Categories
Royal Canal

Cycling on the Royal Canal: Maynooth to Enfield

After covering the last few sections on my feet, here I take to my bike to cover some more ground as we get further west into more rural landscape. That said the Royal Canal Greenway is a major training ground for the runners of Maynooth and Kilcock.

Bike at Maynooth Harbour

In this post I am going to take a look at cycling from what is currently the start of the Royal Canal Greenway at Maynooth Harbour and heading west as far as Enfield Bridge, a distance of 18.7 kilometres.

Maynooth Harbour just before dawn

Maynooth Harbour, located on the 13th level of the Royal Canal, is a great place to start. It is easily accessible from Dublin, with Maynooth Train Station lying on the south bank of the canal. A footbridge gives access to the north bank and the Royal Canal Greenway. Maynooth Harbour is a triangle shaped harbour with a slipway on the town side. It has an island with nesting swans in the centre. It would have been built between 1790 and 1796 making it a contemporary of the near by St. Patrick’s University which opened in 1795.

Maynooth Swans with their cygnets and the island in the background – Summer 2019

We depart Maynooth heading west on a tarmac path heading a short distance of 500 metres before we encounter Bond Bridge which was originally built in 1795. In 2005 Jons Engineering were contracted to widen and realign the bridge to make it safer for the traffic it carries over the canal. The new bridge opened in 2007 and also has cycle lanes over it with steps accessing the Royal Canal Greenway on the east side and a ramp down the west side.

Approaching Bond Bridge from Maynooth Harbour

After passing under Bond Bridge we transition from tarmac onto a smooth, light stone dust surface which will be the norm for most the way to Enfield. The South Campus wall of the university keeps us company for 750 metres as we leave Maynooth behind us. This old stone wall separates the canal bank from the playing fields and grounds of the old campus.

Pacman Graffiti on College Wall

As we reach the end of the college wall we pass the old college farmhouse and sheds. It is nearly 1 kilometre from the end of the college wall to the next landmark of Jackson’s Bridge and the 14th Lock. Jackson’s Bridge is made up of 5 spanning arches including a narrow pedestrian arch (for which cyclists should dismount), the canal, the railway and two arches for farm animals on the south bank. The original canal span was built in 1793 while the railway span was abutted in the late 1840’s.

The 5 arches of Jackson’s Bridge with 14th Lock

We emerge on the upper 14th level after passing through the pedestrian arch with the 14th Lock revealing itself fully to view.

Water Cascading down into the 14th Lock

Leaving Jackson’s Bridge behind we proceed for 1.7 kilometres before we reach the next landmark of Bailey’s Bridge, an accommodation bridge giving the local farmer access to both sides of the canal. As part of the work to create the Royal Canal Greenway the bridge was extended to give users safe passage under the bridge rather than force them through the narrow passage that still exists.

Bailey’s Bridge with new Greenway passage

Moving on past North Kildare Club with its rugby, cricket and hockey pitches it is another 750 metres to Chamber’s Bridge and the 15th Lock. It is common to find several barges and Waterways Ireland work boats moored up at the bridge. One such barge is Anam Cara (previously Maeve) which was once used by actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales in their Channel 4 series Great Canal Journeys as they explored the Shannon-Erne Waterway. The barge was also used for the TV3 series Jingle Jangle which featured a large array of prominent Irish musicians as the barge made its way west from Dublin to Cloondara on the Royal Canal.

15th Lock from Chamber’s Bridge with Anam Cara and other barges in the background on a rather wet day.

There is another 500 metres of the light stone dust after Chamber’s Bridge before we reach another stretch of tarmac on the approach to Kilcock. As we meet the tarmac, the Royal Canal Greenway lines up and runs parallel with a road, a railway, the canal, the greenway itself, another road and the Rye River. It is 1 kilometre from the start of the tarmac surface to Kilcock Harbour.

Approaching Kilcock

Kilcock Harbour has been wonderfully restored and is home to Kilcock Canoe Polo Club. The Royal Canal opened to commercial traffic in December 1796, six years after construction started. Barges initially started operating between Broadstone and Kilcock. At the end of Kilcock Harbour is the upgraded Shaw’s Bridge and the double-chambered 16th Lock.

Shaw’s Bridge with the 16th Lock behind it and goals from the Canoe Polo Club in the foreground.

