Oxford is abuzz with a brand new bar opening

I was invited to the latest opening of Keeper’s Kitchen and Bar in Oxford last week. I love Oxford and was thrilled to be able to return and attend the event. Keeper’s is conveniently located on the busy high street and sits within Mercure Hotel. The building was once frequented by JRR Tolkien, no less, and fittingly overlooks parts of the University of Oxford. This of course, is the chain’s third venue. There are two others in London and Bristol. Keepers Kitchen and Bar is so named as it champions urban honey. Their menu is a hive (I had to) of honey-inspired food and drink. The launch party was the perfect setting for tasting most of it.

What’s on their menu? We had Keepr’s infused spirits: Cotswolds honey spiced rum, honey infused London dry gin, English raspberry and honey gin and English apple and honey vodka. For those in favour of a craft beer Hiver was on offer. We also sipped vodka and gin cocktails made of Oxford-based artisan distillery TOAD. They served Oxford dry gin, Oxford rye vodka, Oxford botanic gardens physic gin and the unmistakeable Ashmolean dry gin with great effect.

On a regular day you’d be able to enjoy classic cocktails such as Caïpirinha and Mojito starting from £7.50. Mocktail classics Virgin Mary or Virgin Mojito start at an entirely reasonable £3.50. The drinks menu is extensive with an exquisite list of gin, whisky, vodka and cognac ranging from £3.60 to £9.45 for 25ml. Similarly, the impressive list of red, white and sparkling wines can be enjoyed from £5.75 – £13.50 per glass.

Keepers Kitchen & Bar

What did we eat? An array of finger food was served at the opening. However, I was lucky enough to be able to order dinner after the event. As I was attending the event with fellow writers Onin London, The Curious Pixie and the wonderful Emma from Adventures of a London Kiwi we enjoyed a cosy dinner after the restaurant closed. Not only did we have the entire restaurant to ourselves but were also able to taste each other’s food. It was a good way to try as many dishes as possible. We ate Linguine Carbonara (£12.50), Penne al’Arabbiata (£11.50), Baked Camembert with Keepers honey (£12.95) and a Loaded Mediterranean Vegetable Panini (£10). We were all in agreement that the dishes were fresh and delicious.

I must add that I had the most sound night of sleep overnight at Mercure Hotel, Oxford. I was comforted by the view of the breathtakingly beautiful Magdalen Tower from my window and the cosy low ceiling and wooden panels of my room. Perhaps because the hotel itself was once a coaching-inn, which has always served as a resting place for weary travellers, I drifted off to sleep with ease. As I gently woke up I was surprised at how restful my night of sleep had been.

After such a refreshing sleep and an English breakfast we all headed off to explore a little more of Oxford. I love Oxford because it’s a romantic place where the streets are not paved with gold but with something far better; the footsteps of literary scholars who gave the world Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. At every corner there are reminders of the great minds that walked its streets and called it home. And for ever-moving transients, such as myself who come to marvel at the city, there will always be room at the inn. They will find a home at Keepers Kitchen and Bar.

For more information on Keepers Kitchen and Bar visit: https://www.keeperskitchenandbar.co.uk/keepers-oxford

For Mercure Hotel visit: www. accorhotels.com/mercure-oxford

Wild Atlantic Way – where the wild things are

I’m trying to hold the camera steady but the wind whips both hands over my head and sends it flying behind me. “I should get back in the car. This doesn’t feel safe.”, I think to myself. Rain has soaked all the way through to the last layers of my clothing. My hair is stuck all across my face. Relentless rain drips over my eyes. It’s cold and I can no longer feel my fingers and toes. But I don’t get back in the car. I’m captivated at the edge of this cliff, on the Wild Atlantic Way, by the frenzied ocean beneath me. It’s like no sea I’d ever encountered before; enraged, untamed, incessant and I’m mesmerised.

It was meant to be a scenic road trip along the Atlantic coast on my last day in Derry with Jeanne aka Cooksister. We’d spent a wonderful weekend exploring its historic city walls (which incidentally celebrates 400 years in 2019), enjoying its incredible cuisine and admiring the architecture. Today we were on our way to Moville for lunch at Donegal’s Foyle Hotel. Donegal is a short journey away from Derry making the city a perfect base for exploring this rugged landscape. Storm Deirdre was battering the coast. We’d made no plans to stop except just once at Malin Head; the northernmost point of Ireland. We were forced to abandon the rest of the picturesque route due to the weather.

