Royal Canal Run Reports

A Royal Adventure: Swim, Bike, Run!

Update: Since I originally posted this Declan put up a great short film about his day which can be viewed here

If there is one thing I like to highlight on this website more than any other, it is that the Royal Canal is an amazing amenity for all to use. I am hardly the first to highlight this. The Royal Canal Amenity Group has been working hard since 1974 to restore the canal as a working navigation, a goal successfully achieved in 2010. Waterways Ireland and Athletics Ireland are working hand in hand to promote the vast distance of towpaths on Ireland’s inland navigations as the perfect place for getting active, not only to improve physical health but also mental health.

As I type this Frank Greally, former editor of Irish Runner and the Irish Junior 10,000m Junior Record holder since 1970 is currently undertaking his Gratitude Walk from Ballyhaunis to the Coombe Hospital via the Royal Canal. The National Famine Museum has established the National Famine Way along the route of the canal to highlight the plight of the 1490 emigrants that walked the canal banks to Dublin before being shipped off to Canada.

National Famine Way Shoe Memorial at the 45th Lock

Now Leixlip man Declan Kenny has added his name to the list of those doing something different to highlight the importance of the Royal Canal as a place to enjoy, travel, inspire and even to a point, endure. Do yourself a favour, put on a brew and sit down to enjoy his account of the day here.

With the dark cloud of Covid hanging overhead, Declan, a runner and triathlete among other things had been training for the Gaelforce West adventure race. Sadly with Gaelforce cancelled Declan looked for another way to channel his energy and make use of his training, and so it was, he decided he would make a triathlon event for himself along the Royal Canal.

He couldn’t ask for a more perfect venue, a basin of water some 146km long, a Greenway where cycling has become the perfect escape for many this year and a decent multi-terrain path to challenge even the most seasoned runner. Starting in Richmond Harbour where the Royal meets the Shannon, Declan decided he was going to swim the 2.7km distance to Begnagh Bridge, before transitioning onto his bike for the 117km cycle to Maynooth Harbour and then covering the last 27km to the Liffey by foot.

So with an idea in his head, Declan went about forming a plan and in mid-August I received a message asking if I had any tips for running the canal. Before long conversation struck up and I quickly realised I was dealing with an individual of a similar breed as myself. I doubt many will argue that it takes a certain level of crazy to tackle the Royal Canal in one day, it takes that level of crazy with interest to take on and more importantly finish the Connemara 100, a feat Declan completed in 2019.

Finding out that he was only one town over from me was the added bonus and so I made my brain available for picking, answering every relevant question he asked and pumping him with superfluous stories about the Royal Canal and my own experiences as well.

Not long after Declan had assembled his crew, Saturday the 12th of September 2020 was the date set for the adventure. He would aim to start swimming close to sunrise and to finish at the Liffey before sunset, well before sunset as it happens.

Most of my guide posts for the Royal Canal have been composed over the Spring and Summer of 2020 during the Covid restrictions meaning that while I had the text content for the posts, sometimes restrictions meant I didn’t have the photo content I like to include, especially for the more westerly sections of the canal. This was the perfect opportunity to pack the bike, drive out, take some photos and also join Declan for a few stretches as he cycled east. So as he was jumping into the water at Richmond Harbour at 7:15 am, I was leaving Mosstown Harbour giving me what I reckoned was about 90 minutes to get my photos between Keenagh and the 45th Lock before joining him for the spin back as far as my car when he transitioned onto the bike.

Sunrise over Mosstown Harbour

I didn’t hold back as I cycled into a brisk headwind west, stopping at several points where I needed to grab a quick snap and at about 8:10 I reached Begnagh Bridge where I passed Austin who was crewing for the day sitting in his car, the bike ready on the back. This surprised me for a minute as I had expected to see him out walking along the bank as Declan was swimming. I carried on past the car as I still needed to get several more pictures up to the 45th Lock. As I rounded the corner only a short distance from the bridge I got my next surprise, there was Declan in the water, powering along like Michael Phelps, well ahead of where I expected him to be and alongside him was Austin’s son James paddling in a canoe. Well that explained the roof rack on Austin’s car and why he was there instead.

