Whitehead traces its recorded history back to the before the 1600s, it started to develop in size and population during the Plantation of Ulster. The locality was known as Kinbane (White Head), the name is descriptive of the limestone headland which was the dominant feature and in stark contrast to the dark basalt of Black Head at the other end of the area.
The keep of Castle Chichester is still standing and takes its name from the Chichester family who were influential in the development of Carrickfergus and Belfast. Sir Arthur Chichester became Governor of Carrickfergus in 1599, two years after his brother was killed in a battle with James MacDonnell of Dunluce. Arthur Chichester went on to become the Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1605 and was instrumental in the development of the plantation. The land at Whitehead was acquired by him during his time as governor of Carrickfergus. The castle keep, manor house and outbuildings were built in or around 1604 as a strategic measure when Sir Moses Hill was Governor of Olderfleet Castle.
A collection of houses and a harbour developed around the castle which became known as Castle Chichester or Chichester. The area had two other clachans (groups of cottages) Kinbane and Knocknagullagh, over the centuries they all merged into one. At one time a packet ship crossed between Chichester and Scotland with mail and goods, the mail was then dispatched by smaller vessels to Belfast, this service was run by the Brice family who lived in a manor house adjacent to the castle.
The limestone cliffs of the White headland was extensively quarried from the 1700s, it provided stone for the developing railway line from Belfast. Limestone was exported from a natural tidal harbour until the White Harbour and pier was built in 1850, an exceptional location which will be accessible by a path from the promenade in the future. The export of limestone continued to the end of the 1800s century with the quarry eventually closing in 1920, today it provides a natural habitat for wildlife. Major changes came to the settlement after the Carrickfergus to Larne railway line opened in 1863. Plans by the railway company turned this Edwardian village into a premier holiday resort known as Chichester by the Sea. The railway company offered 10 years free first class rail travel to anyone who built a villa within a mile of the station, 145 people took up the offer and Chichester by the Sea developed. The plan created a unique Victorian seaside resort with many attractions including a golf club, yacht club, bandstand and a long promenade with tea rooms. Two railway stations were built to serve both the through line to Larne Harbour for passengers using the steamers to and from Scotland and also an excursion line.
The excursion line and platform were opened in 1907, a terminus, engine sheds and facilities were built later. Today these are home to the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, the society formed in 1964 works to restore and maintain old rolling stock and engines. During the summer and autumn months they run excursion on the mainline to Portrush, Bangor and Dublin with steam locomotives pulling vintage railway carriages. Leading the Victorian railway developments was Berkeley Deane Wise, who was chief engineer for the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway. He designed the fabulous promenade and even had sand imported from Portrush to create a beach area. This was followed by the Black Head Path which extended the promenade around the shore to the lighthouse. Today, the walk is lined with outdoor gym equipment, it will take you past old Port Davey, an ancient fishing harbour and the Wren's Eggs, two huge erratic boulders deposited after the last ice age.
When you reach the cliffs, the first cave you will see is known as 'McCartney's Cave' or 'The Schoolmaster's Bed Chamber'. This is were Thomas McCartney lived, a teacher from the glens who settled here in 1804. He taught here in what is referred in Ireland as a 'hedge school' which existed long before the national school system was introduced. He spent his life teaching locally, he died in 1855 and is buried in Ballykeel graveyard on IslandMagee. The path then climbs up past the octagonal Black Head lighthouse which was designed by William Douglas and built in 1902. Located at the northerly extreme of Belfast Lough, it is interesting to ponder about all the great ships this light has safely guided in and out of the lough, including the Titanic.
Berkeley Deane Wise built one of the premier attraction in Ireland here, the ‘Gobbins Cliff Path'. It consisted of over two miles of cliff path, bridges and tunnels hugging the cliff and crossing precarious ravines on suspension bridges. The path was constructed to provide an attraction that would benefit the excursion town and attract people from all over Ireland and the United Kingdom to use the railway system and it was very successful in becoming one of the major tourist attraction in Ireland. It opened in 1902 and drew huge crowds who came by rail from all over Ireland. It remained a major attraction until the outbreak of the Second World War after this it gradually fell into disrepair, it was finally closed in 1960.
During the Second World War Whitehead Station became the HQ for the Royal Engineers 8th Railway Construction Company. A hospital train was kept at the station during the war years and was used in emergencies to transport injured service men from the ports of Larne and Londonderry to Belfast. As well as carriages for patients and staff it also had a carriage fully equipped as an operating theatre. The photo above is the old coastguard cottage which were built in 1871 as part of a wider strategy around the coast to combat smuggling, the station also had a boathouse which is now owned by the local County Antrim Yacht Club.
Whitehead also had the first military aviation facility in Ireland which was located at Bentra during the First World War. The Royal Naval Air Service operated airships from the base over the North Channel. Their role was to scout for submarines which would wait in the area for opportunities to attack incoming convoys, they also protected the cross channel ferry service. The airships worked in liaison with naval boats based at Larne, it was the first air/sea anti submarine unit in Ireland.
The grandeur of Whitehead during its heyday as a premier seaside resort can still be seen in the fabulous architecture, promenade and rows of Victorian houses. It is well worth a visit to explore and to enjoy some wonderful walks. There are also two local golf courses one at Whitehead and the other at Bentra. One thing you might try and find if your in Whitehead and that is a street name. All the roads end in every other name Close, Gardens, Avenue, Place, Lane, Drive and Crescent, everything but a street. It subsequently led to Whitehead being known as 'A Town without Streets' .
A beautiful location which was once the limestone quarry but now has been reclaimed by nature is the Beach Road Nature Reserve. It attracts a large variety of birds which include Redpolls, Ravens and Peregrine Falcons. Butterflies are also in abundance, well worth a walk to see.