My Little Duke

Travel

Afternoon tea at Montalto

Travel, Food, BloggingSteph DukeComment

Last week my mum and I were treated to a luxury afternoon tea and a private tour of Montalto House. What a beautiful setting to indulge ourselves and learn more about this 18th century mansion!

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We had a delicious spread of delicate finger sandwiches and sweet treats to enjoy, with as many pots of freshly brewed tea as we wished to wash it all down!

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With tummies full up, we headed upstairs to the ladies sitting room to begin the private tour. We were guided by the Managing Director, David Wilson, who gave us a brilliant history lesson on the fascinating story of Montalto Estate. You can read more about the team at Montalto here.

Image credit: montaltoestate.com

Image credit: montaltoestate.com

David talked passionately about the rich history of Montalto, right from its pre-plantation beginnings to the present-day operations. You can read more on the history of the estate here.

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The tour lasted approximately an hour and a half and was thoroughly enjoyable! I could have listened to David all day telling us tales of days gone by, and even some more recent stories of those who have come to stay at Montalto House. One story in particular had us all captivated from start to finish - what a treat to get a unique insight into the goings-on at this stunning property.

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The house itself is immaculate with every detail carefully curated. Every room we entered saw us checking out every nook, every corner in amazement. A truly breathtaking building with an equally fascinating history.

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Getting the chance to share this experience with my mum was even more special - I want to take this opportunity to publicity thank the team at Montalto for kindly inviting us along.

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I can’t recommend visiting Montalto enough - there is something to suit everyone on the estate. Whether it’s walking the dog along the beautiful trails, letting the kids go wild in the purpose-build park or having a coffee in the cafe - you are sure of a great experience. You can even become an exclusive Montalto member - you’d be one of the 7,000 who have already availed of this brilliant option. Read more about ticket prices and membership here.

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Disclaimer: My mum and I were gifted this experience by the lovely team at Montalto, all thoughts and views are my own.

The Bird Box

Travel, BloggingSteph DukeComment

Cocooned in a nest,

Cradled high in the trees,

The music of birdsong

And a Donegal breeze.

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Wow.

I’m really struggling to articulate the right words. I don’t think that anything I write can do this place justice. The Bird Box exceeded all our expectations. And mine were pretty high to begin with.

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Deep in the Donegal countryside, you will find this curious little gate. Open it, step on through and follow the wooden pathway leading you unknowingly into the magic of the forest. Within seconds, you’ll gasp in awe as the leaves give way and reveal the hidden treasure within.

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The Bird Box - nestled snugly between the trees, almost as if cradled by nature herself. Like two giddy children, we bounded across the wobbly, wooden bridge, with every step closer my heart skipping a beat. I’d been waiting patiently for this moment ever since Mike (@thebeardedcandlemakers) shared this Air BnB on his instagram. One glimpse of this place and I was straight on to book us a stay. Boy, am I ever so glad that I did.

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It was absolutely no co-incidence that this getaway coincided with our 9th wedding anniversary. I couldn’t, and still can’t think of a better place to reconnect, retreat and rekindle a relationship - than here. The Bird Box is - by nature of the name - tiny! It is just the perfect size for two - cosy and comfortable. There is very little signal and no wifi in the treehouse, what a remedy for us both! A proper hideaway!

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Do not be fooled by her size however, as this little nook boasts a wonderful array of amenities - everything - in fact, one might need for a truly unique and pleasant stay. I kept joking with Matt about how I could definitely downsize and live in a smaller house - very much in keeping with the sustainability journey we are on as a family!

No need for an electric kettle or microwave here. A two-ring induction hob or the stovetop worked a treat for boiling up hot water for tea and coffee. And I very much enjoyed grilling my toast, bringing my mind fondly back to my childhood days at the caravan. Anyone else like just the one side of their bread grilled? Plenty of butter too! Yum.

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Slowing everything down was the perfect tonic for us in this season and I relished each slow and simple moment. Every little detail has been carefully thought out by hosts, Pete and Anna. The end result is truly stunning and creates a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere right from the get-go.

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The one item that I could not believe I’d forgotten to pack was insect repellant. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am an absolute magnet for blood sucking bugs. So, when I saw this little beauty sitting waiting for me on the shelf, I needed no more convincing that our stay at The Bird Box was going to be pretty much perfect. Pete and Anna, you guys are legends.

If you don’t already know about this stuff - NOTHING works better. Tried and tested!

