George McGrand

The Gobbins Path, a miracle of Edwardian engineering, is a network of bridges and pathways carved into the Antrim cliffside, a few miles from Carrickfergus.

According to George McGrand, who has been taking visitors on this remarkable journey since it re-opened in 2015, to truly appreciate the path you must understand the genius of the man who created it, Berkeley Dean Wise.

A pioneering engineer, Wise was brought to this area by the Belfast and Co Down Railway in 1888, to help open it up to the rapidly growing phenomenon of tourism.

“At this time”, George says, “Belfast was undergoing an extraordinary population boom and people were desperate to get out of the crowded city and take train excursions to the countryside.”

Wise’s work dramatically increased this kind of railway tourism. “He started by creating a promenade at Whitehead, a horse and coach ride away from the Gobbins,” George says. “Then, in 1992, he built his first coastal path at nearby Blackhead. That success inspired the Gobbins, which opened in 1902.”

Wise’s achievement, without the benefit of modern technology, was a source of wonderment to the contemporary engineers who re-imagined the path in recent years. No explosives, which would damage rock formations, were used. Just a hammer and chisel to carve paths and build steps. Cast iron bridges were brought by rail and barge, before being winched into place by pulley systems.

But, George says, the leap of faith was justified. Described as ‘having no parallel in Europe’, the Gobbins became so popular that Wise had to build a second railway station in Whitehead (now Whitehead Railway Museum).  “It was advertised in Europe and people came from far and wide. It seems to have been a bigger attraction than the Giant’s Causeway.”

Sadly, a lack of funding following the Second World War saw the path fall into disrepair, and it finally closed in 1963.

Then, in 2014, a new generation of innovative engineers began their re-imagining of the path. Stainless steel bridges were dropped in by huge mobile cranes to replace Wise’s old cast iron ones. New railings were installed too. But, otherwise, it is exactly the same path as people would have walked in 1902.

For George, just returned from working on environmental projects around the world, the chance to take visitors around the Gobbins was a dream come true. “I thought I had retired, but when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it.”

“On opening day, I was struck by the sheer delight of people. They had heard stories of the Gobbins from their grandparents, now they were walking the same path. It was very emotional.”

What would George describe as his highlights of the unique two-mile walk?

“Right at the beginning, as you walk through the hollowed-out rock entrance, Wise’s Eye, you have this feeling of going into another world. You get your first view of the cliffs, formed 60 million years ago, towering above you.”

“Then we come to the Tubular Bridge, hugging the cliff. All the bridges are of Wise’s original design. It’s such an extraordinary structure, it looks contemporary today. As a place to see wildlife it has few equals, especially in early summer when thousands of birds arrive to feed on the herring and mackerel.”

“We’re just a few metres from nesting sea birds feeding their chicks. We’ve learned to work with them, so they are not disturbed by us. It’s an incredible sight, the closest you can get to these seabird colonies. This is the only mainland colony of puffins in Northern Ireland and they are the big attraction but there are also guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes in large numbers.”

“The best view of the seabirds is at the Aquarium, as you watch them chase fish left by the retreating tide. We’re so close to the water we can taste the salt in the air, the spray of waves crashing against the cliffs. The fish also bring in harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, seals, otters, hawks and puffins in their wake.”

“At the cantilevered bridge known as the Gallery, there is a viewing area where you can see across to Scotland. Just out from here is where the larger Harland & Wolff ships held their sea trials. This was where locals would have had the best view of Titanic.”

“I also love the tunnel, a cave below sea level, but, thanks to Wise’s innovative engineering, you walk through it completely dry. You have to experience it to believe it. And that goes for the rest of the Gobbins. Words can never do it justice!”