered Nutella milkshakes (*shudder*), I stepped out of the shop and took a sip of my drink... and then stepped back into the shop again.

Me: "Sorry but I ordered a white hot chocolate…
Bored-looking Employee: "That is a white hot chocolate."
Me: "But… it's, um, brown..? And tastes of, y'know, normal chocolate."
Bored-looking Employee: "Yeaaahhh… our white hot chocolate is just a regular hot chocolate with some white chocolate syrup in it too."
Me: "Riiiightt… well, do you have a bin back there?"

Seriously though, in what world is a "white hot chocolate" actually a normal hot chocolate with white chocolate syrup in it? When I go to Starbucks and order a white mocha, it's just white chocolate, which kinda makes sense when you think about it! These people are trying to kill me! In other news the white chocolate cookie was quite nice (and happily devoid of any other kinds of chocolate) but it was nothing to write home about and certainly not worth the £2.50 I ended up paying for inevitably only the cookie. I think that's one coffee loyalty card I won't be filling with stamps - I'll leave the teenagers to it!

Sadly that was the end of my bank holiday blitz of city centre snacks. I do have plenty more "must-try" places on my list but unfortunately every time I tick one off my list, an extra pound goes on my hips, so I'll have to space them out a bit!

P.S. For those whose pulse quickened slightly upon reading the word "sales", I felt I should boast that I got two gorgeous dresses for work, buy one get one free in the Debenhams sale: original price £82; purchased for £12.60. WINNING!!!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Belfast Foodie Chronicles - Brunch at Bennetts

I've mentioned before that I love my home city of Belfast quite a bit, and enjoy watching it grow and modernise. Every time I wander through the city centre these days I find a new restaurant or café or shop I didn't know existed and it's really wonderful to see. You may also have gathered from my cupcake addiction that I also love my food, so I'm always eager to try out all these new eateries opening up all the time.

Unfortunately between a lack of money and ongoing attempts to stick to a healthy diet, I don't get the opportunity to sample their wares as often as I would like to. However occasionally I will throw caution to the wind and go on a little rampage of all the latest hotspots I've been itching to try. Recently a period "between diets", payday and a bank holiday weekend all coincided and resulted in a few fun days working my way through a hit list I'd created of things I wanted to try. Talk about a sugar coma, but it was all worth it!

Basically I tried to recall every time someone had said to me, "you have got to try it!" in the last couple of months, or any time I'd walked past somewhere and thought it looked or smelled good, and it went on the list. Unfortunately if I'd eaten everything on the list I'm fairly sure I would have exploded, so I narrowed it down to a shortlist and thought I would report my findings!

First up, my dear mother, sister and I decided we would take full advantage of the bank holiday by going for brunch. Actually that's a lie - I said I was going to take full advantage of the bank holiday by going for brunch and they insisted on coming along. Copycats.

My bruncherie (have I just invented a word?) of choice was Bennetts on the Belmont Road.

Photo artfully taken at high speed from a passing bus

It has actually been around for years but I think people might overlook Bennetts because it's not in the city centre and the on-street parking situation can be a little hit-and-miss in that area. I'd actually been with the Yorkshireman and some friends before and only had a coffee whilst everyone else tucked into their yummy food with fervour. I also go past it on the bus every day and it always smells divine, so I vowed that one day I would indeed return and actually eat something this time. Happily they offer a breakfast menu and were open on bank holiday Monday, and so our plan was set.

The breakfast menu is pretty short but diverse. They also have a brunch menu at the weekend (although I can't quite remember if it was Saturday, Sunday or both) with a bit more variety, but this was a Monday. We each perused our options and, in typical fashion for our family, all ordered pretty much the same thing, namely French toast with maple syrup and an extra side each. For those who are curious, sister dearest had a poached egg, mother had bacon and I went for the more expensive sausage option (no comments!).