If you don’t already know about this stuff - NOTHING works better. Tried and tested!

We had arrived at The Bird Box around tea-time and after kicking off our shoes and checking out every nook and cranny like two excitable kids, it was time to light the stove and get the spaghetti on! I poured myself a cold glass of wine and took a long, deep breath. I couldn’t quite believe we were there. Was any of it even real?

It was!

Praise the good Lord. What a gift for us to be able to enjoy!

We both slowly began to unwind as the spaghetti simmered and the stove crackled.

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What a beautiful way to start our treetop retreat. With full bellies and hearts we spent the rest of the evening either reading in the hammock outside wrapped warmly in blankets, or curled up with cushions in front of the stove.

As darkness began to roll over the hills ( I haven’t even yet mentioned the view!) I nipped out to take it all in before heading to bed. The Bird Box is equally as magical in darkness as she is in daylight.

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At one stage, during the night, the rain hammered so hard on the skylight above the bed that I thought it was going to cave in! Once again, I was reminded of being at the caravan as a child and lying listening to the rain patter on the roof - I loved it then, and still love it now. It didn’t take long for me to let the rain lull me back over to sleep.

The next morning Matt headed out early for a walk and I headed straight for the balcony for breakfast! Not before firing up the stove though - our second day was dry, but there was still a bit of a nip in that Donegal air. I set myself up for an al fresco breakfast and spent the next while reading up on essential oils! Bliss.

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What followed was one of the most joyfully slow and simple days either of us have had in a long time. I lost count of how many cups of tea we’d had by mid-afternoon! If one of us wasn’t swinging in the hammock or lying with a book, one of us was most definitely napping! Matt caught me catching flies on the balcony at one stage!

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Nothing quite beats the smell of fresh cinnamon rolls coming out of the oven with freshly poured coffee. Such was a day for sleeping and eating! A day for losing track of time and deciding to wrap up warm and eat bacon butties on the balcony late in the afternoon. I 100% fell asleep not long after the next photo was taken!

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It was after 7pm before we eventually made it out of our cocoon. What a glorious 24+ hours.

Absolute unadulterated bliss.

Truly, I cannot emphasise just how much both of us needed that time. Tired souls were soothed on that day. We headed out for dinner feeling refreshed and ready for a feed!

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The sun made a warm and welcome appearance as we drove the long and winding Donegal roads towards the local town of Ardara. We’d been recommended to try ‘Nancy’s’ and it didn’t disappoint. Dingle gin, spicy beef and delicious local hake were on our menu and we savoured it all before taking a drive along the coast. The sky was ablaze with colour as the sun began to set over the rugged and wild Donegal landscape. Even at such a late hour, the sea was beautifully blue and the sand white.

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No surprise though, we’d only been out a little while, yet pined to return to our safe haven for the night. A true testament of Pete and Anna’s vision and creativity - a place you don’t actually want to leave!

We arrived home just as the sun was hiding herself behind the mountains. The stove was lit and the kettle put on. I couldn’t believe this was our last night!

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The upstairs level of The Bird Box was toasty warm as we headed to bed so we popped open the skylight and slept with it open during the night. What a treat to be woken by birdsong and sunlight on our last morning. No matter where I looked - out of every window: to the left, right and up above - branches and leaves danced in the cool morning breeze.

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Our last morning saw the treehouse basked in sunlight. The sun poured in, casting the most wonderful shadows through the cabin. Matt headed out on his walk and I retreated, once again, to the balcony for my breakfast, toes warmed by the sun.

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I think that The Bird Box was at her most magical for me that morning. I savoured every second and took about a million photographs! I was definitely snap happy during our stay. Everywhere you looked was photo-worthy!

Our final few hours were spent reading and relaxing on the mezzanine together - me, snuggled up in the hammock and Matt, playing guitar.

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Time silently slipped away and before we knew it, it was time to pack up and leave our nest. I took an extra long shower that morning, enjoying the unique experience of swinging the window wide open and showering next to the trees, listening to the sounds of nature.

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As tough as it was to say goodbye to The Bird Box, we know we’ll be back.

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Before heading back up the road we visited Fintown Railway - the only operational railway in Donegal. This beautiful railway is nestled deep in the heart of spectacular mountainous scenery steeped in tradition, myth and folklore, and runs along the crystal clear waters of Loch Finn. It is a million miles from the constant rush of every day life and was like stepping back in time. You can read more about it here.