Declan powering towards Begnagh Bridge with James following

James, who had meant to be taking part in the Liffey Descent that morning, had, like many of us fell victim to events being cancelled by Covid restrictions and as such was now available to crew. Seeing Declan so close to his transition caused me to do some quick thinking. I had a few photos I wanted to get a few hundred meters up at the Bord Na Moná Railway Lifting Bridge and the 45th Lock, but more importantly this was Declan’s day, I couldn’t afford to delay his progress waiting around for me. So it was either pull out my best Sam Bennett impression, sprint up to take the photos and hope I made it back in time or turn on my wheels now. I took my chance, inspired by Declan’s already impressive speed in the water and headed flat out for the 45th Lock.

45th Lock looking towards Cloondara

I got my photos and got back to Begnagh Bridge just in time to see Declan get out of the water. He managed to cover his swim leg around 1 hour and 5 minutes, a fair bit quicker than the estimates he gave me. All looked well as he got out of the water, it certainly didn’t seem to phase him, albeit Austin mentioning he did let out a few interesting sounds on getting into the water at the start.

Coming out of the water at Begnagh Bridge

The lads lifted the canoe out of the water as Declan ditched the wet suit and got his gear ready for the cycle. Water bottles, runners and bag all donned, go-pro ready, we set off across the road and onto the Greenway heading east. I heard mention during transition that Austin and James were thinking of heading to McDonald’s in Longford on their way to their next meeting point in Ballinea just west of Mullingar. I don’t know if they followed up on it but it planted a seed in my mind for later.

We had just set off at a good pace and were probably just over 1km in when we realised the go-pro was left on the roof of the car. I had my phone in an accessible pocket so was able to ring Austin quickly to confirm they had it and hadn’t accidentally drove off without it (something I’ve done myself with a phone) as so we proceeded east.

It didn’t take us long to fly up the levels passing Killashee, the Longford Branch, the Lyneen Bridges and on towards where my car was parked outside Keenagh at Mosstown Harbour, the first 11.5k covered in half an hour, a reasonable warm up. When we got to Mosstown I directed Declan across Island Bridge to the other side of the canal which he would stay on until I met him again 18.5km on at Webb Bridge in Abbeyshrule.

I now had my own little race on, to make sure I got to Abbeyshrule and ready before Declan. The cycle along the canal between Keenagh and Abbeyshrule is a lovely stretch that meanders through the countryside and runs close to the River Inny as it approaches Abbeyshrule. The road however heads south to Lanesborough before heading east through Ballymahon finally turning north again back to the canal, all the while still managing to cross the canal twice in the process.

Of course when I arrived at the car park at Mosstown Harbour as the sun was rising, the total population of area was myself and a heron spying me suspiciously while it fished for its breakfast. Now however a local cycling club was leading its ride out along the Greenway (good on them) from the harbour car park where of course my car was buried in the corner behind all the support vehicles. Now I’m a walker, a runner, a cyclist and a driver so life has thought me that I should be patient and attentive to all. Of course the reality is that as I transitioned from cyclists in the midst of other cyclists, stowed my wheels and sat in the drivers seat, the impatience also set in and I wanted to get moving. Thankfully I kept my smile as the group headed off and the support vehicles made way. I emerged out onto the boggy roads, Scooter turned up loud and made my way to my next starting point.

By the time I reached Abbeyshrule it was starting to turn into a cracking day. I parked across from the Rustic Inn where I myself had stopped for my main meal the day I ran in the opposite direction. The staff were out hanging bunting and I later found out that both the local minor and senior women’s football teams were playing in their respective county finals over the weekend. I had made it with enough time that I was able to head out west as far as the 39th Lock before meeting Declan coming towards me.

We sailed up past Webb Bridge and down onto the recently completed Greenway section on the north bank and proceeded up past Scally’s Bridge. It cannot be denied that I have a story or at least an opinion about every bridge, lock and lock house along the canal and that’s what my website is for so I wasn’t going to be pulling up the man on a mission to point out every curiosity we past but nonetheless the impressive Whitworth Aqueduct was one place I couldn’t resist to point out. Declan humoured me as he took on some fuel and stopped to read an information sign I pointed out to him before the aqueduct before I proceed to point out the same information engraved by the masons who built the aqueduct at the middle of the crossing.

