Described as “the most dramatic walk in Europe”, the Gobbins Cliff Path is a popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Amazingly it still seems to be a bit of a secret further afield though. I’ve been talking about it quite a bit since I visited last year and find it surprising how many people have never heard of it.
Something tells me that’s not going to be a secret for much longer though. Walking the Gobbins Path is a really unique and exhilarating experience and if you’re planning a trip to Belfast or the Causeway Coast, I’d highly recommend that you include it on your itinerary. Actually, if you have no plans for either of those trips, you’ll want to go and do this anyway!
The Gobbins 2.0
Though a relatively new attraction in its current form, the original path at The Gobbins first opened way back in 1902. It became very popular, attracting as many, if not more visitors than the Giant’s Causeway.
Unfortunately in the late 1930s the high cost of maintenance and the effects of the Depression took their toll and the Gobbins Path was closed. In 1951 it was reopened for a time, only to close once again in 1954. It was later completely abandoned and fell into disrepair. However, the location continued to draw thrill-seekers, such as climbers and abseilers over the years.
Experiencing The Gobbins
Luckily, you don’t have to take as many risks to visit now. Following massive investment the Gobbins was once again opened to visitors in 2015. While not open to public (the entrance is locked), you can experience it as part of a guided group.
I visited with friends while road tripping around Northern Ireland and it’s one of the things I was looking forward to most. It did not disappoint.
The Gobbins Visitor Centre
These days the adventure starts at the Gobbins Visitor Centre a short drive away from the path. As well as being the start point for walkers, there’s a nice café on site, as well as a gift shop and an exhibition on the Gobbins.
At the visitor centre you can hire boots if needed and are required to attend a short briefing. It only lasts about 10 minutes or so with a quick introduction and a few health and safety tips and checks. You’ll also get a helmet and headset, which is needed to hear your guide along the trail.
The helmets are compulsory, as are the hiking boots. Both of my friends had decent walking/trail shoes but it didn’t matter. Proper ankle support is required so you must wear sturdy boots. If you do need to hire boots, arrive a little earlier to make sure you can grab your size. At the time of our visit it cost £5 to hire the boots along with a £5 refundable deposit.
Note that you can’t bring any bags on the path, so no backpacks or camera bags. Your camera needs to either fit in your pocket or be worn around your neck. Unfortunately that meant I had to leave my camera behind. There’s no chance of getting it in a pocket and it was a rainy, miserable day so I couldn’t wear it around my neck as I had nothing to protect it.
Though my camera bag was only a small one that I could have worn on my front, I still wasn’t allowed to bring it. Once you’re out there on the edge of the cliffs there’s no shelter, so don’t risk it if your camera isn’t weather sealed and doesn’t fit it in your pocket. Just be grateful for your phone camera!
Same goes for sticks or walking poles, they’re not allowed. You can bring water but only if it fits in our pocket or is worn around your neck on a lanyard. Basically, you need to have your hands free at all times. There are free lockers provided so your belongings will be safe while you’re gone.
For the walk itself, we paid £15 pp at the time of our visit. I actually think it’s very reasonably priced for such a unique experience.
Ready to Go
After the briefing, you’ll be taken by bus to the starting point of the walk. It’s only about a 5 minute drive. From there it’s a very steep descent down to the coast and the start of the Gobbins path. The overall experience is described as strenuous but in reality it’s this access road that’s the painful part.
It can be tough on the joints going down and obviously it’s not much fun climbing back up at the end either! The hill is extremely steep in a couple of parts but if you’re moderately fit and healthy you should be fine. Out of breath for sure, but fine. The group goes at an easy pace and your guide will stop along the way to let you catch your breath.
However, if you have a heart condition, joint problems, asthma or diabetes you are advised not to participate in the walk. If you’re unsure, it’s probably best to call ahead and discuss your concerns with a staff member.
The actual start point of the Gobbins path is at Wise’s Eye, named after Berkeley Deane Wise, the man behind its creation.
Wise was Chief Engineer for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway (BNCR) for 18 years. He designed the path to draw tourists to the area, using the newly extended rail lines of course. The construction of the path was an incredible feat of engineering and became his great masterpiece.
At Wise’s Eye, stone steps lead you through the tunnelled entrance to the other side of a basalt outcrop. Here on the edge of the coast, at the base of dramatic cliffs, the real fun begins!
What to Expect
The cliff path is 2 miles or approximately 3.2 kms long. You can probably add another 1km each way for the steep walk down to the start and back up again. Given that the tours average about 2.5hrs, you can get an idea of the pace of the walk. It’s pretty relaxed.
