A Strangford weekend escape

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Madame Oui and I escaped “Panic Saturday” Christmas shopping to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. Stayed over at The Cuan, which included an evening meal allowance and morning breakfast.

We had good intentions of arriving earlier on Saturday, but final preparations for our forthcoming Christmastime guests presented a late start. We stopped into Castle Ward for a browse in The Stables (too late and rainy for any stroll).

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In the bookshop I found a gem: a 1963 hardcover of The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George, by Lord Beaverbrook. More impressive was its provenance: a remainder from The Parliamentary Library, i.e. the Northern Ireland Parliament. As the volunteer staff explained to me, only a few months ago the Northern Ireland Assembly (or whoever responsible) contacted them to see if they could make use of unwanted books from their library. Castle Ward said “sure”, and they had a big book fair in October.

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I was impressed with the “Parliamentary Library of Northern Ireland” bookplate (above), with the clear Celtic motif and seals from the full nine counties of Ulster. The building in the centre is not Parliament Buildings but the Theological College, which was used by the Northern Ireland parliamentarians until the grand facilities at Stormont were ready.

I could hardly turn this collectible item down for a mere £1.

We went across the yard to the Tea Room for some hot refreshments. In due course we were asked if we were part of the group to see Santa’s Grotto (as every other family in the place was there for). While we are big kids at heart, we humourously declined.

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Arriving at The Cuan, we were brought to our room, which had a scenic view of the village square, including the lit Christmas tree. But the room wasn’t that warm, even with all of the radiators on. The freezing temperatures outside and lack of double glazed windows contributed to that.

Nonetheless, the staff were are very friendly. I met the owner, Peter McErlean, who has the gift of the gab. He was curious about my American-Ulster mongrel accent, and we soon started comparing notes of our American experiences. (He once travelled by bus from Boston to Los Angeles to watch in person the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 1987 basketball championships.)

Madame Oui and I went for a quick stroll, to heighten our appetite. We discovered that the cafe Spinnaker is actually open for full breakfast and dinners, too, all week long.

Our meal at The Cuan was delicious. Her starter of lamb’s liver with poached pear was a very generous portion, as were my scallops from Rathlin Island. Gigantic, actually. As ever, we made a meal of our meal, and were the last diners to leave. But we noticed a town/country difference. We came down for dinner at 8pm, which isn’t so unusual for Belfast restaurants. By we noticed most diners were finishing as we tucked into our main course, about 9pm. By 9.30 there were about 6 of us where there were over 30 an hour earlier. Country folk must regularly eat earlier.

Likewise, the next morning we got a phone call at 10.00am, kindly asking if we still planned to have breakfast. Yes, please. Of course, we were the last guests eating. The French toast was also delicious.

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Madame Oui realised she lost one of her earrings and a mad search ensued. The original plan was a ferry to Portaferry and a leisurely drive around the Ards peninsula. But please could we return to Castle Ward was her plea.

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Of course we looked everywhere for something that blended in perfectly with the gravel on the ground. We asked all the staff if it had been found in the cleaning up last night. Left our contact details.

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After a while we relaxed (admitting defeat), and went for a pleasant stroll through the forest, ending up at Base Camp, which I quickly realised was Santa’s Grotto that we passed up last night. Madame Oui peered through the window, catching Santa getting dressed! I was amused by his kacks drying on an outdoor clothes line.

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We continued our stroll for a bit, until we were both sufficiently chilled (my toes going numb). Back to the Tea Room for more tea and pie.

Upon leaving The Stables, Madame Oui just looked down and would you believe it, she found her earring! There it was, blended right in with the gravel. Looking right at it, I told her how incredible that was; I wouldn’t have noticed it. A miracle at Castle Ward.

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The sun was setting, and we dithered about whether to stop by St Patrick’s Church at Saul, which was a very short diversion on our way home. Sure, why not. Driving up Saul Road, I was not expecting to see other parked cars. By golly, we were just in time for a Christmas carol service. It was a shared service, and we were very glad to have attended. The carols and readings were very appropriate. Saw Eddie McGrady MP after the service, and some kind and friendly folk at a tea reception, where I learned more about the church and congregation. Really felt the Christmas spirit.

It was a perfect way to end our escape from manic shopping and maddening crowds!

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