The engraving on Whitworth Aqueduct detailing the construction of the Royal Canal extension from Coolnahay to Cloondara

I doubt that Declan was aware that some of my friends refer to me as the Family Guy character Buzz Killington who can take the good humour out of any situation by spinning a yarn about a bridge.

Moments late we were back on the peddles and across the county line into Westmeath and the wild open plains of Ballynacarrow Bog. Even on a good day the wind can whip you around on this exposed area above the bog. It wasn’t long before we were climbing up the 38th, 37th and 36th Locks and came to the village of Ballynacargy.

This picturesque little village would mark my turning point back, a mere 8.6km from Abbeyshrule, but already this morning Declan had covered 42km and was well on his way. He had another direct run as far as Ballinea, 12.5km on where Austin and his son had a sandwich waiting. Again my mind wondering had they managed to make it to McDonald’s in Longford. I wished Declan well, saying I would catch him again in Maynooth when he transitioned to his run and spun on my wheel to get back to Abbeyshrule, taking the last of the photos I needed as I went.

The 36th Lock, cottage and bridge as I returned back to the car

I am first and foremost a runner. Buying a bike was originally a flight of fancy subsidised by the cycle to work scheme. For the majority of its life it has sat in my garage, unloved with a lawn mover and half inflated kayak for company. However this summer, with a persistent niggle (probably a stress fracture) in my lower legs, the bike has become a closer companion. Initially I was using it to “keep up my cardio” but the reality is I am really getting to enjoy my time on the bike and as I headed back west I was lamenting I wasn’t pushing on further east with Declan, enjoying the day as I was.

I made it back to the car with a definite plan in my mind! Supermacs. If the lads had their McDonald’s I was going to have my Supermacs, with curry chips. The is a Supermacs in Ballinalack just west of Mullingar and I’d be there in 20 minutes. Perfect. My mouth was watering at the thought of a Mightymac and cool refreshing diet coke as I drove past Edgeworthstown, having done feic all to earn it while Declan was making do with a sandwich for all his efforts. I pulled into the forecourt to see the garage is building a large extension. No bother, good to see that it is busy. Park up, a scan of the watch. It’s nearly 12, surely they’ll be open by now and if not I have plenty of time to wait til 12 and still make it back to Maynooth. I walk in and there was the sucker punch to my salivating taste buds. Open at 2pm. Sigh. So like any normal Irish person before 12pm on a Saturday morning, I settled with a breakfast roll, 2 sausages, 2 rashers, 2 eggs, a bit of butter and red sauce and went outside to eat it at a socially distanced picnic bench. Normally the food of the gods, all I had was the taste of disappointment. Back in the car, I headed for home.

Coming through Mullingar I realised I hadn’t lost much time with my diversion for food. There was a good chance I might actually catch Declan at Mary Lynch’s pub and see how he was getting on. I pulled off the M4 and parked up by the access to the Blueway (the paddlers version of a Greenway). I thought I’d have plenty of time to read a few tweets, catch up on some news, play some Boom Beach… but no, I was only parked two minutes and here come two bikes flying towards me. Just over 4 and a half hours in, the first of which was in the water and he was already half way done. James had hopped on his bike at Ballinea and joined Declan for the 40km as far as Furey’s in Moyvalley. They both flew up past me in good spirits before dropping back down under the M4 over-pass towards the Killucan flight of Locks. Sure it’s all down hill to Dublin from there. With that I was back in the car and heading for home in Maynooth.

I made it home a little after 1, unpacked the bike, got out of the bib shorts and prepped some running gear. Sure I’d see how far I could manage, I hadn’t run in at least 6 weeks but when you see an inspirational endurance enthusiast going you can’t help but want to join in. My plan was to make it as far as Leixlip where I knew Declan had more crew ready to join him for his run into town. If I could make it to a train station a few stops further in, sure that was a bonus.

At the pace Declan was moving all morning I reckoned he could be in Maynooth as early as 2:15 so with the warm weather that was, my wife and I headed down to the harbour to relax with the swans while we waited for him. Of course what good is a day if something doesn’t go a little askew, you always need a story to tell and so it was 2:45 when Declan arrived to Maynooth. The story? Well you’ll need to read his blog to find out that.

Austin and James had stopped in Furey’s for lunch, a point I am only now realising that I’m slightly jealous of, they certainly had the good food options on the day. They then made the journey to Maynooth to collect the bike as Declan transitioned to the run. At 14:50, with 120km done, I joined in again for the 27k run to the Sea Lock at the Liffey.