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Honestly, I cannot recommend a stay in The Bird Box enough. It is an adult-only Air BnB, so a wonderful way to spend some quality time in a truly unique and inspiring setting. I can’t wait wait to go back.

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Like a bird coming home

To her nest amongst the trees.

Her safe place,

A hideaway,

A retreat from the wild.

Cocooned and nestled in her nook,

Nature holds her,

And restores her soul.

Please note: Although this was a part-gifted stay, all thoughts and views are my own.

Strollin’ solo in London

Blogging, Fashion, TravelSteph DukeComment

Many of you will know that for the last few months I’ve been a brand ambassador for the British clothing company, Boden. Within this community came the opportunity to attend Boden’s Autumn/Winter preview in London … I grabbed it with both hands!

Was I terrified? Yes.

Did I feel like an imposter? Absolutely, yes.

Would this opportunity come again? Probably not.

I’d already been on a solo trip to Brussels in March, so travelling alone wasn’t my biggest fear. Imposter syndrome was. But I put the Boden event out of my mind and concentrated on planning my 2 days solo in London.

The trip was just before my birthday so that felt like a good ‘excuse’ to justify such an excursion. In reality, I didn’t need to justify it at all. What an opportunity to not only attend the exclusive preview, but to visit my Auntie for the first time. Looking back, I don’t know why I’ve never thought to go over and stay with my Auntie before? Flights to London can be bought very cheaply and my Aunt lives in Surbiton, just a short train ride outside of the city. I’ll certainly not be leaving it too long before visiting my Aunt again!

I’d booked an early flight on the Tuesday morning and a late flight home on Wednesday night. However, I was flying from Dublin. If I’d booked earlier, I could have flown from Belfast, but in order to get a decent price for my flight, Dublin was my best option. I’d flown solo from Dublin to Brussels, so knew I could do the early drive down and late drive home again ok. Not 100% ideal obviously, but I really didn’t mind. I’ve driven to Dublin numerous times and I always use Quick Park for my car. Once you’ve done it once, it’s no trouble.

Following my trip to Brussels I’ve been challenged to be more conscious about reducing my environmental footprint. I vowed to take both my coffee keepcup and water flask with me – and more importantly – use them! I filled my flask at the free water station at the airport and used my keepcup for my morning coffee.

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Matt had bought me a new travel bag for my birthday as I was panicking about what bag to bring with me. I needed something that I could carry around comfortably for the two days – but something that I could fit all my stuff inside! Thanks Ryanair for the ‘challenge’ to pack light. It was a no brainer about what bag to buy – a Madlug Day Bag. It was the perfect shape and size, and with every purchase, the cost of that bag covers a free bag for a child in care. Now all I had to do was fit all my stuff in. Staying with my Aunt meant that I could borrow some bigger/heavier items such as shampoo, straighteners etc – so I really only had to pack the basics. I actually surprised myself with how little I managed to bring! And after travelling with a toddler, flying solo with a backpack brings a wonderful sense of freedom and ease!

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I’d pre-booked my Stansted Express train tickets online and knew how to get to the train from a previous visit, but when I arrived at the gate I was told that the train wasn’t running and I’d need to get a bus. I made a mental note of the other people around me who were also travelling to Liverpool St station and stayed with them as we headed to find the bus to take us where we needed to go. Thankfully there was a bus to take us to Witham station and then we’d be able to catch a train straight to Liverpool St. Our Stansted Express tickets were still valid for the rerouted journey and it was all relatively painless, despite being on my own. I’d purposely travelled on the Tuesday morning rather than the Wednesday so I wouldn’t have any panic about getting to the Boden event on time. Such a wise decision! The cancelled train didn’t cost me any extra cash, but it did cost me time in getting into the city. Despite being up and travelling from 3am, I didn’t actually make it to Liverpool St station until almost noon. But I definitely felt relieved when I’d finally made it into the city. The day was now mine for the taking!

Despite having gone to Brussels solo, there wasn’t ever any chance to go exploring by myself. Our schedule was a tightly packed one, whereas my ‘schedule’ for London was pretty fluid! I had a few places that I hoped to tick off my list, but keeping the trip flexible was my priority. I was just excited to have the *very rare* space and time to stroll the streets of London with zero expectations or responsibilities.

I could do what I wanted, when I wanted.

I could eat what I wanted, where I wanted.

Amazing.

