Keeping the sections short as I travel further west towards the Shannon, todays post covers the stretch from Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule, a distance of just under 9km and an easy place to start, enjoy some time on the canal before having a good lunch and returning back the way you came.
Leaving your vehicle in Ballynacargy village, much of which dates back to the time the canal was built, you will need to cross over Ballynacargy Bridge to join the greenway on the south bank of the canal. From here it is 1.5km to the 36th Lock and Bridge with adjacent former Lock Keeper’s Cottage which is now a private residence.
It is a little over 500m from the 36th Lock to Kiddy’s Bridge which you can pass under the arch if you want.
Staying on the south bank of the canal it is then 600m to the 37th Lock and Bridge.
Once down onto the 37th Level you will see the 38th Lock with it’s Lock Keeper’s Cottage and Kelly’s Bridge only a short distance ahead. It is more common to find this matching set of lock, cottage and bridge on the western end of the canal, though the condition of the cottages can vary from ruins, to restored and also extended private residences.
This whole section of the canal was dammed off west of Mullingar from the 1960’s until the 1990s’s with very little to water to speak of. As such some boats were abandoned where they lay. Once such boat is Heritage Boat4E which is well worth looking up on the link. The boat has had an interesting life with several designations but it was from here that the current owner salvaged her in 1980 by having her towed to the 38th Lock and craned out so it could be brought to the Grand Canal to be restored. 4E can often be sighted on both canals and wintered in Mullingar Harbour over 2019/2020.
We cross over the bridge at the 38th Lock to the north bank before proceeding on 500m to Ledwith’s Bridge. From here the countryside opens up as we pass through Ballymaglavy Bog. The wide expanse of the bog offers no protection so always be prepared for Irish weather, sunscreen and a rain jacket.
As we move through the last stretch out of Westmeath before we enter our final county of Longford we come to a landmark that catches the attention of all those who pass, that of Bog Bridge. This stunning bridge lies in the middle of nowhere, spanning the canal, linking one side of the bog to the other but in our modern times looks like it serves no purpose other than to provide us a view of the bog and act as a perfect example of the fine workmanship of the contractors that built this section of the canal.
With Bog Bridge behind us we now enter County Longford as we approach Quinn’s Bridge.
To the right of Quinn’s Bridge we can also see Abbeyshrule Aerodrome which is mainly used for leisure flights and parachute clubs.
About 600m past Quinn’s Bridge we come to the Whitworth Aqueduct which carries the canal over the River Inny and is one of the most impressive structures on the canal.
The 5 arch aqueduct was most likely named for Lord Charles Whitworth, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1813 and 1817 when this section of the canal was being built.
The canal takes a sharp left once you cross the aqueduct as you line up to come into Abbeyshrule itself. If you keep and eye out just as you round the corner you can see an original overflow before you get to Scally’s Bridge.
The Greenway section on the north bank from Scally’s Bridge into Abbeyshrule recently opened and is safer than crossing the narrow bridge to bring you into the village. When you reach the village though you will need to cross Webb Bridge to either stop in the town or to carry on.
Abbeyshrule is the site of of a Cistercian Abbey dating back to the 1200’s and poet Oliver Goldsmith is believed to have been born nearby.
The village also boasts a very active Tidy Towns group.
At the heart of the village you will find the Rustic Inn where I would highly recommend you stop in for a drink and a feed. The pub also has a guest house for those looking to rest their tired legs after a long walk, run or cycle.
Once refueled you are all set to make the return journey to Ballynacargy to to push on further west to Ballybrannigan and Ballymahon where I will pick up in my next post.
The 9km section between Abbeyshrule and Ballybrannigan Harbour just outside of Ballymahon is one of the quietest and most picturesque sections of the Royal Canal and well worth the visit to meander around the many bends of the canal here. Leaving Abbeyshrule we first cross over Webb Bridge to the southern bank of the canal which we will stay on for this entire stretch.
Descending down on the other side of Webb Bridge there is a playground and some picnic benches. As previously mentioned, Abbesyshrule has a very active and proud Tidy Towns group and this can be seen by all the effort gone into with planting, sculptures and public areas around the harbour both sides of the bridge. If you look to the left beyond the River Inny you can see the ruins of the Abbey and its bell tower in the distance by the graveyard.
Rounding the corner leaving Abbeyshrule it is 1.5km to the 39th Lock at Draper’s Bridge. The 39th Lock is the only lock we will encounter today and the 39th Level is the longest level on the western side of the Summit Level being a little over 11km long before reaching the 40th Lock.
Almost hidden behind the overgrowth beside the 39th Lock is the remains of the Lock Keeper’s Cottage. Behind a house on the main road the walls remain intact of this two room cottage, same in design as many of the previous ones we’ve seen but sadly the roof has come in and not much else remains except for the two fireplaces.
