Another overcast morning as we leave our Downpatrick B&B under the watchful gaze of himself - well, at least a statue of St Pat, anyway - on the hill opposite... and head for Belfast. Ah, Belfast. As an Englishman, brought up with lurid BBC news reports of sectarian violence and Stiff Little Fingers' searing tales of youthful repression from all sides, I'm not surprisingly brimming with preconceptions about the place. And not a little nervous, too. But when there just happens to be a veritable 'super henge' located at the southern city limits, a stonehead's gotta do what a stonehead's gotta do.
Sited above the River Lagan between Carryduff and Dunmurry, the surroundings are surprisingly rural, despite high rise buildings looming through the trees not more than half a mile distant? The henge is so large that the impression is of arriving at a hillfort, the mis-conception heightened by numerous locals arriving to 'walk the dog'... a universally popular activity at hillforts, it has to be said. Ascend the earthworks, however, and this is clearly no hillfort. Especially with the rather fine remaining chamber of a former passage grave set at the centre. Albeit a passage grave currently being utilised as a temporary (one hopes?) dwelling by two Buckfast swilling loons, in accordance with what would seem to be local tradition here? Yeah, by all accounts people have a different 'take' on life and their relationship with others in these parts? Perhaps this is inevitable in light of the well documented history of social unrest and outsiders are not really informed enough to comment. Anyway - luckily - they keep their 'curtains' drawn, enabling me to have a good look around the upstanding chamber before undertaking several circuits of the massive henge bank.
And it is the henge which is the star of the show here. Apparently it measures almost 660ft in diameter, with an average bank height of 15ft. Amazing stuff. The distinctive profile of Cave Hill rises to the north-west of the city, itself crowned by the remains of an Iron Age fort. Apparently this was the venue for the meeting leading to Wolfe Tone's rebellion of 1795 - the not altogether 'successful' one, that is. Yeah, there's clearly a lot more to Belfast than an outsider might first think.
Wow, what a place! The 'ring' is huge, a well preserved high bank with steep sides apparently used as a sports and recreation centre by the locals! Dozens of people walking, cycling, kiting, playing football and jogging, with a small army of children using the megalithic tomb in the centre as a climbing frame-cum-fortress. Great. At least it does have easy access and a carpark though I would have traded that for a less crowds and more quiet...
The tomb itself is very nice, it does have traces of grafitti and the stones are rubbed smooth from the feet of thousands of kids but at least its still standing and isn't enclosed by an ugly fence.
I've seen lots of great photos of this tomb (one won a stage of photographer of the year in a magazine) and it seemed the kids would prevent me from getting a few moments alone to study it and the surrounding henge (with nearby trees). Slowly circling a group of young children playing under the watchful eye of their parents isnt really a great idea so I took the opportunity to walk the entire circumference of the henge in the freezing wind, dodging dogs and joggers. The park has a sign warning that the gates are closed at 4 o'clock in the evening. It was a quater to. Marvellous.
Five to four and the crowds vanish into thin air, a couple and their kids arrive to fly their kite so figuring they must be wise to the gate times I made my way to the tomb in the centre as quick as possible unpacking the camera gear as I go. After the experiences using wireless fill flash at Gaulstown Dolmen, I pretty much knew what I wanted in my head so in the ten minutes I had the place almost to myself I got shots of every angle with different sidelighting arrangements, trees in the distance lined up nicely though the sunset was a bit of a damp squib.
I also realised why I should always carry the tripod with me, the angle of the flash from the ground is just too low and the little stand thing Nikon bundle doesn't work so great in the grass. In future I'll bring at least one if not two tripods to hold either the flash or the camera, this should hopefully avoid the bright patch of grass along the line of flash. Much better.
A great place to visit, though make it early to avoid the multitudes!
Visited 22nd March 2004: I found it tricky to navigate in Northern Ireland, so our route out of Belfast to the Giant's Ring was a bit circuitous. The site is signposted from some directions, but not from others, so the GPS turned out to be very useful.
Parking is easy, and access to the henge is reasonably good. This is prime dog walking territory for the locals. Definitely an amenity as much as a piece of heritage. The weather was rubbish, but we dutifully plodded around the top of the henge bank looking in at the tomb, and out at the surrounding fields (spotting Ballynahatty Stone). Half way round the henge we lost our resolve (the rain was getting very bad) and descended into the relative shelter of the interior. The tomb itself was my first glimpse of an Irish megalithic tomb. It's a dollop of a tomb, like an over-weight caterpillar, or a Siamese twin dolmen. Compact and chunky.
I contemplated squeezing inside, but thought better of it. We walked the remaining half of the henge bank, then scuttled back to the car. Nice henge! Nice tomb! Horrible weather!
Set into the stone wall that surrounds the Giant's Ring is an engraved stone plaque that reads:
THIS WALL FOR THE PROTECTION OF
THE GIANT'S RING
WAS ERECTED A.D. MDCCCXLI BY
ARTHUR VISCOUNT DUNGANNON
[On whose] estate this singular relique of
is situated and who earnestly
recommends it to the care of his successors.
The bits in square brackets are illegible, so I've guessed the probable wording.
A henge monunent, 180m in diam., enclosed by a bank & inner ditch, with a megalithic tomb E of its centre. Excavation in 1954 showed that the bank is made of gravel, boulders & clay, taken from a shallow scoop in the interior. It is unknown which of the several breaks in the bank are original. The burial chamber is a polygonal space surrounded by 5 large stones, covered by a huge capstone & is probably the remains of a passage tomb. It is part of a ritual complex in this area, including cists, barrows & a huge timber enclosure with structures & burials to NW.