In total it is just under 6 kilometres from Maynooth Harbour to Kilcock Harbour. As we must dismount to cross the road at Shaw’s Bridge, you may wish to stop for some refreshments before continuing on. Just across the road from the canal is the very popular Black Forest Cafe and Cakery while just a little further into the town there is a Costa Coffee as well as a large Supervalu for supplies. The Rye River Cafe is also another popular spot for breakfast or lunch not far off the canal.

Upper chamber of the 16th Lock

After coming up onto the 16th level there is a small blue container. This marks the start of the Royal Canal parkrun, Kilcock which is a weekly, free 5k run that goes out west and comes back on the banks of the canal.

The tarmac continues from the 16th Lock for just over 1 kilometre as far as Allen Bridge which is known locally as Spins Bridge. Allen Bridge was originally built in 1796 but like Bond Bridge and Shaw’s Bridge, it was later modified for modern traffic. However when you pass under the bridge you can still see the original arch.

Original arch visible under Allen (Spins) Bridge

On coming out on the other side of Allen Bridge we return to the light stone dust surface. A new spillway has been completed not far west of the bridge which replaced a narrow wooden bridge over a dip of the old slipway.

The original overflow with wooden bridge before being replaced

As we continue west for 2.75 kilometres towards McLoughlin’s Bridge and the 17th Lock (which is locally known as Ferns Lock) we cross the county border from Kildare to Meath. The Royal Canal crosses back and forth across this county line several times as the canal makes its way west.

Looking up the double-chambered 17th (Ferns) Lock from McLoughlin’s Bridge

Ferns Lock has several features around it. The bridge coming into the lock no longer has an arch and now has a low concrete plinth which has been known to catch the top of wheelhouses of boats passing under it. This happened the Heritage Boat Rambler during filming of the late Dick Warner’s Waterways – The Royal Canal series for RTÉ. It is a rare complaint on the Royal Canal that the water level is too high for such problems to happen. Unlike all the bridges we have met so far, McLoughlin’s Bridge has no abutment to a railway bridge and instead is level with a level crossing at the bridge. The 17th Lock is the last double-chambered lock on the Royal Canal coming from Dublin and marks the start of The Long Level which is a 32 kilometer stretch before the 18th Lock at Thomastown. There is also a restored storehouse beside the lock, now a private residence.

Restored storehouse and store at Ferns Lock

Leaving Ferns Lock we remain on the north bank on one of the most recently completed sections of the Royal Canal Greenway. Until late in the summer of 2019 it was necessary to travel the 5.9 kilometre section from Ferns Lock to Cloncurry Bridge on the south bank. This is a grassy and often muddy trail generally unsuitable for cycling. Thankfully the north bank is now complete and is a pleasurable cycle. The new section does veer a little away from the canal at a few points but never too far to see and it includes a section where the path winds through a forest.

Royal Canal Greenway going through the forest as seen from the south bank

One of the few disadvantages of travelling on the smooth north bank now is that you miss the original 22 and 23 Mile Markers for the canal, 2 of the very few ones left standing. These measure the distance not from the River Liffey but rather from Broadstone.

The 23rd Mile Marker on the south bank near Cloncurry

Not long after the forest, we pass a farm house which leads us back onto a tarmac surface for the last 2 kilometers to Cloncurry Bridge. The area around Cloncurry is probably best known from the poem The Old Bog Road by Teresa Brayton, an Irish Nationalist from Kilcock who emigrated to America in 1895. She wrote widely on the themes of exile, nostalgic loss of homeland, nationalism and religion. She returned to Ireland in 1932 where she lived in nearby Kilbrook until her death in 1943. The Old Bog Road was put to music by Madeline King O’Farrelly from Rochfortbridge in Westmeath and has been recorded by many artists.

Cloncurry Bridge looking east

Remaining on the north bank we must cross over the road at Cloncurry Bridge to continue on our way to our destination in Enfield, a distance of 3 kilometres. Some caution is needed for the first kilometer of this as it is on a public road by the canal until you pass through a pair of wooden gates back onto the dust surface of the Royal Canal Greenway.

Enfield Train Station on the south bank.

Coming into Enfield, the railway station and a variety of connected buildings originally opened by the Midlands Great Western Railway company in the late 1840’s can be seen on the opposite bank. Buildings include the Railway Station, the Station Masters House, Warehouses, a Signal Box and Water Towers. Finally we approach our destination of Enfield Bridge, 18.7 kilometres from where we started at Maynooth Harbour.

Sunrise on the Royal Canal from Enfield Bridge.

