Unfinished Business Part 1: Cairngaver

Each of my two most recent hikes brought a sense of closure, as both involved a hill that had defeated me on a previous visit.

These were Cairngaver, a lowly transmitter-topped hill near Belfast, and the much more famous Slieve League in County Donegal, home to some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs.

Top image: Looking beyond the town of Bangor to the lighthouse on Mew Island, one of the Copeland Islands, from Cairngaver

I’m slightly embarrassed now that I was unable to reach the 217m summit of County Down’s Cairngaver on my first attempt several years ago. In my defence, this was before the age of smartphones equipped with hiking apps, GPS and 4G (and I was one of the last people in the western world to acquire such a device).

I’d arrived somewhat ill-prepared following an appointment nearby, without a map with only the knowledge that the summit lay beyond the top of Cairn Wood, located in the Craigantlet Hills to the northeast of Belfast. I’d followed the forest’s maze of trails ever upwards without any luck, ultimately reaching a quarry and not finding an obvious route beyond it.

I had the notion of returning to Cairngaver recently, after visiting a friend living on that side of Belfast. This time the tools at my disposal included the ViewRanger app (free version) which helpfully shows the main trails through the forest.

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An early taste of the views that lay ahead: County Antrim can be seen across Belfast Lough, with the delightful Kilroot Power Station visible in the centre

I followed the main perimeter trail up to the top of the forest and then, knowing I should be aiming southeast, picked up a minor trail which gave a glimpse of the transmitters and led towards them. Reaching the summit area simply involved passing through gaps in a couple of hedges. Having skirted the quarry edge again, I realised that my mistake last time was thinking the summit was to the right of it rather than the left.

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Cairngaver’s summit

Despite the various masts and service buildings, Cairngaver’s summit is quite a peaceful spot, with a trig pillar topping an old cairn that’s shaded by trees. The views are extensive for a relatively low hill, though you’ll have to walk around quite a bit to be able to appreciate them. One thing that struck me was that this area of commuter towns is still very green and pretty when seen from above.

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Looking over the top of the trig pillar with Scrabo Tower and Strangford Lough visible beyond

Sights included Belfast and the hills to its north and west, the familiar, jagged line of the Mourne Mountains to the south, the edge of Belfast Lough and the Antrim Coast to the northeast, and across the sea to Scotland and even the Isle of Man; the first time I’ve been sure I’ve seen it from Ireland. Closer to hand was the fairytale Scrabo Tower with the Ards Peninsula beyond. I spent quite a while walking back and forth, enjoying the various views, especially those towards Scotland which shifted in and out of focus. 

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A zoomed in view across lush County Down countryside towards the Mournes; I like that you can clearly see the col between the two highest peaks of Donard and Commedagh (left of centre)

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It took me a while to twig that the floating hills in the distance, beyond the Ards Peninsula, are on the Isle of Man 

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A well zoomed view of Scrabo Tower, which sits on a volcanic plug above Newtownards. It was a built in 1857 as a monument to a distinguished local landowner, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, Charles William Stewart.

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The Antrim Coast across the mouth of Belfast Lough, with Blackhead Lighthouse visible on the clifftop on the far right

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Some resting cows with the Rhinns of Galloway in Scotland just visible in the distance

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A poor and hazy shot but included to show the view to Ailsa Craig, off the Ayrshire Coast, about 80kms/50 miles away

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A view towards Belfast and the hills to its southwest; the tower block of City Hospital dominates on the right

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Divis Mountain, the highest of the Belfast Hills

Having taken time to enjoy the views in all directions, I headed back down via the same route. This was a very enjoyable trip, not just because of the satisfaction in finally ‘conquering’ this little known hill but because Cairngaver punches well above its modest height. 

In the next post, I’ll look at my return visit to Slieve League.

Total distance: 3.7km / 2.3 miles (including a lot of wandering about at the summit)
Map: OSNI 15 

More information:
www.mountainviews.ie/summit/1029
www.highpointireland.com/cairngaver-217m.html (Cairngaver is listed as a ‘Gribbon location’ on the High Point Ireland website because it’s the highest point in the Craigantlet Hills and in Ards and North Down Borough Council)
www.walkni.com/walks/250/cairn-wood-ballysallagh (Cairn Wood listing on WalkNI with details of start point etc.)

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12 thoughts on “Unfinished Business Part 1: Cairngaver

  1. Nice blog and some cracking pics. Studied that shot of the Mournes for a few min, quite impressive. Is that Bearnagh to the right? Some of those shots of the green, rolling landscape remind me a little of the Last of the Summer Wine series. You’re like Tyrone’s version of Compo … or it is Clegg?

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    1. Thanks Canice. Yes that does seem to be Bearnagh, with Meelmore and Meelbeg close together to the right of it. I have a less zoomed version showing the whole range, will send it to you. It’s lovely countryside but I’m afraid you lost me with the Summer Wine ref – before my time 😁

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  2. Brilliant piece Martin – brings back my own experience on Cairngaver. I had a surprisingly hard time finding the top too. I think the forest walk, enjoyable as it was, obscured the summit and confused me! You’ve captured the views perfectly. I wouldn’t mind going back in Autumn – should be some nice colour.

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      1. A good crisp Autumn day might be perfect for both. I tried to find Helen’s Tower on the same day, but ran out of time – that area really shakes your faith in your navigation skills 🙂

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