The proposal to develop a 115km long cycle trail along the Barrow towpath is certainly generating plenty of healthy debate. Public information events have been held this week in towns along the Barrow. A balanced debate has been conducted on ‘Today with Sean O Rourke’ and we heard a balanced report on the RTE Nine O Clock News tonight.
I attended the Carlow Information event yesterday. It was well attended and it seems to have finally captured the public imagination. For a while I have been wondering if the general public was aware or interested in the proposal.
The Information event consisted of detailed plans, maps, drawings, videos and pop up banners. Waterways Ireland staff were on hand to answer queries, and one couldn’t but be impressed by it all. On the face of it, it looks like a massive win win for Carlow!
A 115kms off road cycle track along a beautiful river is certainly every cyclists dream and I am sure local tourism providers must be salivating at the prospect of 100,000 German cyclists advancing south from Kildare to St Mullins!
I haven’t met anyone who is against the promotion and development of the River Barrow and of tourism in Carlow. But there are real concerns about the nature of this project. (And the painting of objectors as a ‘rent a crowd’ or as serial objectors is a cheap shot and unfair to the individuals involved. The funny thing about the individuals against the project, is that they are probably the people who use it most, and know more about the river and the threat this development poses).
As a cyclist I have to be honest and say I have a slight conflict of interest – I am a big lover of off road cycling. And I have included this route in my book South Leinster Cycle routes which will be on sale in the next few months. But I am not in favour of the proposal for a number of reasons.
My thoughts on this project are that the idea is great and the motivations for the proposal are all very laudable. However I believe they are misplaced. I say that because I am more familiar with cycling on the Barrow Track than most – I cycle it most weeks of the year. I have cycled every inch of it and on a number of occasions I have cycled from Grand Canal Basin in Dublin, down the Grand Canal and the Barrow Line to Carlow.
Why am I opposed to it you might ask?
(1) For one, this river is notorious for flooding!
Every year, without fail, the river bursts its banks. Sometimes it does it for weeks on end and flooding isn’t confined to the winter season. I have seen the path impassable in June. Obviously when it is flooded it cannot be used by anyone – unless they are in a boat!
But the big problem is that the floods damage the hard surface areas. Waterways Ireland have, by stealth, laid hardcore surfaces on long stretches of the river bank and every year this is damaged and washed away. The vast majority of the planned surface (84.8%) will be covered with an unbound surface type. I am not an engineer but I cannot see how this will not be badly damaged each winter and after heavy falls of rain. This will result in potholes.
Clashganney is beautiful even when flooded – but impassable!
(2) This is a living breathing ecosystem. It has been described as ‘the most beautiful riverside walk in these islands’ by environmentalist Dick Warner. And it is. A hard core path through the middle of it can only harm the balance of nature. The river bank is teeming with wildlife and plant life. I am no expert but while on my bike on the grassy path, I have encountered hares, otters, foxes, rabbits, swans, water hens, herons, kingfishers, egrets and buzzards not to mention the more common species we are all very familiar with. I fear the cycle path will have a negative impact on their habitat. They own it too!
(3) This is a well established national long distance WALKING route! The route is shared with walkers, runners and fishermen. Throw in the targeted 100,000 German cyclists and we are likely to have mayhem! That 100,000 figure is not mine – it is in the planning application!.
It is widely recognised that there is a major problem in Ireland with access to land for walking. There are few rights of way and as a result many of our long distance walking routes actually end up being routed for long stretches along roads! Here we have 115kms of a grassy path and we are thinking of removing the sod and replacing it with a hard surface!!
This has potential to be dangerous for users. I am not scaremongering. But I have been on my bike while fishermen have been casting their rods and that has always presented danger for me as a cyclist. It would be some catch for a fisherman but not too nice for the biker!
There is also the danger of someone ending up in the river. And I speak from experience because, yeah I know it sounds stupid but I was that cyclist! I was deposited in the River close to the Sugar factory one December day some years when my front wheel hit one of the many ruts caused by heavy vehicle traffic that has rutted the track. Luckily I could swim and got out.
(4) Maintenance. I was taken aback by the lack of information on proposed maintenance of the surface, once it is laid. There appears to be no plan. I commend the representative for being honest and telling me that they recognised the surface would be pot holed by rain and floods etc. but he didn’t realise the extent of the flooding that occurs or the amount of pot holing that is created by rainfall and temperatures alone. There is no detail about maintaining the surface in the plans. I was surprised to hear representatives not realising the extent of flooding that occurs and more surprised that they would ‘have to see’ what could be done.
But in truth knowing how the track is currently so poorly maintained I was not really that surprised. Heavy machinery is used to cut hedges, grass, transport stone and rock along the tow path. This has caused dangerous rutting and subsidence. It has resulted in extensive areas of grass being removed and replaced with a pot holed hardcore surface. When I attended an information event in the Lord Bagnel, maybe two years ago, the engineer told me that this was the only way the work could be done because of budget restraints. That’s understandable but obviously not really acceptable. The conundrum now is that the track will still have to be maintained and if it is necessary to use this type of equipment, surely the new surface will also be torn up and damaged while trying to maintain it! Cyclists currently using the track face an annual problem with punctures when hedges are cut as there is no tidy up done. Thorns are worse than glass for punctures and if you puncture on the path it can be a long walk to civilisation!
This is the major issue that prevents me from supporting this project. Millions will be spent on developing, what all the promoters would genuinely hope to be, a major tourist attraction. i can tell you, that once the surface becomes pot holed and if the potholes are not repaired within a reasonable time, cyclists will give this a wide berth and the damage will be irreversible. We will have no cyclists and no grassy towpath.
I have outlined in earlier posts my own ideas about alternatives and I won’t go into them again now but I will finish by saying this is a very important planning application that requires extreme caution. I am all for development but it must be sustainable and I suggest Waterways Ireland be required to provide full detail about future maintenance plans and budgets before this can be agreed to.
Comparisons with the Mayo Greenway and Waterford Greenway are futile as they are not comparable routes. these are laid along the path of old railway lines and not along an established walking route and a towpath used daily by many fishermen.
The target of attracting 100,000 German cyclists seems overly ambitious to me! Assuming that they would come in June, July and August, they would have to literally be bumper to bumper on the towpath all summer long and I haven’t yet seen all the camp sites, bed and breakfasts and hotels to cater for such numbers. I hope I am proved wrong on that!
To finish on a positive note, the plan definitely excites, and recognises the untapped potential of the Barrow. It needs serious revision and due consideration by our planners and all the partners involved. The success of the Waterford Greenway shows there is interest in off road routes; but we need to ensure that the Barrow Blueway is fully thought through. I can see no reason why the grassy towpath couldn’t be properly maintained as a natural surface with quality development close to the towns and villages.Thousands of cyclists cycle the Camino in Spain across farm land without any difficulty and the best stretches are the unbound surfaces there too!
Olivia O Leary mentioned recently that this could be more appropriately developed as a pilgrim route and I fully agree with her. The potential is enormous. Think about it. We have St Miullins in deepest south Carlow, we have St Fiacre, Duiske Abbey In Graiguenamanagh and Ullard; St Laserian in Old Leighlin and the great St Columbanus from nearby Myshall. There is serious potential to develop an eco friendly pilgrimage route incorporating the lives of some of Ireland’s most important saints. It could rival the Camino and truly attract 100,000 Germans, French and Italians in time!