Belfast Castle: a Jewel on the Hill
Belfast Castle is a magnificent building on the slopes of Cave Hill overlooking the city, and it is an integral piece of Belfast history. It offers splendid views of the city, the harbor and the surrounding areas. It is also one of the best known of the castles in Northern Ireland. There is free parking, free entrance, walks and play areas nearby so if you are staying in Belfast for more than a few hours make sure you visit. It is rarely crowded.
There had been a castle in Belfast from as early as the 12th century built by the Normans who came as conquerors. The original castle was located in what is today the city center. In 1611 a new castle was erected to replace the obsolete Norman construction. The new one was built of stone and timber and belonged to Baron Chichester. But this castle too was lost, in a large fire in 1708. The only reminder is roads like Castle Street.
Belfast remained without a castle until the 19th century. In 1863 the 3rd Marquis of Donegal, a descendant and heir of the Chistester family, decided to built a castle in the present location, which eventually became the current Belfast Castle. The original budget was £11,000 and the Lanyon family and architectural firm were responsible for the plans and construction.
Construction proved a bit of a white elephant for the Marquis eating away at his fortune until he lost it nearly all. Thankfully, Lord Ashley, heir to the Earldom of Shaftesbury and nephew of the Marquis completed the project in 1870. On the death of the Marquis the castle passed to the Shaftesburys, a well respected and fondly remembered family of philanthropists. They in turned gave it over to Belfast Council in 1934. Since then Belfast Castle is run by the city Council.
The castle is built is the Scottish Baronial style. The style is a revival of earlier Gothic medieval styles. Other examples are the Newark Castle in Glascow, the Craigievar Castle near Aberdeen, and the Balmoral Castle also in Aberdeenshire which popularized the style and influenced the design of Belfast Castle. Though called a castle, Belfast Castle was never, of course, intended for war. It is an exquisite mansion much like most of the castles built from the 17th century onwards. In the 1980’s it underwent a refurbishment program and has been open to the public again since 1988.
What to do on a visit
The first thing to do is park your car and enjoy the splendid views. The castle is built on the slope of Cave Hill at a height of about 400 feet (120 meters). Part of the city of Belfast is hidden by the mass of the hill itself but most of the town center can be seen. Look for the harbor and the large yellow cranes that stand next to the place the Titanic was built. Look out at the Belfast Lough, the large natural gulf that protects the shores of Belfast from big Atlantic storms and ensures Belfast harbor has quiet waters. Depending on the hour of the day, you might see the large boats that connect Belfast with Scotland and England leave or enter the harbor.
Opposite you, on the other side of the Lough you can see the north coast of County Down with some spectacular places like Bangor (not visible from the castle) and Crawfordsburn, a splendid park and scouting camp.
In the Castle
In the castle you will want to visit the visitor center on the second floor. Entrance is free. The visitor’s center will give you a lot of information about the castle and Cave Hill. If you have time you may want to sit and enjoy a meal at the Cellar Restaurant. Otherwise, just walk around the rooms and hallways (where permitted of course) imagining that you are a Victorian nobleman or woman about to attend a ball with the mighty and the powerful.
Once you finish daydreaming walk to the lovely gardens, sit on one of the benches and absorb the peace and serenity. And look out for the cats. Well, sort of. The Shaftesburys apparently loved cats. In their memory, during the 1980s refurbishments, nine cats were added to the landscape in the form of mosaics, small statues etc. Some are well hidden so see if you or your children can find them all.
Beyond these, if you are a tourist on a tight touring schedule you are probably ready to get in the car and head to another place of interest. But if time is not an issue, you may want to enjoy a walk through the woods, let your children play in the play area or head for the top of Cave Hill and enjoy even more splendid views. Of all Irish castles, this is one that should be high on the list for a visit.
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