by Paul Cormacain
AT the risk of repeating myself, it was an American who one day to me did say, 'Aren't the mountains around Belfast lovely?'
I smiled, mumbled agreement, and went away resolving to look anew at the mountains around Belfast .
When I was young my father used to take us up some of the mountains, and I will forever have happy memories associated with my father and my brothers up in the hills.
Then later, as schoolboys, we used to go up the mountains, on the lookout for wildlife and excitement.
I saw my first lizard wild on the Cave Hill. My first grouse was sighted on Divis, and the first wheatear was seen on Black Mountain.
We first attempted to collect ripe hazelnuts, and subsequently ate them all, on Colin Mountain. Our first attempts at catching trout by hand also took place in the hills, and provided we washed out the fish my mother would cook for us.
So had the American got it right? I thought about it some more!
As a teenager I went to London to make my fortune, (and now, many many years later, I am still trying). Afterwards, my career took me around the world and I was always looking for a nice place to settle down. Who would live in Belfast?
I have seen my fair share of cities, but I always felt that Capetown, with Table Mountain looking down on you, was one of the more nicely situated cities in the world. So I came back to Belfast.
Capetown had too many gunmen. American cities had too many guns. Fiji and Venezuela were lovely to visit, but I did not want to live in them. So Belfast was best! Or Down, Antrim, Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone or Donegal. Take your pick.
But Belfast had the hills, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the American was right!
Seeing the Belfast hills from downtown can be very dramatic, and very uplifting.
Seeing the Belfast hills when travelling north-east along the motorway can be somewhat depressing. One of the essentials for building is mountain, and the Black Mountain is paying a very heavy price for this essential. You can slowly see the mountain disappear!
For years political graffiti adorned the mountains, but I am glad to say this practice is now dying out.
Access is not always a practicable proposition in the hills, and parking can represent a problem. Yet for those of you who have taken part in the Belfast Hills Walk in the past, the experience was great, the scenery magnificent, and pride in the area made us all walk slightly taller.
Now big plans are afoot to help preserve the Belfast Hills for posterity.
Apparently the British Ministry of Defence had temporary control of the Black and Divis Mountains, but for a mere £1,000,000 the National Trust is gaining control. Come to think about it, if we ever got as far as the far side of Divis, there was a military firing range there for as long as I can remember.
The National Trust stands to acquire a total of 599 hectares, and already they have published some stated aims. Public access is to be improved, which means that more and more folk can enjoy the hills more easily.
I was just having a thought about the raptors I would have seen around the hills, and just to give you an idea of the wildlife, there are kestrels and sparrow hawks. I have sighted buzzards and peregrines and owls, and when we were younger we thought we saw merlins, but I am not completely sure about that sighting, it was too long ago.
The Trust also plans that the beautiful natural landscape will never be spoiled by an overspill of development from the expanding city. But perhaps we can talk about that another time when the population of Belfast will have risen to 1,000,000 inhabitants. Or again, perhaps that is the time when it is even more important than ever to preserve the Belfast Hills.
In conclusion, I think the American was surely right!
Monday 9 December - Lisburn RSPB is having a Members' Night at 7.30 in The Friends Meeting House.
Saturday 14 December - Christmas Walk at Mount Stewart with the Head Gardener, and light refreshments. Call 9751 0721
Thursday 26 December - Birdwatch Morning at Castle Espie, 11.30. Contact 9187 4146.
Thursday 26 December to Monday 7 January - Follow the Robin Trail around Castle Espie - fresh air, exercise, bird spotting, and you can walk off your excessive Christmas meals! Phone 9187 4146
Wednesday 1 January - New Year's Day Trail at Oxford Island, 12.00, find out more from 3832 2205.