Having cycled from Dublin to Mullingar along the canal in October last and from Mullingar to Longford in December, I had my sights set on a Dublin to Clondra trip for some time. In terms of daylight hours, it was probably going to be a summer spin but westerly winds seemed to be the norm over the past few months. Eventually, I accepted that a west to east cycle made more sense if I was going to avoid too much upwind work. As a leisure cyclist in Swords Cycling Club, I was getting out on a couple of 100km spins most weeks and regular clubmates, John and Pat, were interested in joining me. Each Sunday I would examine the forecasts for the week ahead before checking everyone’s availability and we finally settled on Thursday 15th August as Greenway Day.
Dublin to Longford
Numbers were always going to be limited by the amount of bike spaces on the train to Longford. Officially, there are only two spaces so we booked these and took a chance on being able to fit in a third bike. In the event, there was no problem at all on the 7.00am train from Drumcondra and we could probably have squeezed in a couple more. For the technically minded cyclist, the bikes were all road bikes although mine had flat-bars and 28mm tyres rather than the more normal 25mm on the others.
Longford to Clondra
Having arrived in Longford station on time, we were leaving the town along the Branch Canal by 9.00am. It was obviously a longer route (16.5km) than taking the main road (8km) but a lot more pleasant with large numbers of butterflies enjoying the morning sunshine along the almost deserted path. On reaching the Royal Canal proper at Cloonsheerin we stopped for a photocall before turning right towards Killashee and Clondra. The wider and better surfaced path allowed us to pick up the pace a bit but quite a few potholes kept us fully alert!
Even though we had a slight headwind, we consoled ourselves that it would be on our backs for the rest of the trip and before long we rolled into Clondra.
Prior to heading off on our return to Dublin, we decided to see how close we could get to the Shannon on the bikes and made it to within 100m or so just beyond Clondra Lock. I briefly considered a swim but quickly dismissed the thought. – cycling long distances in wet shorts is not to be recommended.
Clondra to Abbeyshrule
By 10.00am we were on our way with about 145km of cycling ahead of us. We had intended putting in a fairly long stint before stopping but about 6km after starting we crossed Savage Bridge and came upon Rosie Kelly, an American of Irish descent, relaxing in the sunshine outside Frances’ Cottage at the 44th Lock. Rosie explained how her mother had come across the cottage before buying and restoring it, a task that Rosie now continues during her summers in Ireland. We even got a tour of the simple two-room house that is very much as it would have been when lock-keepers lived in it all those years ago.
I hadn’t really worked out a timetable for the day but was pretty sure we well behind schedule so we kept up a good pace after leaving Rosie. The Greenway surface was a mix of tarmac where it had been previously surfaced to serve cottages or farms and newer compacted quarry dust on hardcore. In places, limited local traffic had helped compress the quarry dust further and this helped our pace. We were probably about 2kph slower on this surface than on the tarmac but still averaged around 27kph between Killashee and Abbeyshrule. A few days after our trip I came across a book in my local library by Michael Shea called Along the Banks – Cycling Ireland’s Royal Canal. He divides cyclists on the canal into Challenge Riders; Tourists and Day Trippers and we were firmly in the first category. Others will no doubt complete the full Greenway route in less time but most will probably take a fair bit longer or make it a two-day trip.
Shortly before midday we arrived into Abbeyshrule and stopped off at the Rustic Inn for some very welcome coffees and muffins. I had previously enjoyed some excellent soup there on my Mullingar to Longford cycle and I’m pretty sure I recognized some of the regulars in the bar from that trip!
Abbeyshrule to Mary Lynch’s
The next leg of our “challenge” was very much more of the same in terms of surface and speed. I was a little blasé about the stunning scenery having experienced it before in winter sunlight but John and Pat were first-timers and rightly enthusiastic. I had plotted out the route beforehand based on my previous trips and uploaded it to my Garmin GPS and this took the guesswork out of some of the canal crossings. On my December trip I had taken the wrong option on a few occasions where there were roads on both banks and had to backtrack after hitting dead ends or grassy paths. The combination of advance planning and some new signage kept us on the true path this time. I understand from correspondence with Waterways Ireland that new maps, signage and brochures will be launched early in 2020 so navigation should be a lot more straightforward after that.
Not long after 1.00pm we were on the outskirts of Mullingar and decided to delay our lunch for a bit longer. While we did have one lightweight bike lock with us, leaving three expensive bikes unsupervised on a public street isn’t a great idea in any town. I was also aware that there were a number of pubs with reputations for good food a bit further on. Passing under the railway line while circling the town completed one circuit as we had travelled over the Greenway some hours earlier on the train.
By 2.00pm we were seated in Mary Lynch’s with pints in front of us having received a warm welcome (and an offer of a group photo). Before long, we were tucking into Guinness stew, fish pie and an open salmon sandwich before resuming our eastward travels.
