Through the mist – Black Mountain, Belfast

The mountain starts where the city stops. A final semi-detached house before a farmer’s field, at the end of which the slope starts to really rise into the mist. It was a winter morning when we travelled there, to meet Feargal and his friends at the very edge of the city. They were going to walk up onto the Black Mountain and had offered to take us with them. The weather was of no concern.

As we waited for the last of the party to join us, we realised that the mist was not only blocking our view of the mountain above, but also the rest of the city below. Visibality was poor. It had been raining for a couple of days, soaking the ground that we were soon to walk over. A hike with no views and the guarantee of wet feet? Nevertheless, the mood among Feargal and his friends was good.

We were walking together on that day because it had become something of a tradition. We were walking in memory of Feargal’s brother Terry, who had been killed in 1998 and who loved the hills above Belfast and the outdoors in general. And we were walking in memory of their father, also called Terry, who had done more than anyone to get access to the Belfast hills, and where we waited – at a point where the river ran beneath the road – a sign had been erected in his memory.

The Belfast hills, including the Black Mountain, stand above the city with their wild mix of heather and bracken, farmed fields and trails leading out from National Trust car parks to reach the best vantage points. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s the mountain was closed off by the Ministry of Defence, with no access allowed for the people who lived right there on the lower slopes. At the same time, access was allowed for quarrying, and the holes gouged out of the mountain were filled with waste. 

It was Feargal’s dad Terry who led the campaign to both save the mountain and open it up once again. He led walks up onto the hillside, as part of the West Belfast Festival. He told stories of handing flyers about protecting the ancient habitats, its cairns and springs and flowers, to soldiers who challenged his right to be there. And in 2005, Terry’s tireless campaigning was rewarded. Black Mountain was handed over from the Ministry of Defence to the National Trust. Access was regained.

But not for us the National Trust car park. Instead, Feargal led us across a boggy field to a steep path that would lead us up to the top, a route that he called the ‘slippy slope’. It was aptly named, turning our walk into something of a muddy scramble. But we made it, emerging onto the Hatchet Field, a place of poetry for Terry and where the foundations of an old dwelling held stories in their stones, folk memories that could not possibly be true but had maintained their power through all the years the mountain was closed off.

On we walked. The mist was clinging to the hillside. There was no view at all. Through the mist we could see the sun, and above the sky was blue, but around and above us… nothing. We reached a gravel path, where trail runners appeared as ghostly figures before speeding by with a cheerful greeting. At the highest part of the mountain, we reached Terry junior’s cairn, gathering stones from among the heather to add in his memory. As we pressed on, we reached the trig-point that marked the Black Mountain summit. Shifts in the mist threatened to allow us a glimpse of what was out there. Divis Hill. The Lagan. 

On a clear day, you can see the Scottish mountains and the English Lake District. You can see all of Belfast laid out before you. But not today. As soon as Belfast threatened to appear it was gone again. Visibility was down to twenty metres. It was time to head back down the way we came.

Carefully we headed down, trusting Feargal’s navigational skills in the whiteout, picking our way through the fields of heather, gorse and muddy puddles. And then, as we reached Hatchet Field once more, it happened. Suddenly, the mist seemed to simply dissolve, and the scene opened out in front of us. The city centre and the port. The hospital and the police barracks. The streets of West Belfast, once spied upon from these heights. The peace walls and GAA grounds. In the distance we could see the floodlights of Windsor Park and maybe, just maybe, the house where dad lives.

On that winter morning, despite the mud and the drizzle, the mist obscuring our view for all but that special moment near the end of our walk, it was clear why Feargal’s dad had loved the place so much and why he had been determined to get access to these slopes for all. As we made our way back towards the city, Feargal told us about the walks we would have to do to experience the Black Mountain at its finest. A warm summer day. In the snow. And we agreed that, yes, it would be great to come back then. But there was something special about our walk, despite the weather, because of the people we shared it with and the stories they told. 

54°36’19.4″N 5°59’58.6″W
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton