Divis and the Black Mountain

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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 5.6 miles / 9 km (or 7.3 miles / 11km with Standing Stone option)
SURFACES Well made distinct paths and tracks. One section of steeper rocky downhill path. Very short off path options
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS 860 feet climb
  • Entire walk is exposed to potential extreme weather
  • Descent from Divis on small path needs extra care
  • Low cloud could make wayfinding more difficult
  • Cattle graze this area – treat with respect and ideally don’t bring a dog

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.

Great views are often under busy skies!

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!)

Getting There

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).

Getting Started

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 Route

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 Ridge Trail strikes out across soft boggy mountain land

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 tiny T shaped ruin of the ‘Gamekeeper’s Cottage’

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.

Don’t forget to look at the small things too – in spring the ‘black mountain’ is full of colour like the Speedwell above

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.

On a clear day Scotland is easily visible beyond the bounds of Belfast Lough.

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.

Divis transmitters with the communication tower on Divis Summit directly behind

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.

Two paths divide – The right and “there and back option” will take you to a standing stone.

Update November 2020

After 150m you have an optional extension – the unmistakable broad tarred way to the left up Divis Moutain is the main route, but the right path following the ridge towards the edge of the NT Divis property gives you an optional less visited extension to visit a standing stone. There was previously another trail beyond this point but this has been closed for environmental and safely reasons.

There and back to the Standing Stone – 2.6km option

Following the branching path to the right, slightly downhill and continue along a clear surfaced vehicle track with the views of Belfast and the Lough still below.

My lunch stop – a short distance off the track perched on the remains of an old rocky earthworks.

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.

Even penned in as it is, the stone with its sharp leading edge, gives a presence to this headland.

Now retrace your steps back the the path junction at the foot of Divis.

The Route up Divis

Head straight up the vehicle track and follow as it zig-zags to the summit of Divis (1568 feet). At this height you will be above the cloud line on many days and the temperature, with wind chill factored in could be several degrees lower that as the car park below.

There is another communication tower here and a another Trig Point with a fine view inland over Lough Neagh on a clear day.

A small pedestrian path exits the summit area beyond the Trig Point and zig-zags down the west side of the mountain. The path is quite rocky in places and additional case is required here.

After 600m the path arrive at a stone built viewpoint (and partial shelter)! Metal panels mounted on the walls document the skyline.

From here you continue downhill now walking on a small vehicle track for a further 400m until you reach a junction.

After joining this track you turn left and descend passing a stone seat eventually come to the start of the final and shortest of the waymarked ways – the Lough Trail. However before following this, 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.

Another ruined boundary leads you to your journey’s end.

External Links

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

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