Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 12:55 UK

How the right to roam on Cave Hill was won

Cave Hill

Walkers have enjoyed the views of Belfast from Cave Hill for centuries. But access to the breathtaking panorama was almost denied to the public.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of a victory for those who sought the 'right to roam'.

In 1859, a Belfast merchant was taken to court after he tried to block access to public pathways on the hill.

Joseph Magill had built the gate lodge to his new mansion on top of the pathway, on land owned by his father in law Andrew Nash.

The move angered the local community and a campaign by the Association for the Protection of Public Rights of Way began, supported by the two MPs for Belfast and the mayor.

By 1859 the association had garnered enough support, and raised enough money, to bring the case to court.

The association argued that Cave Hill had always been used by the public, especially each Easter when hundreds flocked to the Easter Monday fair.

Tall Ships fireworks from Cave Hill
Declan O'Doherty used his right to roam on Cave Hill to take this picture of the Tall Ships fireworks

Local historian John Gray said Mr Magill argued that those who walked on the hill were carefully vetted.

"The argument was that these people were given specific permission to go on to the hill, and only the most respectable classes were allowed on to the hill," he said.

"When the evidence came out that they had been served poteen that case began to fall to pieces."

A man who lived on Cave Hill told the court that he had never seen anyone turned away from the pathways.

In fact he told the court that his wife made money selling poteen to those who passed by, and to the "respectable classes" who attended the Easter fair.

Packed courtroom

"The case went on for a week," said Mr Gray.

"We get accounts of how the galleries in the courthouse were packed, there were queues of people waiting to get in to hear the case.

"It was such a cause celebre that the Northern Whig newspaper published an 88-page pamphlet. The entire transcript of the trial."

Cave Hill
One of the man made caves on Cave Hill

Another bone of contention was the enclosure of the Volunteer Well.

"The Volunteers, the militia organisation of the 1770s and 1780s, used to hold manoeuvres on the Cavehill and this is where they got a drink of water.

"It's the highest point on the hill where water was available and in 1859 the oldest witness, Nicholas Grimshaw of Whitehouse, could remember the volunteers drinking from the well.

"And yet it was claimed it was not a right of way."

The jury took only 40 minutes to reach their conclusion.

Joseph Magill was found guilty of obstructing a public footway.

He was left to foot the costs of the case and went bankrupt in 1875.

The pathway has remained open ever since, even if its position was shifted slightly by the expansion of the Belfast Castle estate.

In 1934 the right to roam on Cave Hill furthered cemented when Belfast Castle and its estate was given to the city.

There are currently eight walkways for ramblers to enjoy on Cave Hill and, on a clear day, much of Northern Ireland can be seen from the 370 metre high vantage point.

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