Posted by: wesleyjohnston | April 27, 2022

The Roads of the Craigantlet Hill Climb

This weekend marks the annual Craigantlet Hill Climb at Killeen, east Belfast. Here car racers have been competing since 1913 to ascend a steep incline along a series of switchbacks in the shortest time. The road will be closed for the event as it is the only Hill Climb in the UK that uses public roads. The road itself is Ballymiscaw Road, which leads from the Stormont area up into the Craigantlet Hills. On week days the road is very busy with commuters, some of whom may have noticed the strange layout of roads on the hill. This brief blog post covers the past history of the roads here whose form is the result of two centuries of change.

Below is how the road looks today. The main Ballymiscaw Road turns a sharp right-hand bend just as it leaves the built up area, but thereafter climbs quite steeply up a long, gentle bend.

Some people assume that the sharp right-hand bend (at the very left in the image above) is a sign that the road used to go straight on here. In fact that’s not the case, the sharp right-hand bend is simply to allow the road to cross a stream. (Prior to the 1800s Irish roads typically turned to cross rivers at right angles as the engineering technology required to build bridges at a skew had not yet been developed. Many roads today that pass over old bridges have similar right-angle bends at either side.)

What is much more interesting is the strange series of switchbacks visible in the image, and also the strange loop of road at the upper right – these being the bits of road used for the Craigantlet Hill Climb. What’s going on? Let’s go back to 1831:

Things look very different, don’t they? The modern road is not there, but nor are the switchbacks. Instead we see the road at the very left turning sharply right to cross the stream, as it does now, but then turning left up a steep, straight section of road which, using a couple more bends, ascends the hill fairly directly. The line of this road suggests that it was developed in an evolved manner prior to the 1700s, initially connecting various farms together before eventually becoming a coherent route. A road going straight up a steep incline was quite acceptable up until the early 1800s because at that time most travellers were either on foot, or using packhorses, neither of which found steep inclines particularly challenging, and certainly preferable to long detours. Even small carts could be hauled up hills fairly easily.

This changed by the early 1800s. By this time, technology had advanced to the point where wheeled carts were considerably bigger than they had been in the century before, as well as increased use of coaches for (wealthy) pedestrian travel. Even with two horses, the roads here proved increasingly difficult for horses to haul goods up. So Irish roads went under a period of significant redevelopment, where hundreds of miles of roads were reconstructed on gentler, more curvaceous routes that tried to reduce gradients wherever possible. (Hence, for example, the main road to Newtownards from Dundonald, which went straight over the hill in the 1700s, was re-routed in the 1800s to the gentler north along what is today the Old Belfast Road.)

As an aside, this period of road building lasted for several decades in the early 1800s, and was really the height of road building in Ireland. Significantly more miles of new roads were built in Ireland in these few decades than were built in the entire 20th century. The road building boom ended with the introduction of railways when a lot of goods and passenger traffic switched to rail.

But when it came to steep hills, there was nothing else for it but to introduce switchbacks. Hence the map of 1902 looks very different:

A series of switchbacks have been introduced on the lower section, while a large loop of road has been built at the upper right. Carriages and carts found this a much easier road to use. You can see that part of the old road lower down (under the word “Lodge” above) has completely disappeared, probably absorbed into the farmland. This was relatively straightforward since roads at that time were often quite insubstantial, unsurfaced affairs, and could be returned to nature or agricultural use with ease. You can see, however, that the upper section of the old road remained in use, probably because it would still have been useful for pedestrians, for whom the large loop to the right was perhaps a little too far out of the way for everyone to use.

You can see traces of similar loops in many other places such as here in Holywood or here on the Ballygowan Road.

Then we come to the early 20th century when the motor car was invented. This changed things again, because cars were not limited by inclines in the way that horses were. Indeed, lorries found switchbacks difficult to use and car drivers found them tortuous due to the low speeds necessitated and higher risk of going off the road. Hence, at some point around the 1960s or 70s the road was altered again, this time to introduce a straighter road that went up the hill, but utilising gentler curves more suitable for motor vehicles. So the 1983 map looks like this (note also the appearance of Parliament Buildings):

Both the switchbacks and the loop of road to the upper right have remained in use, due to the need to access properties along them, but traffic once again goes steeply up the hill, albeit on a slightly different alignment than two centuries previously. And that is the situation today. Of course, the Craigantlet Hill Climb pre-dates this particular upgrade, so continues to use the 1800s road with its switchbacks, which is perfect for the race!

Very best wishes to the participants and spectators of the Hill Climb!


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