A little over 1.5km on from the 39th Lock with come to Allard’s Bridge which is an accommodation bridge allowing farmers access to both sides of the canal. It is possible to pass under the bridge and if you do you can see a cut into the stone on both sides that allows wooden boards to be places to stop the water. These slots can be found at several bridges and are useful when you need to stem the water when carrying out maintenance or fixing a breach.
As I was passing Allard’s Bridge on my most recent trip I came across Riversdale Holidays The Sub barge passing under the Bridge as it was heading west. The Sub is available for hire by holiday makers for those looking to take a leisurely break on the Royal Canal.
A little over 1km from Allard’s Bridge is Guy’s Bridge. This is another accommodation bridge though it is my understanding that from here it is now possible to cross down to the bank of the Inny and onto Newcastle Woods before crossing the restored White’s Bridge which will bring you into the new Longford Centre Parcs. I seem to have missed this new path completely so I will need to go back and confirm and will update this post accordingly when I have.
After passing Guy’s Bridge there is a sharp right hand bend to bring you up the straight towards Molly Ward’s Bridge which lies just 500m beyond. Molly Ward’s Bridge is also an accommodation bridge and seeing these three almost uniform bridges in a row shows the great skill of the workmen who built them. All built to the same design they stand proud in their surroundings over 200 years later, surviving the downturn of the canal, its closing and then its restoration.
1km further on we come to Fowlard’s or Cloonard Bridge which carries the N55 road from Edgeworthstown to Ballymahon. Unfortunately being such an important road, the original narrow humpback bridge is gone, only the limestone retaining walls remaining. When passing under the concrete structure you can see marks of where the modified bridge passed at a much lower level as clearance for boats was no longer necessary when then canal was closed. Thankfully Longford County Council altered, raised or rebuilt several bridges that they had only made culverts for when the Royal Canal closed to trade to once again allow for navigation.
1.5km from on from Fowlard’s Bridge we come to Toome Bridge. It was from here that passengers on the Royal Canal boats could catch a Bianconi Coach to Athlone up until the Midland Great Western Railway opened their station in Athlone around 1850.
A little over 1km from Toome Bridge we cross over one of the several spillways on the canal extension built between Coolnahay and Cloondara. This one is similar to the one previously mentioned near the Whitworth Aqueduct but retains its original arch without a plinth blocking it. Theses spillways had a raised shelf where excess water would spill over down under the arch and to a water source below.
It is slightly short of 1km to Chaigneau Bridge and Ballybrannigan Harbour from the overflow. The bridge still retains a turnstile type gate underneath it which used to be found at several of these bridges so it is easier to go up and over this bridge to enter the harbour area.
Over the bridge the canal opens up to one of its more substantial harbours with boats often found mooring here. Standing prominently over the harbour is also the remains of an old canal storehouse which is increasinly being consumed by ivy.
At the end of the harbour is the restored ticket house which to the best of my knowledge is used by the Royal Canal Amenity Group.
Not far from the ticket office at the wall of the harbour you can still make out the engraving marking the restoration of the harbour and this part of the canal by the Royal Canal Amenity Group and the Office for Public Works in 1995. The O.P.W. had responsibility for the canal before the establishment of Waterways Ireland.
It is about a 2km walk from the harbour into the small town of Ballymahon where there are several pubs and shops to eat or get supplies. However the town is best reached from Longford Bridge which I will cover in the next section.
Ballybrannigan as previously mentioned is a harbour just to the north of Ballymahon. Before taking to the Greenway to the 41st Lock, a distance of 11km, I decided to call into the town for some lunch to fuel for my walk. Ballymahon has a very wide main street with plenty of parking and local pubs, garages and shops to make it worth the 2km diversion off the canal. This time around I had a fantastic meal at Cooney’s Hotel on the main street.
Once I had my fill I was back to Ballybrannigan Harbour where there is some limited parking beside the old canal storehouse. Heading west on the south bank of the canal it is 1.5km from the harbour to Longford Bridge. This bridge is a relatively new addition to the canal carrying the R392 from Lanesborough to Ballymahon. The bridge replaced a culvert that previously blocked the navigation of the canal. Some limited parking is also available on the east side of the bridge and is a popular spot with locals taking short walks on the Greenway.
Truth be told Longford Bridge is more ideally suited to come on and get off the canal for Ballymahon as it leads straight down to the main street albeit a similar distance as Ballybrannigan. On the left of the gates the wall of the car park area has several paintings of the canal done by local artists.
Passing under the bridge and staying on the south bank as we do the whole way to Mosstown Harbour, it is less than 1km before we reach Archie’s Bridge along with its canal storehouse and another building which may have once served as a ticket office. If you look closely you will also see evidence of the quay wall at the bridge.
It is possible to pass under Archie’s Bridge or to come up to the main road level before descending down on the other side. As there is a main road going over the bridge it is advisable to dismount your bike before crossing over and to be aware of traffic.
Along the 1.5km from Archie’s Bridge to the 40th Lock with its accommodation bridge and lock keeper’s cottage at Mullawornia the canal takes a definitive turn towards the north.
