Those of you who have visited Belfast will know that it is almost encircled by hills or mountains, from the Cave Hill and Divis Mountain in the Antrim range via the Castlereagh hills to the Hollywood hills, – from the Antrim side to the Down side of Belfast Lough.
From our home in Bloomfield we had a distant view of the Cave Hill, dependent on the cloud ceiling, when we raised our eyes above the level of the wall and buildings of the Ropeworks.
When we could see it boldly, in profile, especially that part known as ‘Napoleon’s Nose’, we usually concluded that rain was very likely to come in a short time. Divis Mountain, from which the flats, much reported during ‘The Troubles’, were named, could also be seen from the east side of the city where we lived.
Although such songs as ‘The mountains of Mourne’ are well known across the world, where the Irish diaspora has impinged, those about the ‘Green Glens of Antrim’, or its Blue Hills, have not made the same sort of impact.
I recall my first visit in the 1920’s to Bellevue, a venue on the Cave Hill, a plateau reached by ascending several sets of steep wide steps, after travelling to the city centre by tram and then again by tram to the bottom of the hill on the Antrim road, just before the terminus at Glengormley.
There was (still is, I’m sure) an earlier stop at Hazelwood, where walkers could climb to the plateau by winding paths and the less energetic or able could board a vehicle, commonly called ‘The Toast Rack’ because of its appearance, which in less than ten minutes took them to the plateau level.
This first visit, I might have been eight or nine years old, was fortuitous, in that my father had promised to take my younger brother, me and two older sisters to the seaside at Ballywalter and Ballyhalbert in County Down on Easter Monday. However, when he and I awoke, father and our two sisters had already gone, leaving us very miserable and disgruntled, making considerable noisy complaints.
Not being able to bear our behaviour for very long, Tom, our elder brother, and Sarah, our eldest sister, decided to take us and her two children to Bellevue to try to placate us.
The tramcars were packed with others on similar trips, and we two lads enjoyed the way the partly open-topped trams juggled and jiggled, like ships on a stormy sea, along the Antrim Road to our destination, those steep steps, which we rushed up on our young legs with some excitement.
The day, unfortunately, was a washout, literally and metaphorically. It rained incessantly, mitigated a little by glasses of lemonade and several portions of ice cream in a cafe, wooden in construction, on the plateau, before travelling back home across the city in packed tramcars, through the downpour of stair rod-like rain. We were still feeling very upset and disappointed, and even more so when our sisters returned later in the evening, regaling us with their seaside story of a completely dry day at Ballywalter!
Other visits were made with mother, John and other family members in later years to Bellevue and surrounds, including the Zoo located there, and we scrambled with other children to catch paper parachutes as they dropped from rockets during the firework displays held during summer and the early autumn months.
In my early teens, together with some of my peers, when living in Strandtown (about 1 1/4 miles from Stormont), around Easter time, I agreed to go on a picnic to Bellevue, our intention being to climb up the Cave Hill. The weather was quite good, the sun was shining, and I believe (though I can’t be sure) that we got away with paying the reduced children’s holiday fare, which meant that the journey to the city centre, from there to our destination, and return journey, would only have cost us tuppence each.
Wishing to conserve our energy for the ascent, we boarded the ‘Toast Rack’, cutting out the easy but tedious part of the climb. Then we toiled up the tortuous rough paths, becoming hot and sticky all the while, until we came to what appeared to be the end of our attempt to scale the heights. An almost vertical face confronted us, so we held council and decided to consume our sandwiches and lemonade before deciding our course of action.
While doing so, talk was of descending and looking for another route, when suddenly, out of the bushes, flanking where we had stopped, a man appeared, seemingly out of the cliff face. Astonished, we asked him how he had got there, so he showed us that there was a path through the jungle of five foot high scrub skirting round the steep face and thence by other rough tracks to the summit. So we spent the rest of the day exploring the first cave – caves two and three were too difficult for us to reach – and traversing the Sheep’s Path and enjoying the experience, returning home tired but satisfied.
In my early twenties around spring, summer and early autumn, I climbed around the Cave Hill, drank tea, supped ice cream and danced in the Floral Hall, which unlike most dance halls of the day was circular in shape.
Although by nature I’m not overly sentimental, I confess at times, when I look at the hills close to Cwmbran, I think of the words of the song:-
The Blue Hills of Antrim I see in my dreams,
The high hills of Antrim, their glens and their streams.
In sunlight and shadow, in Weal or in Woe,
Their sweet vision haunts me wherever I go.