Cave Hill, Cavehill, Belfast, County Antrim

Cave Hill, sometimes spelt as Cavehill, is a basaltic hill overlooking the city of Belfast. It forms part of the southeastern border of the Antrim Plateau. Historically it was known as Ben Madigan, which is derived from the Irish Beann Mhadagáin, meaning “Madagán’s peak”—so named after a king of Ulster called Madagán who died in 856AD.

All of Belfast can be seen from its peak and Cave Hill is thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as Swift imagined that Cave Hill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city.

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Cave Hill rises to almost 370 metres (1200 ft) above sea level. Most of its lower east side lies on the Belfast Castle estate. The slopes of Cave Hill were originally used as farmland but, from the 1880s, a major planting exercise was undertaken, producing the now familiar deciduous and coniferous woodland landscape. Belfast Castle estate was given to the City of Belfast by The 9th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1934.

There are three large caves. The lowest is 21 feet long, 18 feet wide and varies from 7 to 10 feet in height. Above this is another cave; 10 feet long, 7 feet wide and 6 feet in height. Above this is the third major cave, said to be divided into 2 unequal parts, each of which is more extensive than the larger of the other caves, but the ascent is notoriously dangerous and thus few venture up to it. The caves are entirely man-made, and it is thought that they were originally excavated for iron-mining.

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This is the easiest cave to access and the most easily visible from below. The climb up to this point (from the grounds of Belfast Castle) is probably the most tiresome part of the Cave Hill climb but its not beyond most peoples ability. Bring some water if you’re going up in the warmer months (and a coat in the colder ones!).

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The views from the top are pretty amazing with one side of the water being County Antrim, and the other County Down. You can see all of Belfast Lough and the ship here is the Stenaline service heading for Scotland (the vague shadow on the horizon). The chimney to the distant left of the picture is Kilroot power station which provides electricity for one third of Northern Ireland, and in the bottom foreground of the picture you can see Belfast Zoo (the brown bear cage I think).

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McArt’s Fort on the summit of the hill, is an example of an old ráth or ring fort. It is protected on one side by a precipice and on the others by a single ditch, 10 feet in depth and 25 feet in width. The enclosed area is nearly level. The flat top of the fort is 150 feet from north to south, and 180 feet from east to west. It is believed that the fort’s inhabitants used the caves to store food for the winter and may have served as a refuge during times of attack. If you look towards the bottom of the last picture you can see a cave there.

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Its certainly a nice trip out here as you get to explore the castle grounds before your climb (even entertain the kids with its adventure playground too) and to have a bit of wilderness so close to a city is pretty unique. Who would have thought, that even in March (and NI) you can get out and enjoy the countryside 🙂

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The residential neighbourhood at the foot of Cave Hill’s entrance is derivatively known as Ben Madigan, with street names to match, and is a wealthy semi-outer city, semi-suburban area. The name ‘Ben Madigan’ can also be found attached to buildings, schools etc. close to the area, e.g. the Belfast Royal Academy has the Ben Madigan Preparatory School on the Antrim Road.

During World War II, a bomb dropped during a German bombing raid on Belfast exploded, causing a large crater near the grounds of Belfast Castle. It is understood that RAF Bomber Command was situated on Cave Hill in the early years of WWII before relocating to Castle Archdale in County Fermanagh. On 1 June 1944, an American Air Force B-17 bomber crashed into Cave Hill during heavy fog, killing all ten crew instantly. The incident inspired Richard Attenborough’s film, “Closing the Ring” and some scenes of the film were shot on Cave Hill.

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One for you cloud spotters, and the rolling Belfast hill walkers.

Belfast Castle, Belfast, County Antrim. March 2015

I initially intended to have a joint post between Belfast Castle & Cave Hill (given they’re effectively joined at the hip) but we took just too many great photos that day so I’m putting them up on separate posts instead (Cave hill next).

Belfast Castle is set 400 feet above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill overlooking the city of Belfast, in many ways its more of a grand house than an actual castle in my opinion. It was built in a Scottish baronial style with the main part of the building set over two floors and having semi circular round towers at the corners. Outside the castle has a sweeping stone staircase overlooking the formal gardens and park.

Belfast Castle is open to the public daily with a visitor centre, antiques shop and restaurant, for families the castle even has its own adventure playground. The castle can host both wedding receptions and civil ceremonies in one of its private rooms (we saw a young couple getting their instructions on the day we were there).

The original Belfast Castle was built in the city centre by the Normans in the 12th century and was home to the Baron of Belfast, Sir Arthur Chichester, who later became the Marquess of Donegal. The castle was burned down in 1708 and rather than rebuild it on the same site it was decided to build a new castle within the deer park on Cave Hill many years later.

