This is an article that I have been wanting to write for the last year as I followed the opening announcements of the Royal Canal greenway. This article is a personal account of a recent one day cycle on the Royal Canal from Enfield to Clondra (102.6km).
After some cajoling and touting of the Royal Canals attractiveness, I managed to convince my friend to join me in cycling as much of the new greenway as possible. After setting the date and assessing the distances we decided to start from Enfield rather than from Maynooth. The greenway currently starts in Maynooth but we felt the distance from Maynooth to Clondra would be too much for us as we were fairly inexperienced with cycling large distances. The longest cycle we had done was on the Mayo greenway which would have been around 80km (return). Also starting in Enfield allowed us to skip the unfinished section between Ferrans lock and Cloncurry bridge in Meath. Google maps estimated that the cycling distance from Enfield to Clondra is 85km but we quickly found out that the canal engineers did not prefer direct routes like road engineers. The journey on the canal turned out to be 103km in the end due to all the twists and turns that the canal takes.
GPS tracked map of trip
Transport by Train
One of the big benefits of this greenway is it’s adjacency to the Longford-Dublin rail line for most of the route. That means that you can decided which sections you want to do and simply get the train to the start or from the end. We decided that we would leave the cars at home and get the train to Enfield, cycle to the Shannon and return the next day from Longford to Dublin. We met at Coolmine train station at 7:50 for a train that got us to Maynooth in plenty of time for a change to the 8:30 train on to Enfield. The train was a regular commuter train that wasn’t very busy so there was plenty space in the door/standing area for bikes. Arriving in Enfield at 8.50am, we did a quick equipment check, donned the ‘sunnies’ and set off westward on the greenway. For the sake of readers who might be interested in a similar trip or in doing sections I will break the rest of this article into descriptions of each section.
Leaving the cars at home in favour of the train
Enfield to Kilmore Bridge (4.5km)
The greenway is just across the road from the train station. Starting on the southern bank of the canal the route heads west out towards the M4 motorway. It is important that you dont go down the north side of the canal as it leads to a park that is a dead end. The surface is nice for cycling – a mix between tarmac roads and lightly dusted sandy/gravel cycle paths. It feels lovely stretching the legs and getting a nice pace as you can hear the distance noise of cars hurtling by. As a driver on the motorway I never imagined that there was such a relaxing a peaceful amenity just over a few fields. As we approached the Blackwater aqueduct we noticed that the new surface has been laid as far as Kilmore Bridge. This surface is the light grade black quarry dust which is nice for cycling with a trail or hybrid bike but may not suit those with road bikes.
New Surface Blackwater aqueduct to Kilmore Bridge.
Kilmore Bridge to Moyvalley Bridge (2km)
The section between Kilmore Bridge and Moyvalley deserves particular mention in this post. We had known that the greenway was not completed in this section and we had discussed going around this stretch via the road. However, optimism and curiosity got the better of us. Looking from Kilmore bridge we could see that work has started on the southern bank but it looks like no progress has been made on this in quite some time. We decided to cycle down the northern bank which as you can see from the picture below is very overgrown and not suitable for cycling.
Kilmore Bridge to Moyvalley (greenway not finished)
The surface on the northern bank was rough, muddy and overgrown. Thankfully the recent dry summer meant that is was possible to cycle it but I would imagine in wetter conditions that the route would be very challenging with roots of trees and muddy tracks making cycling perilous. At one point we had to duck under fallen trees. Thankfully our spirits were high so this didn’t bother us too much but it did slow our progress down to little more than a walking pace.
Obstacle Course on Kilmore to Moyvalley Section
Moyvalley to Hill of Down (8.5km)
After fighting our way through the undergrowth we were delighted to meet the old N4 at Fureys Pub where we stopped for a little rest and some fluids. Being early morning the bar wasnt open but the place looked great with flowers and benches. The place is must for cyclists for lunch or coffee.
