I write this blog after a bit of deliberation. Slievenacloy is a nature reserve only a few miles north of Lisburn, and mere minutes from my home. In fact, it is Lisburn's only nature reserve. I've only recently discovered it, despite arrogantly believing that I know most of Northern Ireland. I've made 5 visits and have seen a grand total of 2 people and 3 dogs during those visits. Subconsciously, I've almost started to think of it as my own open mountain….Don't get me wrong, Slievenacloy doesn't have the natural beauty of the Mournes and I don't want you to think it does and be disappointed, but it's amazing to have such natural, open space across mountains steeped in history all to yourself, and it's on my doorstep. I don't want to spoil the secret! But here goes...
I'd first seen/heard of Slievenacloy a few years ago as I cycled past and dismissed it as 'just nice fields to walk through'. Then when I noticed Slievenacloy in one of the excellent publications produced by the Belfast Hills Partnership alongside the more familiar Divis & Black mountain and Cave Hill, I began to take notice.
Slievenacloy is a townland north of Lisburn and comes from the Irish 'Sliabh na Cloiche', meaning mountain of stones. The reserve, found just off the wonderfully named Flowbog Rd, takes in Boomer's Hill (historically Mullaghglass meaning 'green summit') and Priest's Hill (historically Gormon's Mountain), the highest point in the reserve, at 1,000ft.
It is believed that this was an important and sacred landscape during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages for prehistoric burial activity, with cairns set in prominent positions on ridges and hill tops. In total, eight prehistoric burial monuments and associated features have been recorded as having once stood on Priest's HIll and neighbouring Collin mountain. Today only a few remains can been seen, including the large Sibs Stone.
Sibs Stone measures 8 and a half feet long, 5 feet high and 6 feet broad in one end. It is raised some inches above the surface by a few small stones on which it is underneath supported. Local tradition (it would seem giants were the answer to everything here!) says that a giant cast this stone from the seashore to its present berth.
It is also thought that there is money deposited beneath it! Holes where people have explored for this money are still visible. I've not bothered looking myself. Yet.
The area was once inhabited by hardy farmers and there are the remains of five farmhouses in the reserve. Four of these are basically gone with only some stones left, but the largest cottage, Kernaghan's Farmhouse acts as the start point for all of the trails (which you can find on the Walk NI website). Bring boots. It's mucky and boggy!)
All of my visits have been during the winter months, when the landscape is barren, bleak and heavy underfoot, but no less beautiful for it. However, it is claimed the best time to visit the reserve is in summer when it comes alive with the colour of orchids and many other flowers. I'm no botanist so I can't go into any more detail than that! I'm looking forward to photographing the reserve in full colour in summer.
Birdwatchers would also love this place. Again, I don't know much but I know there is plenty of birdlife about and it's not of the normal crow or magpie variety! I've read that breeding curlew, snipe, lapwing, skylark, grasshopper warbler, reed bunting and meadow pipit can be seen, as well as barn owls. Irish hares are common in the sheltered valley of the Stoneyford river, seen below (minus the hares I'm afraid!).
The site, also an Area of Special Scientific Interest, is dominated by species-rich unimproved pasture and heathland, both wet (definitely wet!) and dry. It is this unimproved pasture that the Ulster Wildlife Trust fought so hard to preserve as previously the land was inaccessible to the public and not being preserved correctly.
Many old hedgerows and banks remain, and as well as Sibs stone mentioned above, there are several features of archaeological interest, with the mysterious earth ring below high on the list.
Normally, such raised banks are clear ringforts or raths, but in this case, the earth ring is not circular enough to be an Early Christian rath, in fact it's almost rectangular. There are suggestions that it may have been a 17th century artillery fort but as there is no evidence for any of these claims, it remains a mystery.
There are fantastic views to be had all round the reserve. In the east there are views to Divis and Black mountain as well as to Collin mountain, below.
Also on these eastern slopes, Stormont, Scrabo Tower and lots of landmarks of Belfast can be seen, as well as the outline of Scotland on very clear days.
On the western slopes there are superb views down to Stoneyford Reservoir, Lough Neagh and across and as far away as the Mourne mountains. One slight problem with this view are the nets from the Mullaghglass landfill site!
South of the earth ring the landscape falls away to the Stoneyford river which begins its life in the reserve before it heads to the well-known reservoir and then joins with the Glenavy river on its way to Lough Neagh.
It's a calm little stream and is crossed by a series of small bridges and gives the south-side of the reserve a different look to the more mountainous north.
In 2008, Slievenacloy actually appeared in The Independent newspaper as one of the recommended places to visit under the title 'Secret Britain'.
Since the end of the Second World War, Britain and Ireland's wildflower meadows have decreased by more than 90 per cent, which is why sites like Slievenacloy are so important. The Ulster WIldlife Trust and Belfast Hills Partnership have, between them done a fantastic job to open up the area to a public and to promote it as a place to explore. There is something for everyone with accessible paths and information boards as well as open, boggy mountain.
I'll leave you with a picture from the slopes of Priest's Hill at sunset a few weeks ago. If you do now want to make a visit to see for yourself, try to make sure it's when I'm not there, so I can continue to think of it as my own private mountain! Much appreciated!
Thanks for reading and if you have any comments or questions just give me a shout. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org