A Man of vision with an eye to early tourism in Ulster…

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BERKELEY Dean Wise has a plaque at Whitehead in County Antrim, and he deserves it.

Wise was a visionary, an engineer, a tourist pioneer and a man who was ahead of his time in many ways.

Born in New Ross, Wexford in 1855, he became a railway engineer and at one point worked with the Scot, William Bald, who was responsible for the creation of the Antrim Coast Road, one of the iconic coastal routes in the world.

Berkeley Dean Wise was responsible for work on the Bray Head Railway in Dublin but it was where his engineering crossed paths with tourism potential that his greatest legacy would be drawn.

In County Antrim he was responsible for the development of the walks and bridges at Glenariff in the Glens of Antrim. One of his finest buildings was Portrush Railway Station.

He also helped develop Whitehead as a tourist town and the Blackhead Path from the town to the Blackhead headland to its north, something which he developed beyond Blackhead into Islandmagee.

His greatest legacy, however, was the development of the Gobbins Path, which was linked by the Blackhead Path as it made its way past Cloughfin and The Cove in Islandmagee.

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The Gobbins, refurbished through funding from the European Union and the local council, has been re-opened and highlights a modern engineering showcase as well as a legacy from Ulster’s 20th century tourism past.

The path was originally opened in 1902 and continued to be an attraction until the 1950s, when a major landslide caused serious damage at the north end of this outstanding cliff path. After the 1950s it increasingly lay dormant and derelict.

gobbins 1983482.jpgBack in the early 1990s I visited the Gobbins to write an article for the Larne Times and found most of the path in a decidedly delicate and, at points, dangerous state. At that time I wrote that the path had been handed back to the gulls.

Last Saturday I started a new career as a tour guide at the Gobbins and I often reflect that few people can have as impressive an office or workplace. Every day is a different day down at the Gobbins, determined by the weather and the natural world around us.

The modern bridges convey a sense of an impressive engineering showcase, just as the originals did in 1902.

Nature provides a unique glimpse of seals, kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars, guillemots, cormorants and gannets.

The sea laps underneath the bridges and near the path, crashes onto the path when there is a high easterly wind, and changes colour with the climate. The rocks absorb the heat of the sun and make the path just a little warmer by slowly releasing it again during the day.

The Gobbins Path is an amazing place. It is one of the outstanding places you can visit. Scotland on a clear day is very close, the coast of Galloway very visible, while the Mull of Kintyre and the Paps of Jura add to the scenery. Ailsa Craig, nesting site for the gannets who come to feed off Islandmagee, is also clearly visible most days.

Beside you are cliffs which tower above the path at times, across to the south are the Copeland Islands and the North Down coast, and, now and again ferries plying the waves from Belfast and Larne to Loch Ryan share the space with small fishing boats and large tankers.

DSCN7054.JPGThe Gobbins is full of history. Stories of smugglers, seafaring battles, geology and the development of the landmass around, First World War soldiers who are commemorated at the Gobbins war memorial, and much more.

Even walking the path gives a strong sense of history – 80% of the path is as it was, the steps hand carved in their different sizes. And some of it is also on the natural rock, connecting you to a deeper past.

When Berkeley Dean Wise, who died in 1909, the Path was still a work in progress. He wanted to see more of it created past the Seven Sister’s Caves but it would not be the case. Instead the Path would have its heyday in the period after 1902 but decline in the 1950s. Re-opened in 2015, the Gobbins is a testimony to one man’s vision and what it achieved.

Wise died in 1909 at his sister’s house in Portrush in May 1909 and is buried in the City Cemetery in Belfast.

There is no plaque to Wise at the Gobbins. He does not need one. Tourists enter the Gobbins Path through Wise’s Eye and Berkeley Point is just around the corner. His lasting legacy is the amazing adventure that is the Gobbins Path.

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