Belfast’s answer to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, basaltic Cave Hill dominates the city’s northern skyline. Situated in the heart of Cave Hill Country Park, the largest area of publicly owned open space in Belfast, the hill is barely 10 miles from the city centre but a world away from the hustle and bustle.
The circuit from Belfast Castle to McArt’s Fort takes you through moorland, heath, grass meadows, and along vertiginous rock faces. The views – stretching from the Antrim Hills in the north to the Mourne Mountains in the south – are simply breathtaking. Legend has it that Cave Hill’s resemblance to a sleeping giant led Jonathan Swift to pen Gulliver’s Travels.
Built by the third Marquis of Donegal in 1868, stately Belfast Castle is the starting and finishing point for this trip up Cave Hill.
Three walking trails are waymarked at the car park beneath the castle. Take the green Cave Hill Trail; at 4½ miles it is the longest but also the most rewarding. After 100m, turn right at a trail junction and head north into deciduous woodland. Other paths crisscross the route, but keep left along the most obvious path as you gradually climb through the woods.
1. ONE MILE
Follow the path to a signed junction beneath the cliffs. Take the smaller, earthen footpath known as the Sheep’s Path – it runs towards the three caves from which Cave Hill takes its name. The caves are all man-made, most likely originally excavated for iron mining.
Adjacent to the lowest cave is a steep hollow known as the Devil’s Cauldron. In ancient times, Celtic farmers corralled their cattle on this site, but on wet days, in particular, it can be slippery and dangerous so tread carefully.
Continue on the fairly steep uphill climb, passing over a stile and turning left along the northern shoulder of Cave Hill. Soon you arrive at the base of the ancient promontory fort known as McArt’s Fort, on the summit of the hill. From here, views of Belfast open up in front of you, and on a clear day you might even catch a glimpse of Scotland or the Isle of Man.
McArt’s Fort is an example of a ráth or ring fort. United Irishmen Theobald Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken met here in 1795 to take an oath to begin a rebellion in 1798. McCracken was captured on Cave Hill in 1798.
2. TWO MILES
Retrace your steps, turning left on to a gravel path. Continue south along the line of the cliff – the best views are now over the verdant Belfast Hills.
Descend through gorse and hawthorn and turn left where the route joins a path. Continue on this path, keeping to the high ground as it descends along the edge of an abandoned lime quarry. This is a great spot for a break if the weather is favourable.
A rough section of path leads back into the woodland. Continue through the trees, turning right and then left until you arrive at the entrance to the castle. Now turn left and follow the road uphill for 500m to return to the car park and the start of the walk.
The route is mostly clear paths but some are steep and may be muddy in wet weather. Walking boots are recommended, and take special care along the cliff edges, especially in
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the Antrim Road north-west from Belfast city centre, following signposts for Belfast Castle.
By public transport:
Take Metro Bus 1 along the Antrim Road. Alighting, follow signposts for Belfast Castle on foot.
☎ 028 9066 6630
The Chester Bar
466 Antrim Rd, Belfast BT15 5GE
☎ 028 9077 9612
Belfast Castle Visitor Centre
Antrim Road, Belfast
☎ 028 9077 6925
Open: Mon-Sat, 9am-10pm; Sun 9am-5.30pm.
Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discoverer Series Sheet 15
Grid ref: J 330 791
Discover Northern Ireland
☎ 028 9023 1221
Walk Northern Ireland