I have to say we were all impressed. The French toast was more the savoury "eggy bread" European style of French toast than the sweeter, sugar and cinnamon covered American style. Either way it was pretty delicious and since the maple syrup came separately in a squeezy bottle, you could make it as sweet as you liked anyway. The slices of bread (baguette if I'm not mistaken) were very fresh and whilst the egg had helped the outside crisp up nicely, the inside was still lovely and soft. The sweetness of the maple syrup contrasted perfectly with the savoury taste of the egg. The sausages were thick and meaty but a bit too herby for my tastes. The bacon and poached eggs seemed well-received though. I quite enjoyed my vanilla latte too, although the large size was huge and mummy dearest couldn't finish hers.

We also enjoyed the ambience at Bennetts. There are standard tables at one side but we enjoyed sitting in one of the booths by the window. If you do get bored of people-watching on the Belmont Road, there's plenty of interesting art on the walls to entertain you instead. The whole feel inside is modern, laid back and yet welcoming - I could picture myself sitting there on a rainy day, snug, warm and relaxed, sipping a cappuccino and gazing out at the world outside without being bothered.

Our brunch cost us about £25 all in, or around £8 each, which seems a bit expensive for breakfast in general but unfortunately is pretty much the norm for a more upmarket brunch in the city these days. We all thoroughly enjoyed our meals and agreed we would definitely return in future, but at that price it will unfortunately have to remain an occasional treat for me!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Local Tourist - Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

My last few posts have been reliving the adventures I had as a "local tourist" on our recent visit to Yorkshire. It was really interesting to see places I'd heard of but never visited and also to revisit places I'd been before and look at them through different eyes. As luck would have it, the Yorkshireman and I had similar plans with our merry band of amigos not long after our return to Northern Irish soil.

One of the reasons I think myself so fortunate to live in Northern Ireland is the North Antrim coast. As far back as I can remember, "a drive up the coast" has been a popular daytrip for my family as well as everyone else I know who lives here. Inevitably the destination is usually Portrush and/or Portstewart and you look forward to getting an ice-cream in Morelli's at the end of the trip, but with our coastline the journey itself tends to overshadow the destination. It's just so beautiful, with winding coastal roads running along the bottom of rugged cliffs, separated from the blue-grey sea by picturesque stone walls, passing through pretty little towns, quaint little harbours and plenty of greenery. Even on a dull day it can be stunning and on a sunny day it can be breathtaking.

That's why we were excited to have arranged a daytrip last weekend with our friends up to Portrush via the coastline. We were meeting a couple of other friends for dinner but we had the whole day before that to play - yay!

Fuelled with caffeine (two of us are pretty much addicts), we piled into the car (very kindly driven by the only one of us who can actually drive) and set off. After Belfast the first place the coastal road passes through is Jordanstown, which is basically made up of nice houses, a decent beach and a university. Next up it's Carrickfergus with its intact Norman castle, which is somewhat special to the Yorkshireman and I because that's where we got hitched. We resisted the urge to stop for ice-cream at Mauds, still being morning and all, but added it to our "to do" list for later.

The next stretch of the coast road isn't particularly pretty: you go through Greenisland and pass Kilroot Power Station. Then Larne, which is essentially some shops, some houses and a harbour mainly taken up by a ferry port. It's all a bit dreary at that stage. But then, before you know it, you're on to the coast road proper and you can relax into your journey.

My geography skills are far from sharp, so I won't go into a place-by-place rundown of the coast road. Instead I shall just say that, after much driving, admiring the scenery and singing along to CDs, we finally reached Carnlough. Carnlough isn't a particularly noteworthy place to visit for most people. It has a small walled harbour but other than that it's not very exciting. Unless, of course, your daytrips up the coast involve the Spar.

You see Carnlough is at the point along the coast road where children start getting restless ("are we there yet?") and adults need their next coffee fix, and the Spar at Carnlough takes full advantage of this fact. There are even public toilets and a picnic area right beside it, which makes it the perfect comfort break spot. And so, as tradition and necessity dictated, we stopped for a coffee and snack break and enjoyed our goodies over by the harbour, trying not to giggle when someone cast a fishing rod and it ended up embedded in the wall opposite rather than in the water.