Fureys Pub on the Royal Canal
After a quick stop we pushed on. Speeding past the boats in the harbour we got up to a decent cycling pace. The surface was very good and the landscape seemed to open up revealing lovely views across fields and farmlands. Getting into a rhythm at this stage we quickly arrived at the Ribbontail canoeing clubhouse near Longwood. This lock-house has been tastefully restored and the harbour developed for a local canoe/kayak club.
Ribbontail Canoe Club House near Longwood
After the Ribbontail lock-house the canal crosses over the River Boyne. You cant help but marvel at the engineering feat involved in constructing such a beautiful and structurally challenging aqueduct over 200 years ago. Pushing on we arrived in the Hill of Down. Again we were too early for the local pub/shop in Hill of Down so after quick stop we pushed on for the next section as the storm clouds built behind us.
Hill of Down Village
Hill of Down to Thomastown/Killucan (8.5km)
The section between Hill of Down and Thomastown is particularly beautiful. Most of the route is a tarmac’ed road that runs beside the canal which makes for a lovely surface. Here you can see why the Royal Canal is becoming famous for it’s ‘big open skies’. I guess its a similar phenomena to when the moon looks big when viewed in perspective to other buildings. As you round the bends the tree lined paths make the skies looked impressively expansive. We comfortably got into our cycling stride and chatted as we passed some lovely woodlands and farmland. Arriving at Darcy’s bridge, the narrow humped back bridge and quiet meandering road makes you feel like you have been transported back to 1790. Crossing over to the northern bank its only a short cycle up to Thomastown Harbour
Big Open Skies near Darcy’s Bridge
Upon reaching Thomastown Harbour we again found we were too early for pub openings. Nonetheless we decided to stop into Nanny Quinns sheltered beer garden to get out of the westerly wind gusts. The sheltered smoking area had some comfortable benches where we broke out our prepacked sandwiches and chocolates.
Sheltered Beer Garden in Thomastown
Thomastown/Killucan to McNeads Bridge (5km)
Heading out of Thomastown on the southern bank, we passed a strange looking building on the opposite side of the canal. Apparently a Waterways Ireland office/depot which looks strangely modern set against the heritage bridge and lock gates. This next stretch is particularly attractive with its 8 locks in quick succession. There is a fully surfaced road that is nice to travel on. After 8 inclines we reached the summit level happy that we had decided to stop for a rest in Thomastown. Passing under the main N4 road we arrived a Mary Lynch’s Pub with a floral display that a Bloom garden designer would have been proud of.
Floral Display at Mary Lynchs Pub
McNeads Bridge to Mullingar Main Street (10km)
After admiring the floral display at Mary Lynch’s we crossed the old N4 and headed west towards Mullingar. Just below the road there’s new signage from Waterways Ireland outlining the new Royal Canal Blueway Hub. This is a new initiative that hopes to attract more visitors to the canal where they can hire kayaks, standing paddle boards and bicycles from the harbour in Mullingar.
New Blueway Signage
After a quick look at the signage we headed westward with the plan of stopping in Mullingar for a coffee. At this stage the westerly wind became fairly persistent and being on the summit level of the canal we had very little shelter from it’s full force. The wind in our face helped us build a healthy appetite for our arrival in Mullingar at around midday. On a previous trip we stopped in a cafe/deli directly opposite the Joe Dolan statue but unfortunately we found that it had gone out of business. Shame as it was a nice place. Nonetheless we found a very nice cafe a few doors up called “Galway Roast Coffee”. We locked the bikes outside and enjoyed some coffee and scones.