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I am someone who actually quite enjoys her own company. My Auntie couldn’t comprehend how on earth I wouldn’t be bored and tried to convince me to see if I could get an earlier flight home! I assured her that my time in London was highly anticipated and quite blissful to me!

On my arrival in Liverpool St station I headed straight into the Neal’s Yard Remedies store. One whiff of those diffusers and I was instantly relaxed! Next stop was the Krispy Kreme van. I nabbed a bench to enjoy my donut and make a plan of action. The weather was pretty miserable so I planned to head straight for The Sky Garden as it was only about a 20 minute walk away.

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I exited Liverpool St holding my umbrella in one hand and Google maps in the other, arriving at The Sky Garden about 20 minutes later.  There was a lady at the door and I asked her if I could get a ticket. With a sympathetic stare she informed me that tickets needed to be reserved at least 3 weeks prior to a visit.

Awesome.

Great start Steph!

I was totally gutted. The lady told me that they allowed walk-ins after 6pm if I wanted to come back then. So I shuffled my way into an entrance porch around the corner, sheltered from the rain, and reassessed the situation. I needed somewhere, not too far away, to wait out the rain for a bit. I remembered a cool coffee spot from my last visit to London with mum and Phoebs. We couldn’t go in last time because Phoebe was having a pure meltdown, so today seemed like a perfect opportunity to go! I could grab a coffee, escape the rain, and read my book - I’d borrowed Jen Chillingsworth’s ‘Live Green’ from a friend. It was a perfectly compact size for travelling and I was so excited to read it.

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Armed with my umbrella and Google maps once again I headed towards London Bridge. Thankfully the rain was easing and it wasn’t long before I recognised where I was, spying London Grind in the distance. The time was now 1pm and it made sense to grab lunch here. The staff were incredibly friendly and made me feel so welcome. I found my spot and ordered a G&T, cheeseburger and fries. Sure, why the heck not? The place was absolutely buzzing. I stayed and enjoyed the vibe at Grind until almost 2.30pm, making a plan of action for the afternoon, reading and enjoying a free flat white! There was a time when I would never have dared to sit anywhere on my own. I would have felt really awkward. How times can change! I was perfectly content for that hour and a half. And I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed that G&T and cheeseburger! Happy early birthday to me!

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After thanking the lovely girls who served me I headed out and towards South Bank. It was mizzling on and off but it didn’t make the walk too unpleasant. You just have to get on with it when you don’t have any other choice. And, even in the rain, South Bank was class. There was a real buzz about the place, with loads to see en route along the water. I stopped at The Globe Theatre, totally mesmerized, imagining myself as one of the crowd, watching Shakespeare back in the day. I checked out some cool shops at Bargehouse and Oxo Tower Wharf, enjoying a nosey in the Noodoll store, picking Phoebs up a wee present before heading towards the iconic London Eye.

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Unbelievably, the sun began to try to peek out of the clouds and I was able to put my umbrella away for the first time that day. The area surrounding the London Eye has loads to see and do, I leisurely took it all in before heading across the bridge towards Trafalgar Square.

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The time was now 4pm and I was due to be at my Aunt’s for tea around 6.30pm. I hotfooted it through St James’ Park after stopping briefly to see the guards on their horses at Horse Guards Parade.

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My last stop on day one was the infamous Peggy Porschen’s.  I can’t really call myself a proper ‘Instagrammer’ if I visit London and don’t go to Peggy’s, right?!

I jest.

I totally jest!

But, genuinely, I wanted to go for a right ol’ nosey. I had heard that the coffee was good but those famous cupcakes actually weren’t. So I decided to just see for myself.

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The whole area was actually really lovely and pink Peggy’s could be seen from quite a distance away. I could also see people getting their perfect ‘shot’ in front of that flower-adorned door! I stood and watched a number of very glamorous girls preening and posing – some actually not even going in to make a purchase! I sneakily managed to steal a few shots, careful to crop any posers out (!) before going in to order. I didn’t have long and the tables inside were all full, so I braved the cold and sat outside with a coffee and cupcake. Cue more preening and posing – honestly, every 3 minutes there was someone new taking their turn at the door! Once again, I just watched, taking it all in. I did, however, brave asking my waitress to snap a quick picture of me. I knew I’d have major regrets if I didn’t! I’ve made that mistake before.  Well, what I didn’t bet on was the sheer skill of said waitress. Clearly, she’d done this a million times before. Not awkward at all, she snapped away, clearly aiming for a perfect shot, cropping out the people who were in the queue and everything! I should have known! Anyway, time was moving swiftly on and I had a train to catch so I ate and drank up quickly. The coffee was indeed fine. The cupcake left much to be desired. It was awfully dry and definitely not award-winning.