On reaching Enfield there are a variety of places to take a break. Closest to the bridge itself is the Bridgehouse pub which does pub grub. There is an Applegreen with a Subway just a little further into town for those only looking for light refreshments. A favourite of mine would be the Street Side Cafe. Like Maynooth and Kilcock, Enfield also has a Supervalu close to the canal for those looking for a supermarket.

Enfield Bridge. Much like Allen Bridge in Kilcock the old bridge is hidden under the widened road bridge above it.

Once you are fueled again you’ll be ready for the cycle back to Maynooth or, if you are taking it easy, the intercity from Sligo stops in Enfield roughly every 2 hours and will see you back to Maynooth or Dublin Connolly. Booking with Irish Rail is advised with bike as the trains can only facilitate 2 bikes per train.

Enfield Train Station Water Tower

Part 1: North Wall to Cross Guns Bridge

Part 2: Cross Guns Bridge to Castleknock

Part 3: Castleknock to Leixlip Confey

Part 4: Leixlip Confey to Maynooth

Part 6: Enfield to Thomastown

Part 7: Thomastown to Mullingar Harbour

Part 8: Mullingar to Coolnahay

Part 9: Coolnahay to Ballynacargy Bridge

Part 10: Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule

Part 11: Abbeyshrule to Ballybrannigan

Part 12: Ballybrannigan to the 41st Lock

Part 13: 41st Lock to Richmond Harbour

Part 14: The Lough Owel Feeder

Part 15: The Longford Branch

Annex 1: The Old Rail Trail – Mullingar to Athlone

Categories
Royal Canal

Cycling on the Royal Canal: Mullingar Harbour to Coolnahay

I know I have tried to start or finish most my posts at a location with a train station however in my previous post I thought it made sense to stop a little short at Mullingar Harbour rather than going a little further around the bend to Mullingar Railway Station.

Old waiting room at Mullingar Railway Station

So for those of you joining me from the railway station for this cycle I would ask you to back track slightly for 1 kilometre to Mullingar Harbour where will start today for our short 10.5 kilometre journey as far as Coolnahay Harbour. As this is a short trip it is one I highly recommend taking a picnic with you as Coolnahay Harbour is a glorious place to sit out at on a warm sunny day and since it is at the end of the summit level, walkers, runners and cyclists alike can enjoy a nice flat out and back on the day.

Flowers and Trees and Coolnahay Harbour

Leaving Mullingar Harbour you pass under the Mullingar Railway Bridge which carries the Dublin – Sligo train west out of Mullingar and marks the end of the working railways trip with us. This is a fairly modern bridge but I cannot find an exact date for it. It is most notable for its large green tubular steel beams that carry the railway over the canal.

Mullingar Railway Bridge

As you round the corner you also pass under a footbridge over the canal.

Footbridge after Railway Bridge

As we approach Green Bridge which carries Dominic Street over the canal you are likely to see the Irish Tricolour flying in the 1916 Centenary Memorial Park on the opposite bank. The flagpole, seating and lighting is enclosed by a masonry wall with a plinth displaying the Proclamation of Independence around which seven native Irish trees are planted, each representing a signatory to the proclamation.

Green Bridge with adjacent Railway Bridge

Going under Green Bridge we come out the other side with a clear view of Mulligar Railway Station. There is a large car park located at the station for those looking for an ideal place to leave a vehicle for a few hours and its rates are reasonable.

Greenway access at Mullingar Railway Station

We now line up with what was the Mullingar to Athlone Railway line and the railway sheds and turntable west of the town. These sheds were used by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland to restore their locomotive No. 184 (a former Great Southern and Western Railway locomotive) which was subsequently used in the filming of The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

Once the main line used to get from Dublin to Galway, the Mullingar to Athlone line hasn’t been used since 1991 and has now become the Old Rail Trail, a 42 kilometre greenway passing through Moate on its way to Athlone and a pleasurable cycle in itself. The Old Rail Trail starts a little further west at Grange Bridge which is also the starting point for Mullingar parkrun.

Grange Bridge where Mullingar parkrun (and Old Rail Trail) starts

The parkrun route heads out west for just over 2 kilometres on the canal before crossing back onto the Old Rail Trail to finish back just short of Grange Bridge.

Approaching Kilpatrick Bridge

The first bridge you come to on leaving Mullingar is Kilpatrick Bridge. The Greenway passes under the bridge and carries on on the southern bank. Kilpatrick House is nearby on the other side of the old railway line. The canal meanders on towards Belmont Bridge which is the last Royal Canal bridge to be abutted by a railway bridge.

