A walk for the weekend: cave in to Belfast’s charm

A sylvan path ablaze with autumn colours gives way to breathtaking city views

All of Belfast was laid out at my feet with the expansive vista across the city dissolved south to the Mourne Mountains and north to the Antrim Hills.

All of Belfast was laid out at my feet with the expansive vista across the city dissolved south to the Mourne Mountains and north to the Antrim Hills.

 

I like Belfast. Religion may have a lot to answer for, thereabouts, but I always found this compact, redbrick city a welcoming place. Some may still regard a Belfast excursion as a foolhardy endeavour, but the reality is more benign. Having scrubbed its grimy old Victorian face and rebuilt its grim ghettos, the city now has its best foot forward to welcome tourists and investors alike.

I was greatly anticipating my recent visit, and Belfast didn’t disappoint. A trip west to the political murals, which are now among the city’s most popular visitor attractions, was followed by a compelling tour of Crumlin Road Gaol. A trip to Belfast Castle and an ascent of Cave Hill topped off a grand day.

Viewed from below, the elongated escarpment that forms Cave Hill resembles a sleeping giant and its odd-to-behold shape was reputedly the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels. Viewed from nearby Belfast Castle, these same ramparts seemed steep and unforgiving, but the arrows pointed confidently for “Cave Hill Trail”, and so I followed.

Initially, it was a sylvan path through deciduous woodlands, ablaze with autumn colours. Emerging to open mountainside, I enjoyed sweeping prospects over an elongated city that seems breathtakingly compressed between hill and lough. Next were the brooding, basalt cliffs containing the eponymous caves, which are not natural features but remnants of prehistoric mining.

Veering right, above a depression known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, I was soon elevated on to the northern shoulder of Cave Hill. Southwards then along a clifftop path that eventually led through an old turnstile to the high point of McArt’s Fort.

Not much remains of this last mountaintop redoubt of a Gaelic chieftain. The location came to prominence in 1795, when United Irishmen – Russell, McCracken and Tone – agreed here the Cavehill Compact, promising “never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country”.

These revolutionaries certainly had an inspirational view as they foresaw the birth of an Irish Republic. All of Belfast was laid out at my feet with the expansive vista across the city dissolved south to the Mourne Mountains and north to the Antrim Hills.

Retracing my steps through the turnstile, I followed a gravel path on a gradual descent of the southern slopes of Cave Hill, while enjoying an extensive panorama to the rounded summits of Black and Divis Mountains.

The next lane going left conveyed me past the top of a scenic little glade known as Carr’s Glen before exiting on to the Upper Cavehill Road. Here, it was down a footpath passing some dwellings before the route dived left and climbed over a ridge to gain Belfast Castle Estate, where easy sauntering led to my parking place by way of a footpath leading up the castle avenue.

Here, I concluded that no Belfast visit can be truly complete without sampling the unforgettable vista from Cave Hill’s escarpment.

Getting there Belfast Castle is in northwest Belfast and signposted from Antrim Road. Buses from Donegall Square. Walk starts from the car park just before the gates of the castle. 
Terrain Moderately challenging route following green arrows on sometimes unsurfaced tracks. Sturdy footwear and protective clothing are required. 
Map OSN1, Sheet 15, 1: 50,000 
Distance 7km Time. 2.5 hours
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