Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Haven’t you always wanted to have one?

When the occasion arose for a celebration – the publication of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass – we knew exactly what we wanted. We don’t know yet when we can have a launch of the book in Dublin, but it might be the autumn before it can happen, so Robert and I decided that a little local jollification was in order.

We know what Tracy and Peter could do. They’re the Long Island Wild Camping couple who organised the Wildflower Walk and who will do picnics or catering for you on Long Island. Tracy’s eyes lit up when we were talking about her idea of doing ‘proper’ high teas on the island and my need for a celebration, and the plan was conceived.

Twelve of us were conveyed to the Island by Maurice and Helen of the Long Island Ferry, and Glory Be! – the sun shone all day for us. It’s a short walk along boreens fringed with blooming hedgebanks to the East House, and what a sight awaited us there*!

Tracy had created a Long Island version of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! It looked magnificent, quirky, fantastical, sumptuous. Real china – her grandmother’s – lots of glass, a chandelier, old-fashioned cutlery (remember those bone handles?), lanterns, decanters, tiered cake stands – all ranged along a long table covered in vintage tablecloths. The table was set out in a hollow in their amazing garden and it looked like something out of Wonderland.

There were mojito mocktails to start with (yum!) and then it was down to the serious business of eating. Pretty well everything was homemade, including all the scones and buns, or from their garden (cucumbers, strawberries, jam) or locally sourced (smoked salmon).

And just when you thought you couldn’t fit in any more, out came two enormous bowls of trifle accompanied by their own strawberries.

I couldn’t have asked for a better, tastier, more unique or memorable way to celebrate. And here’s the thing – you can do this too! Tracy and Peter can organise this kind of tea party for you, or meet you with a picnic after your day of exploring Long Island, or feed you a cream tea in their garden. Just give them a shout.

A few final photos to convey the fun and fabulousness of it all.

*Thanks to Amanda Clarke and Robert for most of these photographs

Long Island Wildflower Walk

Tracy and Peter Collins are the charming and enterprising couple behind Castaway Wild Island Camping on Long Island in West Cork. When they asked us if we’d like to help with a collaborative island adventure we jumped at the chance to lead a wildflower walk.

But who knew there would be such a demand? Our first date (yesterday) filled up overnight with a waiting list, so we put on a second and it filled from the waiting list! 

People are hungry, it seems, for experiences like this – and who can blame anyone for wanting to spend time on Long Island! We’ve been there several times and we know that the place, as my mother used to say, is Falling Down with Wildflowers. And so, yesterday, we met with our first group – and what a lovely and talented bunch of people it turned out to be, including an archaeologist, a fish biologist, an ecologist, a professor of Pharmaceutics, teachers, fellow-blogger Amanda from Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry, and an assortment of Long Island and wildflower lovers.

We started off at East House, home of Castaway Wild Island Camping for coffee and possibly the most delicious biscuits I’ve ever tasted, and then started our walk westward along the spine of the island, stopping as we went to talk about the habitats we were passing through, and the different flowers that had successfully adapted to those habitats. Hedgebank, field margins, stone walls and rock faces, old gardens – all carry their own assortment of plants.

From the top: Cat’s-ear and Sheep’s-bit on a hedgebank; close up of Sheep’s-bit; English Stonecrop, Navelwort and lichen on rock face

I never thought I would be blasé about orchids, but there are so  many at this time of year on Long Island that we soon ceased to stop and exclaim over each new group (below). Mark, the ecologist, was very knowledgeable about plants and pointed out the presence of Yellow Rattle, something that’s quite hard to find in the wild in West Cork but really important for creating good conditions for a wildflower meadow.

An island man, Joe Whooley, lovingly maintains the well at Cuas na Gualainne (the Little Inlet of the Shoulders – a reference, we think, to the shape of the tiny bay) and it was looking even better than the last time we were there. Amanda shared her knowledge of holy wells in general and told us about this one in particular. She’s not sure what the source of the holiness is, but is investigating. Meanwhile, the water was found to be clear and tasty. 

Reaching the Westlands pier, we concentrated on a whole new habitat, one in which marine-adapted plants flourish in what looks like unpromising conditions of shingle and bare rock.

From the top: a colourful patch of Kidney Vetch (pink), Sea Campion (white) and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (yellow); the delicate white flower of Sea Sandwort

And here was one of the prizes – the Yellow Horned-poppy. It’s rare – classed as near threatened in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants – and strikingly beautiful. It’s wonderful to see a flourishing community of this exotic-looking flower on Long Island and I was thrilled to find some blooming already as I thought we might be too early for them.

From the top: Teresa and Amanda with one of the poppies: a poppy close-up

After a while exploring the shingle beach and the sandy beach we were all ravenous and like magic Tracy and Peter appeared with a fabulous lunch box for everyone. Home-made everything, some of it from their own garden (chocolate-dipped strawberries!) and delicious lemonade.

Tracy and Peter and the superb lunch

Mark gave us an impromptu talk on the island environment, reminding us all it was an essentially man-made habitat, and on the importance of this coastal strip of south west Ireland for so much flora and fauna. A possible future national park? That’s a huge YES from us!

From the top: The Royal Fern – the spore-bearing fronds are starting to appear – this species is an indicator of a healthy environment and Mark told us it is getting to be quite rare in some parts of Europe and needs protection; Rock Sea-spurrey – a beautiful and tiny pink flower that likes to grow on rocks by the sea

Well fuelled, we made our way back to the ferry. The chat was mighty along the way, with old friends catching up and new friendships being forged. 

We’ll be doing it again next Saturday – all full up already, so sorry. But why not go on a do-it-yourself wildflower ramble on Long Island any time? Check the ferry schedule, pick up a copy of Zoe Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (she’s just brought out a new edition – the best and easiest way to teach yourself how to wildflower)  and treat yourself to a day in Paradise! Better still – book in with Castaway Wild Island Camping for a true island adventure.