Consideration had been made to carry on west when building the canal straight to Lough Ree from this point in order to save costs however the Grand Canal Company opposed this and insisted that the Royal Canal be completed to it’s original planned terminus at Cloondara some 19km’s further on. As you round the corner after the lock you can see the bedrock of Mullawornia Hill as the canal skirts around it and a steep drop off the Greenway on the other side.
It is just under 1km from the 40th Lock to the Pake Bridges where we again cross under the R392. We come to the original Pake Bridge first passing under it before we pass under the abutted new bridge which was rebuilt from a culvert to allow for full navigation of the canal. There is a sharp turn to the left as you come out from the new bridge. Unlike the long stretches of many of the previous sections the canal twists and turns more and more as we near its end.
1.5km from the Pake Bridges we come to Foigha Harbour and Bridge. I think calling this a harbour is a little generous but there is a jetty with room to tie up a few small boats the east side of the bridge.
If at this point you are looking to take a small break, Leavy’s of Foigha is only 300m from the bridge and while the grocery shop has closed the pub is still up and running.
Back on the south bank of the canal it is just under 2km to the next landmark of Cloonbreany Bridge. Leaving Foigha it does feel like the Greenway passes right through the front of a private garden but rest assured you are on the right side as you pass through the familiar wooden gates. I once led a group down the other bank to find us having to climb gates and hop over cow pats before correcting ourselves at the next bridge.
Between Cloonbreany and Mosstown Harbour we pass alongside Corlea Bog which includes a visitor centre for the Corlea Trackway, an old trackway that dates back to 148-147BC. A walk has been built around the bog much like the surface of the Greenway and links the canal directly to the visitor’s centre for those who have the time and interest to take the small diversion off the canal.
Not far from where we meet the Corlea Bog Amenity Walk we come to Island Bridge which lies on the outskirts of the village of Keenagh. A new path links the canal to the village and is only a short distance for those looking for a shop.
Island Bridge is another location that had been culverted when the canal had closed and has since been been replaced with a higher bridge to allow for navigation of the canal once again. It is necessary to come up onto the bridge to cross the canal before coming down into Mosstown Harbour on the other side.
Mosstown Harbour has a small car park and several picnic benches beside it and is probably a more suitable spot for starting or stopping along this section however for this post I will be pushing on just a little further. A little beyond the car park on the road that leaves the canal path is a gate house for Mosstown House which was demolished in the early 1960’s.
Mosstown House is of note to us canal enthusiasts as the home of Newcomen family. Sir William Gleadowe-Newcomen was a banker and politician who was also an early subscriber of the Royal Canal Company, the bridge at the 1st Lock on North Strand Road being named for him. While the house is lost and is now the site of a modern farm, the remains of the Mosstown pigeon house can be found not far from the canal. A small cottage can also be found on the opposite bank.
Not far from the harbour is another one of the overflows we previosuly encountered around Abbeyshrule. There is a former mill close to the spillway which dates from around the same time as the canal and some associated works where the canal may have even supplied water can be spotted along this stretch.
There is no suitable parking here so if stopping for collection Mosstown Harbour does make more sense. For me though I will be walking back to pick up my car at Ballybrannigan Harbour and grabbing a bite to eat in Cooney’s Hotel before the drive home. For those pushing on it is only 13km to the end of the canal at Richmond Harbour.
It is just under 13km from our starting point at the 41st Lock to the end of the Royal Canal where it joins the Camlin River at the 46th Lock just beyond Richmond Harbour in Cloondara.
We are now over 130km from our starting point at the Sea Lock on the Liffey. We have left urban Dublin, passed through the commuter towns of north Kildare, eased by the green pastures of Meath, summitted the canal as we passed through Westmeath and are now gently descending towards the Shannon in Longford.
We start on the south or what could more likely described as the west bank of the Royal Canal as we now head north towards our destination. It is 1.5km to Ard’s Bridge, an accommodation bridge that can be walked under or ascended over depending on the view you want.
Less than 1km from the lock we reach the Lyneen or Ballinamore Bridges which similar to several bridges we have come to west of Mullingar includes the original canal crossing beside a much newer road bridge. It is necessary to ascend up the road bridge and cross the canal over to the other side to continue our journey but be mindful that this is a busy road.
Down on the other side we continue on for 1km to the Lower Lyneen or Crossover Bridge. This bridge is on the approach to the Longford Junction of the canal and was originally built to enable horses which would have towed boats from the western bank of the canal to Cloondara to cross over the canal so that they could tow their boats on towards Longford Harbour. As the Greenway travels along the east bank now there is no need to cross the bridge but it does afford the wanderer a chance to rise up and take a good view.
A little further on from the bridge are the ruins of a small canal building on the opposite bank.
Not much further on we come to the junction with the Longford Branch at Cloonsheerin. There is a decent path the whole way from the junction into Longford town and for those using a train it may be more useful to take this route which I discuss here. The Longford Branch is roughly 8.5km long so is similar in distance from this point to Cloondara.
