I had a bad fall on the bike 129 days ago. Multiple fractures of my humerus resulting in the insertion of 3 plates in the arm. The prognosis wasn’t good. It would be at least 8 months before I could cycle again and at that the arm would never be able to extend fully.
Just over 4 months later the picture is much better! Today was my first 20kms cycle since January and I did it along my favourite route, The Barrow Track. It was a slow cagey bike ride but it felt like I was getting my life back!
To be honest I was fearful I might never get back up on the bike given the extent of the break. But full credit to the great people in Waterford hospital, they did a phenomenal job on knitting the bone back together.
Funny how your mood and mind can change! I was resigned to no biking this year at best and now I’m planning ahead for my next bike tour. Coast to Coast. But not the simple Dublin – Galway route. I’ve a much more adventurous and interesting route planned from Blacksod Bay in Mayo to Carlingford in Louth. Hopefully get to it in July, providing rehab continues at the pace it is now.
We leave tracks wherever we walk. For thousands of years man has followed rivers inland, forging new paths, seeking shelter, food, searching for places never visited before.
In whose footsteps do we wander when we thread The Barrow Way?
We have few wild places remaining which is why The Barrow Way is so special in today’s fast paced world.
Columbanus travelled this way on his journey to Cleenish Island in Fermanagh where he began his education before his onward journey to Bangor in County Down. It’s ironic that now the we are trying to create Turas Columbanus or the Columban Way, (which will follow the Barrow Way to Monasterevin), we are again talking about developing the Blueway Cycle Path. We need clarity about what we intend to do with the Barrow Track. It cannot be a long distance walking trail and a cycling path. Surely it’s one or the other?
Countless people working on the barge traffic that serviced industry and agriculture were very familiar with this route once the canal network was created. It was a lot busier in the 19th Century than it is today!
Today it is designated a Special Area of Conservation. Or at least it was.
Proposals are due to come before the Local Authority to revisit the Barrow Blueway decision. The Blueway, specifically the replacement of the grass surface with a hardcore surface to facilitate cycling, put forward by Waterways Ireland a few short years ago was refused by An Bórd Pleanála following an unprecedented level of local objections to the proposal. I sincerely hope the proposal will not reverse the decision to remove the grassy path.
Unfortunately it appears that the views of the hundreds of people opposed to the Blueway is not being reflected in the debate and I want to put my thoughts out there before a vote is taken as I fear we face a fait accompli, without due consideration of the reasons the proposal was rejected.
The plan for a cycling path is linked to very laudable plans for a network of linked Greenways. Most of these Greenways utilise disused railway lines where they once existed- The Western Greenway, The Waterford Greenway, The Old Rail Trail, The Limerick Greenway, while there is also one on the Royal Canal and another on the River Suir. I have made it my business to cycle all of them over the past few years with the Limerick one being completed on a cold 31st December last.
I make the following observations based on my knowledge of our beautiful county, and my experience of cycling and walking:
We have a disused railway line running almost parallel to the River Barrow that should be converted as was done in Waterford, Mayo, Limerick, Westmeath and now in Kerry. Why is Carlow the exception? Why are we not not pursuing this option?
There are challenges in sharing walking and cycling paths and I experienced this on the River Suir, which is narrow for long stretches and in my opinion dangerous as a result. I have observed arguments between pedestrians and cyclists over the shared use and I would hazard a guess that it is now used mostly by walkers and not cyclists. My experience on the Barrow Track, where I am probably the cyclist who most uses the Track, is that it is entirely unsuitable for use as a paved cycling route for a few reasons. The main reason is safety. Hard surfaces encourage high speeds on bikes and road bikes will be used on this path as they are on the Waterford Greenway. It currently facilitates thousands of walkers – are you aware it is a National Long Distance Walking Trail? Are you aware that it is the longest continuous off road section of walking trail in the country? Are you aware that in Ireland we have very limited access to off road walking and this proposal is to remove the grass surface and replace it with a hard surface thus removing the longest continuous off road walking route in Ireland?
Not all Greenways are equal. There is a myth that by installing a cycle path we are going to have a tourism boom. Will we? How do the promoters know? It isn’t a given. The Old Trail in Westmeath is not near as popular as the Waterford or Western Greenways. In fact it may reduce the usage of the towpath by others – there are already thousands of walkers who use the Barrow, there are thousands of Carlovians who also swim and fish along the river bank. If it is considered dangerous, people will not use it. I too am all for developing the River as a way to attract visitors and support the local economy but I do not see this being the panacea promoters envisage.
Imagine this though. A cycle path from Bagenalstown to Glynn running between the beautiful Blackstairs and the River Barrow taking in the tranquil village of Borris. (The Barrow Blueway will by-pass Borris). If we create that path, we will still have the Barrow towpath and now we have a very very strong tourism product in the south of the county.
WWI has shown complete contempt for the riverbank and their maintenance practices are completely counterproductive.
