As my calendar turns over to a year working at Ardmore and just over a year and a half since moving over from England, I have naturally started to get a little reflective. The year in work has well and truly flown by in a blur of new Clients, colleagues and campaigns - all very rewarding but, as somebody who is reluctant to change, I've needed to find lots of ways to settle my brain outside of work. I've found that the perfect outlet for this has been to take full advantage of exploring my new home of Belfast and Northern Ireland.
I've been visiting Northern Ireland for many years and have always enjoyed my trips. I used to joke with my wife (a born and potato-bread local) that every visit was a mini holiday for us. Unsurprisingly, she never saw it that way, always insisting it was just seeing family and friends. More often than not, this is what our visits consisted of, but we did try and take advantage of our trips by incorporating a bit of sight-seeing. So, when we made the decision to move here full-time, I was really looking forward to exploring more places and uncovering all the unique things we couldn’t make time to squeeze in before.
Since we moved over about a year and a half ago, suddenly finding ourselves without the tight-scheduled obligation of quick-stop catch ups, we've been free to focus on truly immersing ourselves in our new home. We quickly ticked off all the 'must visit' tourist hot spots around the big ‘wee’ city: Titanic Belfast, Crumlin Road Goal and St. George's Market, before venturing along the Causeway Coastal Route and up to the north coast, the famous Giant's Causeway and Portstewart Strand, plus braving the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge!
These early explorations were all naturally fantastic experiences – there’s a clear reason why they are the must visit locations! But more than that, they were a great way to get to know our new home, and with my English accent, I could pretend that I was a proper tourist and get recommendations for the next places to visit from the friendly locals we met along the way.
What struck me most when visiting these places was just how close by everything is. There are few other places (if any!) in the world where you can start your day in a bustling, modern, metropolitan city for breakfast then visit truly breath-taking beaches before lunch, tick off a few major TV filming locations along the way before visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site and be back again in the city for an amazing night out. Days like these were certainly giving me the headspace I needed to chill out after a long week of creativity in the Agency.
As the months went by, our adventures naturally slowed down as we settled into life’s routines. But we still found plenty to keep us busy! In Belfast, we've worked our way through some fantastic restaurants and bars – I’ve not managed to pick a favourite yet and the list of places to try keeps growing! As a lover of sport, I’ve ticked off seeing a National Team game at Windsor Park (the atmosphere of 18.5k fans was vastly better than the 90k capacity Wembley), an Ulster Rugby match (fantastic craic on the terraces) and a Belfast Giants game in the SSE (bit of a theme here but the experience was nothing short of legendary). I've been to some vibrant and varied gigs in locations like the Limelight, Ulster Hall and Black Box. As well as special events in the Titanic Slipways and the 1st Presbyterian Church (thank you CQAF!) with another gig in the Belfast Telegraph Buildings lined up. Wait, this paragraph started by saying things had slowed down a little, didn't it?! Just reading that back, I’m realising it hasn't!
Armed with a long list of places yet to visit, we still have lots left to see and do, but a recent highlight has to be a trip to The National Trust’s Murlough Beach in County Down. The trek through the sand dunes to the beach reminded me of family holidays in France but the view of the Mournes growing high out of the horizon from the long beach ahead was more fantasy novel than any other reality I’ve witnessed. Truly stunning. I swam in the sea that day… in May… in Northern Ireland! It was cold but I had to say that I’d done it. Great fun, but I'm looking forward to another visit later in the year when the sea might have warmed up a little bit.
As I visited more and more landmarks and little gems, I began to wonder if my enjoyment of these places was simply down to every location and experience being brand new to me, but as I’ve revisited places for the second or even third time around, I've decided it's not because they’re new to me – it's unquestionably because they're great! There's just something amazing about knowing you can wake up without much of a plan, then simply jump in the car and before you know it be exploring a city full of culture, on a beautiful beach or half way up a mountain fit for the Night’s Watch. This is definitely something that has been commented on by friends and family when they have come to visit. Nobody can quite believe how unique a place Northern Ireland is and I'm looking forward to the years ahead, getting to experience this place I now call home and all it has to offer.