Every day there are parents and toddlers, older folk and whole classrooms of children walking what they call Gracehill’s Daily Mile -although it is just a bit short of a kilometre!
In its planning stage few people realised just how popular the new path in the historic settlement would turn out to be.
Br David Johnston, who was the driving force behind the walk, puts things in context.
The Moravian Settlement at Gracehill, like many other Moravian settlements around the world, is an early example of "town planning" and dates from 1759.
It is the only complete Moravian Settlement in Ireland and the unique atmosphere and special qualities of Gracehill were recognised in 1975 when it was the first place in Northern Ireland to be designated a Conservation Area.
The conservation area contains 16 listed buildings and planned green spaces. Its form remains much as it did in the late eighteenth century.
Gracehill is not just a historic site but it is significant because of its religious, cultural, social, educational, architectural and international associations.
Much current thinking around Town Planning is concerned with “Place making” where the aim is to create places that people will enjoy and which will ultimately create the scenery and backdrop against which they will live their lives.
Clearly the early Moravians were experts at ‘place making’. They knew how to make people feel positive, they had a narrative and, in establishing their settlements around the globe, they had a vision.
Against this background, such a significant and historic area as Gracehill requires care and attention to not only maintain it but also to enhance it while ensuring it meets the requirements of a modern community.
In the early 1990’s Gracehill Environmental Improvement Association was established with representation from the Moravian Congregation, local residents and Ballymena Borough Council.
The Association was involved in the production of the first “Gracehill Area Development Plan” in 1996 followed by a study to look at possible improvements and enhancements.
In 2002 Gracehill Old School Trust (GhOST ) was established, incorporating the Environmental Improvement Association.
Since then many of the enhancements suggested in the initial report have been realised.
These include restoration and reuse of the Old School, restoration of the Square, provision of some literature and signage, installation of the Victorian postbox and the ongoing work on the Old Shop building.
In addition, the Moravian Congregation has renovated the Church and constructed a much needed new hall, “Cennick Hall”.
A number of other schemes were proposed including the provision of walks or paths around the Village. These included: The 1798 walk around the Square, which is now completed. A walk to include God’s Acre, and a walk to connect to the nearby river paths.
The initial aim of the God’s Acre plan was to provide easy access to this historic, unique and beautiful area but in 2011 an adjacent area for potential woodland planting had been identified and this was to be known as Jubilee Wood in honour of HM The Queens Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
This added to the neighbouring woodland already planted by Gracehill Primary School.
In 2014 GhOST and Gracehill Moravian Church worked to develop a scheme to explore the route any such path might take. Funding to commission studies was obtained from “The Challenge Fund” which distributes money for environmental projects in Northern Ireland.
A feasibility study and plans were developed with the assistance of a tree specialist, Dr Philip Blackstock and the landscape architect Barney Graham.
Happily plans were eventually produced which brought together long overgrown paths, bits of unused land and previously inaccessible but beautiful areas.
These plans highlighted the potential for improving access to the natural and historic environment.
They also proposed enhancements promoting the development of safe and easier access to a historic and beautiful natural area encouraging people to walk and enjoy the special space. By linking potential woodland areas the development of the Jubilee wood would also be enabled.
After public meetings and discussions the plans were subsequently approved by the Education Authority, Gracehill Moravian Church Council and local landowners. An area of land was purchased from the Education Authority, another piece of land was donated and other areas were the subject of legal agreements.
Gracehill Moravian Church Council gave permission for construction of the section of path at the bottom of God's Acre (a permissive path agreement) and for associated access and work on overhanging trees.
By now Ballymena Borough Council had become the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) and a new “Gracehill Village plan 2017-2022” was produced.
MEABC were developing a programme of Village Renewal Schemes and as part of the new village plan an ultimately successful application for funding for “The Gracehill Walking loop” was submitted.
With all planning and legal permissions in place and funding secured, work began in early 2020 to develop the path.
Work was interrupted by the Corona Virus Pandemic but subsequently the pathway was completed by September 2020 at a cost of approximately £120,000.
Mindful of the importance of “Place” and “narrative” it was suggested to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council that rather than call the new amenity “Gracehill Walking loop” the names of the existing paths should be highlighted with appropriate signage. MEABC were supportive of this suggestion and warmly accepted the proposal that the new section of pathway be named Bishop’s Walk in celebration of the consecration of the Rt Rev Sarah Groves. So Brothers and Sisters Walks join into Bishops Walk, Jubilee Woods and Widows Walk.
We thank all those who supported and helped over so many years not least Mid and East Antrim Borough Council for their generous funding.
Everyone can now benefit from an important amenity that not only promotes wellbeing and regeneration but also enhances the historic environment and helps celebrate another chapter in the ongoing story of the special place that is the Moravian Settlement of Gracehill.
Br David Johnston