This is not a sustainable development. The River Barrow floods extensively and with climate change this is going to be more frequent and of longer duration. The hard surfaces that currently exist are always damaged after flooding and render the track unsuitable for any activity and impassable.
A hard cycle path will impact on current users – the River is extremely important to swimmers in the summer time and it will be completely unsafe to have large groups of cyclists sharing it alongside them. It’s impossible in fact. The Barrow is a very popular coarse fishing river and the river bank is very important to fishermen who will not be able to safely use the river if there is a bike path.
It isn’t necessary to install a hard surface to attract visitors. Look at the experience in other countries – Such as Spain and the Camino route. 350,000 people walk the Camino every year and they do not need hard surfaces. 93% of users are walkers and only 6% are cyclists. The ratio is probably similar on the River Barrow. We should value wild places for walking. We are currently restoring old pilgrimage routes in this country – St Declans Ways in Waterford and Tipperary is an example and the most popular sections are the off road sections. Here in Carlow we are developing the Columbanus Way – which will utilise the Barrow Track. Much of this will be on road and so the off road sections must be protected and not destroyed. Why would we destroy the tow path when people want to walk on grass?
What about ‘access for all’? This is our only wilderness area – it is quite remote between villages and it could be dangerous. We cannot fundamentally destroy that which we intent to promote! It should not be torn up. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion surely we should have a stairlift to the top of Croagh Patrick or Carraountohill! Certainly close to our villages improvements can be made to enable improved access. Even on the Waterford Greenway, most of the activity is centred on the hubs.
This is an area of special conservation full of wonderful biodiversity. We are facing a worldwide biodiversity disaster and we are required to protect the area not damaging it.
The Towpath is adequate as it is for anyone who does want to cycle while preserving the grass path for other uses.
I am a very active touring cyclist and I have written a book ’Cycling South Leinster’ which contains 30 beautiful routes along the back roads of the region. The Barrow Towpath as it is currently constituted is just perfect and the most popular route in the book.
What should our Council do?
In my opinion, we should insist of improving the grass surface and require WWI to introduce appropriate maintenance practices that do not damage the track and ensure the surface is safe for users.
We should instead only consider works to improve boating and water based activities and enhancements to our riverside villages.
Instead of developing a hard surface for the entire stretch of the river bank from the River Lerr on the Kildare border to St Mullins in the south, we should be looking to enhance the riverside villages and towns – St Mullins, Tinnahinch, Graiguenamanagh, Goresbridge, Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge and Carlow Town. Look at the great work that the Council did in Carlow town alongside the River. That should be the standard in all the other towns and villages. There should be promotion of the villages as hubs connected to the great walking route that we currently have. Economic gain can be provided by proper investment in the towns and villages and the promotion of the towpath as it was intended – a national way marked walking trail. There are far more walkers than cyclists in this country!
Ellie and Carl, of Tough Soles, are a beautiful young couple who have walked all the long distance walking trails and they have a wonderful blog detailing every walk they have completed. They have walked over 4,000kms of trails crisscrossing the country!
Here is what they had to say about the Barrow Way:
In our list of National Trails, there are 3 major waterways we walk; the Royal Canal Way, the Grand Canal Way, and the Barrow Way. Having done the first two and found them to be nice, but definitely not what we would call hiking trails, our hopes for the Barrow Way weren’t high. However – I am more than delighted to say that there was nothing for us to worry about. At a little over 120km in length, the Barrow Way featured almost entirely grass banks and perfectly spaced towns. It’s amazing how having purely grass banks to walk along it felt like we were actually walking along a river bank. On the first two canals it felt like we were walking on roads with water beside them, which meant we spent more time focused on how uncomfortable the road walking was than on the canal itself. When walking the Barrow Way on grass, the landscape was vibrant and alive. We saw and heard so much wildlife, enjoyed the powerful, thunderous weirs and the silent sun dappled bends.
Ellie and Carl
Yesterday’s Irish Independent carried this prediction of destruction, warning about the Biodiversity Loss we are heading for if we do not change course. It could not be more stark. I hope that our decision makers weigh up all these factors when they meet to decide the fate of the Barrow Way. I wish them all the wisdom to choose wisely.
What a year of joy, cycling north, south, east and west of this beautiful island!
I’ve said it before but we have an unbelievable network of local roads suitable for riding bikes, whether it be an hour loop or a long distance tour. The beauty of the local roads is that it takes you into the heart of rural Ireland, into small villages and off the beaten track. Virtually traffic free the roads are super safe. As rural Ireland declines, eco tourism offers a mountain of possibilities and the growth of hiking trails and bike routes will aid in the promotion of local areas and perhaps keeping them populated with increased economic activity associated with sustainable tourism. With Covid concerns in 2021, we really enjoyed avoiding the ‘tourist hotspots’ over the year and travelling the road less travelled; people have more time to be friendly and it has a more authentic feel to it.
There’s massive potential for off road touring too if routes can be accessed and developed. Any route development needs to be minimal; in most cases all that is needed is some annual maintenance and good signposting.
