Voices from Cave Hill

Learn about the secret history of Cave Hill from the people who lived there

In the 1820's George Benn, Belfast’s celebrated 19th century historian, sought to glean the history of the surrounding hills. He found nothing but fanciful tales about Picts and Vikings. Cave Hill is like that. It is Belfast’s best loved mountain, so we think we know all about it, but it has changed so much in the last 150 years. What was once a rural fastness, then the sylvan domain of the Donegall’s and Shaftesbury’s, is now a municipal empire surrounded by the expanding city. The details of history are as elusive as Benn's Picts and Vikings.

Ben Simon, who proved his worth as an environmental historian with his account of Belfast’s woodlands in If Trees Could Talk (2009), fills in the Cave Hill gaps using oral history. In Voices from Cave Hill he demonstrates a good ear for living witnesses and has chosen 16 who genuinely flesh out lost elements of the past. A selection of previously unpublished photographs and excellent maps bring the stories told to life.

The stories start on the southern slopes of Cave Hill, where the book picks up traces of a much earlier history. In the 1930’s the beetling mill high in Carr’s Glen was long derelict, but its walls still stood and above the great 19th century limestone quarry the little terraces of quarry workers cottages at Mummystown and Daddystown were still lived in. The witnesses describe the living conditions there in the 1920s and 1930s.

The houses were one up and one down with water from a well up the hill, cooking at the range, and lit by paraffin lamps and candles. Families were reared here. At night time decency was maintained; the women went to bed first followed by the men. No-one worked on the hill any longer, but they still had to work somewhere. Spare a thought for Peggy Blair, who at the age of 14 had to set off from her home high on the Cave Hill and walk via Carr’s Glen across to Wolfhill Mill in Ligoniel for an 8.15am start whatever the weather!

The memories here cover a transition period during which families moved down to the city but kept the Daddystown cottages on for summer stays. The cottages were also pressed into service as refuges during and after the Belfast Blitz, and one became an invaluable headquarters for the 29th West Belfast Scouts. Yet gradually they fell prey to vandalism and dereliction. Now, whether in the case of Carr’s Glen or the quarry terraces barely a trace of the old buildings survives.

The splendidly restored Belfast Castle is fully extant, but Craig Wallace, former Director of Parks, reminds us how, as late as the 1970’s, Belfast Council came close to abandoning it. Others recall some of the original decor, including the Donegall’s private chapel, which made way for a lift shaft.

Cathleen Arthurs was there soon after it opened to the public in the 1930’s and frequented weekly ‘hops’ when dancers got drinks in the un-refurbished cellars, which smacked of the prohibition era. Jean Martin remembers how the Castle served as naval headquarters during the Second World War, when she worked in the Operations Room or ‘Plot’ in the first floor ballroom.

Other memories of the Belfast Castle Estate are often more tantalising. Martlett Towers, gamekeeper’s houses, the stables and a walled garden are all gone. At least these witnesses can locate them and the first photographs appear. It is great to have a family account of Sammy Armstrong, the last gamekeeper, shown here in plus fours with shotgun in hand, and a photograph of his mock tudor house high on the hill and devoid of all mod-cons.

Up until the beginning of the 1950s, when almost 80, Armstrong continued to reign here. As another witness says ‘he wouldn’t let a crow light’. The shell of the Chapel of the Resurrection still survives, just, but it is moving to recall its late Victorian beauty when still fully used as an adjunct to St Peter’s.

Bellevue, the original Corporation pleasure ground also features, although more by way of a vignette. Pat and Jim Jenkins remember the immediate post-war hey-day of the Floral Hall as a dance hall. Craig Wallace recalls visiting the original zoo as a child, ‘really a postage stamp collection. You had one lion, one tiger, one leopard, one elephant’.

He was captivated but reflects that conditions were ‘pretty awful’. He was involved in the decision to build the new zoo, but it is a pity that he can’t tell us more about how the decision was taken, and against the odds, to build on that same high north east slope of the Cave Hill.

Voices from Cave Hill is a beautifully produced book, full of insightful, intimate recollections of a bygone era, and does justice to its subject.