The Giant’s Ring is Belfast’s most spectacular ancient site. It may not have the complex raised stonework of sites like Newgrange or Avebury, but the scale and situation of the earthworks commands respect. Almost half a mile in circumference and 12 feet in height this was a massive construction task. When the modern site of Belfast was little more than a marshy river crossing this would have the place to live!
Approaching such sites on foot, allows the head to slow down, the landscape to tell its tale and gives your eventual arrival a little more authenticity. The National Trust car park at Minnowburn therefore makes an ideal start and end point for this excellent walk.
|TYPE||Circular walk through woodland and farmland to hilltop and back to the riverside.|
|DISTANCE||2.6 miles / 4.2 km|
|SURFACES||Mostly well made compacted surfaces with variable slopes. The Giant’s Ring itself can be a little muddy.|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||230 feet climb|
The route starts in the National Trust Car Park (can be busy at weekends – get there early) by Minnowburn Bridge. Cross the road by the end of the bridge and follow the path (signposted Terrace Hill Garden) upstream along the Minnowburn. After a short distance you leave the burn and climb gently to the corner of an open area (marked by a mole) where you turn sharply uphill for 300m.
On your left is a carefully managed wildflower meadow – around you is young mixed deciduous native woodland, A few years ago before the trees shot up there were views here but now you need to get all the way to Terrance Hill Garden at the top of the path to where the views open across the Lagan and back to Belfast.
Take your time to explore the sculptures, the 1920’s brick work and crazy paving (yes it was once the latest thing) in the garden. A little imagination can add a party of smart young things sipping cocktails and looking out over the other grand houses and Demesnes of Barnetts and Clement Wilson. Once the preserve of the social elite this landscape is now largely open for all to enjoy.
Once your exploration is over return to the path and continue along the edge of the wildflower meadow. The path now widens and has a rough asphalt surface as it starts to lose height. You are now walking along the old ‘back drive’ of the Terrace Hill big house and this takes you down to join Giant’s Ring Road where you cross and join a new path running along the edge of the ‘sand pit’ field, with spectacular views over Belfast and Cave Hill beyond.
The sand pit has vanished into the flowing landforms creating a beautiful natural amphitheatre. This was the site of the “Pop for Peace” Music Festival in 1969 where 10,000 people gathered in solidarity while elsewhere in the city serious rioting broke out and rapidly escalated. Two paths diverged – but the wrong one was chosen.
Continue out of the sand pit field and turn left carefully cross the Ballynahatty Road, turning right through the gate on the Giant’s Ring access road.
You are now on the east edge of a plateau. High, level and dry it would have offered many advantages to the people who once farmed, traded and lived there. In the the field to your right multiple traces of enclosures, mounds and dwellins have been found. A kind of ‘suburb’ to the great centre ring ahead. After 400m you come to a car park and a gate into the site.
Straight ahead in the centre you will see the Dolmen – an obvious focal point, but one which distracts from the magnificent, almost perfectly round, earthworks. I suggest you leave it for later and turn left to begin your circumnavigation.
All around the edge you will enjoy fine views of open countryside to your left and the magnificent bowl on your right.
The Giant’s Ring is probably older than the pyramids and like all such sites its functions can only be partially determined and are likely to have changed through time. Enclosure, fortification, arena, sacred site – all come to mind. In the 18th Century the site was used for horse racing – a reminder that every generation sees and uses the landscape according to its own needs and passions.
At the halfway point a second distraction is a gate leaving along a hedge towards Edenderry – again I suggest you leave this for later and continue around the rim.
You are now looking towards Cave Hill and Belfast hidden below in the Lagan valley. One Dolmen is visible, but these fields are the sites of multiple finds of burial mounds, stone chambers and associated grave goods (see external links below for details). The edge of the Giant’s Ring was clearly not the end of the complex or settlement – just its most prominent focus.
Continue around to your initial entry point and now cut directly across the centre of the site past the Dolmen.
It is a substantial structure which, in other settings, would dominate. Here, however, I find it a slight anticlimax – I have a sense that its secrets have been too long revealed and that its mystery has gone elsewhere.
Exiting the Ring now follow the pleasant field edge footpath towards Edenderry with the large burial field on your right and falling broken ground and woodland on your left.
After 200m you come to a stile on your left leading into a field with multiple paths heading towards the village of Edenderry. This offers a very attractive route extension (see map) with a chance to explore the terrace housed streets of the old mill village and a return along the Lagan towpath to Minnowburn. However, our route passes the stile by and continues on between the plateau and the whin-bush lined valley edge to a right hand turn where it once again enters National Trust property.
The path now heads north towards Cave Hill in the distance and drops to cross a minor road and enters another young planted deciduous woodland. It is hard to believe that only ten years ago this was open farmland.
The path now drops to a high hedge and the edge of a mature beech wood. Continue through a gap in the hedge signposted ‘woodland walk’. You now have a beautiful walk, first climbing and then contouring along a steep slope of mature woodland (look out for the dragon on your right)!
After 400m you join a flight of concrete steps. Descend these to the road below, turn right and follow for 100m to return to the Minnowburn Car Park (take care, there is no pavement here).
- Wikipedia entry about the Giant’s Ring
- “The Prehistory of the Giant’s Ring and Ballynahatty Townland” (Lisburn Historical Society)