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Checking my trusty Google maps, I headed swiftly towards the nearest station. This was the first time I’d used the train to travel and my contactless card to pay. Talk about handy. Tap to go in, tap to go out – zero hassle. I was well impressed and hopped onto the train … a little too hastily! I checked the line information above my head only to discover I was on the line to Chessington, rather than the line I needed to get to Surbiton. Thankfully the lines are clearly marked and I just jumped off at the next stop and on again when the next train came along. Doing that a few years ago definitely would have threw me, but I’m 100% more brave than I was mid-20s. Not more brave in all things mind you!

My lovely cousin picked me up from Surbiton station and brought me to her house to stay the night. We were at my Aunt’s by 6.30pm and I enjoyed a home-cooked meal, another wee G&T and a lovely catch up with my cousin and Aunt. We watched TV and I rested my weary feet. I felt truly thankful for my day in the city, but moreso for the rare time with my Aunt.  Not only did she make my dinner and put me up for the night, but she also ironed and hung up my Boden dress for the next day. I was ever so grateful.

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Day 2

Wednesday morning brought beautiful sunshine and I enjoyed catching up on a bit of sleep before breakfast and then packed up my bag for the day. My cousin dropped me back to Surbiton station for 10am and I got the train straight to Waterloo and then a tube to Covent Garden. In less than an hour I was back in the city centre, a Pret almond croissant in hand and headed for Boden HQ.

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I really tried not to think too much about the event for I knew I could easily talk myself out of it! As I approached the door I 100% faked what little confidence I could muster and walked inside. I was greeted by two lovely ladies - one ticked my name off the list and the other took my bag. It sure felt good to give my wee shoulders a break! I nipped to the loo to fix my hair only to find Elle Wright (@feathering_the_empty_nest) standing waiting at the bathroom door. Well, I nearly died. Ok, that’s totally melodramatic, but trust me when I say that I had a … ‘moment’. Instant imposter syndrome kicked in and I thought ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ Of course I tried to act real cool, totally not acknowledging the fact that I’ve been following Elle for quite some time. She’s only got like almost 112K followers. No biggie.

I tried to calm myself down in the loo and totally gave myself a wee pep talk in the mirror.

I can do this.

I can do this.

I exited the bathroom and headed straight to the cutest coffee cart I think I’ve ever seen.

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With a Boden-branded, oat flat white in hand, I nervously made my way upstairs, not knowing who on earth I might run into next. Yet, I need not have been nervous at all. The whole event was so relaxed and as soon as I saw the setup I was straight in for a look at the beautiful A/W collection. Some of Boden’s in-house designers were there and it was incredible to get a chance to chat with them and see them in action. There were delicious canapés and drinks to enjoy but I was far too nervous to take anything!

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I did eventually pluck up the courage to chat to Elle, and to the lovely Sally (@gettingstuffdoneinheels) as well. Gosh, they were so kind while I blabbered on about being too star-struck at the loos to introduce myself! It wasn’t long before we were joined by some familiar faces and I finally began to relax. Part of the preview involved the opportunity to get a personalised Boden printed plate to bring home. Designer, Author and Illustrator, Lisa Stickley was busy illustrating people’s pets and portraits during the event. I cannot tell you how chuffed I am with mine.

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Feeling extra brave after the event I made my way round the corner to Neal’s Yard. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. Neal’s Yard was looking particularly pretty. I’d contacted the Neal’s Yard Remedies store prior to arriving to see if I could go ‘live’ in store to demo a hand treatment. Legit, I walked around the shop for ages before finally introducing myself and having to do the ‘live’! I was definitely feeling the fear and doing it anyway! The staff were lovely though, and very accommodating; I met with Abigail to get ready for the hand demo. I still can’t believe I went ‘live’ on my Instagram in the store while getting a hand massage! Abi and I chatted about some of NYRO’s products and health benefits, before giving a tour around the store and a peek out at the Neal’s Yard courtyard.  I wish I had recorded the full conversation I had with Abigail. She had a wealth of knowledge to share and it was wonderful to just get the chance to chat all things NYR with her. Thank you Abi!