You’ll follow your guide along a narrow path which hugs the cliff face. Rough cut steps take you past sea stacks, chasms and caves. There are a number of bridges and a tunnel which briefly takes you below sea-level.
You’ll be treading the same steps that were carved out over a century ago, using only hammers and chisels. Along the way you can still see the remains of some of the old bridges and platforms too. Some parts have survived surprisingly well considering the beating they take from the elements.
The iconic Tubular Bridge is probably the image most associated with The Gobbins. It was also known as the Hoop Bridge and featured in many photos and postcards of the attraction. So naturally, including a new Tubular Bridge for the path was a must. The bridge leads you across to a sea stack known as the Man O’War.
The bridge is just one of many stops along the way, giving your guide the opportunity to fill you in on more of the history of the path, tales of smugglers and lots more. And of course giving you the chance to get some photos too!
What A Difference A Century Makes!
Back in the day walking the Gobbins Path would have been a very different experience. There were sections of the old trail that were much trickier to navigate and that was without any railings to stop you from slipping into the sea! Old photos show people walking the path in their Sunday best while women even did it wearing heels. And there wasn’t a single helmet in sight.
Of course with health and safety regulations being what they are today, it’s definitely not the challenge it once was. Does that take away from the experience? I don’t think so and it certainly opens up the opportunity for a lot more people to enjoy it.
How Hard Is The Gobbins Experience?
That is as long as they don’t get put off when reading the information on the website. It certainly led me to believe the walk would be a lot tougher than it actually is. I get that the company needs to cover themselves and look out for anyone that may get into difficulty, but it would also be a shame if people miss out, thinking that they wouldn’t be able for this walk.
In truth, we didn’t find it particularly strenuous at all. Yes there is the very steep walk down to the cliff path and back up again but that 10 – 15 mins each way (but mainly on the way back!) is as tough as it gets. Check the Tripadvisor reviews and you’ll see that people of all ages have completed the walk with no problem and many have made similar comments.
If you have average fitness and don’t suffer from any medical conditions, you should be able for this walk. Again, if you are unsure or have concerns, discuss them with the staff first. Your guide on the day will also check in with you about three times before the walk about any medical conditions, so it is something that’s taken very seriously.
The only other thing that might be an issue is if you have claustrophobia as there is a section where you have to go through a tunnel. I’m a little claustrophobic but it wasn’t a tight squeeze at all so there was no problem there. That’s it in the photos below. So again I wouldn’t worry too much, unless you suffer severely.
Actually, there is one more thing…if you’re afraid of birds you will encounter lots along the way so that’s something to bear in mind. More on that below.
Along the path there is a large colony of Kittiwakes, and you need to pass their breeding area. We had to use the provided hand sanitiser before and after this section. The birds are monitored and remarkably have shown no ill effect from the passing traffic. In fact, the colony is thriving which is nice to know.
There are other birds in the area too. We even got to see Puffins, albeit with binoculars as they were a little far way. However it was a first for one of my friends, so that was a highlight for her. There is also the possibility of seeing dolphins and porpoises, fish and seals so keep an eye on the water.
So, just in case I haven’t make it clear yet, I loved the Gobbins! Our guide, Donal, was fantastic and everything is very professionally managed and well organised.
There are plans to extend the walk in the future too, which would be amazing. It was part of Wise’s vision but unfortunately he died before it was achieved and it never came to fruition. Hopefully it will be completed this time and I for one, will be back to check it out.
With a bit of luck I’ll get some fine weather and manage to bring the camera along too!
Good To Know Before You Go
- Arrive 15 mins prior to your booking time or your ticket may be sold to someone else. If you need to hire boots, aim to get there even earlier. Sizes are limited so you don’t want to be left unable to join the walk.
- Bring a change of clothes for after. Depending on the weather you may get waves crashing up on the rocks so you might need a change after.
- Bring your camera and something waterproof to cover it! Or at least have your phone handy for pictures. There are lots of great photo opportunities along the trail.
- Remember you can only take items that fit in your pocket or that can be worn around your neck. Lockers are provided free of charge for any items you have to leave behind.
- Book in advance, particularly during peak season, or risk disappointment.
- The walks go ahead in pretty much all weather conditions apart from very strong gales or storms
Getting To The Gobbins
If you’re travelling by car the Gobbins is an easy trip from Belfast, being about a forty minute drive from the city centre.
Public transport is a little trickier, particularly as the local bus service is very limited. Your best bet would be to take the train to Ballycarry station on the Belfast – Larne line. From there it’s a 15 – 20 minute walk to the visitor centre.