The new castle was almost completed in 1870 but due to the rising costs of the building and the loss of the family fortune it was unfinished. It was the Marquess’ son in law, Lord Ashley 8th Earl of Shaftsbury, who paid for the castle to be completed and inherited it in 1884.

There are amazing views from the front of the castle across the entirety of Belfast Lough and the city. And on a clear day, Scotland can clearly be seen to the east.

 

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A magnificent March morning at Belfast Castle. You can see the lough in the distance.

 

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Maybe it should be renamed “Belfast Cats-le” as there are many cats dotted around the grounds. See how many you can find.

 

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You can see the lovely outdoor spiral staircase of the building on the second pic here.

 

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More cats (I think my focus went off target for the little brass guy oops).

 

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And even more cats! Make sure you look under your feet too as there are mosaic pictures on the floor. The little cat at the red door has been placed in remembrance for  Audrey Beggs “A Cat Lover” and the plaque here tells the tale of the good luck of the white Castle Cat. Miaow!

 

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Relections on a castle window, and…. do you see the cloud haha? Its not been doctored in any way, and given the castle is used very regularly for weddings, imagine capturing THAT behind you in your wedding photos? 🙂

Ballintoy, County Antrim. Game of Thrones, Pyke Harbour

So not long now until the premiere of Season 5 of Game of Thrones (12th April 2015) so I thought Id mark that with a little mention of Ballintoy which substituted as Pyke Harbour in Season 2 of the series. A permanent plaque stands there now for visiting fans to read and it looks as if Northern Ireland will be home to the show for a while longer as Season 6 will also be filmed here. Ballintoy is a quiet little village with an attractive small harbour, but walk left around the headland and it has some amazing scenery. There are also some caves you can enter (though you may need wellingtons). 

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Some information.

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Do you remember this place? Its probably pretty recognizable as Pyke harbour even without the special effects.

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On the left is Roarks Kitchen, which is a little cottage style cafe that’s been serving lovely food here for 35yrs. And on the right is another view of the harbour used in Game of Thrones.

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Now follow the path left, walking away from the harbour and past this little house (there’s a cave before you get there you could maybe walk into, though it might have some shallow water in it).

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The view ahead.

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You can climb up some of the huge grass covered rocks (be careful) which have trails left by local sheep. Once at the top of this one, the view back to the harbour is quite amazing (you should be able to see it in the distance here).

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A huge eroded arch just off the shore, and a bit further out…….. arrrgh….. a shark!! 🙂

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Its easy to see here how vast the immediate landscape is, with all its greenery, yet having a look like some strange alien planet. And in this first picture you might just be able to see a little church on top of the hill. This is Ballintoy church, built in 1813 and seen closer in the second picture. Ballintoy is definitely worth stopping off at if you’re visiting the north coast, even if you’re not a fan of Game of Thrones 🙂

Dunseverick Grasslands, Causeway Coast, County Antrim

Having already posted Dunseverick Castle a little while ago, Im going to post a few pictures of what lies beyond there and Dunseverick Harbour. And I have to say, I can barely put into words how outstanding this part of the Causeway Coast Walk is, it really is mind blowing. And on a day like the one we had there, I doubt you’ll find anywhere on the entire island of Ireland that looks so awesome for its pure natural beauty.

As ever, all pictures are pretty high definition so they might take a little while to open on a mobile phone (you might have to wait for them to focus). All were still taken with nothing but a compact camera however. Something I always intend to do on this site as an encouragement to those believing you need a huge camera to take a decent picture . Not true. 😀

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Less than 3.5mls from the Giants Causeway, lies the ruins of Dunseverick Castle. Ive already given details of it (and some pictures) on an earlier post, so I wont go into it again. But once you arrive at the small roadside car park (overlooking the remnants of the building), climb the right hand side wooden stile over the wall there, and continue going right around the headland. This is the beginning of whats known as the Dunseverick grasslands, and I guess the picture above speaks for itself.

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Looking ahead as we walked on towards Dunseverick harbour from the castle.

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The expanse of gorgeous rugged coastline before you really is dumbfounding.

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It doesn’t get any more dramatic than this in Northern Ireland.

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It kinda felt like the opening scenes from the movie Prometheus at this point, so primordial, so raw and pure, a world free from anything at all but water and plant life.

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Those ridges are the scars of some long past human habitation.

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I wish I could convey the sound and the vibrations we felt watching this sight. A whirling pool of awesome ocean power, like the planets largest washing machine churning its way through rocks and sand. The waves sounded like huge bass bin explosions going off, and if you ever wondered just how a bit of swirling water could cause the kind of erosion you were told about in school geography lessons, a few minutes standing here would easy confirm it all. Amazing!!

Bonamargy Friary, Ballycastle, County Antrim

Theres always a great atmosphere coming across a place like this as the Sun is starting to set. Creepy, yet hauntingly beautiful, we saw the old ruins from the road as we approached Ballycastle and had to loop back for a visit.

Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle is a late Franciscan foundation established in 1485 by Rory MacQuillan. It is said that the first battle between the warring MacDonnell and MacQuillan clans was fought on nearby land. At the main entrance to the friary is a small, two storey gatehouse which opens into a store and workroom. Well worn steps lead directly to the dormitory above. Traces of an altar can still be found in the adjoining church, and the locked vaults hold the remains of the celebrated chieftain, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, and several of the earls of Antrim.

Perhaps the Friary’s most famous resident was the 17th century prophet and recluse Julie MacQuillen. Known as ‘The Black Nun’, MacQuillen wished to be buried at the entrance of the chapel so that she might be trodden under the feet of those who entered. A worn celtic cross (rounded with a hole in the centre) marks her grave at the west end of the main church.

Around 1822 four manuscripts were found in an old oaken chest in the ruins of Bonamargy Friary. One of these manuscripts is described as “Saint Bonaventures Life of Christ” and/or “A History of the Blessed Scriptures” Another manuscript contained a large portion of one of the principal theological works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, written on vellum, in very contracted Latin and extending to about 600 quarto pages. The earliest date appearing on it is 1338 and the latest 1380. It originally belonged to the Monastery of Saint Anthony, of Amiens in France.

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The entrance to Bonamargy

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Very atmospheric in the fading light of a February evening.

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The old surrounding graveyard and buildings

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One of the tombstones

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The circular stone disc at the bottom of the picture is said to be the marker for the grave of the “Black Nun”

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Quite a bit remains of the 16th century friary …

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The scene of many battles, death, and bloodshed, Bonamargy must have some tales to tell.

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As the Sun set, we left the friary to this fantastic view.

Loughbrickland, Slieve Croob, Legananny Dolmen and Windy Gap County Down.

Yes, the title above is likely a bit of a mouthful for those visiting from foreign shores, but these place names are said pretty much phonetically so don’t worry haha. On a chilly, but bright February morning (2015), I set off for a drive to see where I would end up. The intention was to locate at least one of the ancient burial “Dolmen” dotted around the South County Down area and I guess I managed to find one even if it was almost by accident. It looks as if there are at least seven in the surrounding countryside, and I find it truly fascinating that these monuments are still standing after nearly 5000 years. Northern Ireland’s ancient history seems very well hidden though!

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These are just a couple of pictures I took of Loughbrickland Lake in County Down while going South. Its just off the main Belfast to Dublin (A1) road and as I hadn’t seen it frozen over before I swerved off the motorway and grabbed a few shots before heading on. The lake holds brown and rainbow trout and can be fly fished during the season.

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After finding the road sign for the “Slieve Croob Scenic Loop” (look for the brown coloured signs near Castlewellan) I turned off the main road and headed off onto (what became) a track not much wider than my car at times. I think this wasn’t helped by a fall of snow up there, with much of it still piled at the side of the route. That said, the views were stunning over the snow dusted valley.

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Slieve Croob meaning “mountain of the hoof” is the tallest of a group of peaks in the middle of County Down. These peaks lie north of the Mourne Mountains, between the village of Dromara and the town of Castlewellan. Slieve Croob has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is the source of the River Lagan, which starts as a spring and runs from here, through Dromara, Dromore, County Down, Lisburn and Belfast, where it enters Belfast Lough.

Folklore tells that 12 kings are buried at the top of the Mountain and each year it is traditional to climb the hill on the first Sunday in August (known as Cairn Sunday or Blaeburry Sunday) and carry with you a stone to help bury the kings. In recent times there is traditional Irish music played at the top of the Mountain on this date.

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A sheep thankful for his wooly coat at Slieve Croob.

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A dolmen, also known as a portal tomb, portal grave or quoit, is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more upright stones supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (table), although there are also more complex variants. Most date from the early Neolithic period (4000 to 3000 BC). Dolmens were typically covered with earth or smaller stones to form a barrow. In many instances, that covering has weathered away, leaving only the stone “skeleton” of the burial mound intact.

It remains unclear when, why, and by whom the earliest dolmens were made. The oldest known dolmens are in Western Europe, where they were set in place around 7000 years ago. Archaeologists still do not know who erected these dolmens, which makes it difficult to know why they did it. They are generally all regarded as tombs or burial chambers, despite the absence of clear evidence for this. Human remains, sometimes accompanied by artifacts, have been found in or close to the dolmens which could be scientifically dated. However, it has been impossible to prove that these archaeological remains date from the time when the stones were originally set in place. Dolmens have also been found in Korea, Spain, and India.

