The hills above Belfast

When I began this website back in December of last year, I knew only that I wanted to create a place that would be an interesting diversion for those who subscribed or stumbled across its pages, giving people the chance to explore not only places but also books, music and anything else, and hopefully inspire others to get out and search for what is there to be discovered beyond the front door. Many of the pieces have come from my own experiences, but one of the most gratifying things about Under a Grey Sky is the number of people who have contributed their own words, pictures and experiences to these pages, helping to create this virtual flea market of stories and images through which visitors to the archive can rummage.

It is in these stories and pictures from others that I have built up my own must-see and must-read lists, whether it is the coastline of Maine, walks in Suffolk, a lake in Finland or the unpaved roads of Argentina. In early April we published two pieces that focused on the Black Mountain and the hills above Belfast, and six months later I had the pleasure of getting up there above the City to look down and out myself – to Lough Neagh and the Mourne mountains, across the rooftops of the myriad of small but divided communities to the port and out there in the distance, Scotland.

We walked up from the National Trust car park, into what until recently had been forbidden and restricted land, along the service road that leads up to the masts and towers that adorn the hilltop, across wooden footpaths balanced atop the muddy bog. For most of the walk our view was to the south (the Mournes) and west (Lough Neagh and the Sperrins), the Divis and Black mountains blocking our view of Belfast itself. But as we climbed the final rise the City opened out beneath us and there, way out East, beyond Belfast Lough and the Irish Sea, the mountain ranges of western Scotland.

There was only one other soul up there atop the Black Mountain, a man who overtook us on the walk up and who did not share the view for long before he turned on his heel, leaving us to it with a cheery “farewell.” Perhaps he did not need to linger long, because he has the view at his disposal whenever he needs to escape from the City. But just imagining what it must be like to have this walk and this view as part of your weekly routine reminds me that for so long it was denied to the people who lived in its shadow, as the hills above Belfast were first the private land of farmers and then, in the 1980s, occupied by Ministry of Defence, only bought by the National Trust and opened to the public in 2004 six years on from the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

In the latter years of the Conflict then, the view from the Black Mountain meant something else. A place of solitude and wild beauty became a vantage point for the security forces to maintain round-the-clock surveillance of the communities below, especially the Nationalist/Republican neighbourhoods at the very foot of the hills. What the locals can now see as an escape, a chance to get out and above the City, had a much more sinister connotation … I first visited Belfast a year before the Good Friday agreement, when armoured vehicles and soldiers still patrolled the streets, and the buzz of a helicopter above the houses had nothing to do with the weather report. The opening of the Black Mountain is a strong symbol of how things have changed here. Despite the efforts of a minority to derail the peace process, political transition – including the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly – continues apace. Up on the Mountain, the view is exhilarating for all that it signifies.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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