Northern Ireland's Gobbins is a coastal trail taking walkers back in time as they explore the Islandmagee coast, writes Pól Ó Conghaile
There are coastal paths, and then there is The Gobbins.
Stepping through 'Wise's Eye', a hole bored into basalt off the coast of Islandmagee, Co Antrim, salty sea air whacks me in the face. The ocean's roar cranks up in volume. I grip the chain handrail.
Ahead is a mile or so of hand-chiselled paths, deftly engineered bridges, steps, caves, coves and at one point a 22m tunnel that actually takes our walking group below sea level. The hard hats we wear are not for fun.
At several points, I find myself not just walking along the Irish Sea, but actually right out over it. Surf slurps and booms into hidden crevices. Two sea-kayakers bob past us in the near distance, and birds babble overhead.
'The Gobbins' opened as a 21st-century tourist attraction in 2015. But as walkers learn, it began life as an Edwardian engineering marvel designed to attract travellers in a golden age of railways.
"On a busy day, they say the Gobbins was busier than Royal Avenue in Belfast," says Eddie, the guide leading our group through 'Wise's Eye'.
All access to the coastal route is guided for safety reasons, and the trail now has Northern Ireland's ‘Good to Go’ charter mark in place - with enhanced, Covid-19 health measures including pre-booking and one-way systems.
A higher cliff path is free to access, but to walk the original, restored route, you need to buy a ticket (£20pp) at the visitor centre near Whitehead, joining a group safety briefing and a five-minute bus ride to the trailhead. Group sizes are restricted, but my minibus was still fairly full, so don't forget those face masks.
The trail starts with a short but steep descent, passing farmsteads where tea was once poured and dishes like boiled bacon served for Edwardian day-trippers. Today, the scene is rustic and calm - onions are laid out to dry in a shed, apple trees are popping with autumn fruit; a clucking hen dips about by a parked tractor.
On the horizon, an undulating line of land is visible.
"That’s Scotland," Eddie says.
The path itself is tight, hugging the coast so much that backpacks are not permitted. We walk in single file, with waves lapping just a few feet beneath us - and regularly spraying visitors on wetter or windier days.
Today's bridges are shiny stainless steel, but traces of the original iron and concrete works are still visible. Built "with hand tools by men in cloth hats", as we're told, the original Gobbins dates from 1902, when it was designed as a tourist attraction to wow travellers using newly expanded railway lines. Whitehead, on Islandmagee, was one beauty spot, and this path engineered by Berkeley Deane Wise became one of the island's most talked about coastal attractions.
Incidentally, Wise also worked on the extension of Dublin's Kingstown line around Bray Head in the 1870s - a network of tunnels, viaducts and bridges you can still see on the Bray to Greystones cliff walk today.
'Wise's Eye' is named after the Chief Engineer.
And 'The Gobbins"?
"It means ‘headlands or snout'," Eddie says. "Do you know the phrase, 'Shut your gob’?"
The original path fell into disrepair after closing during the Second World War. Maintaining it had become too costly for a railway company hit by the Depression of the 1930s, and the growing popularity of cars. A section reopened in the 1950s, but it was closed again in 1954 following a landfall and finally abandoned some years later.
The guided walk unfolds at a gentle pace, with plenty of stops for stories of smugglers, views of the old constructions, or educations on the wildlife flitting about above and below.
Seals and dolphins can be spotted offshore, puffins nest in the cliffs (in season), and there are gannets and cormorants diving for fish too. April to August is best for birdwatchers - but there are no guarantees, of course.
"Nature shows up when it wants to show up," as Eddie says.
One highlight (or lowlight, if you're at all claustrophobic) is that 22m tunnel that passes below sea level. Our feet stay dry, but it's a tight crack to creep through, and the booming sound of the surf adds an edge - so let your guide know if you feel anxious or if you'd prefer to go to the front of the group.
Larne Borough Council have done a super job restoring the iconic attraction - in the future, I'd love to see investment to link the lower and upper cliff paths into a loop.
That really would be a coastal trail for the ages.
Level: Moderate. The path is short and won't trouble fit hikers, but there is a steep descent (and ascent at the end). "It is the equivalent of climbing and descending 50 flights of steps", the official website says - so think twice if you have back and joint problems, or heart and breathing conditions. Tours do operate in strong wind and heavy rain, but not in severe weather conditions - either way, expect to get wet. Distance: 4.5km (3 miles) approx. Allow 2.5 hours for the tour. Tips: Guided tours run from 9am to 3pm (they leave promptly, so arrive early). Tickets cost £20/£14.50, with a family rate of £42 for two adults and up to three children. Book in advance, use the loo at the visitor centre, and note that trainers are not allowed (boots or walking shoes can be hired for £5). A bite nearby: There's a basic cafe alongside the exhibition at The Gobbins Visitor Centre, doing breakfast fry-ups, quiches and the like. It's no great shakes, but you may like a cuppa there after the walk. More info: thegobbinscliffpath.com; discovernorthernireland.com