The restoration of Gobbins Coastal Path, situated on the famous Causeway Coast, Islandmagee, is progressing well and is set to be fully completed by December 2014.
The £7 million project will see Gobbins Cliff Path restored, after it fell into a state of disrepair following its closure in 1954. Many of the original metalwork structures and rails had been damaged or collapsed because of rust and the action of the sea. Since receiving funds in January 2013 Larne Borough Council began working on the scheme to revamp the coastal path and surrounding area.
The path was initially built in 1902 and in its heyday attracted more visitors than the Giant’s Causeway. The original path was designed by Berkley Dean Wise for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company as a commercial venture to attract passengers to use their rail link between Belfast and Whitehead. The path used to be three quarters of a mile long and was linked by a series of spectacular metal bridges. This scheme aims to recreate the original experience.
The project has also funded the construction of a brand new visitor’s centre which is currently nearing completion. McLaughlin & Harvey, who were appointed as the main contractors on the project, are midway through the fit out of the building. The community facility in the visitors centre is mostly complete. The site’s car park, situated outside the visitors centre is completed as well, so from the outside the centre appears almost ready.
Works began on the renovation of the coastal path in March this year. We caught up with Geraldine McGahey, Chief Executive at Larne Borough Council, to find out more. She said:
“We have developed the path project on three levels; in addition to the cliff face path, we have also developed a stainless steel staircase which leads visitors from the cliff top down the face of the cliff.
“As well as this we have constructed a path that runs along the edge of the cliff, at the top, as we were conscious that the cliff face path wasn’t going to be accessible for everyone. We feel all of the paths give everyone a chance to explore the area.”
Geraldine said that four of the path’s 18 bridges are already in place with many of the bridges currently awaiting installation. The iconic tubular bridge is due for delivery next week as its fabrication has now been completed and all bridges will then be fitted at the same time. Most of the scaling of the rock face to remove loose rock has been completed and all of the anchor points for the bridges and cantilevered walkway have also been carried out.
The Gobbins project is a joint scheme between Larne Borough Council and Donegal County Council. The project has received funding from the European INTERREG IVA project; which overall will see €256 million spent as part of a worldwide cross border initiative.
In order to gain statutory approval for the scheme Larne Borough Council worked closely with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The pathway is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty, as well as in an area of special scientific interest. A number of rare birds use the cliff for nesting and breeding, including puffins, so one of the conditions of the project was that works could not occur in between April and the end of September each year. The environment agency did not want anything to impact upon the birds breeding season.
The site is the only place in Ireland’s mainland where puffins are still breeding. An Ornithologist has been appointed to survey the site in order to ensure the works do not cause excessive noise that would intimidate or frighten the birds.
“We had feared that we wouldn’t be able to undertake any works during the summer months but were able to work around the obstacles. We are indebted to the innovative way McLaughlin & Harvey has been able to work around the issues, as well as the Environment Agency who believed in us and supported us thorough the process.”
McLaughlin & Harvey have been appointed as the main contractor for the project. The firm has acquired a reputation for high quality building construction and civil engineering and has produced many landmark buildings throughout Great Britain and Ireland. The company offers an array of services including a full construction service, design and build, civil engineering and facilities management, fit out, offshore, energy and specialist joinery.
The £7 million needed to restore the unique series of coastal bridges, tunnels and staircases has been received from a variety of sources. The Special European Union’s Programmes Body’s INTERREG IVA funds have helped immensely, as have funds from Larne Borough Council and the Ulster Garden Villages organisation.
Geraldine is overjoyed that the project is underway, she said:
“For 40 years this council has been trying to get funding to undertake this project and so to finally get all the funding in place in 2013 was a very magical time for everyone on the council. There is a great deal of impatience and enthusiasm to see the path open again.
“I took over the post of Chief Executive in 2006 and have been working since then to resurrect Gobbins. There is a lot of personal satisfaction to see the works finally underway, although it has been frustrating and challenging at times.”
Geraldine said the project has been especially enjoyable for her as she trained as a civil engineer and building surveyor, so this scheme has been very rewarding for her.
The council has worked closely with the local community to ensure they were on board with the project. The council were concerned that locals may worry the path may disrupt their way of life and so have developed the project to be a catalyst for local economic regeneration. Local businesses have been set up in the area allowing them to benefit from the influx of visitors to the area as well.
In order to minimise the impact on the local community a shuttle bus service will be operated so that private vehicles are kept off the land.
It is estimated that in the first year of its operation the newly restored path will attract 70,000 visitors, although many feel that this is an underestimation. Visitors will be able to experience the guided tours which will interpret the history and heritage of the site, its flora and fauna and its geological features.