Midday coffee in Mullingar
Mullingar to Coolnahay (11km)
Filled with caffeine we headed west out of Mullingar. We cycled up the main street and met the canal greenway again at the train station. With the wind building we decided to veer onto the Old Rail Trail just outside Mullingar to take advantage of its tree lined shelter and smoother surface. Just before Ballinea we left the Old Rail trail and went up the incline to Belmount bridge. Our plan was to make it to Abbeyshrule for lunch but our legs were tiring and we got a shock when we saw the signage showed Abbeyshrule was a further 22km. Undeterred we headed through Ballinea, being careful not to miss the turn onto the Royal Canal from the old bridge. The canal here meanders through some lovely countryside with rolling hills either side which were a welcome wind-break from the building westerly’s. When we arrived in Coolahay, I was keen to show my cycling partner the wonderful cottage that sold homemade scones and tea. Unfortunately the owners weren’t offering their beautiful scones at this time. Hopefully its just a temporary hiatus in this wonderful tradition of hospitality.
Lock house in Coolnahay (sadly no scones!)
Coolnahay to Ballynacargy (8km)
After Coolnahay, the summit level ends with a quick succession of 8 locks. The periodic declines were very welcome to our tiring legs and our minds were taken off the wind as we passed some really beautifully restored lock houses. All credit to the owners who managed to keep the character of these wonderful buildings yet build lovely family homes. After discovering its tranquility years previously I wonder what these owners think of the new found interest in the Royal Canal? With the sun shining and our pace improving we arrived very shortly in Ballynacargy. The harbour in Ballynacargy is a very wide and impressive stone cut harbour. You can almost imagine this place as a bustling transport center in the golden ages of the canal.
Stone cut harbour in Ballynacargy
Ballynacargy to Abbeyshrule (9km)
As we enjoyed the sunshine on one of the sculpted harbour side benches we were passed by a small group of tourists that looked strangely out of place in the midlands. Their Australian accents and colorful flip-flops conjured up images of lost Kontiki coach drivers wondering is this “Bali” – Bali-nacargy?
I had cycled the section between Ballynacargy and Abbeyshrule with my wife and kids last summer when the weather was perfect and there was little wind. However, on this day, we encountered very high gusty winds which made it very hard work. I recall from my previous trip that this section goes across an expansive bog with wonderful views either side. However, this time the wind was straight in our faces so there was nothing for it than to keep the head down and get into a solid workman-like pace. My cycling partner went ahead as his lighter bike and longer legs afforded him a better pace than me. As I trudged onwards, I didnt even notice that we had crossed into County Longford (our final destination county).
We arrived in Abbeyshrule with tired legs and ready for a well earned break. It was 3pm at this stage – much later than we had planned. The circuitous route and the head winds had made the journey much longer (and tougher to be honest) than expected. Nonetheless, the Rustic Inn in Abberyshrule did wonders to lift our weary spirits with their tasty and fresh soup and sandwiches. As we were leaving we met two other cyclists who had just cycled out from Mullingar and who were lucky to be getting the benefit of the tail wind on their return leg. Unfortunately a friendly stranger at the bar tried to lift our spirits but unknowingly dampened them by stating that its “ONLY 33km” more to go.
Abbeyshrule to Foigha (15km)
Anticipating that the spirits could start to ebb we set ourselves the target of reaching the pub at Foigha (Leavys). This lifted the mood and set ourselves a rewarding target as we saddled up and left Abbeyshrule. This section seems to bend and twist so often that the wind never really got a chance to disturb us. As we approached Ballymahon, I looked out on the left side where I could see the tops of the trees in Newcastle woods. I imagined this time next year all the families enjoying themselves there in the new Center Parcs at ‘Longford Forest’. Many of them possibly wondering why people never holidayed in Longford before. Apparently Longford Council have proposed to build a connecting cycleway between Center Parcs and the Royal Canal so this time next year we may meet groups of cycling families also enjoying this wonderful greenway.
Marching onwards we stopped briefly in Ballymahon harbour as a group of ducks wandered up to us hopefully. It wasn’t their day as we had no supplies left at this stage. I was really looking forward to the section of the greenway west of Terlicken bridge as I had previously cycled it with my wife. This area of the canal is called Mullawornia. I think its a wonderfully unusual name. I don’t know why I like the name so much. It could be because it sounds so “foreign” but I also think it’s because it sticks in my mind as the place that the canal engineers originally wanted to enter the Shannon river. Thankfully they decided against this route option due to the high winds on Lough Ree that the barges would have been exposed to. Today on a moderately windy day we could get a sense of perils of the westerly winds. I’d hate to imagine how fully loaded barges would have coped.
