Country diary: a city flanked by hulking bodyguards

Belfast Hills, County Antrim: The peaks of Divis and the Black Mountain loom over Belfast, and an air of surveillance lingers

Dark basalt is the core of the Belfast Hills that loom over the city’s north-west. The bedrock has seeped into the names of its heights: Divis (from the Irish dubhais, meaning “black back”) and the Black Mountain. These form a sweep of moorland that was out of bounds for the decades that it was controlled by the Ministry of Defence. Although now under the care of the National Trust, an atmosphere of surveillance lingers in the huge telecommunications masts commanding the peaks. Arriving for my first visit after lockdown, I feel a flutter of trespass.

The buffeting wind settles my stride. To my right are the distant Mournes and, over my shoulder, a narrow sidle of Lough Neagh. But these are just openers. On a better day than this – cloud-mottled sky, squally showers threatening – I might stare over to Cumbria.

Prehistoric remains with cattle
‘Near prehistoric cairns, a meadow pipit stutters up into its flight song.’ Photograph: Mary Montague

Ahead are marked trails overlaid on ancient desire paths through bleak grandeur, and it’s treacherous underfoot. Near prehistoric cairns, a meadow pipit stutters up into its flight song. From the ridge trail, through dips and climbs, with skylarks wheedling above, my attention roves from the expansive to the particular. A heather-brown hillside scarred by long-abandoned lazy beds. Hardy cattle following a millennium-old tradition of summer grazing. The eerie thrum of a snipe. Flecks of bog cotton, ragged robin and delicate inflorescences of the common spotted orchid. Along damp runnels, tiny blue stars: water speedwell, creeping forget-me-not.

Such details are dismissed on Black Mountain’s spine. My eyes are greedy for this view. Beyond a miniaturised city, the Ards peninsula rims the silver burnish of Strangford Lough. Further on, Belfast Lough gapes to a vague horizon that blurs Scotland. Below my gaze, swifts scythe the air, some swerving so close to my legs that I hear their wings’ swish.

The trigonometry point sets the turn for Divis. I eschew the stone-pitched way to the summit for the less-frequented heath trail, a soft track around the western flank. Here, the expanse of bogland falls into the plain of mid-Ulster, a patchwork that stretches from the Antrim plateau to the Sperrins to the broad reveal of Lough Neagh, and then dissolves into the haze fading towards Donegal. My gaze owns it all. I stand and breathe.


Mary Montague

The GuardianTramp

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