My Little Duke

travel

The Bird Box

Travel, BloggingSteph DukeComment

Cocooned in a nest,

Cradled high in the trees,

The music of birdsong

And a Donegal breeze.

8D1FC6C0-6662-4E21-AEE6-285141137B0B.JPG

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.

88CAEFE6-0F88-4CD0-9F24-0143B9754C45.JPG

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.

59D63CB0-D13F-4C6E-9247-5067E5F4233F.JPG

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.

D8DAA0EA-2288-4529-B9C4-54E43CE501A2.JPG

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!

AE91E043-4F21-4081-87B4-21D5B74C35CE.JPG

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.

64AD5DDB-A96E-4194-BE93-8AF4A8E7EC1D.JPG

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.

11D3814B-29E8-4376-8674-1B36A021A7A6.JPG
03B91E21-4647-4BB8-A28F-E600545D246C.JPG
7851813D-1137-4FF7-B304-B355AE811C8D.JPG

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.

962FBF3B-A281-4B55-87E2-774479279070.JPG

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.

93C668A7-E419-418A-A77E-1A6ACD9F0E30.JPG
8161A956-A89D-4487-A2D1-FE7AE1307995.JPG
5C4F8684-D27C-49A7-AFC8-E08D6F3D934C.JPG

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.

IMG_2577.JPG

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!

4696E76F-DF1F-4B59-BC68-69AB2F433493.JPG
737C25E6-5EDE-460F-A701-82BBF8B447D5.JPG

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!

F4B0E1AB-82F5-4103-94F6-FF78AC2C454E.JPG

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!

04FA2FB8-8220-430D-84C2-1A3D9C9EE680.JPG
3CE810B9-CCE0-49DD-8221-6730E7EE60B1.JPG

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.

030B54B5-1433-4F99-9140-6A76F2C0823E.JPG
8E1218EE-034D-4EA2-A698-77498432198C.JPG

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!

IMG_2199.jpg
A99A3204-FEE5-4EAA-9446-8B4FA984FBC5.JPG

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.

48BF4404-D8D7-4D4D-922E-1E89089497DB.JPG
BA2CEAA8-4CB4-457D-887C-7106B0F804CD.JPG

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.

3220BC2C-B08E-41BC-A2B7-45E34B22AE98.JPG

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.

DB0804DA-D92C-453B-8023-DC11A7034597.JPG
C6F55D0D-9014-4DC3-A128-D360C8456B46.JPG

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.

ACF319E3-137E-4565-8F41-6A4E05394F9C.JPG

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

47728DEA-EA3F-44EC-A1F0-42FC40F5E758.JPG

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.

30F99734-EFCF-4AEB-9D15-13B20D9E6171.JPG
FB72995D-A6F9-481B-B766-39007F93A96B.JPG
AF38D0A6-E442-4177-850A-9262DC7E381D.JPG

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.

709AB634-8900-4F89-B92C-96E55DD3377F.JPG

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.

7ED0EFA6-281C-4C78-90F2-175EB73AF9F0.JPG
IMG_6558.JPG

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!

2AC76DB2-E0A7-4474-82E4-09C4326E06CB.JPG

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.

382BFAD5-B6F3-467F-A6C1-498D8014743A.JPG

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.

FF1065BA-310C-4EB5-9427-1C6B01CEA89A.JPG

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.

96824177-0DDD-4336-9C8E-B2BCF460EECF.JPG

 

384A1CE1-92B1-47C7-854E-9DBEC710388E.JPG

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!

1A5D2033-B767-4316-AA83-2ECC1A3EA2BB.JPG
92B444ED-5B78-49EE-96E8-122494854C3C.JPG
33341E70-07AB-45F6-915C-55DDE49F103B.JPG

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.

344EB4D6-CFF9-4D8A-A11A-F6E2D1AC3396.JPG
DCCF538C-53FA-410A-90BE-A50D6BAB31FA.JPG
952E2B9F-A657-4C60-A05C-0679226522E1.JPG

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.

0DD98AE7-B434-406E-899B-4F5CF6EFA6ED.JPG
C829C99A-1B93-4648-B8CF-AC5258F567DB.JPG

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.

2BC98303-DEBA-4CB3-85B8-92F86B77C64C.JPG

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.