Crossing the Longford Branch is simple as the Greenway is carried over the junction on the dam between the main line and the branch. It is just under 1.5km from here to the 43rd Lock and Aghnaskea Bridge. There is also a restored Lock Keeper’s Cottage at the 43rd Lock.
Behind the cottage is St. Patrick’s Church. The church was built in 1829. Cruciform in plan, it was built by the Rev. Richard Farrell on land donated by the New Royal Canal Company.
Aghnaskea is roughly 1km from Killashee village and is the best opportunity along this section to pick up supplies from a shop in the village. Magans is a popular pub in the village and a stopping point for many a traveler.
Returning to the canal on the western bank it is a little over 500m to the 44th Lock and Savage Bridge. There is also a restored Lock Keeper’s Cottage at the lock including a plaque honouring Frances K. Kelly of Forrest Hills, New York who paid for the restoration of the house in 1990.
1km on from the 44th Lock is Ballydrum Bridge just before the canal enters Begnagh Bog.
As we pass through the bog we come to the Begnagh Lifting Bridge and the original Begnagh Bridge. The lifting bridge carries the main road between Killashee and Cloondara and this road must be crossed also to carry on along the Greenway. The bridge’s operation is generally automatic, with boats triggering sensors that close the road barriers and lift the bridge for passage underneath.
1.5km on there is another lifting bridge, this time carrying a Bord Na Mona narrow gauge railway over the canal. The railway connects to Lanesborough Power Station which is due to close by the end of 2020.
A walking and cycling trail is under construction across sections of bogland to connect Lanesborough to the Royal Canal Greenway. This trail will link Kilnacarrow, a short walk from Lanesborough, with Cloondara. I will endeavour to post further information about this link in the near future. There is also a vehicle access bridge just beyond the lifting bridge giving machinery access to both sides of the bog.
As we reach the end of the bog we get to the 45th Lock at Rinnmount. After we leave the 45th Lock the Royal Canal takes one final turn north east before entering Cloondara which name comes from the Irish Cluain Dá Ráth meaning ‘pasture of two ringforts’.
Entry into the village is gained by passing under the horse shoe arch of Richmond Bridge. As with the previous bridges, the towpath is on the western side of the canal.
This opens out into Richmond Harbour, the focal point of the village where many of the buildings around it were built to service trade on the canal. The west bank of the harbour has been developed as a local amenity with a service block including toilets, showers and a Waterways Ireland office beside the bridge as well as a small car park and playground adjacent to the harbour and its moorings.
The Richmond Inn lies at the entrance to the harbour on the east bank. Originally a flax mill built in 1821, this four storey building now serves as a pub and guest house and is the perfect place for any explorer to finish their travels along the Royal Canal with five guest rooms and food served daily. Although it has been altered and changed to reflect its modern function, the scale of the building overlooking the harbour is suggestive of its past and the industrious nature of the canal itself.
Two doors down from The Richmond Inn is the former Harbour Master’s Office which was built around 1825 and is now in use as a private residence. It has a carved limestone date plaque beside the doorway. A slightly earlier office from about 1820 lies attached next door with a square headed carriage arch. Again this has been converted into a private residence.
Aside from the dry dock we encountered in Mullingar Harbour, Richmond Harbour has the only other remaining dry dock on the Royal Canal. Built in 1817, the dry dock in oblong in shape with a central drainage channel and integral staircase. Access is through a set of gates on the south side of the dry dock at the harbour and there is a sluice/drainage gate to the north side of the dry dock.
Slightly to the west of the dry dock at the northern end of the harbour is the last Lock Keeper’s Cottage on the Royal Canal. The cottage is adjacent to the 46th Lock which lies to the northwest of the harbour and marks the last lock on the Royal Canal and where it meets the Camlin River.
It is not possible for the walker or cyclist to proceed beyond this point and I would suggest they go back to the Richmond Inn for a pint but for the purposes of completeness (and boaters) I will briefly mention the last small stretch along the Camlin River required to get a boat out onto the River Shannon.
After transiting through the 46th Lock down onto the Camlin River you must head north to avoid the weir which lies on the other side of Richmond Harbour. The cut limestone weir on the river predates the canal by about 50 years. Before reaching the road bridge which carries the N5 over the Camlin River from Longford to Termonbarry we turn west onto the Camlin Canal which is a very short canal linking the Shannon River to the Camlin River and was built in the 1760s. This small canal was most likely designed by Thomas Omer for the Commissioners for Inland Navigation. This small canal has a single bridge crossing it which would have carried the original road to Termonbarry and dates to the same time as the construction of the Camlin Canal. The bridge gives a good viewing platform for the pedestrian to see the majority of the link between the Camlin River and the Shannon River and can be accessed by heading northwest out of Cloondara past the derelict Richmond Mill. There is a Lock Keeper’s Cottage to be found on the north bank by the bridge. This cottage from the 1760’s is quite different to anything else we have encountered and also served as an office for the Shannon Navigation Company but is now disused.