We took off at a strong pace, something I was a little cautious of because I didn’t want to be setting a pace that might cause Declan to blow up (ha!) but also because I hadn’t run in several weeks myself. Conversation was easy though and both of us seemed comfortable. It took us just over the half hour to arrive at Louisa Bridge where we were expecting Des to join us. Des has paced the Dublin Marathon several times and is an experienced distance runner, the ideal person you want at your side in the last section of a long day. Like to my surprise earlier, Declan was moving quicker than Des was expecting too and so we got to take a 5 minute break at Louisa Bridge as Des darted down from home to join us.

I did have enough sense to bring two gels with me for fuel but I think I even confused Declan by the fact I was wearing a camelbak and yet brought no water. Sure I wasn’t expecting to go far. We passed the boathouse of the Royal Canal Amenity Group where several Heritage Boats including 4E, 92E and 118B were tied up and I took a gel. Banter was easier between three as we ran some of the more grassy trails into Clonsilla and not long after down into the Deep Sinking itself.

Earlier in the day we saw a pleasure craft passing us in the opposite direction and I lamented that despite my best intentions I still hadn’t booked a trip with local skipper Jenny Wren of Royal Canal Boat Trips to see the canal at a relaxed pace on the water.

Jenny and her barge passing swans with cygnets near Maynooth

Sure as eggs are eggs, as we crossed over Keenan Bridge near Porterstown there was Jenny’s boat below us in the Deep Sinking making her way to Castleknock with guests on board. We took the opportunity to take a short walk break and I took my last gel before we steamed on ahead, the true canal life is never in a hurry.

We emerged at Castleknock and we only had the smooth 10k left to the finish. My quads were getting loud and annoying at this stage but given that it was my shins that I was expecting to fail I wasn’t going to stop for a train now, especially when Declan had come so much further.

We ran on into Ashtown and under Hamilton Bridge, Des now taking on to point out the local landmarks. Sadly I was starting to struggle. Simply put, I didn’t have enough fuel. Maybe if I had a Supermacs and not a breakfast roll I would have been more comfortable, maybe if I had been sensible and had brought some fluids I would have been better off. As much I could moan internally I certainly wasn’t going to voice it in current company. I found it comfortable for a while to take a walk break and then make a run to catch up. I did this several times. Alas as we passed under the mighty Croke Park the body said enough. It was time to let the boys push on.

Des glanced back at me as we reached the new linear park at Newcomen Bridge and I waved on that all was ok. This was Declan’s day and that sub 11 was looming large. I could only smile as the two extended their distance away from me. A pleasure in knowing someone else who now knew the joy of completing the distance in one go.

As I passed the Luke Kelly statue I made one last effort to run but the body said no. I bumped elbows with the boys as they walked back past me in triumph after finishing, but I wasn’t going to stop til I made it to the Liffey.

Bikes and canoe deposited, James dropped off, Austin graciously came into town to collect us and was only 200m from the finish ready to bring us home.

Declan after completing his epic Royal Adventure

I may not have had water but I did have my hip flask. Declan took a swig in celebration of his finish, before I drank the rest to take the edge off what the legs were feeling. We didn’t waste time and soon we were back in Leixlip.

It was another fantastic day out on the Royal Canal for me in the company of great like minded people. I am very thankful to have been part of the day and hope Declan remembers it with the same level of fondness as I do my own adventure. It certainly shows that it is a viable event for those who want to do it, it doesn’t matter your skill set, be you focused on a single discipline or have a love for several, the Royal Canal is accessible for all.

A toast to the man who made a Triathlon of the Royal Canal

Declan’s account of the day, A Right Royal Triathlon is well worth the read on his website

Run Reports

Old Rail Trail – Athlone to Mullingar – 30th March 2019

On Saturday I needed to get a long training run in preparation for my run along the Royal Canal. Niamh and I have been touring around a lot of parkrun venues in recent months trying not to repeat ourselves so with that in mind we decided to do parkrun in Athlone last week, with my plan to tire myself out as best I could at parkrun and then to run the full length of the Old Rail Trail from Athlone to Mullingar.