553E9063-899B-4AC2-9EF0-C97AE4FA1096.JPG

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.

63E83E15-3544-4872-A259-C68F600FF53E.JPG
DC594D4D-D454-460E-B63D-E969A46BA04F.JPG

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.

D52C497E-F113-41DB-978A-C501FFD9E019.JPG

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.

45CF5C19-8DB2-43AC-BC5E-AAF6FE58FA97.JPG
14E1BDC2-F9CB-4982-BBD5-DA45FF83D75A.JPG

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.

EF65867C-1CEF-4A42-A7AB-257C9FCB49D8.JPG

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!

832174FC-CD4F-4252-9C17-4E8DFE009AA4.JPG
C4B849A6-8582-4322-B520-CECC8F98069B.JPG
BFE472E8-86E1-4CF5-AEED-00F5C6C9FC78.JPG
A6A20A10-FDD8-499C-A6F7-F9DAAA2833AB.JPG
71150FD6-6E73-4918-9795-D3575DC1946B.JPG

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.

4DD14E42-FE55-40B1-8DE6-2F537774EAEE.JPG

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!

7B0E77D6-ABDE-4AA9-9983-431B83725F3A.JPG
097F867F-99D2-42BB-99F2-6455768E33C0.JPG
524310B5-EE48-4A6C-8313-0273DE4D8D9D.JPG

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.

85A24420-0E14-4E92-919B-FA67838624B1.JPG
214B2A92-CFAE-4BAB-B6E3-019147DBDE06.JPG

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!

42BCB6D6-FB07-482D-B590-FF65F1DE4FB9.JPG
30DBB7F3-3C47-47C1-AAE1-9A63DD2FE5B1.JPG

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.

B1162F69-DB06-4217-B685-0D6D83D42E2E.JPG
07AE28FD-9892-4E52-A56E-1F6B250A693F.JPG

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.

70E5F4EA-590D-491C-B1A6-5C629AEC4ABB.JPG
DFCD9A54-2803-47BB-A957-8E5EC966FCD5.JPG

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!

C6949ADD-4D60-4666-8CFE-9205FCDE01BC.JPG
BB202A46-0D84-4B61-B340-B8C8310A994A.JPG
A33B0857-9D74-4EA6-A790-986732C3D884.JPG

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.

2191A0D6-CA05-4EA0-92E3-285F352130CB.JPG

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!

 

My Sligo Solo Retreat

Faith, Motherhood, TravelSteph DukeComment

I read a while ago about a ‘Solo Retreat’ and was instantly intrigued. There was something about setting aside intentional time for resting and writing in God’s presence that appealed to me – deeply, in my heart.

A few weeks ago, while in Sligo with family, I knew that if I ever were to be brave enough to book a solo retreat – I’d do it in Sligo. Several recent trips here have confirmed to me that this is a place where I can and should write. It’s a place that feels like home, but doesn’t come with the baggage that I associate with my own house. I love my home – don’t get me wrong – but when I’m at home I see everything that’s ‘unfinished’, everything that ‘needs doing’ and everything that can and will distract me from sitting down and writing.

There are lots of these same issues in Sligo, but I just don’t think about them here, and they definitely don’t distract me. I accept these same imperfections, yet at home they constantly play heavily on my mind and I can’t settle until I tidy, or clean, or do laundry … and I could keep going! Perfectionism is something I’ve always struggled with and it’s something God and I are working through. But a conversation with Matt just a few days ago helped me be brave, make the move and arrange my very first solo retreat. Practicing obedience is brave and I’m slowly learning how to live a life in surrender and obedience to Christ.

My room for the night

My room for the night

Hill House, Co. Sligo

Hill House, Co. Sligo

Financially, coming to Sligo for 24 hours doesn’t cost me a lot as I’m blessed to be able to use my in-laws accommodation at Hill House free of charge. The only cost is for fuel for travel and if I were to eat out while here. But obviously there is a personal cost – leaving my daughter and husband. If I were to write a pros and cons list I’d be at it all day and never make a decision. Phoebe and her Daddy enjoyed quality time together and I too, enjoyed my own quality time: uninterrupted and undistracted time to be productive, to hear God’s voice and to come home rested and grateful; more able and equipped to be a better mum and wife.