The associated and only lock on the Camlin Canal lies to the west of the cottage. The large lock was first built around 1760 and was altered around 1815 with the coming of the Royal Canal. This lock serves as the last man made structure needed to connect the River Shannon to the River Liffey. Once through the lock you are finally out on the River Shannon with Termonbarry Harbour facing you on the opposite bank of the wide river. From here it is possible to navigate north up to Enniskillen and the Erne, south to Athlone and on to Limerick or should you choose to Shannon Harbour where you can turn east once again and follow the Grand Canal back all the way to the south bank of the Liffey only a short distance from where we started.
Although not navigable, the Lough Owel Feeder on the summit level of the Royal Canal at Mullingar has a decent path along the majority of it and is well worth taking the time to wander the relatively short 4km stretch out to the Sluice House at Lough Owel. The Feeder itself is about 3.5km however it is necessary to divert off the Feeder briefly to make it the whole way to the lake. The Feeder once provided much of the water for the Royal Canal on the Summit Level flowing down to both the Liffey and the Shannon.
Once over the bridge you can head north on good surface path alongside the Feeder which is considerably smaller than the canal we are used to.
About 600m from the start of the Feeder you come to a small bridge that carries a small lane from the town to Oliver Plunkett GAA grounds. Like all the bridges on this section, they look like a mini version of what we are used to. The Feeder itself was built around 1806 when the Royal Canal reached Mullingar, some 16 years after construction started.
Carrying on for another 500m we come to Robinstown Bridge over the R394 Castlepollard Road. This is a main road into Mullingar and has a pedestrian crossing to assist getting across the road. The original bridge was widened and modernised to handle more traffic. There is a Texaco garage near the bridge with a shop and provides the best opportunity to get any snacks on this route.
250m from after the Castlepollard Road is the Mullingar Union Workhouse Graveyard. The nearby Mullingar Workhouse is now part of Mullingar Hospital. The area around the graveyard is predominantly overgrown but the main gate and some more recent memorials still mark the tone for the area. With the National Famine Way Memorial Shoes at the start of the Feeder, the graveyard serves as a reminder of the harsh times experienced by those who lived by the canal.
As we round the next corner the Feeder comes alongside the Sligo Railway Line for a short stretch again, the line that has kept the canal company most of its was from Dublin now accompanies the feeder to the lake.
About 650m from the Graveyard we come to a small accommodation bridge as the Feeder takes a slightly more curved route than the direct rail farm. Accommodation bridges were built by the canal company to give access to both sides of the canal for landowners and farmers whose land had been bisected by the construction of the canal.
According to the Guide to the Royal Canal the fish farm is fed from the feeder through a metering apparatus via a culvert under the path which abstracts water from Lough Owel.
Just past the fish farm we come to Cullion Bridge. It is necessary to leave the feeder path here for about 500m to carry on towards the lake.
As we pass through the gates at the Cullion Bridge you will notice a sign for St. Brigid’s Well to the right just beyond the gate for the fish farm. The small well with the stations of the cross is a peaceful place for reflection and worth dropping into as you pass.
Crossing over Cullion Bridge will bring you past Culleenmore Level Crossing Gates and the Gate Keeper’s Cottage there. Crossing the old Longford Road you will signs for a cycle way which will bring you on towards the lough and return you to the Feeder path.
Following the lane for 200m the Feeder is on your right until you come to a small bridge which brings you back across the Feeder for the final stretch down to Lough Owel.
Once over the bridge it is only a little over 400m to Lough Owel. When you get to the lough and Mullingar Sailing Club you will see a small gate and a white house on the left. This is the Sluice House where the flow of the water to the canal was controlled.
Behind the house on the lake side is the main sluice gate itself.
After the Sluice House you have reached Lough Owel and the original source of much of the Royal Canal’s water. Although an often forgotten part of the Royal Canal, the quality path makes this a pleasurable diversion worth taking when passing Mullingar.
The Longford Branch of the Royal Canal was built several years after the Main Line was completed to Cloondara in 1817. Offically opened in January 1830 the branch is roughly 8.5km long but has since been shortened slightly after Longford Harbour was filled in and the new terminus moved to the south side of the railway line. While the branch is not navigable an accessible path runs the full length of it to the main line and is suitable for walkers, runners and cyclists.
As the branch is located close to the railway station I thought it would be a good idea to start this post at the old Longford Harbour and head out towards Cloonsheerin and the junction with the Main Line.
The former Harbour Master’s House now sits overlooking a car park where the harbour once was. According to the Guide to the Royal Canal if the harbour were to be re-excavated, all of the original stonework is in situ under the compacted infill.
Another prominent building on the site of the infilled harbour is listed by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being the former Royal Canal Ticket Office and may have been originally built as a warehouse or store for the canal. With the harbour now gone you can follow a path down underneath the railway to the other side where the new terminus of the canal is now.