Then it was on to Ballycastle. Ballycastle is one of those little seaside towns where there really isn't all that much to do but yet you seem to recall spending a fair amount of time there in your youth. Probably passing through on the way to Portrush! Anyhow, we had a walk in the rain through the little park area just off North Street and my sister and I insisted on playing on the big wooden ship in the children's playground (what?!) before heading into a café (I think it was called Quay Coffee) for yet another cup of coffee and a snack from a vast array of yummy-looking homemade traybakes. The Yorkshireman decided that he was still fully refreshed from our recent Spar visit and so went off wandering to take photos instead. I had a latte and a scone. We each know how to make ourselves happy.

Then it was back on the road. Again I'm not great with the names of the places we passed through, but our next stop was Dunseverick Castle, which to me just looked like ruins but apparently is quite historically significant. You can apparently walk right over to it but as we wandered around the grassy cliff tops it started to rain a little heavier and it was getting quite slippery, so we headed back to the car shortly after. Might be nice for a wander on a dry day with good walking shoes I guess, but I won't be hurrying back.

Next we stopped at another castle, this time Dunluce Castle. I remember hearing the story about how the kitchen fell into the sea from I was only a wee tote and I've always thought the Castle was very pretty (y'know, for some ruins) but I've never actually been up close and personal. Every time I've been past on a daytrip we've been in too much of a hurry to stop or else there's been a wedding going on and we didn't want to intrude on the photography. This time we deliberated actually paying admission and venturing inside, but the weather was still a bit iffy, time was ticking on and it was fairly expensive (£4 each) to see what are essentially some ruins, so we just stayed up around the perimeter and admired the views from there. There did some to be some kind of archery demonstration going on though, which I was sad to miss because I love a good go of a bow and arrow.

Eventually we set off on our final stretch of the journey: Portush here we come! Now, every time any of us go to Portrush we end up spending about a year looking for a parking space. It probably doesn't help that we only ever go at popular times and that everyone else has the same idea for a daytrip. This was a bank holiday weekend that also coincided with the nearby Ould Lammas Fair, so in retrospect our timing could have been better. Eventually though we found a nice man heading towards his car and effectively stalked him until he left. Worked a charm and soon we were off in search of Mauds.

Technically, as any Northern Irish person will tell you, the ice-cream you should have while you're in the area is Morelli's - it's a matter of local pride and all that. However we discovered during our car journey that we were all very much in the Mauds camp. Traitors, the lot of us. But that clinched it - our first stop in Portrush was a small Spar (yes another one) that sold Mauds. I very much enjoyed my Poor Bear covered in mini marshmallows and the others seemed equally enthralled by their gooey delights.

Then it was on to the main attraction of Portrush. Yes indeed, we were off to Barry's. Barry's, for those not in the know, is the closest thing Northern Ireland has to a theme park. However if you went expecting anything like Alton Towers or Blackpool Pleasure Beach, or even M&Ds you would be sorely disappointed. It's more of a glorified amusement arcade really, but it passes the time of day. Most people say they remember it being sosomuchfunomg when they were children and are now convinced that it has gone downhill since their misspent youth. However whilst I always remember it being mildly entertaining, I always remember being vaguely disappointed too, as in, "is that it?" Clearly I've always been difficult to please.

Actually though, this time I did have great craic! Out of the five of us, only two of us were willing to go on the Freak Out ride - the others thought it best that they make every effort to keep their recently ingested Mauds inside their bodies. Wusses. However my brave amigo and I ventured onward through the rain and laughed nonstop throughout the whole ride despite being soaked and having to hold our glasses on. Next it was on to the Time Machine simulator where I think we may have accidentally disillusioned a group of younger children, much to the chagrin of the lady supervising them. Oops. Finally it was out to the Waltzers, which I remembered at the last minute are not actually part of Barry's but rather part of a tiny group of amusements which clearly make good business positioning themselves beside it. Still it was only £1.50 a ride and we indulged ourselves twice. I do love a good Waltzer!

Dizzy, we decided we'd had enough fun for one day and went for a walk along the harbour. We found a little patch of wall that looks out over the Atlantic and spent some time just watching the waves crash and spray against the rocks below. The Yorkshireman got busy once again with his camera whilst the rest of us tried to predict which of the incoming waves was "a big one".