So what did my solo retreat consist of? For me I needed three things:

  1. Quiet
  2. No distractions
  3. Time

I was in desperate need of quiet time to process the myriad of thoughts and ideas swirling endlessly round my head. And I needed somewhere with no distractions. No bums to wipe or juice to refill, no-one yelling ‘Muuuuuummmmmmy’ every 5 minutes. I also needed time - a good, decent chunk of time to sit and process said thoughts and ideas. 10 or 20 minutes when I can grab it just isn’t working for me. Not when I’m in a season of hearing frequent downloads from God, trying to navigate these new waters of being ‘self-employed’ and figuring out what the future might look like for my family including how the heck I might ever make any money again!

I packed my little suitcase, filled my water tank in the Twingo and set off for Sligo - armed with my bible, laptop and several journals. I knew I was doing the right thing but that didn’t stop me feeling anxious about leaving Phoebe and even more so about spending the night solo! Yet, deep down I always knew I was never really ‘that’ far away and if I needed to, I could race back down the road to home.

The journey down felt strange, but good. I only had to think about myself. What did I want to listen to? No nursery rhymes or music picked by Matt. My choice. I pressed play on a series of podcasts I’d been meaning to listen to and didn’t look back. I devoured several podcasts – all very timely, affirming and encouraging. I started to feel more at ease and as I crossed the border and the landscape began to change, I felt peace.

In the 15 years I’ve travelled the road to Sligo, I’ve never once stopped being captivated by the landscape. It’s no wonder Yeats’ found inspiration from this Western isle of Ireland. The ruggedness, the contours of the mountains and the wild coastline all create a special kind of magic I’ve only ever felt here. And as I drove the country lane towards my retreat I stopped for the first time at a lake I’ve passed hundreds of times on route to Hill House. There was no toddler who ‘might wake up’ or husband to ask to ‘pull over’ – it was just me - I took the opportunity with both hands to pull into the lay-by and press pause on this moment in time I was never going to get back.

B0981A9E-4BC4-4FD0-9950-0F9756D3BCD1.jpg

I can totally see the appeal of solo travel! There’s such ease, speed and a wonderful freedom to explore. Having major life regrets right now! How did I get to 30 years of age and not try to see more of our planet!? Anyway, I stood lakeside in awe of the view and savoured the silence. This was why I did this. Thank you Lord for allowing me opportunity to press pause and enjoy your presence.

After arriving I took some time to make a plan of action and settled myself with my laptop and journal. It felt good to be productive and enjoy writing in a slightly calmer environment! At tea-time I took a drive out to the coast for something to eat (I’d driven up through lunch so was needing some sustenance) and enjoyed some good food and planning by the sea, followed by a nice fresh walk. I wasn’t as productive in the evening as I would have liked (I never am), but took the opportunity to get an early night and a luxurious uninterrupted sleep.

A4DBE993-7B0C-4D22-A700-2D4D0A52FC89.jpg
Shells sea-side bakery & cafe

Shells sea-side bakery & cafe

05B7242B-421D-4D84-8D5B-F7EFA1B3B4C4.jpg
Strandhill

Strandhill

I have to admit that waking up naturally is a pretty nice way to wake up - something that just doesn’t happen to parents of small children! I’m usually jolted awake by a toddler poking and prodding my face, telling me she’s ‘soooo firsty Mummy!’ My solo morning schedule started with a blissful breakfast and worship. This is the way all my mornings should start. Are you like me – full of good intentions but never the follow-through? If every morning started the way today did, my world would be a better place. I’ll not be expecting a blissful breakfast, but breakfast and worship has got to be achievable! Time spent with the Father is never wasted time and like any good relationship, it is so good to talk.

Time was moving on quickly and I’d planned to do some studying and writing at my favourite little French bakery. I’d enough Euros to buy me an hour and a half to sit in the sun and do some much needed prep for a very exciting event that’s coming up. Fuelled by a chocolate cruffin and coffee, I set to work and enjoyed a really productive session - time, once again, where I felt God close, speaking to me as I studied His Word and put pen to paper.

