Exploring the Gobbins

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Over a century old, a dramatic cliff-face walk in Islandmagee reopened yesterday. Charlie Warmington took an incredible journey on the re-imagined Gobbins Path

If Finn MacCool applied today for planning permission for his Giant’s Causeway he’d probably be turned down on the grounds that it’s too repetitive!

“All those stones are the same shape,” the planning officer would suggest, “people will get bored. And there’s definitely a big problem with rising damp!”

Another giant, Berkeley Deane Wise, similarly raised a few official eyebrows at the turn of the 20th century when he came up with the idea for his Gobbins path at Islandmagee.

Mr Wise, a ‘giant of engineering’ and chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company, believed that the Gobbins scenery rivalled anywhere else in the world.

But no one could see the soaring cliffs, deep caves and spectacular rock formations except fishermen from their boats.

Berkeley’s beautiful, basalt wonder-of-the-world was inaccessible, except to its ubiquitous seagulls.

So he planned a pathway along, beneath, through and under the 150 to 200 million-year-old, almost vertical and almost impenetrable sea-pounded rocks!

His plan was ingenious – and formidable.

It required detailed surveys, measurements and rock samples. It navigated all the best vantage points.

It crossed the deepest gullies, gripped the steepest cliffs, and embraced the enchanting Seven Sisters caves.

It was a hugely innovative, panoramic trek intended to amaze and astonish Northern Ireland’s train users, because it was the Northern Counties Railway that beckoned Belfast folk to explore their previously unvisited coastline.

Having intricately planned his rocky route, Berkeley Deane Wise’s next problem was to build it!

This was no mean feat - 169 feet to be precise, of sheer cliffs that needed to be scaled by hundreds of workmen hand-chiselling their way along over a mile of isolated, solid, basalt coastline, no matter what the weather and sea conditions!

Berkeley Deane’s almost impossible dream, in the days before mechanised drills, cranes and bulldozers, was fuelled by his absolute belief that the Gobbins rivalled any other natural phenomenon in the world.

Along with his pioneering colleague Edward Cotton, the path was completed and opened to the public in 1902.

It was hugely popular.

Visitors from here and around the world marvelled at the sheer magnitude of the cliffs, at the panoramic views, and at Wise’s brilliant planning and engineering.

The path was closed during WWII and fell into disrepair.

A section was reopened in 1951 until a massive landfall made it impossible for walkers to complete the trail.

The path was closed again in 1954 and was finally abandoned about seven years later.

Only the most experienced and enthusiastic trekkers, climbers kayakers and abseilers were able to savour (unauthorised!) its almost inaccessible allure until yesterday, when “a reimagined version of Northern Ireland’s best kept secret” was reopened along with a magnificent Visitors Centre.

Larne Borough Council made funds available for the £7.5m project from ratepayers, along with European Union money and with support from Ulster Garden Villages Ltd.

“You are about to be treated to some spectacle,” said centre manager Alastair Bell, stressing the word ‘some’ and with more than a hint of awe in his voice.

I was waiting with several other media folk to embark on the “reimagined version” of a walk described in the 1950s by travel-writer and thespian Richard Hayward a “mile of wonder.”

It’s actually a little under a mile, and while it’s certainly a wonder, it’s definitely not a wander, as was made abundantly clear by our tour guide Mark Robinson!

Handing us multi-coloured, regulation safety helmets, Mark outlined nine ‘tips’ for trekkers, including one requirement that’s not common in today’s newspaper industry – “a basic level of fitness!”

“Wear suitable footwear,” he requested firmly, “and look out for bird poo!”

The importance of the first of Mark’s entreaties became immediately evident when the bus dropped us off several miles from the Visitors Centre – at an unnervingly steep lane that led dizzyingly downwards onto a curving, many-stepped path to Wise’s Eye, the original entrance tunnel to Berkeley Deane’s rock-hewn path.

Mark pointed out the Copeland Islands “which inspired Gulliver’s Travels” and Blackhead Lighthouse “which inspired the Gobbins path.”

The path from Whitehead to the lighthouse is marked with a commemorative stone to Berkeley Deane who transformed the town into a tourist mecca, crowned by the cliff-side path beyond Wise’s Eye.

Dozens of Scarlet Pimpernel flowers peeped flamboyantly from a verge-side framed with nodding blue Harebell “known as the County Antrim flower” explained Mark.

We went through Wise’s Eye where ticket collectors of yore needed a sharp eye because “ladies in long Victorian dresses used to hide their children under their skirts to get them in free.”

“The Gobbins path in total is about 1,000 metres, roughly a mile,” explained Mark “and we’re about a quarter of a mile down from the bus.”

“These boots were made for walking” I hoped grimly as Wise’s Eye opened onto a lengthening vista of steep, undulating rocks and carved stone steps into Hayward’s ‘mile of wonder.”