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The walk follows the recently restored and refurbished Blackhead Path past the coves and caves of a rocky segment of the Belfast Lough shoreline. The path includes a fairly steep climb up steps to Black Head Lighthouse, from where you can enjoy captivating views across the Irish Sea to the two small islands known as The Maidens and beyond to Scotland. A winding track leads back down to meet the lower path and return to Whitehead. This is a short walk which can be supplemented with a visit to the town of Whitehead, in its day an elegant Victorian seaside resort.
Start and Finish
Whitehead Car Park, Old Castle Road, BT38 9ND. Parking is free.
Some steep steps, but no other obvious hazards. However, it is advisable to make sure the path is open. Occasional rock falls can cause closures, which can last for several days, even weeks, until repairs are completed. The Blackhead Path Preservation Society Facebook page is a handy guide to the current state of the path and is likely to be the most up to date source. The responsible council should also be able to provide updates https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/
Toilets with provision for those with disabilities, as well as baby-changing facilities, at Castleview Pavilion on the recreational grounds, Islandmagee Road, BT38 9NA, about 400m from the car park.
There are a small number of pubs, cafes and restaurants in Whitehead. The town also hosts a railway museum under the auspices of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. The museum combines traditional displays and exhibits with multimedia and interactive presentations allowing visitors to experience steam trains in action. Further information at Railway Preservation Society of Ireland.
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The path begins at the north end of the car park. The information board traces the history of the walk, established in 1888 with assistance from the railway company with the aim of attracting day trippers and holiday makers to the growing resort of Whitehead.
Information panels add detail to the history and environment of the area, including the Wren’s Eggs, two massive boulders on the shore. These, we learn, are erratics, transported and deposited by a glacier. The name reflects local humour, suggesting that such enormous boulders might be the eggs of one of Ireland’s smallest birds. The inlet on the Black Head side of the Wren’s Eggs was once the busy Port Davey. It is recorded as far back as 1642 and remained in use until the 1970s.
A small outdoor fitness centre leads on to two somewhat incongruous modern dwellings with very impressive gardens. Keep an eye on the seaward side as there’s every chance of spotting seals and harbour porpoises, with pods of dolphins a rare treat. In summer, gannets and terns can be seen diving for fish. Fulmars, ravens and peregrines nest in the shelter of the cliffs.
As the headland and lighthouse approach, the cliffs take on an almost perpendicular sheerness. Their protective netting is designed to prevent rockfalls, a feature that can lead to closures of the path. Handrails and a sound concrete path are further evidence of the recent refurbishment.
After passing through a narrow passage in the rock, a set of steps begins the steep trek to the lighthouse. The staircase soon turns sharply left while, looking north, Islandmagee and the Gobbins cliffs catch the eye. The height gain is dramatically revealed by a look down towards the lower path.
The lighthouse began operating in 1902 and over the years it has guided countless boats to safety in and out of Belfast Lough, including of course, RMS Titanic which left Belfast for Southampton on 2 April 1912. Access to the lighthouse is not permitted, although the three lightkeepers’ houses are available as holiday rentals View Properties | Irish Landmark Trust.
The path passes round the perimeter of the lighthouse grounds and heads south up a flight of steps and along a narrow path with attractive fuchsia hedging. A newly installed boardwalk guides walkers through a steep downhill section, followed by stone steps and handrails as another view of the lighthouse appears to the north.
As the path descends, expect pleasant views of the local greenery and an extensive vista of Belfast Lough and the mile-long jetty that services Kilroot Power Station. The facility has recently begun transition from fossil fuel to lower carbon gas generation. The path soon joins the main Blackhead path and returns to the car park.
As it’s a short walk, why not have a look around Whitehead. The arrival of the railway in 1862 provided the catalyst for the town to expand. With rail travel, the town became an important link between Larne and Belfast and people began building homes in the area. The railway encouraged day trippers from Belfast and Victorian entrepreneurs, realising the town’s potential, built villas, hotels, restaurants and a seaside promenade. A lido and sea water swimming pool followed later. The present day town retains echoes of its former elegance, but most of its former opulence has gone. However, the promenade remains a magnificent place for a stroll with the multi-coloured seafront on one side and the splendour of Belfast Lough on the other. The former coastguard cottages building, now seven private residences, is one of the oldest of its kind still standing in Northern Ireland, and is a listed and protected building.
Regular train service from Belfast. Check Translink
By car from the south, take the M5 and A2 through Carrickfergus and keep straight on. It’s obvious when you reach Whitehead.
you appreciate sea views and prefer a reasonably easy walk on a good surface. The path up to the lighthouse is steep, but should be doable with a moderate degree of fitness. The views throughout the walk are a delight and will of course be enhanced by clear weather conditions.
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The peninsula of Islandmagee is just north of Whitehead. It takes about half an hour to drive round the perimeter. Interesting places to visit include the charming small port of Portmuck and the excellent beach at Brown’s Bay.
The highlight of a visit to Islandmagee is the Gobbins Cliff Path. The Path was the brainchild of Berkeley Deane Wise, Chief Engineer on the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway and a brilliant innovator who had already designed the promenade and bandstand at Whitehead and imported sand to create a beach there.
Construction of the Gobbins Path began in 1901. Wise’s vision of tunnels and bridges spanning the cliffs was implemented, steel girder bridges built in Belfast being brought to Whitehead on barges and moved up the coastline on rafts before being winched into place on lines dropped from the clifftops.
The first part of the path was opened in 1902, with additional sections added later. It was a huge success, attracting visitors from across Ireland and Britain with as many people walking the path as visiting the Giant’s Causeway each year.
The path was closed during the Second World War until reopening in 1950. However, the ravages of time and tide led to frequent landslips and maintenance problems, forcing its closure in 1954.
Fifty years later, Larne Borough Council announced an ambitious plan to restore and reopen The Gobbins. Fifteen new bridges and six elevated paths were built using the latest materials. It reopened in 2016 with visitors being bussed to the Gobbins from a new Visitors’ Centre (The Gobbins Visitor Centre, Middle Road, Islandmagee BT40 3SL T: +44 (0) 28 9337 2318). To book a visit and for further information, check https://thegobbinscliffpath.com/.
Derek, 74, spent 35 years working in national, academic and public libraries, followed by 14 years in the wine trade. He only began serious walking in his 60s, although he had previously travelled many miles on foot pursuing his favourite hobby of fishing. After retirement, he decided to give the fish a rest and bother the hills of Ireland and Britain instead. Derek regards walking as a simple pleasure to be enjoyed, not endured, and prefers a solo hike in quiet, remote surroundings.
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