The Cave Hill dominates the skyline on the northern edge of Belfast. It stretches from Hazelwood in the north to Carr’s Glen in the south. Most of its lower east side is comprised of the Belfast Castle estate. It rises almost 370m above sea level and offers superb panoramic views over Belfast and the surrounding areas.
Geologically, the Cave Hill is at the southern end of the Antrim Plateau, largely formed 65 million years ago by a series of volcanic eruptions. The basalt rock was then worn down by subsequent ice ages and weathered into the smoother formations seen today.
The Cave Hill was formerly known as Ben Madigan, probably after a local chieftain who died in 855AD. In 1603, this land was granted by King James I to Arthur Chichester, later the first Earl of Donegall.
There are a number of sites of archaeological interest on the Cave Hill, dating back to the Stone Age. These include several ringforts (raths) and a lake dwelling (crannog) at Hazelwood. McArt’s Fort is at the highest point, popularly but inaccurately known as Napoleon’s Nose. It is probably named after Art O’Neill, a sixteenth century chieftain who held land in this region, but also has an older name, Lios Tulach Ard, meaning ‘the fort of the high mound’. It is likely that this was used for ceremonial rather than defensive purposes, and it appears to date from around 3000 years ago. There are also five manmade caves cut into the basalt, the first accessible from the Sheep’s Path. The caves were not permanently occupied, but may well have been used as temporary refuges.
Most of the area of the Cave Hill is within the boundaries of the Cave Hill Country Park. The park comprises 300 hectares of land. Public ownership protects the area from development and guarantees public rights of access. Recent threats to Cave Hill have included the proposed construction of a hotel, chalets and housing, the expansion of the grounds of Belfast Zoo, and a cable car development.
The hill contains a variety of habitats. These include heather moorland, rocky outcrops, and mixed woodland. The trees are mostly deciduous—ash, beech, birch and rowan—but there is also a good population of mature Scots pine. Smaller species include hazel, elder, hawthorn, blackberry and ferns. The area is also rich in wild flowers such as bluebells, primroses, wild garlic, wood anemone, lesser celandine and herb robert. The hazlewood area above the zoo is one of the most important habitats on Cave Hill.
Mammals native to Cave Hill include foxes, badgers, grey squirrels, hedgehogs, rabbits, shrews and bats. Bird species include owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks, as well as the full range of woodland birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, finches, tits, robins, dunnocks and wrens. In summer, there are swallows and house martins. The heather moorland has skylarks, wheatears and pipits.
The hill is popular with walkers and joggers. There are eight waymarked trails, which range from short easy strolls to challenging 8km treks over the summit. There are access points at the Hightown Road, Carr’s Glen, the Upper Cavehill Road, Belfast Castle and Hazelwood.