Much of Belfast is surrounded by a line of hills which embraces the city. This offers both an escape from the city and fantastic views, not just of Belfast but way beyond to Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Lake District – on a good day of course!
Getting up into the hills and knowing where to walk hasn’t always been as easy as it should be, which is one reason why the Belfast Hills Partnership was formed in 2004 to try to manage the hills better for local residents, landowners, businesses and users, including access to and awareness of them. In more recent years we have looked at what barriers there are to use the hills for recreation and how we can break these down.
That’s why we formed a partnership with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust in 2017 to carry out activity programmes for adults with learning disabilities to “Explore the Belfast Hills”. After introductory sessions and shopping for all the right gear (an expedition in itself!) we would set off with groups and staff on a series of gradually longer and harder walks along with introductions to activities such as geocaching and Nordic Pole walking.
A major bonus has been raising awareness amongst staff of some great sites hidden away in and around the hills. Other lessons we’ve learnt have been:
- we walk as fast as the slowest person
- having someone to tell us about all the wildlife and views adds so much to the experience
- self-confidence must be carefully and patiently nurtured – people can have bad days when what should be an easy walk for them can seem like an impossible mountain
- having the right gear and the right support can make all the difference
- just getting out, up and away in the fresh air is therapeutic in itself
- most importantly, don’t forget your lunch!
So what happens after the 9 week programme? With the new walking boots, coats, gloves, hats, water bottles etc. those day centres which have transport are now empowered enough to head off on their own walks. Those that don’t are getting repeat sessions exploring new areas and routes around Belfast, often linking up sites they’re already aware of. Identifying very local routes and links are a key part of sustaining the programme.
We do have people dropping out for a variety of reasons, but they still have their gear and some have already come back when they hear the fun the groups are having on new sites and activities. For the rest, I realised the impact of the programme when I called into day centres to start planning this year’s round of walks and couldn’t get down the corridor without being stopped multiple times and asked “When are we going out again!?!” I ended up sneaking in side doors to avoid raising hopes too soon…..
Above all the secret ingredient has been the great fun we have when we’re walking together along a hillside trail with Belfast laid below us – a real mixture of positively helping each other along a steep section one minute and then slagging each other off mercilessly the next. The feedback is often very straightforward – “I love our walks – this is great fun!” but the rewards for us all mean that we’ll be exploring the Belfast Hills in some shape or form for many years to come.