Niamh and I at Athlone parkrun

Given the Old Rail Trail now occupies the space that was the old Midlands Great Western Railway line from Mullingar (where it leaves the Royal Canal) to Athlone. I thought it was a good way of covering new ground that is still linked to the history of the Royal Canal, almost like another branch off the canal itself and another route to the Shannon. The Old Rail Trail itself will be part of the main Greenway that they hope to extend from Dublin via Mullingar on the Royal Canal Greenway to Athlone via the Old Rail Trail and onward to Galway. From its starting point at Whitegates about 1km east of the old Athlone Midlands Great Western Railway Station and the River Shannon the Old Rail Trail is exactly 42.2km or marathon distance to where it ends as it joins the Royal Canal Greenway Grange Bridge 1.5km west of Mullingar Train Station.

White Gates – The Current Start of the Old Rail Trail in Athlone

Niamh and I had previously hired bikes in Mullingar and cycled from there to Moate and back a few years ago so I had some idea of what I was in for. Unlike the compacted dust stone surface that makes up the majority of the Royal Canal Greenway, the entire length of the Old Rail Trail is a smooth tarmac surface with very long straight sections that stretch on towards the horizon. At one point along my run I mused to myself how this resembled descriptions of Death Valley by those who have ran the Bad Water Ultra, only thankfully I had none of the heat to deal with, nor the yellow lines of the hard shoulder to run on.

Good Tarmac Surface as far as the eye can see.

Leaving Maynooth just before 8am Niamh and I got to Athlone Institute of Technology just before 9am. The sports campus was a hive of activity as the Irish National Juvenile Indoor Championships were taking place. parkrun takes place around the back of the sports campus. It was quiet when we arrived but by half nine there were 70 runners and walker present to take on the event. The Athlone course is a little convoluted to follow for first time runners being two laps of football pitched before bringing you on two hilly loops around the back of the college campus and the outdoor running track. Following those in front of me I stuck to the route ok finishing in a time of 22:04 which given the hills I was happy with and was the 10th finisher home. The course was a little short but that’s fair given how easy it is to cut the corners going around the football fields it is understandable.

After a brief conversation with the volunteers Niamh and I left the parkrun and went up to the Spar at Garrycastle which is just off the Old Rail Trail. I picked up a breakfast roll a large bottle of Lucozade sport, grabbed my large running back pack, said goodbye to Niamh and walked to my starting point at Whitegates 2km closer into Athlone town while munching down on the breakfast roll. I know I will be needing to eat solid foods for the Royal Canal Run so I may as well get used to it. The walk seemed to take forever and I originally had planned on starting at 10:30 at Garrycastle, but by going back to the start of the route it meant it was 10:50 when I started running.

Munching on a breakfast roll before I started

The breakfast roll was sitting well but almost immediately I regretted getting the large bottle of Lucozade sport. My large running bag is certainly useful for carrying gear but it can be a bit cumbersome. I had chosen not to use the hydration bladder for the day instead thinking I would get a 750ml bottle of Lucozade Sport for one side pouch and a 750ml bottle of water for the other side. With the weather being cooler than it had been for a few days I then decided I didn’t need the water. So starting out, the bag was off balance on my right shoulder and the bottle was so big that every time I swung my right harm I was rubbing off the bottle. Not much I could do about it now but lesson learned, in future with the red bag, max bottle size is 500ml and I need to balance both sides out. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

The 2km stretch back to Garrycastle went much quicker on the way back now that I was running. This whole section has street lighting along it and is a well-used amenity by walkers, runners and cyclists with plenty of entrances onto the Old Rail Trail from the surrounding housing estates. I also passed by Athlone Southern Gaels GAA club, the Athlone Regional Sports Centre and Athlone Town Stadium on my way back out towards Garrycastle. At Garrycastle there is the Spar which is a decent size for anyone who want a place to stop or start on the Old Rail Trail. It has a good deli, a place to sit down and toilets. The Athlone I.T Campus and parkrun is just to the south of the Old Rail Trail and the N6 and exit 9 are just to the north. There is an old bridge over the Old Rail Trail here. This bridge like most I encountered along the way was most likely built at the time the railway line was put down in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The Midlands Great Western Railway Station in Athlone opened in 1851, some eight years before the Great Western and Southern Railway station opened in 1859. The old bridge is only for pedestrian traffic now but is adjacent to a modern road bridge that now carries traffic from the N6 over to the Athlone I.T. campus. The modern bridge has several murals painted on it depicting scenes from the town and the old rail trail. Beyond the bridge the street lighting stops and there is no further lighting available for the rest of the Old Rail Trail.