Finally, covered in salt water and starting to get a bit chilly, we headed over to the Harbour Bistro, where we were due to meet our other friends for dinner. However when we went in and asked for a table they told us there was nothing available until 8.30pm. Bear in mind that it was about 5.45pm at this point! I know it's popular but that's one heck of a waiting list! So we went next door to its sister restaurant Coast, which looked marginally emptier, but again had no joy - it would be over two hours for a table! Bearing in mind one of the friends who was joining us was heavily pregnant, we decided it was just too long a wait.

After a bit of a team huddle and a confession of absolutely no local knowledge from we city folks, the new additions to our group led us to Riverside Retail Park in nearby Coleraine and to a restaurant called Yoko. At first glance it just seemed to be a noodle bar (mainly because it advertises itself as one) but it actually did a whole lot of different things. I had great fun looking through the hugely extensive menu and narrowing my choice down to three. No four. Okay three. Aaaargh ok that one. No wait, that one. Yes, definitely that one. With a side of that, just to try, y'know?

Everyone was more than happy with their food. The portions were huge, the quality was perfect and it wasn't badly priced either. Also, we were childishly excited that they serve their desserts atop a bowl of dry ice - it was pretty cool (pun fully intended!). I would definitely recommend Yoko if you're up that way and looking for somewhere to grab a bite to eat.

Eventually, stomachs full and feeling happy but weary from our day of fun and sightseeing, we bid farewell to our northern friends, exclaiming that the next time we met they would be parents (how grown up!) and headed home down the motorway. It had been a long and lovely day spent in one of my favourite places in the world with some of my favourite people. It was wonderful to head up the coastal road again and renew my memories and opinions of the places I've visited so many times in my life.

To me it's still a bit of a treat because I don't drive, so I can't just head off for "a wee trip up the coast" on a Sunday afternoon like a lot of people do, but that just makes it special. Maybe one day things will change and the Yorkshireman and I will be bribing our own children to behave themselves with sweeties from the Spar in Carnlough on the way to Barry's, but until then I'm happy to tag along with anyone else who fancies a bit of fresh air and beautiful scenery. Don't suppose you're heading that way any time soon..?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Local Tourist - Part Three - Leeds City Sightseeing, Yorkshire

Our last adventure as "local tourists" in Yorkshire was a bit of a last-minute decision, partly because we were only looking for a way to entertain ourselves for the few hours before our flight home, and partly because we didn't know it even existed until a Google search revealed its presence in the world. Yes indeedio, we were off on the Leeds City Sightseeing tour!

I'll be honest - it's not a very long tour. Leeds, as thriving a city as it is, doesn't really seem to have much that's noteworthy to a visiting tourist. Now if you want to go shopping or have a great meal or a nice drink, you'll be spoilt for choice, but so far as historical significance and other points of interest go, you get the impression they were kind of struggling to fill the full 56 minutes of commentary.

Perhaps I'm being harsh but we did seem to circle City Square quite a bit and some of the other main stops included a hospital and two different shopping centres. Also they only have one bus and one driver (who told us, quite candidly, "I'm it!"), who just circles the route all day, stopping at each stop once an hour (except between 1pm and 2pm when he has his lunch), so clearly the City Sightseeing folks aren't exactly expecting hoards of customers lining up to see the sights of Leeds either.

That said, I actually did enjoy it. I love open-top bus tours at the best of time and I find them even more interesting when it's a city I already know quite well, because it points out the little things you never really notice, like decorative gargoyles and beautiful old stained glass windows on the top floors of old buildings that look so boring at ground-level when you walk past, or strange little anecdotes about places and things you take for granted.

My favourite story on the Leeds tour was about Leeds Parish Church graveyard. You see they wanted to build a railway line through the burial site but people got a bit uppity about that whole "disturbing graves" thing and insisted that the tombstones were at the very least re-laid back atop the deceased. So they had to build a lovely embankment to re-house the headstones on top of, and now these really old gravestones lie at a 45° angle on the side of a little grassy hill. It's not really something I've noticed before but now I know about it I'll always remember that story every time I see them.

