I had been trying to arrange a meet up with a friend for ages and she invited me to a forest bathing event in Montalto estate about 30-40 minutes outside Belfast.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was assured there would be no naked running through woodlands beating each other with birch twigs (I have to say I was a little disappointed by this, but went anyway).
Forest bathing is based on the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku. This a mindfulness practice, were you immerse yourself in nature. Exercises can include lying down the forest and allowing all your senses to take in what is going on around you. Other exercises can help you connect with others, while some are completed in silence to help you be present in the moment and contemplate your surroundings. We were led in this by the brilliant Gillian Calhoun, firstname.lastname@example.org, who made the entire experience accessible for everyone including people in our group who admitted they had previously found it difficult to switch off and rest. I finished the morning feeling a tremendous sense of peace, and one the my favourite things I took away from it is that rest is a verb, sometimes our minds and our bodies need to be allowed to rest and rest is an activity in itself.
I had driven past the Montalto estate many times before and but never visited. The original demesne dates back to the 1600s. Patrick McCartan one of the earliest owners had his lands confiscated due his involvement in the 1641 rebellion by the United Irishmen against the crown forces. The site was eventually passed down to the Earl of Moira in 1765 who built the grand mansion house and who’s grandson developed the impressive gardens.
Today the estate is privately owned by the Wilson family and the mansion house as well as other buildings can be rented out as wedding and events venues. Entrance to the grounds (not the house) is £7.50 for adults, but annual membership is £37.50. The estate also has a café, serving delicious lunches, pastries or even afternoon tea if you feel like really treating yourself.
The estate has beautiful paths and walks with a small lake, mature trees and some really interesting and exotic planting and was the perfect location for our forest bathing as we could take in different elements the estate had to offer. They also run events like kids bush craft, floristry and gardening events and yoga.
Go get out into some nature, and then just chill out and let it all wash over you. We’re all in too much of a hurry these days to appreciate the little miracles we are surrounded by. Your physical health will improve, and your mental health will benefit, so get your lazy arse of the sofa and go commune with nature.
The National Trust has some amazing properties around Northern Ireland. Rowallane is just outside Saintfield village (about 20 mins outside Belfast).
Rowallane consists of a beautiful old house (I forgot to take photos), stable block, walled garden, toilets and café, established gardens and woodlands.
Spring is an amazing time to visit, as everything is in full bloom, including the amazing blue Himalayan poppies. The gardens and woodlands are pretty fabulous at anytime, and with the easing of Covid restrictions a full calendar of events will hopefully be back on soon.
The gardens are popular with dog walkers and families, and are generally accessible for anyone with mobility issues. Kids will love the woodlands with plenty of trees to climb and a meadow to run crazy in.
Northern Ireland has many unique dishes like potato bread, soda farls, fifteens etc. The place has world class scenery and is luscious and green, but that’s mainly because it rains pretty much every day. We have numerous types of rain that range from soft pillowy drizzle, to sideways stingy rain that feels like someone is pinging your face with rubber bands.
Because of our unique weather system, we love carb heavy comfort food. The king of comfort foods is champ. Champ is basically mashed potatoes with milk made smooth and velvety by milk infused with with scallions (spring onions). Traditionally it’s served in a big mound with a well in the middle where you melt a knob of butter. I’ve heard of a few tweaks, like beating a raw egg into the potatoes and most families will make it how their Mum taught them. This is how my Mum made it. I love this just on its own, but champ and sausage is a really popular family dinner. There is basically nothing this doesn’t go with. In a lot of recipes fancy chefs tell people not to use the green part of the scallion. Champ is peasant food, so nothing is wasted. The green part of the onion is what gives the champ the distinctive green flecks.
1Kg Potatoes (pick a floury variety rather than waxy potatoes)
1 Bunch of scallions (spring onions)
250 ml milk
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut into equal sized chunks
Put in a large pot of cold water and salt. Bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are soft
Trim the tops and ends of the scallions, cut into 1cm slices and add to a pot along with the milk. Heat on a low heat for 5- 10 minutes (do not allow to boil)
Mash the cooked potatoes. Gradually stir in the milk and scallions until you get a consistency you’re happy with
Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper if it needs it. Spoon a mound of the champ onto a plate and make well in the centre and add a knob of butter which will then melt into a gorgeous pool of golden deliciousness