Mural on the new road bridge at Garrycastle

The next bridge we come to carries the four lanes of the N6 over the Old Rail Trail. The bridge is of concrete construction with a red brick parapet and a water pipe attached to the western side. I normally find the attachment of such pipes on bridges unsightly but given the coarse functionality of this road bridge one would hardly notice it. Once you are the east side of the N6 you are out into a rural landscape with the RTÉ broadcast tower the only real thing of note on the north side of the trail.

Red brick parapet of the N6 road bridge

It occurs to me that we have a bit of a false description problem in Ireland for our different routes. The Royal Canal Greenway is for the most part a dust trail, the Old Rail Trail is an entirely smooth tarmac path. I’ll leave that to you to go figure.

The Old Rail Trail has numerous accommodation underpasses to allow farmers access to both sides of the trail by going underneath it. Most of these are little more than culverts so I don’t see the point in detailing each one. The Old Rail Trail also has many cattle crossing points where the land is level. These are indicated on approach from either side by an old railway sleeper erected upright right beside the rail itself with a yellow and black image of a cow.

Cattle Crossing

4km from Athlone we reach Tully which has a car park below the trail with a path which brings you up to it. Tully also has a bridge dating from 1851 that would have been built by the Midlands Great Western Railway the railway over a small rural road but now serves to carry the trail. The single arch bridge made of limestone is one of a number of similar bridges encountered on the trail the whole way from Athlone to Mullingar. Some of these bridges have been altered in the laying of the Old Rail Trail. Given the railway is out of use some of the bridges original limestone spans have been removed and replaced with narrower steel and concrete spans. When crossing over these bridges, you can see how the piers of these bridges stand out exposed further than where the bridge spans now and often the railway which is still present in most areas breaks at these points.

Car park for Old Trail Users at Tully

Occasionally there are wooden gates which can be navigated around at points where a road crosses the trail at the same level. At some of these points there are also level crossing guard houses where the Railway Company would have originally lodged staff to open and close gates for the trains as they passed.

Old Gate Keepers Cottage between Athlone and Moate with unseasonable decorations

In total there are 5 original Midland Great Western Railway Bridges over the railway between Athlone and Moate.

One of the many original bridges over the Old Rail Trail – Perfect for runners and cyclists

Coming into the Moate the first thing we come across is Jone’s Level Crossing Gates which were erected around 1851. The timber gates with their cast irons fittings are still present as a feature at the crossing but set back from the trail on either side of the crossing. There is a heavily altered, updated and extended level crossing guard’s house to the north east of the crossing. Heading south from this crossing you will find both a Centra and a Circle K garage if you are looking for a quick pit stop to collect some supplies.

Jones Level Crossing Gates now set back from the road and trail

Continuing east you soon pass through what was Moate Train Station. The first building we reach lies just to the west of the north platform. It is a large railway goods shed dating from the 1850s and is now disused. There is a carriage arch on either side of the building and it is possible a siding once ran through the building itself.

Moate Railway Goods Shed

The southern platform of Moate Train Station has a freestanding shelter with a pitched roof supported on cast iron supports. Dating back to the 1850s it is an interesting addition to the railway station structures around it. Moate Train Station opened on the 1st of August 1851 and closed to goods traffic on 2nd of December 1974 before finally closing to passenger services on the 9th of May 1987.

Approaching Moate Train Station with Shelter on the right

The detached 3 bay train station building with extended gable ends stands on the north platform of the station. The roofs on the extended gable ends have fallen in and all the windows and doors have been bricked up since the opening of the Old Rail Trail. An Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny T.D. unveiled a plaque at the station to mark the official opening of the Old Rail Trail on the 18th of October 2015. While the station building is disused and blocked up considerable effort has been made to clean up and secure the building, hopefully with an aim of restoration at some future point. The platforms at the station have several picnic benches making it the ideal stopping point for those using the trail.