Malin Head, along the Wild Atlantic Way, is first mentioned, in the 2nd century AD, by Roman astrologer Claudius Ptolemy who described it as Boreion (the northern). It has one of 22 weather stations reporting on the BBC Shipping forecast on Radio 4. Banbas Crown, a small tower named after a mythical Irish Goddess, built by the British in 1805, to guard against a French invasion, marks the very tip of the coastline. A signal station, built in 1902, close to the old Napoleonic watchtower also still stands. As I stood in front of the tower I imagined that on a clear day we’d spot all the bird species described on a small information board nearby.

More recently, the Wild Atlantic Way was chosen for the most famous blockbuster Hollywood movie of all; Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As if this terrain of 1.7 billion year old rock, 15 000 year old beaches and more shipwrecks in its sea than anywhere else in the world needed further accolade. Luke Skywalker himself is said to have visited the local pub during filming.

“If it wasn’t so stormy I could have shown you the place where they spelt Eire in stone during the war” my guide tells me. “It was to show planes flying overhead that Ireland was a neutral country.” He’s trying to coax me back towards the car away from the cliff. I’d heard that the Northern Lights had started to frequent off this coast. I mention this to him as we attempt to walk back. Somehow, he doesn’t seem keen to return that night.

The wind is lashing against my skin and almost knocks me off my feet as I turn back to walk to the car. It’s howling and so strong that I can’t open the door. My guide clambers in from the other side and pushes the door out from the inside. Cooksister and I climb in and desperately attempt to dry our cameras and equipment. They undoubtedly felt the force of Deidre as much as we did. We dry our skin and buckle up as the car pulls away towards the main road. We’re back on track on the way to Moville where we were expected half an hour ago.

A herd of sheep graze on a steep cliffside of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Sheep graze on the Wild Atlantic Way

Unassuming sheep, empty cottages miles away from each other and desolate beaches whizz past the window against the rain as we drive. Our guide points out a lighthouse on the edge of another cliff in a tiny village. “Stop! I want to get off!”, I scream in my head but I don’t say it out loud. It’s grey and cold outside and we need to make up for lost time. The road is barely visible ahead. The sea is striking itself against the land on one side. A boundless landscape of rocks and mountains on the other. Inexplicably green grass covers the hillsides. Our car bravely pushing ahead between them determined or be forced to find shelter.

We make it to Foyle Hotel in the small town of Moville sooner than I’d expected. It took less than half an hour. There’s no hint of Deidre here other than a slight, bitterly cold drizzle. The town is quiet and peaceful with little sign of the ferocious sea raging a few miles away. We’re greeted at the hotel by Donegal’s most famous chef Brian McDermott who’s preparing a treat of sea food and cottage pie from the very sea and the very land we’d encountered. Conversation around the table returns to the history of Derry’s past social turmoil. It’s enough to take my mind off the Wild Atlantic Way for a while.

As I sip a glass of warming red wine, waiting for lunch to be served, my mind wanders back. That wild, rugged, unforgiving cliffside. The whitewashed cottages on the beach. The lighthouse which flashes every 30 seconds despite the stormy weather. That angry sea which remains mostly calm yet has the power to draw the Northern Lights above it at night. I can think of little else but its wild ways. Then, as if by divine intervention, I understand the affinity, as it dawns on me that I too am a wild one.

For more information visit: Visit Derry and for direct flights visit flybmi

You can fly direct from London Stansted to City of Derry Airport up to twice a day from just £39 one way.

Derry – a city break for history buffs


“We didn’t know how bad we’d had it until we had peace,” said Chris Quigley as we took a detour. Chris was booked to take me to the airport. He convinced me to take a detour that would be worth it. The car slowed down and stopped atop Eskaheen View and I knew Chris was right. Derry spanned below me under a crystal blue December sky. The sun sparkled across River Foyle as it ribboned its way past Derry’s landmarks. From up here the city was breathtaking. Read on to find out why Derry is a city break for history buffs.

Derry is the Northern Irish city that came to the attention of the world on 5th October 1968. A single television camera captured police attacking a peaceful demonstration and broadcast it to the world. It was the first time the Unionist government’s abuse of power against a nationalist (mainly Catholic) working class community had been witnessed. This single incident changed the course of Northern Irish history. Support for the civil rights movement surged and some reforms by the government followed but the tide had turned. In January 1969 the first no go area was declared and the defiant slogan You Are Now Entering Free Derry appeared on a gable wall in the Bogside. Today, the wall is a tourist attraction, the community is in healing and Derry is indeed, free.

