I grew up in Rush so Lambay Island was right in front of my eyes my entire childhood. 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, drink lashings of ginger beer and foil a plan by some ruthless thieves to steal the aforementioned treasure. It would only take me forty years to finally set foot on the mysterious island of my childhood dreams. When I did, I couldn’t have been happier. Lambay Island is not just an island. It is a business, a wildlife sanctuary, a retreat, the place where people laugh when someone tells them that wallabies live there. No such thing. Wallabies on an island in Ireland. Sure that’s madness. It is also a home to Alex Baring and his family. Like all homes, the owner is cautious about who he lets visit. For many years I had heard that you could only visit if you wrote to the owner and then patiently waited while that letter was ferried across the sea to the man in the castle. You see there is actually a castle on the island and the family do live there. But more on that later.
We were due to set sail for Lambay at 3p.m. on a Friday. The sea was rough that day so our departure was delayed a couple of hours. The ‘we’ I refer to was a small group who would spend three nights on the island. Our trip was led by Monica Wilde, a forager, a research herbalist, ethnobotanist and quite possibly one of the most engaging, knowledgeable and genuinely lovely people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Monica has permission from the Baring family to lead four seasonal foraging and re-wilding retreats on Lambay Island. I was taking part in the Summer one. Along with my fellow foragers we had a group of six ladies who were spending a week in the self catering cottages (more details at the end) on a Tai Chi retreat.
The White House
Our journey across the sea took no more than twenty minutes yet it felt like we were leaving civilisation for a remote monastic settlement. Would they have WiFi I wondered? They do. What would the accommodation be like? A small stone room with a single window and a basin of water for washing. I hadn’t seen any pictures of the accommodation in advance so you can imagine my surprise when the small stone room was a beautifully appointed double bedroom and the basin of water an en suite that had a shower you could fit a rugby team in, never mind the roll top bath looking out the window. You see our group were staying in The White House. A stunning Arts and Crafts Movement building in the Luytens style built-in 1929. It has been completely renovated and the bedrooms could give any boutique hotel a run for their money.
On arrival we settled into our rooms and met in the living room for tea by the fire. Monica took us through our schedule for the weekend which 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 on the island. A walk along the shoreline, wallaby spotting and of course mixed into all those activities some foraging.
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 large open fire and ample seating. The presses are stacked with a variety of books and board-games to entertain guests and despite there being a TV we didn’t switch it on once over the three days. There is also a large kitchen with tea and coffee always at the ready. Even filled to capacity The White House is large enough that you can always find a quiet spot to curl up with your thoughts. The views are also stunning. Each door way and window leads to an ever-changing and beautiful vista.
Our brief introductions earlier at the marina in Malahide left us all wanting to know a little more about each other. We were after all going to be together for three nights. Spending time with complete strangers wont be for everyone. I enjoy it. I like people. I’m chatty and I like to learn about and from others. Our group was small so it was easy to get to know each other.
Zaneta for example was from South Africa and thought me how to play a board game by the fire. Mannix an entrepreneur and former developer opened my eyes to his passion for the area of wellbeing. Mark a talented photographer and videographer (his work below) I was already following on Instagram. Dee a craftsman and the closest I’ll get to meeting Bear Grylls. Christine a fashion stylist from Germany with a love of foraging. Caitlin a forest therapy guide and Monica’s daughter, and of course me. I’m all about life’s little adventures.
Lambay Castle, also built-in the Luytens style is a hidden gem of the island. It’s so discreetly nestled among the trees that you could literally walk by it and not even see it. A large hedge row topped wall runs around the front of the castle with just a single gateway indicating something beyond it. As mentioned, it’s not just a castle, it’s a home and Alex Baring was kind enough to let us wander part of its halls. It’s been lovingly resorted in keeping with its period but with modern conveniences integrated responsibly. The castle is surround by a mix of wild and landscaped gardens with passageways and gates inviting your eye to what lies beyond them.
Lambay Island is still a privately owned island and has been for many years. It has such a diverse and inviting landscape. Its tranquil harbour has a sandy beach and at least two of our group couldn’t resist taking a tip in the sea. There are rolling hills where sheep and cattle graze. Steep cliffs with breathtaking views and thousands of chirping birds. Large areas of bush where, if you are patient enough you will spot pheasants, wallabies and rabbits. There is a second harbour at the back of the island which allows landing when the tide is out. For the adventurers among you the wreck of the ill-fated RMS Tayleur lies beneath the sea and is popular with divers. The anchor of the ship is actually on display in the square in Rush.
On the island there a number of buildings including an open air Real Tennis Court (below) which faces the sea and is a mix of a tennis and squash court built of stone. It’s the only remaining one in Ireland. There is also a church with intricate stain glass windows, farm buildings, O’Connells Cottages, a Bothy and boathouse.
No foraging trip would be complete without some actual foraging and Monica Wilde (a fitting surname) has a wealth of knowledge. While some walk past a hedgerow and not give it a glance, Monica can regale you for an hour or more about the abundant plant life within it. Whats more she will also have a handy bag at the ready to pick various plants, leaves and berries to incorporate into a meal later that day.