Moate Train Station

Past the station there is an original freestanding footbridge connecting the platforms. The cast iron bridge was built in Dundalk. There is no access to the footbridge now but like the station building and other features around the station is secure and well maintained. At the end of the northern platform there is a detached square plan water tower. The tower has a red brick and granite base supporting a wrought iron water tank. There is also a single story block attached to the east of the tower. Many of the railway buildings along this line are attributed to architect John Skipton Mulvany (1813 – 1870) who designed the Athlone, Broadstone and Galway Railway Stations for the Midlands Great Western Railway Company as well as the Dun Laoghaire Railway Station.

Moate Station Water Tower

At the end of the platform is the Moate Crossing Gates which separate the golf club to the north of the station from the town to the south. From here people can leave the trail to go into the town of Moate which includes several cafés, pubs, restaurants and shops. Moate provides the best and being honest the only really option to take a break along the Old Rail Trail unless you have brought your own provisions with you. The last time I passed through on a bike I stopped at Tuar Ard Arts and Enterprise Centre which has a nice café that does soup and sandwiches and has bike stands outside. The town also has the Grand Hotel, several pubs, Supervalu and a Supermacs. The only issue that being 12km from Athlone and 30km from Mullingar, it means you are stopping either really early on route or after completing the best part of it depending on which direction you are heading. Having had a breakfast roll in Athlone and still having a full bottle of Lucozade on me I decided not to stop.

Beyond the Moate Crossing there is the Moate signal box which was built around 1885 but may have been rebuilt in the 1920s as many signal boxes were damaged or destroyed during the Civil War. Like the water tower, the signal box has a brick base and then a wood panelled upper storey. Behind the Signal Box lies a private residence which was altered and redesigned by celebrity architect Dermot Bannon which featured on RTÉ’s series Room to Improve.

Moate Signal Box with Level Crossing gate to the right and the house designed by Dermot Bannon in the background.

Across from this house lies two former railway worker cottages from the 1850s now combined into one single private residence.

We leave Moate passing over two roads to the east of the station complex. Not long after leaving Moate the Old Rail Trail takes a slight turn heading north east where we have been travelling due east up this point. The trail lifts up onto an embankment as it travels east and comes very close to the Westmeath and Offaly border but stays in Westmeath throughout. We pass over and under several bridges and accommodation access ways over the next 11km as we head towards Streamstown Junction Train Station. Halfway between Moate and Streamstown there is an access way onto the Old Rail Trail from the road below near Rosemont. This looks like it is mainly for local access as no car park is there and there are no facilities in the area. It may have been an access way for rail workers in the past that was cut back again for the Old Rail Trail.

Example of where a bridge carrying the railway has been narrowed

Streamstown Junction Train Station opened on the same date as Moate on the 1st of August 1851 but it closed to both freight and passenger trains on the Athlone line on the 17th of June 1963. Streamstown Junction Station served as the split in the line between the Athlone line and the Clara line where the Midlands Great Western Railway operated a service to until the 2nd of March 1925 when the Midlands Great Western Railway and Great Southern and Western Railway companies were amalgamated to form Great Southern Railways and from then on only the GSW line from Heuston operates through Clara. Little evidence of the MGW line remains. Streamstown has two surviving platforms and a few structures but is in a poor condition compared to Moate Station. The two main structures are a red brick shelter building on the north platform and the station building itself, again on the north platform. The station building currently has scaffolding erected around it and looks like it currently being sealed if not restored. I have heard rumour that the station may be developed as a café but as much of a great amenity as the trail is I don’t see a business being viable out this far though it certainly would be a great place to stop.

Ongoing work at Streamstown Train Station

The north platform of Streamstown Junction Train Station is also the venue for an open air farm machinery museum with story boards and infographics about the farm machinery on display.

Some of the farm machinery on display at Streamstown platform

5km after Streamstown we come to Castletown Station which stands some 3km north of the village of Castletown Geoghegan. Albeit in a rural setting and some distance from the village Castletown Station has many of the same qualities and features as Moate Train Station including a goods shed, two platforms, a station building which has now been converted into a private residence, a signal box and an Edward VII Ciphered post box set into the wall.

Castletown Train Station, now a private residence

The signal box has been restored and carries the name of the station across the front elevation while the north platform respectfully asks passers-by the stay off the platform as it is part of the private residence. While you cannot get close up to the station, the renovation and retention of the house serves to give a good idea of what the station in Moate would have originally looked like as the two buildings seem to be built to the same design. The remains of what I can only assume to be a level crossing guard house stands on the southeast side of the station. Castletown Station closed with the closure of the Athlone line in May 1987.