Belmont Bridge with Old Rail Trail on the left

It is necessary to take the ramp up onto Belmont Bridge and cross over to the north bank to carry on to Ballinea. Belmont House lies just slightly south of the bridge as does its slightly later Gate Lodge.

Ballinea Harbour and skew bridge

Ballinea has a small harbour and picnic area just before the original Ballinea Bridge, one of only two skew bridges on the Royal Canal. You need to come up and cross over the bridge before descending back down on the south bank before the more modern road bridge and you carry on under it.

New Ballinea Bridge from the Old. Note the path down from the old that goes under the new. There is a shop in the distance on the left.

If you are in need of supplies it is best to pick them up here in Ballinea as there is a small shop in the village and it will be your last opportunity to do so until you pass here again on your way back.

Approaching Shandonagh Bridges from Mullingar

Leaving the last real urban environment we’ll encounter on the Royal Canal behind us we carry on towards the Shandonagh Bridges which like the Ballinea Bridges comprises of an original Canal Bridge and a more recently added road bridge adjacent to it.

Older Shandonagh Bridge from the west

It was around this area that the Royal Canal was dammed in the late 1960’s and for the most part went dry until it’s restoration. This can be read about in chapter 13 on of Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009.

Looking at the 26th Lock and the Lock Keepers Cottage at Coolnahay from Dolan’s Bridge

From Shandonagh it is an idyllic 2 kilometre to Coolnahay Harbour and the 26th Lock which marks the end of the Summit Level and the beginning of the decent of locks down to the 46th Lock at Richmond Harbour. The 26th Lock also has a restored Lock Keepers Cottage and Dolan’s Bridge after which there is a small car park.

Looking back at Coolnahay Harbour from Dolan’s Bridge.

As mentioned at the start of this post it is only a short distance from Mullingar Harbour to Coolnahay but it is very enjoyable section of the canal that can be enjoyed by foot or by bike. From here we truly head for the wild west… and County Longford.

Part 1: North Wall to Cross Guns Bridge

Part 2: Cross Guns Bridge to Castleknock

Part 3: Castleknock to Leixlip Confey

Part 4: Leixlip Confey to Maynooth

Part 5: Maynooth to Enfield

Part 6: Enfield to Thomastown

Part 7: Thomastown to Mullingar Harbour

Part 9: Coolnahay to Ballynacargy Bridge

Part 10: Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule

Part 11: Abbeyshrule to Ballybrannigan

Part 12: Ballybrannigan to the 41st Lock

Part 13: 41st Lock to Richmond Harbour

Part 14: The Lough Owel Feeder

Part 15: The Longford Branch

Annex 1: The Old Rail Trail – Mullingar to Athlone

Categories
Royal Canal

Walking on the Royal Canal: Coolnahay to Ballynacargy Bridge

Coolnahay and the 26th Lock mark the western end of the Summit Level of the Royal Canal and it is the perfect place to slow things down again and walk the 8km stretch to Ballynacargy. The advantage of leaving the Summit Level is this walk is all down hill from the 26th Lock to the 35th Lock and all of it is covered on the southern bank.

View from Coolnahay Bridge (Dolan Bridge) of Coolnahay Harbour, 26th Lock and Lock Keeper’s Cottage on the right.

There is a small car park on the west side of Coolnahay Bridge (Dolan Bridge) across the road from the Lock Keeper’s Cottage that is fine to leave a car for several hours.

Looking west from Coolnahay Car Park

For those interested in the history of the building of the Royal Canal, Coolnahay also marks a very important point in the construction of the canal. The canal reached Coolnahay in 1809, some 19 years after construction first began in Dublin and by this stage the company was heavily in debt and unable to cover the construction costs to complete the canal. It was decided that the Royal Canal Company would be dissolved and the canal completed to the Shannon using public funds. In 1813 the Directors General of Inland Navigation took on to complete the canal under engineer John Killaly and contractors Henry, Mullins and McMahon. You may remember we previously came across the formation of this firm when they tendered for the restoration and extension of the Naas Branch of the Grand Canal as to Corbally Harbour.

Information sign at Whitworth Aqueduct about the construction of the Royal Canal from Coolnahay to Clondra.

