Tuesday 7 April 2015

Walking the Royal Canal - Episode VI - Thomastown Harbour to Mullingar

I was joking on Saturday night that this one should be called Return of the Jaded. No joke, it was a long hike.

The plan was to park in Thomastown and walk to the far side of Mullingar, stop for some food and a bit of a rest before heading back. The round trip was about 37km which took about 8.5 hours in the end, including lots of delays on the way out for photographs and a stop of about half an hour in Mullingar for lunch.

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As I parked I was hailed by a bunch of sheep, and lambs, and a black sheep. Very cute.

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Continuing on from yesterday after the Thomastown Bridge the start for the day was the 18th lock which marks the end of a 32km level section that stretches back to Ferren’s Lock at McLaughlin Bridge just after Kilcock.

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The way technically follows the roadway on the south bank here but you can walk on the grass towpath on the north back as well. Surface wise this is a very good section but care obviously has to be taken to avoid cars and farm vehicles.

After that 32km long level patch there are now 7 locks in rapid succession as the canal rises about 50m in a couple of km. This is a really pretty section, or at least it felt it to me after so much time spent on the flat.

First up is the 19th Lock, you can see this from the 18th.

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And then it’s a similar short walk to the 20th Lock at Cushinstown.

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And a further short hop to the 21st Lock. As I noted, watch out for the vehicles as this is a shared public road. It’s quiet enough but not all that wide.

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Around the corner after the 21st lock is the Riverstown Bridge and the 22nd Lock comes into view immediately after that. The train line is very close by here so there are quite odd looking level crossing signs on the towpath to warn the cars to take car.

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For some reason there are a lot of ducks and geese here.

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The path has switched to the north bank here too and changes to a pretty decent hard packed aggregate/dirt track. From here again it’s a very sort stroll to the  23rd Lock.

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And then a few hundred metres on to the 24th Lock. As I said earlier, this is a really pretty section and a walk out from Thomastown up past a few locks and then back is well worth it on a sunny day.

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The climbing stage finally ends with the 25th Lock and Footy's Bridge at Porterstown.

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The surf patterning inside the lock were absolutely mesmerising.

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The path continues on the north bank but changes back to tarred road, again shared with local traffic so walkers in particular have to take care and watch out for cars.

It’s a couple of km along a very nice walk through countryside here until the dock area at L1024. The way passes under the M4 J13 interchange bridge and rises up beside Mary Lynch's pub and B&B.

You have to cross over the old road here but it doesn’t seem too busy, the main traffic is on the M4 here which the walking path passes under.

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After crossing over the road at Nead’s Bridge the path continues on on the south bank. First up is a rather old school level crossing.

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The path now changes back to the packed aggregate surface. This is a long winding raised section over reclaimed bog. There are quite a lot of wild strawberry plants which could make for a tasty snack later in the summer. It’s a public road too, sort of, so be very careful. Access is restricted to a couple of houses but the roadway is narrow and the banks on either side are very steep.

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There’s some canal engineering  to look out for in this section, a small aqueduct over the Rivertown river and an overflow section near some farm buildings.

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Two km or so past the M4 this really cool manual lifting bridge gives the local farm that is on the south side access to the north bank and the farmland and buildings there.

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A little over a km and a half brings up Down’s bridge and another short section of public road. There is another one of those odd half locks at Down’s Bridge. I still have no idea what they are for.

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There’s a short section of public road followed by a fairly long restricted access but tarred roadway for up to the concrete footbridge that can be seen from the N4 as you head west. I’ve noticed it in the past at any rate. It seems to have been built relatively recently but doesn’t seem to have much purpose as the N4 cuts fairly close to the opposite bank and only a nut would try to cross that.

The tarred surface ends here and returns to the hard packed aggregate surface through reclaimed bog for quite a few km here. The old 48mile milestone can be seen along this section. That is 48miles from docks in Dublin I think, although it might be 48miles from Broadstone dock too. I lucked out and came across a couple walking their dogs, one of whom had chased a Pine Marten up a tree. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen, and its totally made my year. Beautiful, graceful animal. It still had its deep brown, almost black, winter coat with a grey/tan chest flash. I was surprised at how big it was, definitely well over half a metre nose to tail.

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Spring is starting to spring finally but wild flowers were still few and far between and mostly just dandelion variants, buttercups and the odd daisy still. The bramble/triffid hybrid thing that is attacking the roadway was a bit scary. The shoots in the second picture here are well over 5m in length.

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The path snakes through the bog land section and then gradually becomes a rock cutting as the canal approaches Mullingar. The canal takes a long, bypass like, looping path into the town from here. After 2km or so the path comes to Baltrasna Bridge which is basically the eastern limit of Mullingar own. The surface continues on as a hard packed aggregate here and remains on the south bank.

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Less than a kilometre further on the way passes under the new Boardstown Bridge that carries the N52 east of the town. 

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Saunder's Bridge at Ballinderry Road comes up about a kilometre later.

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Rounding the corner the canal widens into a dock area I’m going to call Balinderry Harbour, I couldn’t find any real sign to say what it’s known as.

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The canal has taken on a proper urban tone at this point, complete with a lot more rubbish and a shopping trolley unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty nice and fairly clean but also obviously not rural anymore. The surface changes around here to tarmac.

It’s a very short section from the dock to the Dublin Road Bridge which you have to cross over at the road level, and wait for traffic lights as it’s really busy.

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The tone changes again to full on urban and a newish section that includes what is a recently upgraded River Brosna Aqueduct and viaduct for pedestrians to cross under the canal.

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Shortly after that on the opposite bank there is an arched foot bridge across the Lough Owel Feeder that heads off to the north.

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And finally we get to the main Mullingar Harbour and dry dock area.

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Clearly Mullingar has its fair share of comedians too.

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Scanlan's Bridge and its footbridge cuts across the harbour.

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Followed by another part of the harbour area where I saw the first boat I’ve seen moving under its own power on the Royal Canal throughout all of my walks.

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About a hundred and fifty metres further along there is a really interesting looking Railway Bridge, that once again has no name. This one is quite cool looking and deserves a name I think.

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A few hundred meters further out and the path passes under another footbridge at Fair Green.

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And then as the canal begins to head out of the town path comes up to Dominick St Bridge (R392) and the Railway station on the left. This is a handy spot for parking and obviously a key point for any walkers/cyclists hooking up with public transport. The trains aren’t all that frequent outside of commuting times but I think there are hourly, or nearly hourly, buses to Dublin and probably also to other main towns like Galway, Limerick and Cork.

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The final bridge in the town is the footbridge to Market Point so I took this as the perfect spot to end the outward leg.

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It had taken 4.5 hours to get this far because I was in photo-walking mode which I average at around 4km per hour. Anyway I headed into the town, grabbed some lunch and took a thirty minute break before heading back. The return trip was much more of a speed hike, and I averaged a pretty respectable 5.5km per hour which got me back to Thomastown for 6:30PM or thereabouts.

I then made the mistake of pushing to increase my distance for the day by heading back easy to D’Arcy Bridge (again) and while that did help me bring my km range for the day up past the 42km mark it also led to some blisters. Silly me.

Anyway, not a total disaster. I was still able to return on Monday and complete the final 10km section to Coolnahey Harbour. That’s Episode VII – the Furze Awaits. I think I might need to let that joke die now, that one has stretched it a bit too far.  

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