It’s taken me a while to come to the realisation that a Greenway is definitely not designed as a cycle route. At this stage I’ve now cycled on all the Greenways across the country:
Great Western Greenway, Mayo, 42kms
Waterford Greenway, 46kms
Old Rail Trail, Westmeath, 42kms
Royal Canal Greenway, Longford to Dublin, 130kms
Suir Blueway, Tipperary, 21kms
My experience on the Greenways is that the routes are used more by walkers than cyclists and by families with young children. Consequently most of the activity is typically in the 5 kms close to the hub points, with the mid sections very quiet. As most of them follow the path of old railway tracks they tend to be very straight and boring after a few kilometres. While there is stunning scenery on the Western Greenway and the Waterford Greenway, most of the routes are enclosed by the old banks that bordered the railway line or hedging. I find them a bit soulless and sterile and much prefer the local roads that twist and turn offer up interesting heritage sites and beautiful views. The Greenways are great additions to an area but for cycle touring I would tend to probably avoid them unless they linked specific places I needed to get to.
The majority of our cycling is of course locally and we have got into the habit of cycling all year round. Night cycles on cold winter nights are exhilarating and we have so familiar with our favourite routes close to Carlow Town that the bikes almost steer themselves!
We covered a lot of ground in 2021, most of it local but looking at the heat map, we are only scratching the surface of places to see and visit in the years ahead!. Roll on 2022.
The thrill of riding in the dark is something I’ve come to savour these past couple of winters!
First thoughts about it were that it would be dangerous and boring, with nothing to see in the pitch black of night. How wrong could I be! Nothing compares to being out on a quiet country road or along the Barrow Track on a cold crisp black night, with stars twinkling overhead or occasionally with the Space Station making its way across the skies. Or a clear moonlit night making it easy to pick out familiar landmarks that aren’t so familiar looking in the half light. Especially trees, which take on a whole new shape and appearance. Throw in a few gusts of wind and it can be damn scary!
It’s only possible of course if you have good lights on your bike, front and rear and you pick your route carefully. With 1800 lumens in my front light I can safely get a good 90 minutes of a ride in. Tonight took me out to other worldly Ducketts Grove – is there a more iconic building for the Halloween season?
Another favourite is the along the River Barrow towpath between St Mullins and Clashganny which I did last year, starting out in daylight on the outward journey and coming back by the light of the bike. It can be tricky on the Barrow in winter as the track softens and becomes slippy so you need to be extra vigilant.
And it shortens the winter; being able to keep up the evening cycles is just magic and helps keep a level of fitness up for the following season!
I don’t ride a bike to add days to my life. I ride a bike to add life to my days.
The final day. A sense of exhilaration floods the senses. Looking forward to a great days cycling, of great sea views, of the last few hills to climb, thinking of rounding that last headland and the Atlantic Ocean stretching out endlessly ahead of us. Friday’s Bantry Market is famous and it was setting up just as we started. It looked like a great place to grab a bargain! Pádraig and Celine Dooley, who are on holidays close by, popped in to wish us well on the last leg and kindly stayed around to see us at the finish. It must have been the giddiness of anticipation that saw us head 12kms down towards Sheep Head instead of onward to Durrus; we put a nice few extra kms on our route plus a nice climb over the peninsula to get back on track. But again these deviations from plan always seem to work out for the better. We had great views across to the Beara peninsula before we turned inland and over the brow of the hill. A tough climb but with a great tail wind so we weren’t too put out and we were soon rolling into Durrus.
The tail wind became a head wind soon enough and only the stunning coastal scenery kept our minds off the pain! Views of Barley Cove, Cape Clear, the mystical lonely Fastnet Rock inspired us with every turn of the pedals. Just one breathtaking view after another.
Goleen was buzzing; two large groups of cyclists passed us in the opposite direction with support vehicles, presumably head to Mizen! Once we turned at Goleen the wind was relentless; almost stopping us in our tracks. Ronan passed by, coming down to collect us. Pure adrenalin kept us going at this stage.
Eight days after leaving Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head, we crossed the finish line at Mizen Head. We didn’t kill ourselves, took our time, enjoyed the scenery, the fresh air and the exercise, getting stronger each day. I can’t recommend a bike trip like it highly enough. There are so many reasons to go on a long trip. The sense of complete freedom and independence on the road means travelling is so relaxed. It’s just you and the road. You decide when you go and how far you go. Its your schedule and not some tour company. It’s never about speed or time on the road. The pace of life away from the busy towns and tourist areas is a joy; people move slowly, cars stop behind you and are in no rush to whizz by. Things go wrong and you improvise. You get lost in your own thoughts; there’s a lot of public emphasis on wellness and mental health; I guess that’s what bike touring actually is when you boil it down. it’s good for the body and good for the soul! Thanks to all who have followed the blog – I hope it gave you a flavour of our trip and encourages you to try it someday for yourselves! Now where to next Mary?