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Lunchtime had been and gone by the time I emerged from Neal’s Yard. Abigail had recommended that I swing by Petersham Nurseries in Covent Garden for a nosey then I made a beeline for Arket.

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I was absolutely famished, so grabbed a coffee and a cinnamon bun to get a little energy for some shopping and strolling. I really loved Arket and bought a few wee bits – my turtle bags came from there. It was great to just explore in the sunshine. What a difference from Tuesday’s dreary weather!

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Mid-afternoon saw me strolling through Carnaby and checking out the famous Liberty London. I could have stopped and snapped at every turn. I was totally in my element.

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Having worked in my local Topshop for 6 years in my late teens/early twenties, I couldn’t not take a nosey in the big Oxford Street store: a DJ, nail and hair bar, café and bubble tea stall are just a few ‘extras’ you can expect to find there. But, I definitely felt like I was beginning to fade a bit, so I took a wee seat with a bubble tea (so weird btw) after purchasing a few hairbands. As you do.

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It was now 4.30pm and my flight home wasn’t until 10pm so I made the decision to make the most of the good weather and use the tube to head towards London and Tower Bridges. I walked along the water from London Bridge towards Tower Bridge and it was glorious in the sunshine. Keeping a close eye on the time I made my way on foot across Tower Bridge (so glad I did) and down the other side of the river. I soaked it all in and snapped pictures like a maniac. My phone was on the portable charger by this stage!

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It was just after 6pm when I came full circle and arrived back at the entrance of The Sky Garden. The queue outside was small so I stood in line, deliberating whether I had time to go in or not. I had to factor in the time to walk to Liverpool St station and catch the Stansted express back to the airport. As I entered through the building I could see another queue going through security a little further ahead. My gut was telling me I just didn’t have the time. I listened to my gut, and for the second time in two days, I walked away from The Sky Garden! I’ll just book ahead next time! I managed to get to Liverpool St station and make it quickly and easily onto the Stansted Express. I’d called into an M&S foodhall en route and grabbed a sandwich, crisps, sweets and chocolate to snack on after suddenly realising I hadn’t eaten that much that day. I’d been more focused on what I was doing and seeing and wanting to make the most of my time! I munched away on the train as I headed to the airport – much needed fuel for the last leg of the journey. I still had quite a way to go to get myself home.

I was through security at Stansted by 8.15pm and admittedly felt a wee bit gutted that I probably would have had time to do The Sky Garden (albeit at a push)! So I settled myself and took a dander round the stores before perching up with a glass of fizz and maltesers while I waited for my gate. It felt like a nice way to say “cheers” to what had really been a brilliant trip.

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By the time I arrived home it was gone 2am and I was more than ready to see Matt and Phoebs and to crawl into my bed. 

Looking back, it all seems a bit surreal. I still can’t quite believe I actually went to London … by myself.

That I navigated the trains and tubes.

That I attended the Boden A/W preview.

That I did a ‘live’ in Neal’s Yard Remedies, Covent Garden.

That I didn’t get lost or panic or freak out!

It might sound silly to some but I definitely felt like I was exercising my ‘brave’ mode most this trip!

I can’t conclude this blog without thanking a few people, without whom, this trip would never have happened. Firstly, to Boden: thank you for extending ‘little old me’ an invitation to attend – I know I shouldn’t say that but it’s definitely how I felt on the day. What a wonderfully unique opportunity - one I do not take for granted. My only regret is not taking the opportunity to chat more to Mr Johnnie Boden! Next time perhaps?!  Secondly, to my Aunt and cousin: thank you for opening up your home and taking time to pick me up and drop me off. Thanks for the lend of your straighteners El! Thirdly, to my husband, Matt: thank you for believing in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. Thank you for pushing me – in love - to take opportunities like this one.  And lastly, to YOU: thank you for reading my blog and for investing your time and energy into following along on my journey. Thank you also to all you lovely people who gave me advice on where to go and what to see. I’ve a long list of places now for the next time! Milk train is top of that list! In all seriousness though, thank you again and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like any more details from my trip. Until next time London!

 

Lay a really good table.

Faith, TravelSteph Duke1 Comment

A few months ago I felt a burden on my heart to create a space for women to encounter God. It was a no-brainer where this space would be ... Hill House in Sligo. 

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This season has been one where I've been trying to be obedient to what I feel the Lord is leading me into. It hasn't been easy. I've felt conflict in my spirit over finances, my marriage, motherhood and my ability to be any sort of useful vessel for God to use. But God has been faithful. If he places something on my heart and confirms it over and over again, it's a very simple choice for me to make. Do it. 