The first 1.5km of the canal from the new terminus to just beyond Farranyoogan Bridge holds water and is home to a considerable number of ducks, moorhens, butterflies and dragon flies. Longford County Council also recently finished upgrading the canal path on both sides with a smooth tarmac surface and lighting from the start as far as Churchlands Bridge, a distance of nearly 3km.
This section the of the canal is the venue of the popular Run Canal Run Longford which offers runners a choice of 10k, half marathon, full marathon and an ultra marathon running loops up one side and back the other between the terminus and Churchlands Bridge. This section also celebrates Irish athlete and Longford native Ray Flynn who ran an impressive 89 sub 4 minute miles over the course of his career and still holds the Irish 1 mile record with a time of 3:49.77 ran in Oslo in July 1982.
The first bridge we come to, a little less than 1.5km from the harbour is Farranyoogan Bridge and is the most prominent and visible bridges along the Longford Branch. It is possible to pass under the bridge on the eastern side of the canal.
A very short distance after the bridge there is a dam which ensures the first section we have just completed remains watered from the local springs nearby. From here on to the junction with the Main Line is dry. It is a little over 1km from Farranyoogan Bridge to Churchlands Bridge and the canal bed is visible for almost all of this section, with much of the overgrowth that was in the canal removed when the paths were done.
Churchlands Bridge is a now out of use bridge built in the first half of the 20th century on the site of a former canal bridge dating back to the building of the Longford Branch.
Unfortunately after the closing of the canal in the early 1960’s several culverted road crossing at the canal level were built by Longford County Council to by-pass the narrow and often hump backed bridges of the canal that were not designed for the traffic of the 1960’s let alone today. All of these culverts on the Main Line have since been replaced by bridges allowing for full navigation of the Main Line, however two such culverts remain on the Longford Branch, both carrying the N63 and remain as probably the biggest cost and obstacle in reopening the Longford Branch to navigation.
It is necessary to come off the canal path at Churchlands Bridge to cross the N63 over to the other side where the canal path now becomes single sided continuing on the east side only. The surface of the path here changes to a stone trail but apart from the occasional short patch is consistent with the stone dust trail we are used to on much of the Main Line Greenway. It is 1km from here to where we must pass over another culverted road crossing of the N63 near Knockanboy Bridge.
The old road Knockanboy Bridge carried and was by-passed by the culvert is still open and the main road can be seen swerving around it on either end from the top of the bridge.
It can be noted that as the Longford Branch was built after the Main Line and additionally after the original Royal Canal Company was wound up, the bridges are not named for company subscribes or owners of the land on which they were built but simply named now for the townlands they are in.
Shortly after Knockanboy Bridge the canal path lines up briefly with the R397. There is a small petrol station with a shop only a short distance down the road here and this is the only opportunity you will have to get any supplies should you want any one this section.
Turning the corner away from the road you pass over a small aqueduct before reaching Cloonturk Bridge. Cloonturk Bridge still provides an important function as you must cross it over to the west side of the canal to carry on the canal path.
Carrying on down the west side of the canal we pass an charming remote cottage which is still lived in.
It is just over 1km from Cloonturk Bridge to Newtown Bridge. Most of the Longford Branch between Churchlands Bridge and Cloonsheerin now has considerable tree growth or reeds along the channel and as such the bridges are fairly obscured from sight.
It is roughly 1.5km from Newtown Bridge to Aghantrah Bridge. Between the two bridges the canal path goes around a small clump of trees which may originally been part of the canal as place to allow other boats to pass. There is also a another small aqueduct that you would hardly notice. There is a 90 degree turn to the south just before Aghantrah Bridge itself.
There is a third aqueduct carrying the canal over a small stream below between Aghantrah and Cloonsheerin Bridge. The two bridges are 700m apart.
Around the next bend and 300m further down you will come to the dam and the junction with the Main Line of the Royal Canal. You will also see the familiar sight of the National Famine Way Shoes.
At the junction of the canal, Cloondara is only 8km to the right while Ballymahon is a little over 15km if you go to your left.
Waterways Ireland undertook a feasibility study into the restoration of the Longford Branch of the Royal Canal in 2014 but unfortunately the link to the study no longer works. Not factoring in the cost of the project the study was generally positive about the condition of the Longford Branch and also had so insights to the variety of wildlife that can be found on it.
While the section is not navigable the canal path is in good condition and the branch is well worth the detour for those who have the time or is a pleasant journey for those starting out in Longford Town. It also serves as a good reminder of all the amazing work done to restore the Main Line as it illustrates how quickly nature can take over when left to itself.
Given how intertwined the history is between the Royal Canal and the Midlands Great Western Railway (MGWR) I think it would be remiss of me not to put up a post about the old MGWR Mullingar to Athlone railway line which has been converted into an amazing 40km greenway called the Old Rail Trail which is entirely in Westmeath.
