Cavehill was the destination chosen for those who fancied a bit of a climb and it proved to be quite a strenuous but nevertheless a most enjoyable walk. We started at the zoo where we were permitted to use the facilities before setting off. I was reminded that the ascent to the zoo was not always so easy by a picture (below right) which showed the huge flight of steps which originally led up to the zoo. As we climbed up the hill from the zoo car park we were treated to occasional glimpses of the animals in the zoo, including an elephant.
Cavehill rises to almost 370 metres (1200 ft) above sea level. Historically known as Ben Madigan (from Irish: Binn Mhadagáin), it forms the south-eastern border of the Antrim Plateau. It is distinguished by its famous 'Napoleon's Nose', a basaltic outcrop which resembles the profile of the famous emperor (see historic postcard left). All of Belfast can be seen from its peak - on a clearer day we would also have had views of the Isle of Man and Scotland. McArt's fort, on the summit of the hill, is an example of an old ráth or ring fort. It is protected on one side by a precipice and on the others by a single ditch, 10 feet (3.0 m) in depth.
Although we can only guess at the very early human history of the site, in more recent times it has played a significant part in Ireland's history. United Irishmen Theobald Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken allegedly met at Cavehill in 1795 to take an oath to launch the rebellion of 1798. McCracken was captured on Cavehill in 1798.
Name that bird.
These days visitors come for the climb, for views over Belfast and perhaps a glimpse of one of the birds of prey which find Cavehill an ideal site, using thermals to gain height effortlessly and the woodland floor to provide lunch. Unfortunatley it wasn't possible to get a close-up of these magnificent birds, but can you name the one shown above left?
Most of Cavehill's lower east side lies on the Belfast Castle estate, which has as its focal point the imposing 19th-century Scottish baronial castle. The castle was designed by Charles Lanyon and constructed by the Marquess of Donegall in 1872 in the Deer Park. The slopes of Cavehill were originally used as farmland but, from the 1880s, a major planting exercise was undertaken, producing the now familiar deciduous and coniferous woodland landscape. Belfast Castle estate was given to Belfast city by the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1934. The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury is the owner of Lough Neagh which apparently provides 40% of the priovince's water supply. The Earl has firmly insisted that he has "no plans" to sell the lough despite calls from Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly that the NI Assembly should vest the British Isles' largest expanse of fresh water "as a last resort".
Beside the Castle is the Cat Garden - it is said that good fortune will come to those visiting Belfast Castle as long as the tradition of the Castle Cat is kept.There are nine references to cats in the Castle's garden - here are 7 of them. Did you spot the others?
On June 1, 1944, an American Air Force B-17 bomber crashed into Cavehill during heavy fog, killing all ten crew instantly. Tom remembers the tragedy and it inspired Richard Attenborough's film, Closing the Ring. Some scenes of the film were shot on Cavehill.
As we left Belfast Castle, many of us thought that the walk was nearly over, only to discover that there was more than a mile left before we made it back to our starting point at the zoo. Way markers had been few and far between on the walk and more than once we had difficulty finding the right path. Some even had difficulty finding the starting point for the walk!
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) was found in profusion in the woodland, in among the bluebells. It is identifiable by its garlic-like smell and long lush leaves, which are similar in appearance to those of Lily of the Valley. Growing from late winter and throughout spring, towards the end of the season it bursts into bloom with its distinctive white flowers. Found in semi-shaded, moist conditions. if you're unsure what you've found is the real thing then its smell is the ultimate clarification. Although found commonly around woodland and river banks, wild garlic is easy to cultivate in most soils.
Unlike domestic garlic, wild garlic is championed for its leaves rather than its bulb. The bulbs, along with the flowers, are edible, but are much smaller in quantity. Wild garlic has a very similar taste to domestic garlic, yet slightly milder. The leaves are delicious raw or cooked and work well in salads and soups, I am told.
Some say that the wild garlic leaves are less edible when the flowers are out and that the leaves are best before the flowers come out (leaves are fresh and tender). However the leaves are still edible. Even when the leaves are yellowish on the edges they are still usable - just cut off the old or yellow parts of the leaves.
The flavour is said to be softer, more pleasant than cloves from garlic bulbs the smell less assertive. Leaves, when blanched and blended to a purée, have a vibrant colour that brings food, especially white fish, to life.
The bulbs too are edible, but are better left in the ground. It's the slender leaves that are more attractive to chefs. The white flower spikes are worthwhile, too. If you would like to look at some more advice on and have a masterclass on use of wild garlic click here
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