Exploring the U.K.: Castle Ward, Strangford, Northern Ireland

National Trust properties are my jam. Call me old before my time but I love wandering round manicured grounds and outrageous stately homes imagining what life used to be like. Castle Ward had been on my Irish bucket list for a while so I decided it was finally time to tick it off. 

Due to the current climate you can't turn up at any National Trust property without pre-booked tickets. They must be booked at least 48 hours in advance and you have to arrive within a designated time slot. We wanted to avoid any crowds so we went for an early time slot in the hope that everyone would be in bed! It worked out just fine and we only saw a handful of people milling around. Tickets are currently priced at £10 which is an absolute bargain in my eyes.

Game of Thrones fans will be keen to know that this is the home of Winterfell. Obviously there has been some insane CGI in the show but you'll be able to make out the bare bones. We noticed they offered special tours (just not in COVID times) and you can book yourself in for a game of archery. There's not too much to see but it's fun to take a stroll and think back to the series. 

Definitely don't skip the grounds. They're one of the best bits of the property! Be sure to pick up a map from the cafe because they have a list of trails to follow. You can walk about the lough, past a castle ruin, alongside an old boat house and through endless woods. It was so quiet and peaceful making it the best place to catch your own thoughts. 

The house is currently offering limited access due to COVID so they only have self-guided tours. The upstairs is out of bounds. I didn't feel like this took away from the experience and we actually enjoyed the recordings in each room outlining the history. The recordings were nice and concise. Sometimes a guided tour can be too long-winded. 

Castle Ward was definitely one of our highlights from County Down! 


Why you should visit the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland

I've been going to Ireland for the past decade and feel like I'm pretty well traveled in the north. But there was one place where I hadn't been and now I'm gutted I haven't been sooner. The Mourne Mountains in County Down. County Down is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland in the south-east of the country. Home to the highest points in the country, the Mourne Mountain range is spectacular. It's said to have influenced C.S Lewis to write The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. You'll spend your entire trip marvelling at the serene beauty and wondering why on earth its not more popular. But you'll be secretly glad it's not as too many people would spoil it. 

Things to do

Take the high Mourne Mountains scenic route

If you only have time to do one thing, make sure it is this as you'll be blown away. Driving to the top of a mountain is both absolutely terrifying and probably the coolest thing you'll do. We picked it up from Newcastle and it finishes just before Annalong. It will take you past Tollymore Forest Park - see more about this below. Along the drive you'll find various points to spot off with car parking spaces and picnic benches. Definitely don't be shy to stop and snap some pictures or have a wander around. The majority of the time we only had sheep for company. We declined a trek up the mountains this time but we did spot a few more adventurous people than ourselves. On a clear day you'll even be able to see the Isle of Man or the Lake District in England. 

Take the Mourne Mountain coastal route

Nowhere quite has a coastline as beautiful as Northern Ireland. It's wonderfully rugged, delightfully wild and thankfully untouched. The route from Newcastle will take you through the peaks of the east Mournes and past the Bloody Bridge (named after an Irish massacre in the 1600s). Once again you'll pass so many lay-bys and picnic areas where you can stop. Be sure to park the car at the Bloody Bridge and go for a wander along the well-known former smugglers paradise. 

Visit Tollymore Forest Park

If you're a fan of Game of Thrones then you definitely know about Tollymore. You will have seen it! You'll past the place where the Starks found the direwolves, where the Night's Watch found bodies in the snow and where Tyrion and Jon chat on their way to the wall. It really is a beautiful place and you'll need at least half a day to explore. We could only spend an hour and it wasn't long enough. Take a picnic with you and enjoy the scenery.

Stroll along Murlough Nature Reserve

Don't be too alarmed if you hear gunshots. The beach backs onto an army shooting range so you'll be able to hear them practising. There's signs in the sea to warn you not to go too far out just in case. But if you carry on strolling the gunshots gradually due away and you'll be able to swim until your heart's content. Surrounded by the mountains, the nature reserve is a great place to blow away the cobwebs. Pack some comfortable shoes and go for a wander. Follow the wooden broadway to get down to the sea. Wrap up warm as that sea air does get chilly!


Six things I've learnt since trying to grow my own vegetables

One thing I have fallen completely and utterly over in heels in love with is growing my own vegetables and fruit. It's something I've been meaning to do for a couple of years as I've become more passionate about food. But there was always an excuse on why I never took the plunge. Having to fill my time after being furloughed finally gave me the kick up the bum to do it. Now I don't think I will ever not grow food in my garden. I'm already planning what I'm going to grow next year! I have been completely making it up along as I go but here are six valuable things I have learn along the way.

1. Keep an eye on cats
Connor kindly built me a gorgeous raised vegetable bed using railway sleepers. But I noticed as soon as we put the soil on top we had a sudden influx of cats deciding to take an interest in our garden. We had never had a problem with cats going to the toilet in our garden before! All of a sudden I had a lot of number twos on my veg patch. It was so frustrating and completely destroyed my vision of living the good life! We ended up buying one of those cat alarms which send off a high-pitched noise to help scare them away. I also put down some lemons and oranges cut in half as cats don't tend to like citrus. Keep in mind cats are creatures of habit so it will take about seven days before anything starts to work.

2. Be patient
I am not a very patient person by nature but you have to be when you're growing veg. You won't get edible food overnight! I specifically grew vegetables I knew didn't take too long like radishes and lettuce. This kept me interested as I could see the end result quicker. It kept me keen to try other vegetables.

3. Google is your best friend
Growing vegetables is a minefield! Soil, sunlight, pollination are just a few things you need to think about. Treat Google like your best friend. I can guarantee there will be an answer to every single one of your questions. It really isn't as simple as planting a seed and hoping for the best. But that's part of the fun!

4. Don't be afraid to experiment
I really didn't have a clue on where to start so I bought a few seeds  of my favourite vegetables from the garden centre. I planted them in pots to begin with and waited to see if they decided to grow. I had some which took off and others which didn't even get started. Some didn't work because I didn't water them enough, some got completely destroyed by birds and some didn't have the correct soil. You won't have successes 100% of the time. But that just means the successes you do have will be even sweeter!

5. Grow in pots before planting
I found it was easier to start off vegetables in little pots on my windowsill. It stops the seedlings from being eaten by critters and it allows you to keep a close look on how they are faring. I usually transplant them around three times in different sized pots before taking the plunge and planted them outside. Make sure you acclimatise them before you fully plant them outside. I tend to leave them outside for a few hours in the sunshine for a couple of days before leaving them overnight.

6. Make sure you have lots of flowers in your garden
You will need to rely on bees to help pollinate your vegetable so it grows successfully. Bees won't come to your garden unless you have lots of lovely flowers. Something I found out the hard way! I invested in a gorgeous lavender bush and a few wild flower bombs to help entice them.


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