Keeping the sections short as I travel further west towards the Shannon, todays post covers the stretch from Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule, 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 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.
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.