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I'm Heather McGarrigle and this is my blog - a colourful celebration of culture, crafting and creativity in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Visiting Hours: UWS & Maryville House

Visiting Hours: UWS & Maryville House

Hello, friends! I am so happy to be back after a busy old few months over in my other life as a wordsmith-for-hire at Quill Inc NI.

It's great to return on such a positive note too, as I recently enjoyed the most gorgeous day in Belfast with my Mum, sister Polly and my Granny. Long-time readers will remember my Granny is an artist, so when we heard the annual Ulster Watercolour Society exhibition was back at The Crescent Arts Centre, there was nothing else for it - girly day out with my family!

The society, set up to support local watercolour artists (amateur, professional and semi-pro alike) has been holding annual exhibitions of members' work since 1976, making this its 41st showing.

The members themselves organise, set up and manage the exhibition, and we were greeted by the absolute gentleman that is Jeff Monaghan.

His paintings happened to be two of my favourites, so it was appropriate that it was he who handed us slips of paper and encouraged us to vote for the visitors' choice prize. The artist with the most votes wins a hamper stuffed with goodies from Winsor and Newton.

It was incredibly hard to pick just one favourite. There were a small handful that weren't to my personal taste, but there was not a single painting that was poorly executed or did not absolutely deserve a place on that gallery wall.

Mum and Granny

Mum and Granny

After much deliberation...

After much deliberation...

It's a testament to the versatility of watercolour as a medium to see photorealistic portraits and pin-sharp landscapes alongside bold, impressionistic colour washes, fresh florals, and abstract mindscapes.

This was a brilliant exhibition at a wonderful, accessible venue. Having been at risk of demolition not that long ago, the refurb of The Crescent isn't something we should take for granted. Especially when developers seem hell-bent on sucking the life out of the city centre. (But that's a post for another time...)

Unfortunately, this post was delayed slightly by illness; I had hoped to publish last week so that you'd all have time to visit before the exhibition closed on 18th November.

However, this one opens tomorrow and came recommended by a UWS member:

Ulster Society of Women Artists

With our minds nourished, it was time to seek some physical sustenance. Mum, Granny and I had been for afternoon tea at Maryville House about 5+ years ago and really enjoyed it, but since then I have transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. It's a lifestyle edging ever closer to the main stream but it's not quite there yet, so I phoned up in advance to check they could cater for me.

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Karin assured me it was no problem to provide a vegan afternoon tea; they would need a small deposit (taken off the final bill on the day) but they were more than happy to provide animal-free afternoon tea!

Maryville House Tearooms

Maryville House is right at the top of the Lisburn Road, and its leafy, easy-on-the-eye location is ideal for this charming Victorian guesthouse. When we first visited, it had a 'best kept secret' vibe to it. It was the real deal, offering a proper sandwiches-and-cakes afternoon tea.

5+ years later and I take my hat off to whoever is responsible for the marketing strategy at Maryville because they have hit the sweet spot. The place has had an elegantly understated makeover, retaining all of its character and charm while updating it in all the right places.

Maryville now presents itself not only as a "boutique guesthouse" but offers room hire for meetings and events, as well as classy hen parties.

They're no longer the only afternoon tea available in Belfast - many others have, with varying degrees of success, jumped on the 'vintage twee' bandwagon - however, it's clear that there's more than smart diversification going on here.

The treatment we (myself in particular) received at Maryville was nothing short of a masterclass in customer service.

L - R: Me, my sister Polly, Granny and Mum.

L - R: Me, my sister Polly, Granny and Mum.

The slight disappointment of no soya or non-dairy milk for my coffee was mitigated by the delightful cake stand of vegan-friendly sandwiches and specially-baked pastries I was presented with.

I enjoyed avocado, cucumber, sundried tomato and lettuce sandwiches, as well as shortbread, chocolate brownies with raspberries, a scone, plus a vegan spread and vegan cream.

My vegetarian sister was asked thoughtfully whether she would prefer her sandwiches (same as mine but with pesto) served separately to the non-veggie ones.

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Friendly servers anticipated our needs with offers of tea and coffee top-ups, taking photographs for us, and replacing milk jugs. Chatting to the team as we were leaving, the manager, owner and staff all expressed that they were keen to cater for as many dietary requirements as possible and took pride in offering a wide variety of gluten-free options.

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I'm very lucky in that I've had very few really negative experiences eating out as a vegan. Make your needs clear in advance and any decent restaurant in Northern Ireland will be able to whip you up something you can eat.

However, our visit to Maryville was notable because I truly felt the team were actively enjoying the experience of going over and above for their customer. I felt special, rather than feeling like a nuisance.

You all contributed to a really beautiful family day out, so thank you. X  

No 'doggy bags' here - take home anything you can't finish in this beautiful little pastry box!

No 'doggy bags' here - take home anything you can't finish in this beautiful little pastry box!

Fancy trying it yourself? Find out more here: http://www.maryvillehouse.co.uk/afternoon-tea 

Got a suggestion for somewhere I should check out for Visiting Hours? Click here to email me!

Introducing Sunday #sewingscope

Introducing Sunday #sewingscope