The leading, global, travel-publisher Lonely Planet recently crowned Belfast and the Causeway Coast as “the world’s best region to visit” in 2018.
The runners-up for the much-coveted crown include Alaska’s snow-laden mountains and glacier-studded fiords; Slovenia’s majestic Julian Alps; southern France’s spectacular Roman remains and Japan’s mountainous Kii Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean.
One of the jewels in Lonely Planet’s exclusive crown is the Gobbins Cliff Path, near Islandmagee, on the Causeway Coastal Route.
The spectacular, historic, 1.2-mile coastal walk with its museum, visitor centre and café, will reopen on Saturday 28th April following upgrades and extensions to the pathway.
The late, great, local travel-writer and thespian Richard Hayward, often quoted on Roamer’s page, swooned about the Gobbins – “whatever you do, don’t miss the mile of wonder”.
The visitor centre’s intriguing exhibition hails the dramatic coastal trail as “a reimagined version of Northern Ireland’s best kept secret”, quoting some of Hayward’s descriptions of the rocky coastline “pierced and fretted by the tireless sea”.
And nature’s timeless sculpting is enhanced, and accessed, by some truly remarkable man-made piercing and fretting!
In his guidebook to the first path when it opened in 1902, travel writer William J Fennell enthused about the “many strange fantastic forms beaten into deep recesses, worked out into islands and hollowed into caves. There is nothing, in short nothing, like the Gobbins,” stressed Fennell, “anywhere else in the world.”
As tourism burgeoned at the dawn of the 20th century, the Gobbins attracted worldwide acclaim, with newspapers declaring “the varied beauty of this cliff path baffles all description”.
“Strong but wonderfully delicate bridges of iron stretch across the foaming water,” announced Australia’s World News magazine in 1903.
“So perfect in its execution…so grand in its results” wrote an early traveller describing the Gobbins’, “Norwegian scenery”!
Over a century later the Gobbins remains a global, natural phenomenon with visitors’ tweets and day-trippers’ comments peppered with praise – “awesome”, “marvellous”, “fantastic”, “spectacular”.
The sheer, soaring, basalt cliffs are named after a huge, rocky elevation that resembles a snout or a ‘gob’.
The path’s sleek, lattice-work, tubular bridges evoke a sense of walking on water, or on air, or both, as they reach across deep gullies and inlets that are murmuring with the swell of the North Channel.
RMS Titanic plied outlying currents on her rigorous “measured mile” sea-trials when the Gobbins first decade of visitors trod the rugged path devised by Berkeley Deane Wise, then chief engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company.
Deane’s watch was well ahead of its time and with his pioneering colleague Edward Cotton, the two men virtually invented modern tourism here.
After constructing a series of innovative attractions at beautiful Glenariff which could be reached by rail, and building a promenade, auditorium and bandstand at Whitehead, Wise masterminded the mammoth task of building the Gobbins path.
The first chisels chimed on the cliffs in May 1901.
Small bridges were constructed on-site and more elaborate spans were built in Belfast, transported by train and boat and then hoisted into position by hundreds of workmen using ropes and pulleys.
Berkeley Deane Wise completed the first section of his path in August 1902, from Wise’s Eye, a dark tunnel at the start of his rocky route, to Gordon’s Leap, where shoals of fish leap towards the sun.
It was mostly hand-carved, making the lesser man-made Giant’s Causeway seem like crazy paving!
The prohibitive cost of maintaining the path became increasingly unattractive to a railway company with profits slashed by the 1930s Depression and by the increasing popularity of cars.
The path was closed during First World War and fell into disrepair.
A section was re-opened in 1951 until a massive landfall made it impossible to venture as far as Gordon’s Leap.
The path was closed again in 1954 and was finally abandoned about seven years later.
In 2011 Larne Borough Council made funds available from ratepayers to add to European funding and with support from
Ulster Garden Villages the £7.5 million path with its visitor centre once again became a wonder, though not a wander, in 2015.
It’s a constantly undulating trek with many steps, to the first of the iconic Seven Sisters caves – and then back again.
The path is narrow and uneven, often steep, and “a good level of fitness is required to enjoy the experience” advises the Gobbins’ detailed list of terms and conditions.
“Suitable outdoor clothing and walking boots or shoes are essential,” the list expands, and “without exception, all guests must wear a safety helmet…you must be fit enough to climb 50 flights of stairs and walk a very steep 1 in 5 gradient.”
Several dozen metal bridges, walkways and ubiquitous safety railings and handrails are punctuated with the past, where some of Berkeley Deane Wise’s rusted fixtures and fittings remind trekkers of his first path at a lower level where high tides and rough seas took their toll.
Via Smugglers’ cave and Spleenwort cave, through a dark, ghostly, undersea tunnel, along rocky points and flower-clad outcrops, the captivating cliff-side path brings visitors to Puffin Platform, the end of the walk and the beginning of the Seven Sisters caves.
Then back again through the “mile of wonder” refreshed, if fatigued, by Ulster’s unique rock of ages.
Full visitor information is on www.thegobbinscliffpath.com.