Belfast is a city surrounded by uplands – the silhouettes of Cave Hill, Divis, The Black Mountain and the Castlereagh and Holywood Hills form its backdrop. Yet these hills for most remain unvisited and unknown. This is partly owing to the usual Northern Ireland problem of general lack of public access, but now, in the case of Divis and the Black Mountain this is no longer a factor. If you haven’t made it there yet this walk should serve as an introduction to this expansive and rewarding area.
The area is owned and maintained by the National Trust who have provided two car parks, a café and a very well designed and maintained series of trails. There is no admission charge so if you can get yourself to the car parks this is a very accessible mountain experience just five miles from the heart of Belfast City.
|TYPE||Exposed circular mountain walk on waymarked trails|
|DISTANCE||6.2 miles / 10.1 km|
|SURFACES||Partly on well made distinct paths and track, partly on post waymarked open ground. Possible short marshy sections|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||720 feet climb|
Choosing your day
I need to start by emphasising this entire area is a mountain upland. The lowest part by the café is 1000 feet and the top of Divis is over 1500 feet. In Ireland this means that cloud can descend without warning, temperatures will be degrees lower than in the city and winds much higher. Even in summer, severe wind chill and wet conditions can result in exposure and the danger of death. So please treat this area with respect – check the weather forecast on the day of your planned walk and carry a good waterproof and warm clothing.
After dealing with safety and comfort concerns, you might also want to pick a day with the best chance of good views. These are definitely not guaranteed and without them this walk might seem to some rather dull. Unfortunately it is not just a matter of waiting for ‘good weather’ – a day in the middle of a summer heatwave (remember to carry water / sunblock / hat) is likely to have almost no distant view at all! For good views you need clear, clean air – and this comes with unsettled weather, low pressure and wind rather than settled weather, high pressure and calm, when pollutants and dust get trapped at low level. Your best bet is to watch proper weather forecasts, which include information on pressure systems, and pick a day after an unsettled period as the weather is improving (but go prepared in case it takes a turn for the worse!)
The entrance to Divis and the Black Mountain is on the far side of West Belfast and for historic reasons is unfamiliar territory to many. This is easily put right. Just exit the M1 at the Stockman’s Lane Roundabout (junction 2) and take the A55 / Kennedy Way. Cross one major road junction and then go straight across at the next roundabout onto the Monagh Bypass dual carriageway. Follow this for just over half a mile and then turn sharp left uphill onto the Upper Springfield Road. After 2.5 miles turn right at a minor road junction on a bend marked with a brown sign ‘Divis and the Black Mountain’. Alternatively you may wish to use the services of a sat nav (postcode BT17 0NG).
There are two car parks available to you. The one by the road is open 24 hours while the one by the café opens late and closes early (June 2019 11am-3pm). Look out for signs confirming opening times for this and for the café and toilet.
The obvious route on a mountain is to head for the highest point (here Divis) and this is a perfectly good option and easily done via the Summit Trail (see map). However, I like to go for less obvious variations, so here I suggest an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the high ground, featuring a rolling succession of distinct views and a wilder moorland walk towards the end.
Leave the café car park and head gently uphill along the tarmac road. After 300m turn right to follow the signposted ‘Ridge Trail’ which strikes out towards the right flank of the unnamed hill which sits in the centre of the area.
The soft marshy ground of the Black Mountain, like many Irish mountains, is incapable of accommodating the regular impact of human feet without degenerating into a black quagmire. Sustainable public access here requires the building of extensive, well engineered trails which sit in the landscape and protect it, yet don’t themselves become an eyesore or maintenance liability. The National Trust has long experience of building such trails in popular beauty spots and it has been put to good use here. Compacted crushed stone alternates with natural stone slabs. The paths follow the contours of the land and incorporate wide drainage channels and wooden bridges where necessary. It all looks natural and easy – but it is anything but.
Continue across the shallow stream valley and upward, skirting around the right flank of a significant unnamed hill-top ahead.
The naming of these high points is strange. In addition to Divis there are three significant hills which on modern OS maps are called: Black Mountain, Black Hills and ‘blank’. An OS map from the 1800s shows Black Mountain North and Black Mountain South. Finally the modern name Divis is itself derived from the Irish Dubhais – black back. I think it is a fair supposition here that the people of Belfast historically just referred to the general area of upland as “The Black Mountain” without concerning themselves too much with naming individual ‘peaks’!
After crossing a stile the path climbs gently onto a spur with the soaring mast of the Black Mountain transmitter always straight ahead. If you are lucky to be walking on a clear day you will be treated to your first distant view as the full expanse of the Mountains of Mourne come into view.
As you round the corner to walk eastwards with the shallow river valley and transmitter to your right, look out for the ruined gamekeeper’s cottage and surrounding walls about 50m off the path. I recommend a short diversion to explore this site (no made path). One drawback of the zero navigation, well surfaced ridge walk is that it can degenerate into a route march as you are tempted to match the speed of those in front or behind. This wild spot is a good place to stop and let the world pass by on its questionable rush to nowhere in particular!