As with most cities that experience long periods of civil unrest Derry’s narrative hovers around the conflict. However, we’d do well to remember that this city has a history which predates the recent conflict. With 1500 years worth of stories to retell and the only completely intact 17th century city walls in all of Ireland it’s a place waiting to be discovered. Little wonder then it was the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. With a wild, rugged coastline, fine dining and a rich cultural heritage all under a flight time of one hour and 25 minutes we cannot afford to miss Derry.

IMG_2244.jpg Gorgeous Penthouse Room at City Hotel Derry

Where to stay: City Hotel Derry’s location is perfect for exploring, eating and drinking and is within a few minutes to the city walls, craft village and Peace Bridge. There is a bar and restaurant on the ground floor. The bar is open late and serves food until 11pm. 

Ship Quay Hotel: This grade 11 listed building has been converted to a boutique hotel with remarkable results. It’s perfectly located for exploring the city and also within walking distance from restaurants, bars and shopping. Their restaurant is exceptional and popular for Sunday brunch.

Foyle’s Hotel: Chef Brian McDermott has transformed this 1819 hotel to a 16 room modern boutique hotel like no other. Most rooms boast sea views over Lough Foyle. The hotel is located in Moville which is around 30 minutes drive from the centre of Derry.

IMG_9553 Bread and butter pudding at Ship Quay Hotel, Derry.

Where to eat and drink: Soda & Starch serves up a menu of Irish produce transformed into international dishes. You can experience Thai broth mussels with Guinness wheaten bread or slow roasted Moroccan lamb on flat bread. Soda & Starch is located within the Craft Village. It’s a perfect place for grabbing lunch during the day or an early evening meal.

Walled City Brewery: Walk across the Peace Bridge over River Foyle and arrive at the delightful Walled City Brewery. As the name suggests craft beer is brewed on the premises. The restaurant is slick and modern. The food is sumptuous. Wild boar terrine, turf-smoked salmon and spiced mulled pear with cheese are all on the menu as pintxos. Venison, slow braised beef cheeks and Donegal salmon mains are to die for. Pièce de résistance? Bourbon poached pears with ginger ice cream and pistachio brittle for dessert.

Browns Restaurant: There are two Browns restaurants in Derry: Browns Bonds Hill and Browns In Town. The latter is conveniently located within ten minutes of the city centre by cab. If I haven’t yet mentioned it – fish and sea food is exceptional in Derry. Browns serves a wonderful baked scallop and stuffed red mullet. Their Guinness bread served with Eglinton butter is simply worth crossing the city for. This is unmissable fine dining.

The Foyle Hotel Wine Bar & Eatery: Chef Brian McDermott’s Foyle Hotel offers what I can only describe as a wholesome dining experience. Its wine bar and eatery has won Georgina Campbell’s New Comer of the Year award and recommended as Best in Ireland McKenna’s Guides. Expect locally sourced mussels cooked in buttermilk, hearty venison cottage pie and apple crumble like no other. Utterly delicious local food.

White shop front with flower crowns and blue bicycle parked outside Craft Village, Derry

Things to do: City Tours offers insightful guided tours along the city walls. In just over an hour I learnt of Derry’s 1500 years of history from the sixth century through Bloody Sunday to the present day. As a huge fan of guided walking tours I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.

Craft Village: This delightful reconstructed 18th century street is home to artisan shops, local designers and plenty of places to eat and drink. It’s right in the heart of the town and a great place to shop for souvenirs and support local craftspeople. There is an array of craft boutiques ranging from Irish dancing supplies to hand-made crockery and cup cakes. What’s not to love?

Museum of Free Derry: Ireland’s civil rights movement is best understood at the Museum of Free Derry. The building stands precisely where the most pivotal moments occured.  The surrounding area is also home to murals painted by Bogside Artists and honour the struggle and subsequent peace that it achieved. The museum is run by volunteers who either lived through the conflict or descendants of ones who lost their lives.

Wild Atlantic Way: The drive along 2500 kilometres of a ferocious Atlantic coast was the highlight of my trip. Adventure seeker or not this rugged coastline will leave you breathless. Dotted with fishing villages, light houses, dramatic deep cliffs and pebbled beaches it’s the wild Ireland of your dreams.

I was a guest of Visit Derry and received complimentary first class travel on Stansted Express. Opinions expressed are all my own. For more information on Derry visit: www.visitderry.com