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Legananny Dolmen sits up a lane behind a farmers house (its ok to walk up and see it without asking permission) and its astounding how this thing has sat here for so long. Im sure it would have some stories to tell based on what its seen for 5 millennia. Its so great to see these remnants of Irelands older non-christian history, and hopefully they shall remain for many more 1000s of years to come. Though given that some (apparent) Christians recently pulled down a monument at Gortmore, putting a cross in its place saying “You shall have no other Gods before me” then who knows. Story: http://www.londonderrysentinel.co.uk/news/local-news/manannan-mac-lir-pagan-priest-says-statue-theft-a-hate-crime-1-6543319 a Facebook campaign has now begun to try and replace it.

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Legananny Dolmen is a megalithic dolmen three miles north of Castlewellan, in County Down. It is on the slopes of Slieve Croob near the village of Leitrim, nestled between a farmer’s stone wall and a back road. It is a State Care Historic Monument. This tripod dolmen has a capstone over 3m long and 1.8m from the ground. It dates to the Neolithic period, making the monument approximately 5,000 years old. Such portal tombs were funerary sites for the disposal of the dead in Neolithic society. The heavy stones would have been dragged some distance before being set in place. The three supporting stones are unusually long and some ancient urns were found underneath. The name Legananny is believed to be derived from Irish Liagán Áine, meaning “Áine’s standing stone” – Áine being an Irish goddess.

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After leaving Legananny I drove on a few kilometers and parked at the car park at Windy Gap (hmm, I reckon not too much thought went into that one lol).

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The view was beautiful (and actually it wasn’t windy at all) and in the second picture here you can see (almost) the entire Mourne Mountain range in the distance.

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No picnics today at Windy Gap. Brrr!

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A far off glimpse of the highest peak in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard, with a little wisp of cloud caught on the top. Once again, I explored (marvelously) alone that morning and if you visit NI you really should hire a car and get away from the obvious tourist traps like the Titanic Quarter and Black taxi mural tours etc. We have so much more to show you than those things!

Castlewellan Forest Park, Peace Maze, and Lake, Co.Down, Northern Ireland

Northern Irelands largest forest park, Tollymore (in Newcastle), usually gets most of the interest from our forest hungry visitors, but just a short drive away lies Castlewellan Forest Park, which has a beauty all of its own. In fact the facilities here in Castlewellan easily match its larger brother, and coupled with a huge maze, several lakes, two cafes, and a brilliant bike hire office, make it well worth checking out. Our visit on the 28th December 2014 showed the park to be surprisingly busy, which was great to see in (what was) the depths of Winter. I hope the photos we took entice others to come here too. You’ll love it. 

CASTLEWELLAN CASTLE

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The dominant feature of the forest park, Castlewellan Castle was built in 1856 by William Richard Annesley, it overlooks the huge lake below and can be seen as soon as you enter the park. Today it is a center for many church, and school organizations. There are signs to say the immediate area around the castle is private, but we had no issues walking around its grounds to take some photos. Theres a little black cat who comes out to say hello too. Miaow.

CASTLEWELLAN LAKE

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On this lovely, frost glistening, December morning we had so many great photo opportunities and began snapping away frantically. The largest lake in the park is nearly one mile long, and there’s a fantastic circular path around its shore taking in much of the forest along the way. The route is a big hit with cyclists and there’s even a place to hire bikes if you don’t have one. The distance around the lake is about 2.4miles but its a very easy (and enjoyable) trek. The lake can also be fished. For more info see here: http://www.walkni.com/walks/222/castlewellan-forest-park-lakeside-walk/

ANNESLEY GARDENS (WITHIN THE PARK)

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To access Castlewellan Forest Park you pay just £4.50 per car which is pretty good as it doesn’t matter how many are in your car. Once parked your entrance fee includes all the walks and the gardens which are wonderful in Winter but must be even nicer in the other three milder seasons of the year.

The planting of the walled Annesley garden, the focus of the arboretum, began in the 1850s and rare conifers and maples were later imported directly from Japan. Then came the addition of more rich varieties, including Chilean eucryphias, Australian athrotaxis and pittosporum and Chinese rhododendrons. The arboretum holds many trees with record heights in the British Isles (see one of the monsters above!).

THE PEACE MAZE

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The “Peace Maze” was opened in 2000 and while you may think its nothing more than a quaint curiosity on entering you’re going to be in for a shock. This is one of the worlds largest permanent hedge mazes (it was the largest in the world until 2007 when it was beaten, only slightly, by a maze in Hawaii) and it really will offer a challenge to those without a pigeons sense of direction. The maze covers 3 acres and has 2.18 miles of pathway (the one in Hawaii has 2.46) and upon reaching the center there is a bell you can ring which is said to be the most rung bell in Ireland with half a million rings a year. When you visit the park make sure you go inside and see if you can find your way to the center (on top of the footbridge). Good luck! You’ll need it. The panaoramic picture above shows Castlewellan town, the Mourne Mountains, and a small part of the maze.

For more info on this great forest park see here: http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/Castlewellan-Forest-Park-and-Peace-Maze-Castlewellan-P2881