So when I got in touch with a few girls about a Spiritual Retreat in Sligo, I shouldn't have been surprised at their responses.

Yes. Yes. YES. A million times YES.

This time, this space, this place where exactly what was needed, at exactly the right time for these women, and also for me.

I needed to be brave, to step up and to lead, regardless of my own feelings of inadequacy. I had absolutely no need to doubt because God so graciously confirmed this weekend in the most incredible ways. But as usual, I let my own fears run riot in my mind, instead of focusing on what I was called to do and just getting on with it. 

And the other girls, well ... it took such courage and commitment to agree to come away for the weekend (they didn't even know each other) that I wanted to ensure that they felt right at home. God's promise was to "provide peace" (Haggai 2 v 9) at the retreat and he had prepared a place especially for each of us. All we had to do was show up.  Typical me wanted to be Martha again, to do all the stuff! Yet in all my striving and panicking to ensure the girls were well-fed, pampered, relaxed, encouraged and equipped, I was reminded that any work or ministry for God must begin from a place of total surrender. Once I let go of "self" and handed everything to God, I had no need to strive, no need to panic. This was all God's idea. I needed to accept that anything I brought to the table was not in my own strength, but from a servant heart, completely reliant on God. With open hands and a compassionate heart I prepared for the retreat.  

I spent some time alone with God a few weeks beforehand on a solo retreat to Sligo and got lots of the biblical prep done then. Our focus verse was Romans 15 v 13. 

Lettering print by Megan @growingracelettering

Lettering print by Megan @growingracelettering

In His goodness, God connected the pieces of the puzzle together so beautifully during the weekend. The places we visited where timely reminders of Paul's prayer to all believers and God's presence was tangible wherever we went. God was interested in the tiniest details of this retreat and I could feel His guiding hand even as I planned the itinerary. Amazing. 

Practically, I was able to provide the girls with their own lake-view room, bedlinen and Neal's Yard treats to enjoy.

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The girls also received some stationery bits n' bobs too!

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On arrival at Hill House on the Friday afternoon we all took time to get settled, unpacked and grab a cuppa. The living space has a stunning view of Lake Loughanelteen - such a wonderful way to begin to rest and unwind. 

The view of the lake from the living area balcony

The view of the lake from the living area balcony

After a cuppa, the sun made an appearance so I took the girls for a quick tour of the space. Hill House is part of the larger West of Ireland Centre that belongs to my in-laws. The area spans 55 acres and is tucked safely away beneath the mountains - a truly unique place to escape and retreat away from the hustle and noise of our busy lives. Knowing the surroundings meant that the girls could take time to explore and enjoy the tranquil surroundings whenever they wanted to.

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We enjoyed some time chatting and relaxing before it was time for me to get the dinner on - Mango Chicken was on the menu! I am still super grateful that Denby Pottery very kindly gifted some dinnerware from their beautiful Studio Blue range. What an absolute treat! Laying a really good table was made easy with such stunning pieces. 

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There is something really special about good conversation around a table isn't there? We chatted, ate and chatted some more, so much so that time was nearly away from us and we had lots more planned for the evening! 

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Following dinner we enjoyed a brilliant brush lettering workshop by Megan from @growingracelettering. Megan expertly shared her talents and tips and we soon got into the swing of it. I may or may not have gotten quite competitive by the end!! This was such a lovely way to bring Friday evening towards a close. Megan regularly hosts lettering workshops if you live in Northern Ireland and fancy trying your hand at it. I was surprisingly hooked by the end! Check Meg out on her instagram for her next workshop dates. 

See my  IG  story highlights for some live video footage!

See my IG story highlights for some live video footage!

Zoe's  IG  story :) 

Zoe's IG story :) 

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By the time we had finished our lettering prints it was almost time for bed! I'd originally planned for some pampering for Friday night but saved that for Saturday evening instead. I was definitely optimistic about timings during the weekend! I'll know that for next time! 

Before bed we had a short group session and I shared a little of my heart behind the retreat and what we would focus on over the coming days. Then we concluded day one with worship, no better way to end what had been a beautiful day. 