Le Fournil

Le Fournil

Next up was a swim! I had allowed myself time to go to the beach if I’d been productive at the bakery, and what a sweet, sweet reward. The sun had begun to peek out of the clouds as I parked the car and dawned my swimwear. The beach was almost empty and I plunged into the water with a thankful heart. God you are so, so good to me. The sea was cold and clear, the air salty and fresh. The sun even stayed around just long enough to allow me 10 minutes to lay down and dry off. Total and utter bliss. This simple act is something I completely took for granted before I had a child. I savoured every single second on that sand before heading back home.   

I got back in the car with salty skin, sandy toes and a full heart. Even though I didn’t achieve everything on my list, I received everything that I personally needed and more. I queued up the podcasts and began the drive home, thankful and excited to see my family and implement some new processes into home life that ensure that I can be the best mum and wife that I can be, and live a life worthy to be called a follower of Christ.

Rosses Point

Rosses Point

I swam in this water - beautiful Rosses Point 

I swam in this water - beautiful Rosses Point 

So would I recommend a solo retreat? Yes I would. It’s not the sort of thing that will suit everybody. It will certainly look different for you than for me. But I can 100% assure you that it was needed for me, at the right moment in my life. It was a time of preparation, evaluation and consolidation of what has gone before and where God is leading me to in the future. I needed this time to be Mary, not Martha. All my life I’ve tried to live a Martha lifestyle when I need to be more like Mary. Will I do another solo retreat? Yes I think I will. Not for quite some time I’m sure, but it is definitely worthwhile.

Have you ever been on a solo retreat or done something similar? I’d love to know where / how / why! Is a solo retreat something you would be interested in doing? Perhaps a small group retreat is of more interest to you? Please get in touch as I’d love to hear your thoughts. Email me at steph@mylittleduke.com if this is you! 

Amsterdam 2017

TravelSteph DukeComment

My sister and I always talked about jetting off together, just the two of us. Opportunities came and went, yet we never managed to arrange anything.  However, Emily turning 21 last December seemed like too good an occasion to be missed and I remembered a recent conversation where, over several G&T’s, we ‘joked’ about just ‘doing it’ - just booking flights and going! So, that’s what I did for her birthday.

C58E2B80-9875-435E-9EE1-8A656253613F.jpg

We had both been to Amsterdam in 2016 with our other halves, so it was the perfect city to explore some more. Amsterdam would have an air of familiarity to it, yet with so much adventure still to uncover in those canal-lined streets. After coercing my wonderful husband into agreement, I started the search for flights. Flying to Amsterdam is so affordable – it’s a great place to visit on a budget!

E93318E8-06B5-4B94-B026-BA672DA66DB4.jpg

Emily’s birthday arrived and we excitedly began to plan our holiday. Being both the eldest and a mummy made me feel a great deal of responsibility. Not only for keeping us both safe on our trip, but also for finding a cool place to stay. My husband had me staying on a house-boat during our stay in Amsterdam (read about it here – found on AirBnb) so I desperately wanted to find something unique, yet affordable for Emily and I. I searched and searched with no result for weeks on end. It can be so frustrating trying to find that one place that just goes ‘POP’ and you know it’s the place for you. Time was ticking by and the closer we got to February, the closer I got to throwing my laptop out the window!

Then, completely out of the blue, during a search that I’d done numerous times before, I came across ZOKU. I knew instantly that it was the place for us. As I clicked and scrolled through the website, I was convinced I’d hit the jackpot. It was more than I could have imagined. The graphics/photos/website ticked all the boxes: clean design, modern, unique and aesthetically pleasing. Even the location was spot on for where we had planned to visit. A bit giddy, I selected a loft, praying all the while that the price would be within our budget … and it was! I sent Emily the link along with some photos and we booked our stay. Obviously I downloaded the handy ZOKU APP for my iphone and followed their IG account!

1085EFDA-328F-47E1-B4EA-ACC2EC55D4B4.jpg

On arrival we used Uber to get to from Central Station to the hotel and I remember going up in the lift, feeling a mix of excitement and nerves, hoping that Zoku lived up to my ridiculously high expectations. When we stepped out of the lift and onto the top floor I knew I had made the right decision. The hallway was a beautiful glass conservatory, lined with plants, filled with music and smelt of (I can’t even describe it to you) it just smelt…incredible, spa-like and floral – just heavenly. It was late and dark when we arrived and it felt truly magical as we made our way to the community space and arrival desk.