Mary Lynch’s to Kilcock
Despite being off the bikes for almost an hour, we quickly got back up to speed. We had encountered very few others on the canal during the cycle other than occasional walkers and cyclists near the towns and this continued nearly all the way to Dublin. The one thing that slowed our progress was the frequency of the staggered gates, 28 in all over the day with about another 10 fortunately left open. There were frequent sightings of herons that often flew off in front of us, landed and then took to the air again as we approached. Other fauna on the canal or bank were less obvious but might have been more apparent had we slowed down or walked! Our average moving speed from Longford by the time we got to Furey’s was about 24kph but that was soon about to change.
I had keeping a close eye on the Royal Canal Greenway Facebook page and on Boards.ie to see if the improvement works between Furey’s and Kilmore Bridge had finally been completed. It appeared not and, sure enough, a well locked fence blocked the entrance to the new ramp down to the path. There was no sign of any work going on so we successfully explored a few other access options and continued along the unfinished hardcore surface for the 1.8km to Kilmore where a bit of ingenuity delivered us back on to our normal path.
The next potential detour was always going to be the Cloncurry to Ferrans section and, having previously taken to the grassy and bone-shaking southern bank on the bike, I was determined to avoid it this time. The initial stretch as far as the last farm house was perfect and, beyond another fence, a smooth surface beckoned. On we went and I suspect we were not the first cyclists to try out the wonderful new route through the woods.
Shortly before arriving at the 17th Lock, we came across a workman tidying up and he kindly let us through the work area. By 4.30pm we were in Kilcock where we took our third break for a coffee and rocky-road cake, not knowing how prescient the desert name would be.
Kilcock to Dublin
Despite regularly visiting Kilcock and Maynooth on club spins, I hadn’t cycled along the canal for a while and had forgotten how much work remains to be done particularly between Leixlip and Castleknock. After Maynooth, we were soon off the tarmac and quarry dust paths and on to grassy surfaces that varied from okay to seriously rough. Obviously, I am commenting here as a cyclist and specifically one on a road bike. I have walked along here more often than cycled and quite enjoy the varied grass/mud surface but if this is to become a proper multi-use Greenway (and part of EuroVelo Route 2), it urgently needs to be upgraded. It also has far more potential than any other section to serve as a cycle-commuter route given the combination of industry, a university and housing in the vicinity. Hopefully Fingal’s stated intention of going for planning permission before the year end actually happens and work can start at least on some sections early in 2020.
As mentioned earlier, my bike had larger diameter tyres than the others and this, combined with lower air pressure helped me through the worst of the bumps and ruts. Wider tyres and suspension as found on mountain bikes would have been even better but would have been slower over the full route. In its present unfinished state, gravel or CX bikes would probably be the best choice of all.
Most readers will be familiar with the Deep Sinking between Kennan Bridge, Porterstown and Castleknock railway station. For walkers it is an amazing linear nature preserve sandwiched between the railway line and the canal some 8 metres below. For cyclists, in dry conditions it is can be a tough technical challenge and in the wet, a recipe for disaster. I almost made it through unscathed until a pothole/drainage channel caught my front wheel. Luckily, I was able to unclip from my pedal in time and avoided a tumble into the undergrowth and canal waters below. John had to stop repeatedly to clear mud that was wedged between his wheels and the bike frame. I suspect this will have been my last foray into the Deep Sinking on a bike and I look forward to using the proposed Greenway on the opposite bank before too long.
Having just about survived unscathed, we were tempted to celebrate in the 12th Lock (pub!) but pushed on towards journey’s end. Once over the M50/N3 interchange, we encountered one of the best surfaced sections of Greenway on the entire route and were at the Dublin/Fingal boundary at Ashtown less than five minutes later.
Over the course of the day we had met very few others, so the next section up to Reilly’s Bridge and the 8th Lock came as quite a shock. It was teeming with activities including a fishing competition, dog walking, jogging, roller-blading and families just enjoying the fine summer evening. Residents of the new housing developments there have clearly realised what a wonderful facility they have on their doorsteps and it’s great to see so many people enjoying the canal.
The following sections through Broombridge, Phibsborough and Drumcondra were a fair bit quieter and before long we passed under the Canal End of Croke Park and arrived at Newcomen Bridge at the North Strand. Within a kilometre of our destination and after 165km of canal-side cycling, we finally had to detour away from the Royal and down Seville Place before rejoining the final few hundred metres of Greenway at Luke Kelly’s head on Guild Street. A final photocall on Samuel Beckett Bridge exactly twelve hours after leaving Drumcondra and nine hours after departing Clondra brought our wonderful Shannon to Liffey cycle to its conclusion.
The best days cycling in a long time!
The Relive Map