As previously mentioned, one of the advantages of this section is a continuous drop down through 10 locks to Ballynacargy. The other big advantage of this area is the pure scenic nature of the remainder of the canal. Mullingar is the last large urban centre we pass through on our way west and from Coolnahay we are truly out in the remote country side only passing through the odd small village or skirting around a small town. 400m from Dolan Bridge we come to the 27th Lock.

27th Lock Gates

Another 500m on from the 27th Lock we come to the 28th Lock which lies slightly around the next bend. Another feature of the Royal Canal as we move further west is that it begins to meander more through the landscape. For those of you who may have seen RTÉ’s Waterways: The Royal Canal series with Dick Warner, you may recall an interview with the daughter of the last lock keeper of the 26th Lock who discusses how her father, Michael Christie, would also look after the 27th and 28th Locks, cycling down to them from the cottage on the 26th Lock. As such it is no surprise that we do not find any cottages at these locks.

Looking up the 28th Lock Chamber

500m on from the 28th Lock we come to Walsh’s Bridge, an accommodation bridge over the canal. It is possible to walk under the bridge or to rise up over the road allowing for a good view down the canal.

Walsh’s Bridge on a soft day.

It is a 1.5km walk on from Walsh’s Bridge to Kildallan Bridge and the start of the quick descent down the 29th, 30th and 31st Locks.

29th Lock and Kildallan Bridge in the background

The three locks are in a linear stretch not long after the bridge. Each lock also has a restored Lock Keeper’s Cottage beside them.

Restored front of the 30th Lock Keepers Cottage

Each of these have been largely extended and modernised they make for appealing private residences on the bank of the canal.

31st Lock Keeper’s Cottage

The canal path takes a sharp left after the 31st Lock before taking a sharp right to be greeted by Kill Bridge and the 32nd Lock.

32nd Lock and Kill Bridge

Kill Bridge is another accommodation bridge, something more common the further west you go as farmers needed access both sides of the canal as it cut through the land.

Looking down the 33rd Lock

It is a little over 500m down to the 33rd Lock before a 1.2km straight on to Balroe Bridge and the 34th Lock.

34th Lock and Balroe Bridge

With the passing of the 34th Lock we are now onto our final 2km stretch towards the 35th Lock and Ballynacargy.

Ballynacargy Harbour looking towards the 35th Lock

As we pass the 35th Lock and its Lock Keeper’s Cottage the large and magnificent Ballynacargy Harbour opens out into our view.

35th Lock Keepers Cottage

On the south bank we see the remains of the old Hotel and Store House while the majority of the small village sits on the opposite bank. There are also a few picnic benches out around the harbour which makes it a pleasant place to stop.

Remains of Ballynacargy Hotel and Store

At the end of the harbour is Ballynacargy Bridge which will give you access to the village itself. The village has a few small pubs, newsagents, garage and a chipper so its possible to grab a snack or a drink before making the trip back to Coolnahay or onwards to Abbeyshrule where I will pick up in part 10 below.

Ballynacargy Bridge and Harbour

Part 1: North Wall to Cross Guns Bridge

Part 2: Cross Guns Bridge to Castleknock

Part 3: Castleknock to Leixlip Confey

Part 4: Leixlip Confey to Maynooth

Part 5: Maynooth to Enfield

Part 6: Enfield to Thomastown

Part 7: Thomastown to Mullingar Harbour

Part 8: Mullingar Harbour to Coolnahay

Part 10: Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule

Part 11: Abbeyshrule to Ballybrannigan

Part 12: Ballybrannigan to the 41st Lock

Part 13: 41st Lock to Richmond Harbour

Part 14: The Lough Owel Feeder

Part 15: The Longford Branch

Annex 1: The Old Rail Trail – Mullingar to Athlone

Categories
Royal Canal

Walking on the Royal Canal: The Longford Branch

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.

Example of the path near Churchlands Bridge

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.

Longford Harbour Master’s House

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.

Former Royal Canal Ticket Office at Longford Harbour

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.

Railway sheds as seen from the new terminus of the canal. The lie off to one side between the new terminus and the old harbour.

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.

Watered section of Longford Branch with tarmac paths and lighting on both sides of the canal.

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.

Ray Flynn Mile Challenge sign on the Canal Path

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.

Farranyoogan Bridge

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.

The dry bed of the canal between Farranyoogan Bridge and Churchlands Bridge.

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.

Churchlands Bridge as viewed from the Longford town side.

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.

Standing on the culverted road crossing of the N63 looking at the back of Churchlands Bridge.