I previously discussed running the Old Rail Trail from Athlone to Mullingar here but in the context of my series of guide posts of the Royal Canal I will revisit the topic here starting in Mullingar. A quick history lesson will tell you that the MGWR was incorporated in 1845 and at its peak was the third largest railway company in Ireland after Great Southern & Western Railway (GS&WR) and Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNR). The MGWR bought the Royal Canal with the aim to build a railway to Mullingar and onward to Longford. Construction of the railway began in January 1846 and reached Mullingar in 1848.
There was a rivalry between the MGWR and the GS&WR to reach Galway first and so it was that the MGWR extended their line from Mullingar to Athlone and onward to Galway, capable of running trains from Dublin to Galway from August 1851. It would be another 8 years before GS&WR reached Athlone and from that point on used the already laid MGWR line west.
Starting at Mullingar Railway Station, the platforms and shelters of the old Athlone line are no longer in use or accessible. They sit around the far side of the station building and can only be viewed from inside. Also visible from the station building is the Signal Box on the Dublin side which commands view of both the Athlone and Sligo lines as they part either side of the station. The Athlone line through the station is still in place as far out as the railway sheds and workers terrace passing over a bridge immediately after the station. These sheds were used by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland in the restoration of Great Southern & Western Railway Locomotive No. 184. This locomotive went on to be used in the filming of The First Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery and Donald Sunderland where many moving scenes were shot on the Mulligar to Athlone railway line. No. 184 is on display at Whitehead Railway Museum in Co. Antrim. There is also the remains of a turntable out by the railway sheds. The workers terrace was also the location of a true crime in 1869 when it was reported that the then Station Master Thomas Anketell was shot and murdered and a newspaper article about the incident can be found here.
Unfortunately while we can view the sheds from a distance or on Google Maps we are unable to go directly by them so to access the start of the Old Rail Trail it is best to exit the station onto the Royal Canal Greenway and head west as far as Grange Bridge which was described by the late Dick Warner as like having the legs of a Mullingar heifer. Alternatively there is an Old Rail Trail car park adjacent to Grange Bridge on the south side of the canal.
Just after passing Grange Bridge you will see that the Royal Canal Greenway splits in two. On the right you stay with the canal and the route as far as Coolnahay is described in my post here and on the left is the start of the Old Rail Trail. You will also see the start sign of Mullingar parkrun at the Y of the two greenways.
As you start moving west on the Old Rail Trail you will notice it is a smooth tarmac surface unlike the dust stone used on the Royal Canal Greenway. This tarmac surface is used the whole way to Athlone and as such makes it the perfect surface for a smooth cycle. Passing the industrial estate on the left you will notice the remains of a railway platform which was used to serve the Mullingar Racecourse at Newbrook. From what I can gather from Railscot’s record of Irish Stations the platforms operated from 1902 to 1962.
The Royal Canal Greenway and the Old Rail Trail run parallel to each other for roughly 3.5km from Grange Bridge out to Ballinea. The parkrun course is made up of an out on the canal and a return on the Old Rail Trail. Close to Kilpatrick Bridge over the canal there is also a squared off bridge over the trail.
Not far beyond Kilpatrick Bridge we come to the last link to the Royal Canal Greenway where the parkrun turns to go back to its finish. Just beyond that is also the last MGWR bridge that is abutted to an older Royal Canal bridge at Belmont Bridge. There is a small shop in Ballinea which you can get to by taking the Royal Canal here. If you haven’t come with supplies I would suggest taking the time to stop here and get something as Moate is the next location where you really have an opportunity to get anything.
As can be seen in the above photo, the Old Rail Trail only takes up about half the surface available to it as it was once a double line track and as a result there is the remains of one of the tracks for the majority of the distance to Athlone to remind us of the proud rail heritage that the trail is built on.
At Ballinea we pass a private residence that was most likely originally built as railway workers cottage. We have left the old world of the canal now, the familiar sights of Locks, Keeper’s Cottages and humpback bridges are replaced with the railways own take on engineering with workers cottages, stations, water towers and sheds all to come.
Not far west of Ballinea we pass through the closest thing to a tunnel the Old Rail Trail has. As we move further west in what is nearly a straight line we both go over and under many bridges alternating between the roads going over and under the railway. Unless they have some key relevance though I will only mention the bridges we pass under as it is near impossible to take a worthwhile photo of a bridge when standing on top of it.
It is interesting as we move across the landscape how the railway would have cut through the land in places like at Barrettstown where high walls flank us on either side to soaring high above the farmland at other points affording us views as far as the eye can see, not to mention a wind that can cut you on a cold day so a reminder to always be prepared.
3.5km from Barrettstown we come to what was Castletown Station which was open from 1851 until 1987. The first thing to greet us is the magnificently restored signal box. Behind the signal box is Ard Na Greine, a Victorian house and former dispensary. Crossing over the road we come to the station and its platforms.
The Castletown Station is now a private residence on the northern platform but the southern platform does offer picnic benches for those passing by. As mentioned previously it is important to bring your own supplies on this trip, however, Castletown Geoghegan has a shop in it 2km south along the road if you need it.