22F57A1A-692E-4ECD-84CB-908B3DBFF8C7.jpg
4296F702-8591-4A89-8DEA-05EAC974306B.jpg

We were greeted by a lovely member of staff who gave us the low-down, checked us in, and gave us directions to our loft.

ZOKU offers 4 types of accommodation at the hotel:

  • Zoku Loft
  • Zoku Loft XL
  • Zoku Room
  • Zoku Bootstrap

Check their website for all the deets!

Emily and I stayed in a ZOKU Loft. Seriously, we were mesmerized from the moment we opened the door. So many neat storage ideas, gadgets and spaces to explore; Emily had the hidden staircase pulled out before I’d even got into the room and was up and cosy in the bed within seconds!

179B5162-174D-472B-BF20-493B43E2EAB5.jpg

We were both starving so set off in search of some famous Amsterdam chips n' sauce cones! As you can see, it was after midnight by the time we found some! But, so, so worth it!

ECCE2642-7421-4C01-8AD6-F39EFDA2BD7B.jpg

By the time we finally got back to the hotel, we were zonked. Thankfully, in the community area of the hotel, there is always a member of staff there to help, 24/7 - so we enjoyed some complimentary iced tea and toddled off to our cosy bed! But, not until we'd had a nosy round the community space. It's full of sectioned off areas, seats around tables, cosy nooks, games room, work room and even a corner full of on-the-go snacks and little travel essentials in case you forgot to pack something! 

E8E55C7E-827D-48F9-8014-DF196ABDFD10.jpg

Our bed must have been comfy as neither of us woke up until lunchtime! It was a rest that we both needed, setting us up for another busy day in the Dam! It was a grey, misty start as we headed off in search of brunch. Zoku is within walking distance of all Amsterdam's main tourist streets. Emily and I walked our way round everything on this particular day. 

B646814C-49A7-4764-BD50-F50CDA2DD5BA.jpg
8659DD69-E3B1-4438-B6D2-732E2721D89F.jpg

We headed to the top floor of the Library for our brunch, before tackling some of the main street attractions ...

8F736F28-0AE5-4A3F-BEBD-AB6113A28B8D.jpg
A7F9A519-91A8-481D-82F1-DA31C5424AAD.jpg
E4E89A00-1FA7-46A0-90A8-0D3451A2308E.jpg
Bloemenmarkt - the beautiful canal-side flower market

Bloemenmarkt - the beautiful canal-side flower market

06034161-8A3E-4DAF-95B7-DFE8DD842F80.jpg

We had pre-booked our tickets for the Xtra Cold IceBar for 5pm. This, again, wasn't too much of a walking distance away. I actually really enjoyed the Icebar experience. You get a cocktail and x2 shots included in your ticket price (£16) and around 15/20 minutes in the actual Ice Bar itself. You get provided with gloves and a thermal coat, it gets pretty baltic the longer you're in there! The shot glasses are made from ice, so it's a pretty cool wee experience. Honestly, I don't think I'd go back though, it's the sort of thing that once you've done it, that's enough!

14982EA9-79CD-4698-9982-D96179BD7FED.jpg
10590849-B748-4D32-BC44-85C0C3D8BD8D.jpg
IMG_4925.jpg

Next stop was Rotisserie West for food. My husband and I had visited Rotisserie East on our last visit for Valentines Day and absolutely loved the vibe - full of locals and the food was superb! As Emily and I were eating so early, it was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we were leaving, the place was buzzing!

7886C0CC-88D8-455D-81E3-AF9D8CD43F5C.jpg
9F7A79DF-3C12-4605-83E8-9B7888CD8E86.jpg
242934C3-24C6-4170-862A-79BB18893A91.jpg

Then, like two wee grannies, after a busy day, we pottered back to Zoku for board games, cocktails and hot chocolate! No wild Amsterdam night for us! 