Castletown Signal Box

For some bizarre reason that I cannot understand I thought Castletown Railway Station was the location of the Waterford and Suir Valley Light Railway and for several miles I was looking forward to stopping at the old railway carriage for an ice cream and a drink. It was a sad moment when I realised my mistake and given it would have been a 6km detour out and back to the village in the hope of a shop I decided to push on for Mullingar. Very soon after leaving Castletown I was stopped by two women on bikes enquiring was there anywhere for them to stop and get a bit to eat before Moate. It was much to their disappointment when I told them there wasn’t. They proceeded on but given it was nearing mid-afternoon at that point going as far as Moate and back to Mullingar with hire bikes might have been a challenge for the recreational cyclist.

It is a fairly straight run from Castletown Station to Ballinea on the western side of Mullingar. Ballinea Harbour is where the Midlands Great Western Railway and the Royal Canal part ways after running alongside each other all the way from Dublin, a distance of over 80km. Belmont Bridge is the first bridge we come to that needs to cross both the canal and the Old Rail Trail. The original canal bridge would have been built around 1806 and abutted by the railway bridge in the early 1850s. The Royal Canal Greenway and the Old Rail Trail run alongside each other for much of the way from here into Mullingar separated only by hedgerows and occasionally parting a small distance around fields.

Old Railway Bridge adjoining Belmont Bridge over the Royal Canal

Just over 2km from Mullingar we encounter the Mullingar parkrun route which starts on the Royal Canal Greenway at Grange Bridge and goes out for almost 3km before turning back on the Old Rail Trail and ending beside the old freight platforms west of Mullingar. From here is only a short distance to Grange Bridge where the Old Rail Trail ends and joins the Royal Canal Greenway to make its way east towards Dublin. I would hope that by June of this year the Royal Canal Greenway will be complete from this point to Maynooth harbour.

Looking back at Belmont Bridge on the Royal Canal Greenway

After travelling the 42.2km from the Whitegates in Athlone I stopped my Garmin and walked the remaining 1.5km towards Mullingar Train Station along the canal. Like in Athlone the Old Rail Trail stops short of reaching the station and it is sad to see the sheds of the Athlone line falling into ruin as we pass by them. The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland used these sheds to restore Locomotive No. 184 in the late 1970s and Mullingar Train Station was also used for the filming of The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. These sheds were also the scene of the notorious murder of station master Thomas Anketell in 1869, supposedly by Ribbonmen, a group of agrarian agitators who also caused a lot of trouble on the Royal Canal earlier in the 1800’s, breaching the canal banks in order that they could create employment to fix them and attacking boats carrying agricultural produce from the west to Dublin when people were going hungry.

Grange Bridge where the Royal Canal Greenway and the Old Rail Trail Meet just west of Mullingar

Although it is beyond the end (or the start) of the Old Rail Trail I will briefly mention Mullingar Train Station The current train station was built around 1856 and was altered around 1896 when it was extended and roofs added to the platforms. It replaced an earlier temporary station on the site that was built in 1848. Mullingar Train Station is unique in Ireland as it is the only station set between bifurcating railway tracks where it could split off southwest to Athlone and onwards towards Galway or northwest to Sligo. The station would have originally had footbridges linking the platforms but these were replaced by subways in the early 1900’s. The train station has a notable platform with roof and wooden waiting rooms on for the Sligo line with attractive cast iron columns accessed by the subway. A single arch railway bridge from the 1850’s carries the railway bridge and the most eastern part of the platform over a small road.

Platform Shelter at Mullingar Train Station

Mullingar Train Station also has a signal box dating from the 1920’s similar in design to the older ones we saw in Moate and Castletown but much grander in size, constructed with concrete blocks to the base and wooden first storey. Located to the east of the main station this signal box would have views over trains coming in from Dublin, Athlone and Sligo.

With an hour to spare until my train to Maynooth I headed into Mullingar itself for a quick bite to eat before heading home. In total it took me just under 5 hours to run/walk the 42.2km length of the Old Rail Trail with a few extra minutes either side to walk to my starting point and get to Mullingar Station itself.