Though boarded up the remains of a platform waiting room faces the station on the southern platform and to complete the station set there is the remains of a goods shed just west of the platforms as you are leaving.
Leaving Castletown behind us we head towards an area known as Killeen and the area around Jamestown Court, with its Gate Lodge adjacent to the bridge over the railway which acts an entrance into the estate and its folly. Unfortunately the splendour of Jamestown Court cannot be seen from the Old Rail Trail as it is cut into the land below it.
Just short of 4km from Jamestown Court we come to Streamstown Junction and its old station which opened in 1851 and closed in 1963. MGWR had a railway from Streamstown linking to the GS&WR at Clara via Horseleap. Horseleap was open from 1876 to 1947 with the line permanently closing in 1965. The MGWR station in Clara operated from 1866 to 1925 but what was the GS&WR station is still open on the line between Tullamore and Athlone.
Streamstown is located nearly half way along the Old Rail Trail, 17km from Mullingar and 23km to Athlone. The last time I passed (April 2019) there was an open air museum dedicated to old farm machinery on the northern platform.
The station building itself was also covered in scaffolding. I have heard rumours that it was being done with the intention of opening a cafe in it. This would be a fantastic point along the route for one but I have no definite source for such a comment so only time will tell. The work may just be preservation work. The station also has the remains of a few other buildings including a small goods shed and a waiting room.
Apart from the obvious railway and buildings along the route, many other things associated with the railway also remain. These include mile markers, signals and cable polls.
At certain points along the trail you cross over older bridges that once carried the railway over the road below but have not endured the test of time as well as others. Not far past Streamstown is one such example where the trail narrows slightly where the old bridge that once carried two lines has been fixed up just to safely carry the trail.
Not all the bridges we come to are built of the familiar limestone that we are used to along the canal. The next bridge up at Derryhall has a heavy metal work span over the trail, crossing at an angle rather than straight on.
It is an 11km stretch of open countryside between Streamstown and Moate and while it would be wrong to say it is flat, saying it is made up of rolling hills would not be fair either. Exposed at times, this rural area is quite a pleasant place to transit through dotted with little more than farmhouses, sheds and bridges.
Not too far after passing under the bridge at Grange we come to the largest urban settlement along the Old Rail Trail, the town of Moate.
Moate railway station opened in 1851 and closed in 1987. Like Castletown there are a large number of railway associated buildings and structures remaining as we pass through the station between the old platforms.
Moate is a great little town to stop off in and get some lunch with plenty on offer to suit all tastes and budgets. Right beside the train station you will see signs pointing you to the Moate Golf Course Restaurant. If you rather venture into the town a little you will find the coffee shop at the Tuar Ard Arts Centre and of course you can never go wrong with at curry cheese chips at Supermacs. There is also a Centra and a SuperValu not far from the station for whatever supplies you may need.
Leaving Moate behind us we only have another 12km to go to get us to Athlone. Not far from the station and still withing the town limits we come to Jones Crossing where the old Gate Keeper’s Cottage is now a private residence and the crossing gates are still in place.
Further west again we come to another level crossing at Magheramore where once again the Gate Keeper’s Cottage has been retained as a private residence.
The section between Moate and Athlone is very people with the residents of both towns to get out and get some exercise in both directions. There is a car park located for Greenway users at Tully Bridge about half way between the two towns.
You are met on the outskirts of Athlone by the bridge carrying the N6 over the Old Rail Trail on its way to Galway from Dublin, the modern passing over the old, the rushed passing over the leisurely.
Much more welcoming than the N6 Bridge is the bridge a little further up at Garrycastle near Athlone I.T. with its colourful murals.
There is a large Spar with a car park just off the Old Rail Trail at Garrycastle offering another good place to fuel up and it includes a reasonable deli and a place to sit down to eat. The trail is has lighting from here the whole way into Athlone town and will probably be the busiest section you will come to. It is only 2km from here to our end point at the White Gates.
We pass Athlone GAA Club as we reach our destination at the White Gates after travelling the 40km from Grange Bridge at Mullingar. For the runners among you, add in the distance to Mullingar railway station and you will be looking a a nice marathon distance.
When I did this journey last the White Gates marked the start/end of the Old Rail Trail but the plan is that this will continue on from here the whole way to Galway to make up the Dublin – Galway Cycleway. Westmeath County Council are certainly to be commended for having their part already done.
Given I started at the MGWR railway station in Mullingar I think it is only right that I should mention the old MGWR railway station in Athlone. Only 600metres from the White Gates the old MGWR railway was joined by it the GS&WR railway coming from Hueston where crossed the Shannon together on the Shannon Railway Bridge before the MGWR Railway Station on the west bank of the river. The old station now serves as Irish Rail offices and stores while the GS&WR Railway Station on the east bank is the passenger station for Athlone. From there locomotives from both companies steamed west to Galway.
My posts about the Royal Canal Greenway can be linked to below: