Cave Hill is a familiar sight to many in Belfast, with its visible outline stretching for miles.
The hill abounds in natural and historical features; in recognition of this a country park was established in 1992, this includes land on top of Cave Hill, and at Hazelwood, Bellevue, Belfast Castle and Carr’s Glen.
On a visit to Cave Hill Country Park you can experience the sights and sounds of this amazing place, enjoy breathtaking views and stand, as it were, on top of Belfast.
Cave Hill gets its name from the caves on the cliffs, which were possibly early iron mines. There are five caves, in total – you should be able to see at least three.
The hill is also referred to as Napoleon’s Nose, as when seen in silhouette the sky resembles a gigantic profile staring upwards, with McArt’s Fort forming the emperor’s distinctive tricorn hat. It is reported that in 1795, Wolfe Tone and his fellow United Irishmen met on the summit of Cave Hill, where they took a solemn pledge of allegiance.
Cave Hill is on the seaward side of the Belfast Hills, a line of low mountains stretching from almost 11 miles between Newtownabbey and Lisburn.
These form a magnificent backdrop to the urban area, possibly unrivalled in the British Isles.
Like most of the Belfast Hills, Cave Hill is made up of black basalt rock overlying a bed of white limestone (chalk). The basalt was formed around 65 million years ago when hot lava flows erupted to the surface and slowly cooled.
Early man settled on Cave Hill, where the steep terrain helped in defence against rival tribes and wild animals.
Remains of early settlements include a stone cairn on the summit (dating back to the New Stone Age: 4500 – 2500 BC), a crannog or lake dwelling (now within the zoo), and several raths or ringforts (from early Christian times: 400 – 1200AD).
The best known of these, McArt’s Fort, was a fortification on the highest rocky outcrop.
Between 1840 and 1896, limestone was quarried from the southern slopes of the hill and transported to the docks by railway.
The large hollow below the caves, known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, may be a result of quarrying.
The first ‘Belfast Castle’ was built by the Normans in the late 12th century.
In 1611 Sir Arthur Chichester, Baron of Belfast, built a stone and timber castle on the same site, this was burned down almost 100 years later, leaving only street names, such as Castle Place, to mark the location.
Belfast Castle, as it stands now, was built by the Donegall family in the 1870s.
Ownership later passed to the Shaftesbury family, who donated it to Belfast in 1934.
In 1978 Belfast City Council instituted a major refurbishment programme; the building was re-opened to the public on November 11, 1988.
Cave Hill rises to 368 metres (1207 feet) above sea level.
Climbing to the summit you can experience the wilderness ofthe mountain, yet look out over the busy but silent city below.
Dominating the urban landscape are Samson and Goliath, the mighty cranes of the shipyard, and another of Belfast’s famous landmarks.
On a clear day, you can see Strangford Lough, Scrabo Tower, the Mourne Mountains away to the south, Slemish to the north and the coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man across the Irish Sea.
The park forms a mosaic of natural habitats ranging from parkland and broad-leaved woodland to meadows and moorland.
It is often ablaze with seasonal colour: carpets of spring flowers, purple heather in late summer and dramatic autumn foliage. The woodland planted towards the end of the 19th century contains a blend of elm, oak, sycamore, larch and pine trees.
Dutch elm disease has decimated the elms, which are gradually being replaced with other trees.
The rock crags and cliffs are hunting grounds for peregrines, ravens and kestrels.
On warm summer days, meadow pipits and skylarks provide a chorus over the open moorland.
As you venture through the trees listen for the variety of woodland birdsong. Towards dusk, you may glimpse a bat, hedgehog or badger. Two areas within the park of high nature conservation importance have been set aside as Local Nature Reserves.
Ballyaghagan – upland meadows, where grazing regime allows a rich tapestry of wild plants to flourish; as well as Hazelwood– broad-leaved woodland dominated by hazel and noted for its spring flowers, insects, mosses and lichens.
McArt’s Fort is a former defensive fort built on the promontory at the front of Cave hill.
Little remains today of the original fort, although the moat that once surrounded it can still be distinguished.