We collected seaweed which was incorporated in to puddings and also used for steaming hot baths after long walks around the island. We collected sea radish flowers and scurvy grass and mixed it with fennel for a vinaigrette. Artichokes were picked in the garden and made into starters for our evening meal. Wild carrots, powdered dillisk, nettle seeds, coriander grass, hog-weed and orak leaves were picked and eaten with nothing going to waste.
Throughout the various guided walks Monica shared all manners of stories with us. A medical use for a plant we would come across. A novel way to use a plant in cooking. A particularly interesting conversation about the sex life of seaweed had me chuckling like a school boy. If the world of foraging is one that interests you then you are in no better hands that Monica’s.
Given that the island is not exactly over run with visitors, it’s not unusual for the various animals to be inquisitive about them. Seals were happy to swim towards us as we collected seaweed. The Lambay lambs spent quite a bit of time hanging around the door to The White House or hopping up on the wall to see what we were doing. While exploring the shingle beach the entire herd of cattle came to investigate.
Never short of something to eat on Lambay Island, we ate like Kings and Queens, or should that be Lords and Ladies, during our time. We ate around a large communal table each morning, lunchtime and evening. The dining room had dual views of the sea to one side and the gardens to the other. The kitchen was led by Monica and Caitlin who were baking bread, preparing salads, chopping vegetables, turning fish into a feast and generally making sure that we were never without something new and exciting to eat.
There was a refreshing seaweed panacotta made with carrageen which was 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 particular highlight. There were artichoke leaves and hearts, wild carrots and a vinaigrette made of sea radish flowers, scurvy grass, fennel and cider vinegar which was sublime. A large bowl of winkles appeared on the table another evening. Slippery little fellas, it took me more than a few attempts to coax them out of their shells with a wooden spike. I have to admit, I’m not a fan. A lot of work for little reward.
Lunch and dinner could be as hands on as you liked. For the majority of the meals we gathered in the kitchen and cooked as a group. New skills were learned, stories were shared, glasses of wine were drunk and then we all sat down together and enjoyed the fruits of our labour. If you felt like taking a quiet moment by the fire or with a book in one of the rooms while dinner was being prepared that of course was also an option.
Foraging for Gin Garnishes
A glass of wine or two is included with your evening meal throughout your stay on Lambay Island but you are also welcome to bring along something from home if you wish. I picked up a bottle of Dingle gin on my way. Limes and lemons were also packed into my bag for that all important garnish.
Not to be outshone by the simple lime and lemon, Lambay had its own home-grown garnishes ready to join my bottle of Dingle. Pineapple weed from the hedgerow outside the door was one I quite liked. I’ve seen it a million times and never thought twice about it. The buds look like little pineapples and of course taste like it too. Into the gin it went. We also found borage leaves which smell and taste just like cucumber. Into the gin they went too. So if you are making a gin and find yourself short on garnish, maybe look to the garden for something a little different.
Yes, I can confirm it to be true. Lambay Island has its very own colony of wallabies. While it may have taken me about two hours to finally get a proper picture of one, there are if I recall correctly over 100 of them on the island. Originally Introduced by Rupert Baring in the 50’s the population was increased again int the 80’s due to a surplus in Dublin Zoo.
Most certainly one of the more unusual animals on the island. They tend to take shelter in the bush when visitors are about. If you are patient however, you will eventually be rewarded by spotting a few of them hopping along.
The Way Home & How To Plan Your Visit
After three nights on Lambay Island, I must admit I was sad to leave. I would easily have stayed the week. It was the perfect escape. A place to switch off. A place to walk and talk and learn new skills. A place where strangers on a boat became friends, shared stories and were better off for knowing each other. While the owners are cautious about how many people they let visit, every person they do let, is welcomed warmly.
There are a number of options available if you want to take a visit yourself. Monica has two more foraging retreats scheduled for September and November of this year. You can find full details and book directly on her websitehere. The cost of Monica’s trip, including your return boat to and from the island, breakfast, lunch and dinner while you are there and your own private room is €900. While it may initially appear expensive, you are gaining access to a private island with a dedicated guide for three nights. An experience which is not typically open to a lot of people.
If you prefer to get a group of friends together you can also look at a self catering style trip in the O’Connell’s cottages, subject to availability. The cottage can cater for up to 6 people and includes your fresh bed linen, towels and a fully equipped kitchen (including utensils) and living and dining areas. There are three bedrooms in the cottage each with two single beds and one shared bedroom. If you are concerned about being too out of touch with people, don’t worry, they also have an excellent WiFi service.
Bookings are usually for a minimum of three nights and start on either a Friday or Monday to coincide with the scheduled boat crossings from the marina in Malahide. Cost wise from a Friday to Monday stay you will be looking at €225 per night or €675 for the weekend. Split between six people €112.50 each for three nights self catering in an exclusive location and I think you have yourself a bargain. I loved my time on Lambay Island and I’m already planning on going back in Spring 2018. You can book directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Pop to the end to see a stunning video from Mark Broderick Media who was also on the trip with me. A talented photographer and videographer. His drone footage of the island is simply breathtaking.
You can also have a listen to my radio interview with Sharon Noonan on her show The Best Possible Taste right here.
Disclaimer: I approached the team behind the foraging retreat to join at a discounted rate. All content, photographs, opinions are my own and not compromised in any way. You can find more of my photos by using the hashtag #lambayretreat across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.