6BA7F51D-EF6D-48BE-B0E9-61F850603553.jpg
3DE11B09-D6B0-4E1B-A71A-B4D5D96B22C7.jpg
19DA6128-111E-489B-A87C-54106BF34462.jpg
16D628BD-580A-471B-A682-6C368FB32457.jpg
26090C32-D908-4872-8EC3-18F2740EA6B3.jpg

On our final morning we took the opportunity to get a few photos of our loft in daylight. Both Emily and I thought the whole hotel was class, especially the bed in our loft. Being up high and enclosed away from the world in a cosy nook was just the ticket for a great night's sleep! I particularly liked the usb port and pouch on the headrest - genius! If anyone had seen us when we arrived, the 2 of us squealing every time we opened a drawer or found something neat!

6A12E215-AB22-4D84-88E2-AE00AA490852.jpg
8B819D36-6425-4975-BE7F-F171A3C5BB6F.jpg
514759D4-7F96-43E5-97A5-6EAE5615D46C.jpg

Zoku is without doubt, one of the coolest hotels I've ever stayed in. I loved absolutely everything about it, the only negative was having to leave! Thankfully they have plans to roll out the hotel across Europe and the US - devastated that NYC isn't ready as Matt and I head there in Feb (still without somewhere to stay!!)

643AFE8E-742F-4CC9-BB93-E4E7D43FE448.jpg
64624C7F-7D24-457A-80B3-169CC7627984.jpg
8CB9B6ED-5517-4AA8-A7B9-3334CBE55D3C.jpg
BC057045-132B-4DA2-8053-DF943CE0F870.jpg
74C6E03F-F74D-4D83-A1F8-FF6E9AEA9961.jpg
E73F12E2-9648-4BBA-B432-C6FE84083F8E.jpg

After saying sad goodbyes to Zoku, we made tracks back to the main street for breakfast. After croissants and coffee we went in search of bicycle hire and tentatively began to cycle towards Amsterdam's famous Vondlepark. I honestly don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. Between cars, trams, crazy local cyclists and tourist pedestrians - the cycling experience pre-Vondlepark was quite terrifying! Seriously bonkers! Wearing a dungaree-dress that day was definitely a mistake! Trying to learn how to back-pedal brake is no easy feat, especially in a tight skirt haha!! Once I mastered the art of braking I was in my element, especially when we made it to Vondlepark (still don't actually know how we managed to navigate ourselves to the right place!!) At one stage, when we were literally seconds away from returning the bikes, I turned up a one-way street (the wrong way) and nearly wet myself as I tried to turn around, in the middle of total chaos!! Some craic! 

84559163-0724-4306-B6A5-E8A9CDBE7440.jpg
22764628-7962-460F-A30B-440322D4832A.jpg
Taking a Stroopwafel and coffee break from the cycling.

Taking a Stroopwafel and coffee break from the cycling.

Our last activity before hot-footing it back to the airport was to take the free ferry out to the A'Dam Lookout Tower. Matt and I had been across on the ferry on our last visit, but the Lookout Tower was only being built at that stage - we did the Eye Film Institute that time. 

7A3D5AA3-B1AF-41C8-9AED-47BEF55C9243.jpg
You can see the 'Over The Edge' swing on the top of the tower!

You can see the 'Over The Edge' swing on the top of the tower!

At the top of the Lookout Tower you enjoy a 360° panoramic view of the city and if you're brave enough to try the swing, it swings you out over the top of the tower! I was surprisingly nervous and because we queued for so long, the nerves had plenty of time to grow! But, what an experience ... especially to share with my sis. The feeling was incredible ... swinging out over the whole of Amsterdam. A must do if you get the chance!

A wee bit of fun on the way up!

A wee bit of fun on the way up!

4E3DD091-31A0-485F-AA44-9686A11A8112.jpg
832BA9E4-54A1-4D3F-AFA0-007A9A97E7B6.jpg
E909030B-CE88-4722-8C4C-3E9A2D6B0A41.jpg
C81F6506-C0C9-4527-911D-83D7C809A4C5.jpg
1CE34668-4793-4F79-B0B9-3B0DF401B3A5.jpg
53A821DE-6685-48C8-A7E4-BEC466776C79.jpg

What a way to end our sister city break! Actually a little bit emotional after going through our pics from the trip. I am so grateful to have a sister, especially a sister like Ems. This was the perfect getaway for us both.

A great city.

A cool hotel.

The BEST company. 

64DD15E3-FADF-4303-A3D8-C73B0F13F45B.jpg