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Wood you believe it... £48k cash injection for historic attraction

By Sophie Inge

Published 18/10/2016

Toni Wilkinson and Andrew Christie from Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in north Belfast put the Woodland Trust’s Throne Wood under the microscope
Toni Wilkinson and Andrew Christie from Hazelwood Integrated Primary School in north Belfast put the Woodland Trust’s Throne Wood under the microscope

Belfast's historic Throne Wood is about to get a makeover - thanks to a £48,000 windfall.

The wood - at the foot of Cave Hill in the north of the city - has a colourful past, with famous occupants over the last two centuries including a poet and even an elephant.

It is hoped the funding will encourage more visitors to explore the hidden history of the place.

Works will include improved pathways, interpretation panels, pond improvements and a new dipping platform.

Improvements to an area used as an outdoor classroom by the neighbouring primary school, Hazelwood Integrated, are also in the works.

The funding was awarded by the Alpha Programme, administered by Groundwork Northern Ireland.

Rosie Irwin, site manager for the Woodland Trust, which owns the wood, said: "This is a truly special wood, but something of a secret. And now, thanks to funding from the Alpha Programme, we have an opportunity to put Throne Wood on the map.

"We want walkers, nature-lovers and families to have a chance to visit and appreciate this wonderful natural resource. It really is a breath of fresh air in a very urban setting."

Probably planted in the early 1800s, the wood formed part of the estate of a house marked on the 1830 Ordnance Survey map as 'The Throne', which was home in the 1820s to the poet Sir Samuel Ferguson - later revered by W.B. Yeats.

The wood was also the scene of one of Northern Ireland's most famous wartime stories.

During the Belfast blitz of 1941, the wood helped provide refuge for Sheila, a baby elephant from nearby Belfast Zoo. A number of other zoo animals were shot on orders from the Ministry of Public Security, over fears that the animals might escape during the bombing. Baby Sheila was saved from this fate by zoo-keeper Denise Austen - better known as the "elephant angel" - who kept the animal in her home at night.

Without the knowledge of the head-keeper, she walked the calf each night through the wood to her home on Whitewell Road.

The young elephant managed to stay hidden, due to the large walls surrounding the zoo keeper's home.

Each morning, Ms Austin would return the elephant to the zoo.

The zookeeper became known as the "elephant angel" as her identity was unknown until a public appeal was launched a few years ago.

Filming for Zoo - a movie based on the story - began last month.

Although only faint traces of Throne House remain, several of the wood's oldest trees - including beech and lime - have survived.

Today, the wood teems with wildlife - including insects and birds, such as the goldcrest, treecreeper, jay and sparrowhawk.

Several species of bat, such as the common pipistrelle, have also been spotted.

Speaking on behalf of the Alpha Programme, Warren Bell of Alpha Resource Management said: "We are delighted to support Throne Wood, a Woodland Trust wood.

"This lovely mature woodland offers an oasis of beauty and tranquillity close to the northern edge of Belfast's suburbia. It has a wonderful mix of wildlife, including spring flowers, ponds and open glades."

Throne Wood will officially reveal its new look next spring.

Established in 2008 by Alpha Resource Management, the Alpha Programme distributes funding in the form of landfill tax credits to projects within a 10-mile radius of the Mullaghglass landfill site, on the outskirts of Lisburn.

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