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.

Looking back across the culverted N63 crossing 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.

Knockanboy Bridge obscured by trees growing in the channel of the canal

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.

Looking over Cloonturk Bridge

Carrying on down the west side of the canal we pass an charming remote cottage which is still lived in.

Cottage on the Longford Branch

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.

Looking towads Cloonsheerin from the top of Newtown Bridge

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.

Aghantrah Bridge

There is a third aqueduct carrying the canal over a small stream below between Aghantrah and Cloonsheerin Bridge. The two bridges are 700m apart.

The grassy crossing of Cloonsheerin Bridge.

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.

National Famine Way Shoes at Cloonsheerin

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.

Dam at the junction with the Main Line viewed from the east side of the canal.

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.

Royal Canal Main Line at Cloonsheerin

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.

Part 1: North Wall to Cross Guns Bridge

Part 2: Cross Guns Bridge to Castleknock

Part 3: Castleknock to Leixlip Confey

Part 4: Leixlip Confey to Maynooth

Part 5: Maynooth to Enfield

Part 6: Enfield to Thomastown

Part 7: Thomastown to Mullingar Harbour

Part 8: Mullingar to Coolnahay

Part 9: Coolnahay to Ballynacargy Bridge

Part 10: Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule

Part 11: Abbeyshrule to Ballybrannigan

Part 12: Ballybrannigan to the 41st Lock

Part 13: 41st Lock to Richmond Harbour

Part 14: The Lough Owel Feeder

Annex 1: The Old Rail Trail – Mullingar to Athlone

Categories
Royal Canal

Cycling on the Old Rail Trail: Mullingar to Athlone

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.

Image of the Midland Great Western Railway Company Crest from the Model Railway Museum in Malahide

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.

Plaque marking the 150th Anniversary of the opening of Mullingar Railway Station

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.

Centre Platforms and shelters on the Sligo Line of Mullingar Train Station

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.

Old Rail Trail map near Grange Bridge

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.

Grange Bridge looking east.

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.

Mullingar parkun Start sign at the split between the Royal Canal Greenway and the Old Rail Trail

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.

Signal Cable Pole along the trail

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.

The high wall at the road bridge over the trail at Kilpatrick

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.

Looking towards Mullingar at Belmont Railway Bridge

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.

Old Railway Signal near Castletown

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.

Short tunnel just west of Ballinea

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.

Wall and bridge alongside Barrettstown House

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.

A dark eerie image of the remains of the Gate Keeper’s Cottage at Castletown.

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.

Castletown Station in the left with the Signal Box in the background.

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.

Castletoewn Goods Shed

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.

Bridge at Killeen near Jamestown Court

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 Station (under renovation?)

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.

Some of the 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.

Waiting Room at Streamstown Station.

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.

Mile Marker 65 3/4. The shape of the marker indicates if it was a full, 1/4, 1/2 or 3/4 mile. A square being a full mile, a square turned 45 degrees a 1/4 mile, triangle being a half mile and the above ‘V’ being 3/4 mile.

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.

View of an old bridge that has been repaired and modified to 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.

Plaque marking the opening of the Athlone to Mullingar Cycleway at Moate Station in 2015

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 Station with Shelter on the right

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.

Old Rail Trail Distance Signs at Moate

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.

Gates at Jone’s Crossing

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.

Gate Keeper’s Cottage at Magheramore

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.

Car park and access at Tully

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.

N6 Bridge east of Athlone

Much more welcoming than the N6 Bridge is the bridge a little further up at Garrycastle near Athlone I.T. with its colourful murals.

The murals at Garrycastle

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.

Old Garrycastle Bridge with the new one behind it.

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.

White Gates Athlone

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:

Part 1: North Wall to Cross Guns Bridge

Part 2: Cross Guns Bridge to Castleknock

Part 3: Castleknock to Leixlip Confey

Part 4: Leixlip Confey to Maynooth

Part 5: Maynooth to Enfield

Part 6: Enfield to Thomastown

Part 7: Thomastown to Mullingar Harbour

Part 8: Mullingar to Coolnahay

Part 9: Coolnahay to Ballynacargy Bridge

Part 10: Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule

Part 11: Abbeyshrule to Ballybrannigan

Part 12: Ballybrannigan to the 41st Lock

Part 13: 41st Lock to Richmond Harbour

Part 14: The Lough Owel Feeder

Part 15: The Longford Branch