Sunday 5 April 2015

Walking the Royal Canal - Episode V - Moyvalley to Thomastown Harbour

Try as I might I can’t find a variation on “The Empire Strikes Back” that works. “Assault on the Middle Kingdom” might be arguable at a stretch.

The fifth leg of my walk along the Royal Canal took me from Furey’s Bar, in Moyvalley, to Thomastown dock in Westmeath. This links through to a proper route map if you want to see more detail. 

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This takes me firmly into Westmeath and finally on to the Westmeath Greenway. Overall I think I’m at about 70km from the coast or thereabouts. Since I’ve done all of this as out-and-back linear walks it’s been at least 140km of walking.

This section is pretty nice. I think overall that the section from Enfield to the Ribbontail Bridge (which I came across on this section) is probably the nicest ~10km canal section I’ve come across so far.

The route I took was just over 17km so it’s a pretty long walk for an out and back trip. The first section (Furey’s to the Boyne Aqueduct ~4km) is worth a walk but the longer section from the Boyne Aqueduct to the D’Arcy’s Bridge on Hyde Park Road ( which is about 11km ) is OK but it’s not a section that really stands out as great for walking overall. There are pretty interesting parts, and The Hill-of-Down area in particular is really pretty and seems like it has an interesting back story as a former train station back when it was The Great Western Railway.

It’s fairly obvious that there is a lot of work going on preparing parts for the overhaul to Greenway status. I’m not 100% sure how well that’s going to work out, they need to move the cycle-path part off the sections that are used as public/farm roads at a minimum, but from a walking perspective it will all be a bonus. As it stands the most immediate upgrades seem to be happening around the Longwood Road Aqueduct which makes that a really nice point to park at as you can get in a decent 4-5km walk from there that gets you to both the Boyne Aqueduct, just to the west, and the Ribbontail Footbridge which is about 1.5km to the east.

For anyone looking for investment advice – I think that places like Thomastown, which has an extensive canal dock area, are going to be major greenway tourist hubs in a couple of years. A bike hire or coffee shop business there will be a gold mine. There’s a god pub there at the moment but nothing else, seems like a major gap to me. It is a really pretty spot too, which helps.

The route started at Furey’s Bar, in Moyvalley. This is a shot looking back at the dock, with the obligatory half sunken boat in the foreground. Waterways Ireland need to start getting militant about fining people for that sort of neglect.

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I came across this poor wee beastie jut after I started. I think the recent snap of nasty weather might have been too much for him.

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The Ribbontail Footbridge is about 1.5 to 2km from Furey’s. It’s an absolute delight. There’s a really short lock there, that is fully open, which I assume is either a remnant of a time when the canal was being built or repaired or is actually for maintenance as there is no rise at this point that requires a lock. Apparently the bridge was put in to allow the locals on one side to get to the Church on the other side back in the day.

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The next major point of interest is the Longwood Road Aqueduct about 2km further along. There’s a lot of development going on here, restoration of the old Canal buildings at the dock and a new car park is being built. Looks promising and this is will then be great spot to park for a walk. I think it’s OK at the moment too.

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The Boyne Aqueduct is just to the west, you can see it off to the west as you cross over the Longwood Road. It’s solid but in need of a lot of repair. The mechanics of the Aqueduct are all rotted, corroded or worn but it’s clear that it could be “locked” off, emptied and repaired or cleaned, fairly easily when it was built. I’d love to see it fully restored, this sort of canal engineering is wonderful to see.

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From here it’s another couple of km to Blackshade Bridge. The terrain varies between hard packed dirt, and then grassy path. At one point, seen here, there is actually a hedge of furze between the path and the canal which is quite unusual. You have to cross over the road at Blackshade Bridge and it is appropriately signed but it didn’t seem particularly dangerous to me.

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It’s not a really pretty section but it has it’s charms and even though it was very grey and misty as I walked along this section there were a few really special spots like this one. This was just idyllic.

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A couple of km layer and I came to Kilyon Bridge and the former Hill of Down train station. This is worth a trip I think and could well become a popular hub spot if this Greenway thing takes off. The area around the Bridge is one of prettiest docks on the canals I’ve seen anywhere. The first picture doesn’t really do it justice but I’m including it because I think that the building on the left, which is a pub, is either the old train station or the old Railway Inn from the days when this was a major waypoint on The Great Western Railway. The railway line has been tracking the canal, just off to the south for most of the journey out from Dublin. Every so often it wanders away but at this point it is about 50m to the left.

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After this the Royal Canal way spends quite a lot of time alternating between sharing public (L-class) roads and being heavily used by the local farmers. That’s fine for a walker but it’s less than ideal for cyclists as the non tarmac parts are very muddy and cut up and the tarmac parts are not really suitable for very young kids to be cycling on unless someone is really looking out for them. I’m curious about how the Greenway folks are going to square that circle. It’s possible that they will just move the path to the other bank of the canal, that would work for most of the 8-10km section from here to D’Arcy’s Bridge.

The next notable landmark though is Ballasport Bridge where the tow path part of the Royal Canal comes to an end for a bit and you have to cross over to the South bank and deal with sharing a road with tractors. Which means lot’s of mud and potholes. 

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It’s not amazingly scenic but it’s still nice enough and there are quite a few herons. Camera shy herons, chased this guy for a couple of km before giving up on getting a close shot. The surrounding terrain is very boggy too as you can see.

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This is a long section, there’s about 5-6km here where the canal wanders through farmland, bog-land and the occasional clump of trees. There are some really cool houses along the way. Not great for a walk but it’d be an amazingly peaceful place to live. 

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Lots of sheeps. Including some very rare rack of lamb. Baaah. NomNomNom.

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Eventually ( and it felt it) after an hour and a half of wandering in the countryside dodging tractors and potholes I came to D'Arcy's Bridge. The royal Canal way crosses back over to the north bank here and it’s a fairly short run up to Thomastown.

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Finally saw some ducks. I was getting worried that they were all gone.

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And here’s an example of a farmer taking a novel approach to avoiding paying for water. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing is not allowed. If nothing else all the cattle churning up the bank are seriously ruining the canal at this point. I’m also pretty sure that the water in question cannot be good for the cattle.

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A kilometre or two later I got to Thomastown Bridge and the 18th Lock. The pictures don’t do it justice as it is really pretty. There’s a big dock area, nice lock complex and a fairly large Waterways Ireland operation just over the bridge. Apart from the pub though there’s nothing much else here apart from a lot of parking spaces. Hopefully the plans to develop this into a Greenway hub take off because it is perfect for it.

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Next up – Thomastown to Mullingar – Episode VI, Return of the Jaded.

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