Like I say, in spite of its brevity and the lack of many awe-inspiring points of interest, I did enjoy the tour. At £7.50 per person, it's cheaper than many other city tours I've been on too. However just wandering around Leeds city centre, you pretty much see most of the areas the tour covers anyway, and it's fairly easy to get to the other places like the Royal Armouries. It was fun but I wouldn't rush to recommend it unless, like me, part of the attraction is sitting on an open-top bus, in which case fill yer boots, as we say in Belfast!

Even though I had a good time on the tour, it ended on a bit of a bitter note for me. We'd already been round the whole loop once and had decided to stay on for a few more stops until we reached a little area the Yorkshireman claimed hosted lots of little pubs for lunch and a good pint of real ale. However as our bus meandered through the area up beside Leeds Met, something fell from the sky and down my top. Unconcerned, and thinking it was probably a leaf or something, I started to unzip my jacket to remove whatever it was... when the fecking thing stung me! Yes indeedio - as I was sitting on an open-top bus, minding my own business, I got fricking stung by a fricking wasp! Then when I finally managed to unzip my top, it flew away again, all, "What's your problem, bitch? I'm a wasp, that's how I roll. Laters!"

I sought some kind of swelling-reducing remedy from a rather startled-looking but very helpful Boots employee and then the Yorkshireman led me to alcohol and food, both of which quelled my indignation somewhat. Two weeks on and it still looks like I have a hole in my chest (I'm a slow healer). However the fear lives on - I was stalked by another wasp in town the other day and must have looked like I was part of the Ministry of Silly Walks as I tried to avoid it by throwing myself this way and that. Stupid wasps. What's even the point of you?! Bees can totally do the same job as you, and at least they have the courtesy to die if they decide to sting you. Bah.

But in spite of the rather waspish ending to the tale, I had a great time being a "local tourist" in Yorkshire. So great, in fact, that I was inspired to do a little more local tourism when we got back to Northern Ireland. Can you guess what my next few posts will be about..?

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Local Tourist - Part Two - Lotherton Hall and The National Railway Museum, Yorkshire

Our second "local tourist" activity in Yorkshire was another daytrip, this time with the Yorkshireman's dad. I demanded coffee en route to our ultimate destination and so we stopped off at Lotherton Hall. I got my caffeine fix in the gorgeous little café and somehow managed to resist the urge to sample the delicious-looking, homemade baked goods on offer (next time!). However the Yorkshireman and I did succumb to a fridge magnet from the little shop to add to our collection. We didn't really fancy paying admission to the House itself so we just had a quick walk around the gardens, which were lovely. I saw actual deer, which was quite exciting for a city girl like me.

Then it was back on the road to one of my favourite cities in Yorkshire: York. Have you ever been to York? It's really very quaint - I love wandering through the tight little streets, looking at all the quirky little shops. Also The Fudge Kitchen, aka "The Yummy Fudge Shop". Oh The Yummy Fudge Shop... I was determined not to indulge this time around but normally within minutes of stumbling upon the place, I'm working my way through a bag of sweet, smooth, gooey fudge, the likes of which I have never found anywhere else. Apparently Fudge Kitchen have several other UK shops… intriguing! This time though we had a specific purpose in mind for our visit to York and fudge was (sadly) not on the agenda.

We were going to the National Railway Museum instead! I've mentioned before that museums and I are not generally BFFs. I find looking at stuff I'm not interested in through glass display cases really boring, no matter how old or significant it may be. However I am a big fan of museums that are more interactive. Looking at things is pretty dull, but playing with them, climbing on them or making them do stuff is fun! When the Yorkshireman and I last visited Belfast's Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, we had the place pretty much to ourselves and I had great fun "interacting" with the exhibits (even the ones you technically shouldn't - shhhh!), so when my father-in-law confirmed that, yes, you could clamber all over the trains there too, I had high hopes for York's National Railway Museum.

I'm a little torn about the experience to be honest. The ratio of "climb aboard" exhibits to "don't even think about it" exhibits was pretty low. I think there were maybe three or four trains you could actually go on to, and even then it was only one tiny bit of the train, and even then most of them had huge queues. Several other exhibits weren't working or had been removed. Also it was crazy busy, with small children screaming the place down and tripping you up every few minutes. Also the restaurant was pretty expensive.