Mullawornia – Mullagh means hilltop
Thankfully the engineers decided against the Shannon entry at Mullawornia and opted to go north to enter the Shannon at Cloondara, a route that we set off to follow. After we crossed the main Longford to Lanesborough road we quickly reached Foigha bridge. After a short detour to the left we parked our bikes in front on Leavy’s pub and rested our tired bones on some welcoming bar stools for a hearty pint of Guinness.
Foigha to Clondra (19km)
Maybe it was the Guinness or the sense that we were nearly finished that made the last section from Foigha to Clondra very enjoyable. We passed the entry to the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre where visitors can see an Iron Age bog road dated to the year 148 BC and we commented that it would be nice to visit this someday when we had a more leisurely cycling agenda. Just past the entry to Corlea is the harbour at Keenagh. Thankfully the canal was heading north at this stage which meant that the westerly’s had less impact on our progress. After a small section of “quarry dusted” cycling surface, the greenway is on a rural road that runs adjacent to the canal to Lyneen Bridge. Our pace was good here and the distance was pleasantly broken up by the occasional stone bridge and lock house. Just after Lyneen bridge we returned to an off-road section on the eastern side of the canal before shortly arriving at the junction to the “branch”. The Longford branch is a section of the canal that originally took the canal into the heart of Longford town. Sadly the restoration of the canal that was achieved in 2010 didn’t include the reopening of Longford branch to water navigation but Longford Council have successfully built a spur off the greenway that allows cyclists/walkers to journey into Longford town beside the old canal. There are many supporters that are keen to see the branch eventually opened to water navigation and hopefully the increase in users via the greenway will add to their cause.
After a brief stop to look at the branch junction we headed north again through Killashee. The greenway passes over a busy road just beside the Killashee church so weary cyclists and young children need to have their wits about them before negotiating a safe crossing. A little further onwards and we reached the beautifully restored “France’s Cottage” where a plaque on the cottage wall mentions something about a fundraiser from America providing the funds to restore the cottage. I would love to find out more about the story behind “France’s Cottage” as I have always found it intriguing.
Plaque on Frances’ Cottage
Leaving Killashee, it was a short ride to the impressive yet slightly out-of-character lifting bridge at Begnagh. This bridge is like something you’d see in a busy city shipping port. Hydraulic driven pillars and pistons that lift a large road section. From my limited knowledge of the canal restoration, I recall that many “culvert roads” had to be replaced for the canal to be navigable again. However in the case of this section I assume the geographical challenges of the surrounding bogs meant that a gradually rising bridge wasn’t possible so a lifting bridge was chosen.
A few turns past the Begnagh lifting bridge and another strange railway bridge with Victorian-like lamp-posts we could see our final destination. The Mill in Clondra was visible for the last straight section and called out like a welcoming beacon. Arriving in Clondara, we could see the fine stone-cut Richmond harbour of Clondra and its neighboring pub. This was a welcome sight for sore legs and hungry travelers.
Photo of Richmond Harbour Clondra (courtesy of roaringwaterjournal.com)
In the end our GPS tracker showed 102.5km. Our legs felt every single one of those kilometers. The total journey took just over 9.5 hours in duration with just over 6 hours in the saddle. But the sense of achievement and satisfaction was worth the journey. The canal provided so many different views and landscapes. No part is ever the same. Every bend opened up a new vista, lock gates provided lovely transitions to levels and the lock houses seemed to be trying to tell us long lost stories. I would recommend this journey to everyone. You may want to do all of it in one go, like we did. Or you may want to take it section by section. Either way, this greenway has so much to offer. I am looking forward to my next trip already. Here’s a breakdown of distance between each major bridge/lock on the entire royal canal which you can use to plan your next Royal Canal greenway journey.