Foraging on Lambay Island was a highlight of this year for me. I have previously written about it but decided to share the below piece I had pitched to The Irish Times. Alas they didn’t run with it, but I like the piece, so here it is.At one point, during an obsessive Famous Five phase, I was convinced Lambay was in fact Kirrin Island. I was devastated to find out the truth. I would never row a little boat to the island, discover treasure and drink lashings of ginger beer. It would be forty years before I set foot on the mysterious island of my childhood dreams. Privately owned Lambay is not just an island. It is a business, a wildlife sanctuary, a retreat and an explorer’s paradise. It is also a home to the Baring family.
On Friday afternoon I set sail from Malahide marina for a foraging retreat. Our trip was led by Monica Wilde, a forager, research herbalist and ethnobotanist. Monica has permission from the Baring family to lead four seasonal foraging retreats. I was taking part in the Summer one along with a small group consisting of a photographer, a fashion stylist, a carpenter, and a forest therapy guide, a wellness enthusiast and a Pilates and home economics instructor.
From the harbour, it was a short stroll to our home for the weekend. The White House, a striking Arts and Crafts Movement building in the Luytens style. Completely renovated with charmingly appointed bedrooms which could give any boutique hotel a run for their money. The White House has ten double bedrooms and each wing of the house has a seating and dining area, along with a central living room with a large open fire. Even filled to capacity it’s large enough that you can always find a quiet spot to curl up with your thoughts.
Once settled Monica took us through our schedule for the weekend. It would include tours of both the north and south of the island. A trip to Knockbane, the highest point of the island. A guided tour of the restored castle. A visit to the church. A walk along the shoreline, wallaby spotting and, of course, mixed into all those activities some foraging.
The castle, also built-in the Luytens style is a highpoint. Surrounded by a wall and discreetly nestled among the trees which bathe it in seclusion. The grounds a mix of wild and landscaped gardens with passageways and gates are captivating and draw your attention to what lies beyond them. A castle it may be, but it’s also a home and Alex Baring was kind enough to let us wander part of its halls. Long stone corridors, soaring ceilings, intricate woodwork and original features give it a majestic feel.
The island landscape is diverse and alluring. An open air Real Tennis court (the last of its kind in Ireland) looks out to a tranquil harbour with a sandy beach. There are rolling hills where sheep and cattle graze, steep cliffs with breath-taking views, a shingle beach, and large areas of bush where, if you are patient enough, you will spot pheasants, fallow deer and rabbits.
For the adventurous divers among you the wreck of the ill-fated RMS Tayleur lies off its coast. Steps, cut into the rock at the back of the island, lead to a second harbour, where you will find, a vibrant seabird colony which include kittiwakes, razorbills, herring gulls and puffins.
One of the more unusual animals you will find on the island are wallabies, which roam freely. The story goes they were introduced by Rupert Baring in the 1950’s with more joining the island again in the 1980’s due to a surplus in Dublin Zoo. It took me about two hours to get a proper glimpse. As I gazed into my camera lens a group of three hopped into frame, hesitated a moment and then quickly made their leave.No foraging on Lambay Island would be complete without some actual foraging and Monica Wilde has an abundance of knowledge. Throughout the various guided walks she shared her stories with us. One particularly engaging conversation about the sex life of seaweed had me chuckling like a school boy. Sea radish flowers, scurvy grass and fennel were picked. Artichokes, wild carrots, dillisk, nettle seeds, coriander grass, hog-weed and orak leaves were gathered. Seaweed was collected which was incorporated into desserts and used for steaming hot baths after long walks around the island.
Every evening we gathered in the kitchen to help with the cooking. A hive of activity, it was run by Caitlin who made sure that we were never without something new and exciting to eat. Food highlights included a refreshing seaweed panacotta made with carrageen, whipped into sweet wood-ruff with added vanilla milk and cream, a simple broccoli bake with blue cheese, sunflower seeds and topped with Gruyere cheese. Fresh cod baked on a bed of rosemary and yarrow and seasoned with Alexander seeds, powdered dillisk and fennel was a winner. Vinaigrette made of sea radish flowers, scurvy grass, fennel and cider vinegar tasted sublime.
Freshly picked winkles appeared on the table another evening. Around the dinner table stories were shared, friendships were forged and glasses of wine were drunk. Nightcaps were by the fire and a bottle of gin was garnished with foraged borage leaves and pineapple weed from the garden.Despite gazing at it across the sea as a child and then an adult, for so many years Lambay Island was out of my reach. Access was restricted and visitors were few. The current generation of the Baring family are opening up their island paradise in new and exciting ways. Mindful of preserving the landscape and ecology they remain cautious about how many people they let visit their home. But rest assured that everyone they do let is welcomed warmly.
After three nights I was sad to board the boat and say farewell to my island escape, a place to switch off, a place to walk and explore and learn new skills, a place where strangers on a boat became friends, shared stories and were better off for knowing each other.
Keep an eye on Monica Wilde’s website for further information on upcoming retreats and foraging on Lambay Island.
Disclaimer: I negotiated a reduced price to join the foraging retreat. All views are of course my own