However there were also a few great bits. I really loved the viewing platform that looks on to York Railway Station, complete with a live updates board so you can see where the trains coming in and out are headed. I also quite enjoyed the little movie you can watch about Japanese Bullet Trains, whilst actually sitting in a real Bullet Train carriage. The Yorkshireman's dad made fun of me for taking advantage of a dressing-up area and posing for a photo with a conductor's hat on, but that's the sort of stuff I love doing in museums. Also, in my defence, there was totally a sign that said dressing-up clothes were available in adult sizes too, which is an invitation to play if ever there was one!

Did I enjoy the Museum? Yes, I'm glad I went. I'm not really a train buff but even I found most of the museum interesting enough and it was cool to see all the different shapes and sizes and varieties of train. Would I go back? To be honest, probably not, unless they had some wonderfully exciting new exhibit. For a free admission museum it's definitely worth a visit, but I would avoid weekends and school holidays. Oh and next time I would totally get the little road train into York. I still regret not bullying the Yorkshireman and his dad into doing that!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Local Tourist - Part One - Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire

On our recent visit to Yorkshire we got to play one of my favourite games: The Local Tourist.

You know what it's like - when you're just getting on with your daily life, you tend to go to the same places, walk down the same streets, see the same buildings and do the same things day in, day out. You can be dodging crowds of tourists taking photos of something they clearly find hugely interesting and yet not even glance up to wonder what it is or why it's interesting - you're more concerned that they're in your way and might make you miss your bus.

It's rare that we take any time out of our busy lives rushing between home and work and the supermarket and the gym to just stop and look at what's actually around us. And yet there can be so much to see and do and learn about the things we rush past every day. So every now and then I enjoy taking off my "local" hat and putting on my "tourist" hat to try and find out more about the places I think I know so well.

Please note I do not actually own physical hats for these purposes, but am now extremely tempted to buy some. Especially if they were sparkly.

Anyways, yes, so I spent a couple of years living in Yorkshire and, well, obviously the Yorkshireman is quite familiar with the area too, so we could have filled our spare time on our recent visit doing the same old things we always used to do. Instead though we went exploring!

Our first adventure was to Bolton Abbey, which, in case you're as awesome at geography as I am, I should point out is nowhere near Bolton but rather near Skipton. We spent a night at the Yorkshireman's sister's gorgeous little house and she and her other half very kindly took us on a day trip the next day. He had clearly spent some time at Bolton Abbey in his youth because he was a very good tour guide, expertly taking us north-west along the river, warning us not to get too close to the Strid in case we fell to our inevitable deaths in the violently swirling water, and then guiding us back along a higher forest path in time for lunch.

After some pretty expensive yet mediocre food in the Cavendish Pavilion restaurant, we ventured in the opposite direction, down along the river. We wandered through the fields up to the Priory Ruins and the Priory Church of St Mary and St Cuthbert. The first stones were apparently laid way back in 1154! Then we had a bit of a nosy in the shops in the little village area and contemplated buying a book entitled Know Your Sheep, purely based on the title.

On the way back we avoided cow pats, made sure we closed all the country gates behind us and I tried not to chortle at the signs that warned you to keep your dog on a leash, unless of course you're chased by cattle, in which case you can apparently let the lead go. Not really a sign you see much in the city! By the time we got back to the car, we felt like we'd had a good workout, not to mention some much-needed fresh country air - there's not much of that in Belfast either admittedly.

It was actually a really lovely place to visit. I'd love to go back for a day and have a barbeque or a picnic. When we were walking up towards the shops, there was a spot by a stone wall that looked down on this gorgeous, tree-lined bend in the river, which led to a sort of pretend beach on the bank. Kids were happily paddling away in the ominously orange (iron-tinged) water whilst their parents looked on from towels and deckchairs on the side. It was all very idyllic. I could just imagine splashing my feet about in the cool water and then stretching out in the sun, reading a good book and enjoying an ice-cream. Although maybe not the latter actually - since when does a "99" cost £2?! So out of touch clearly.

Expensive food aside, I did thoroughly enjoy Bolton Abbey and would highly recommend it for a family day out or an interesting nature walk, with beautiful scenery and plenty to see and do.