On Saturday morning the girls could wake up and grab breakfast any time before 11am. It was home from home - just work away in the kitchen and make whatever took your fancy. We had pre-organised to each bring some groceries, so there were lots of breakfast options!  I was up early getting some prep in for our morning group session. Although I knew what I wanted to say, God kept downloading fresh truth that I wanted to make sure I articulated correctly to the girls. 

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That Denby bowl though! 

That Denby bowl though! 

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What a lovely breakfast enjoying the peace and the view! By this stage we were all feeling rested and relaxed. It was now time to get ready for another group session before heading out for the afternoon. Saturday's session started with a really beautiful time of worship, followed by a short teaching time. We learned about living in overflow and the importance of being a conduit for Christ - an open-ended vessel that allows God to continually flow in as we continually pour out. More importantly, we discovered that when we operate our life in overflow we can change the landscape around us. Thank you Charlotte for your wisdom in this.  

Zoe spotted this while out shopping on Saturday afternoon. I just love how God gives us visual reminders that He's near and He's interested in our everyday. We studied the dandelion and propagation just a few hours before! 

Zoe spotted this while out shopping on Saturday afternoon. I just love how God gives us visual reminders that He's near and He's interested in our everyday. We studied the dandelion and propagation just a few hours before! 

Then it was time for lunch! I took the girls into Sligo town to Kate's Kitchen to eat and then for a few hours shopping. I let them loose while I enjoyed a coffee and some prep time in my favourite bakery. 

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Kate's Kitchen, Sligo

Kate's Kitchen, Sligo

The retail therapy was followed by a trip to Glencar Waterfall. The whole Glencar area is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape and scenery are just incredible - well, well worth a visit, and the waterfall itself is a hugely popular tourist spot. I've been numerous times now, but this time felt really special. Once again, there was a real sense that God was near - the air was cool and crisp and we stopped and savoured the moment.  

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Awh. These girls!

Awh. These girls!

There was only time for a quick stop back at Hill House to freshen up before heading out to another one of my favourite spots - Rosses Point. We enjoyed dinner at The Driftwood, followed by a beach walk, before returning home for a cuppa and some pampering! It was Neal's Yard mini facials and head massages all round!

Rosses Point

Rosses Point

Sunday morning was another slow morning. We were so relaxed by this point that we decided just to do our group session in our pyjamas! God began to tie everything so beautifully together and we spent time being ministered to, taking communion and praying together -  just worshipping at the feet of Jesus. It will be one of those special times of encounter that I don't think I'll ever forget. 

Still in our pyjamas at noon, we set off for our mountain walk! Yes, in our pjs! Having this scenery in the back yard of Hill House still blows me away. Views of 'The Sleeping Giant' on one side and Lough Gill on the other. From the top of the mountain you can even see the sea stretched out in the distance!

Zoe taking in the view of 'The Sleeping Giant' - half in Co. Leitrim, half in Co. Sligo

Zoe taking in the view of 'The Sleeping Giant' - half in Co. Leitrim, half in Co. Sligo

Stunning views of Lough Gill

Stunning views of Lough Gill

Jesus, sweet Jesus

Jesus, sweet Jesus

Our final stop before our retreat came to an end was Strandhill. The girls were especially excited to visit Shells Seaside Bakery, Cafe & Little Shop after hearing so much about it! It certainly did not disappoint. We made a quick stop after lunch at Hill House and Strandhill was absolutely buzzing ... there was jazz playing on the bandstand and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds just long enough for us to drink our coffee and watch the surfers. This felt like the perfect way to end our weekend!

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I'm still a little overwhelmed by the whole experience if I'm honest. I felt called to lay a really good table for God. To provide a space and a place that welcomed others to come and enter in to God's presence. The table (literal and metaphorical) was and is, representative of God's presence, a place of ENCOUNTER. And as I've typed this post I've been reminded once again that I'm back where I began ... back at the place of surrender. I bring NOTHING to the table, except all that has been given to me by God. Any of my giftings, abilities or passions have been mercifully given to me and I am THANKFUL. And I have never been more aware of stewarding them well.   

There has already been interest in another retreat ... at this stage I have two possibilities:

1. Come Undone (spiritual retreat)

2. Escape to the West (non-spiritual retreat)

The finer details (cost/date) are yet to be finalised but if you are interested in either retreat, or have any questions, please email me  on steph@mylittleduke.com. 

On a final note I must thank my wonderful in-laws for allowing us to use Hill House and the girls for bravely joining me on this West of Ireland adventure! There is a whole lot more Sligo to see ... we barely scratched the surface ...