The cottage is set in the middle of a small ‘field’, now defined by a series of ruined walls with very substantial foundations. It first appears on the ordnance survey series 2 maps (1846-1852). However, looking at the shear volume and sizes of stone around, it is tempting to speculate that this site has a much older history. Indeed to me it has some of the feel of the bronze age ring settlement site visited towards the end of this route. Nature constantly recycles its resources and Homo Sapiens reuses sites and the materials they contain to meet the needs of their current day.
Return to the ridge path and resume your anti-clockwise tour. The path swings north and the view changes to include Belfast and the Castlereagh Hills. You contour around a shallow valley passing more earthworks and old boundaries and then climb onto a shoulder where Belfast Lough (or Knockfergus Bay as some old maps label it) comes into full view.
You are now on the ridge trail proper and if you have managed to choose a day with good visibility and some sunshine the views over Belfast for the next kilometre are hard to beat.
Crossing a stile a final short climb takes you to the official viewpoint and a triangulation pillar. ‘Trig’ pillars are not summit markers and here the actual ‘summit’ of Black Mountain lies unmarked a short distance inland to your west. They are best thought of as permanent surveying poles and were the means of establishing a complex web of precisely known points throughout the island of Ireland, using sighting instruments, ‘limelights’ and simple schoolbook trigonometry.
The path now turns sharply inland and heads west past the unmarked summit of Black Mountain and then turns toward the two giant Divis transmitters which sit in the saddle between Black Mountain and Divis. Close to the masts the ridge trail turns left leaving the vehicle track and crosses a marshy watershed via a long board walk before joining the tarmac access road to the transmitter station. Here you turn left and and, after a short distance, right onto the Divis summit service road.
After 150m you have a choice. The unmistakable broad tarred way to the left or the ‘Heath Trail’ (much less travelled) to the right. Both are good routes. However, if visibility is poor (or likely to become poor) the left hand Divis summit road followed by a descent on the west side on the ‘Summit trail’ (see map) is a safe option for those without mountain navigation map and compass skills. The central section of the Heath Trail is an unsurfaced path marked by large posts and in thick mist it would certainly be possible to miss your way here. The choice is yours.
If following the ridge trail bear right, slightly downhill and continue along a clear surfaced vehicle track with the views of Belfast and the Lough still below.
If you have found the trail rather crowded for your tastes so far, this section is likely to come as a welcome change. With fine views and less traffic it is a good section to find a spot for a break or a bite.
After 700m the path again climbs to a spur and to your right, just across the boundary fence, there is a standing stone well worth a visit.
Return to the track and after 150m you come to the point where the Heath Trail strikes out across the open mountain on an unsurfaced path marked with large wooden posts. If visibility is poor or cloud is low, this is the point to turn back and retrace your route.
The route is marked by a beaten track, vague in places, a number of small bridges and duck boards and a succession of large posts – follow with care.
The path is initially level across some boggy ground and then bears south west and climbs gently towards a spur.
The view of Belfast and the Lough now is left behind and you find yourself on a large extent of wild heathland which could easily be in the middle of the Donegal Hills rather than just over a mile from the edge of Belfast. There is a great sense of space and sky in this landscape.
At one point the path crosses an almost totally obscured stone built culvert, suggesting that this apparently arbitrary trail is actually following a much older way over the Belfast hills.
As the trail rises towards the spur, an old boundary, marked with a procession of rugged thorn trees, is crossed. There is now a fine view of Lough Neagh and the southern Antrim Hills including the distinctive profile of Slemish Mountain where the slave Patrick once shepherded animal flocks.
After this the path levels off as it tops the spur and then drops diagonally downhill. Ahead a broad marshy valley with a ridge behind with wind turbines rising to a low ridge summit on your left.
Your route swings south west and drops to join the boggy end of a rough vehicle track. Follow this track south and upwards over a saddle between Divis and the spur’s high point to the west.
The next 500m of steady climb is relatively uninteresting, but on reaching the saddle on a clear day you are rewarded with another fine view of the Mountains of Mourne.
It is now an easy descent where you pass the junction with the Divis Summit trail, a stone seat and eventually come to the start of the final and shortest of the waymarked ways – the Lough Trail. If you have sufficient energy I suggest striking left 100m here to visit the bronze age ring stone settlement which is just visible from the path.
The site seems to consist of a double walled outer circle with two thick walled inner circles – perhaps dwellings and an animal pen. Old maps mark it as a sheep fold but surely it was once something much more than this.
Return to the track and follow the Lough Trail about 200m where you will find a second bronze-age site with information boards. Here the circle is much larger and less well defined. You can now drop down through the site to the trail below and then follow it directly back to the cafe and car park.
- Atlantic Pressure Forecasts – see the engines which drive our weather
- The History of Ordnance Survey in Ireland – Trigpointing Ireland