Rothar Routes

Cycle routes & pilgrim journeys in Ireland and Europe …..

Posts tagged ‘Blueway’

My Say on The Barrow Way..

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.

Tracks and Trails..
The longest continuous off-road walking route in Ireland is again under threat….

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.

The grassy towpath, soft underfoot, a pleasure to walk on.

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.

There literally isn’t enough room for a shared path, as this short video shows! Imagine multiple cyclists (WWI forecast 50,000 Germans!) approaching from the front or behind anybody walking on this path..

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 value do we as a society put on the quiet places – to visit, to sit and rest, to reflect, to stimulate the senses, to appreciate nature?
Is there anything evokes thoughts of summer more than spreading your towel across the grassy towpath on a fine day and getting in for a refreshing dip in the deep still waters of the River Barrow, then stretching out to catch a few rays on your towel spread on the soft grassy path? That will be a lovely memory in the future because it won’t be possible if a cycle path is created!
Heaven on the Barrow.

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
Enjoy this video of The Barrow Way before it changes forevermore…
Did you know the Barrow is prone to flooding – even in the summer months? Hard surfaces are washed away every time we have a flood...

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.

Bike the Barrow

Bike the Barrow! Whether a grassy towpath or a Blueway I highly recommend the Barrow Track as one of Ireland’s most amazing cycle routes! The poster says it all – the grass towpath is Paradise on a bike or on foot!


While looking for some other photos I came across this poster I made in 2013. Regardless of whether the Blueway proposal succeeds or fails I still recommend all to Bike the Barrow!

Barrow Towpath Development

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood Close to the Sugar Factory, Carlow

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!

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Milford, County Carlow

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!

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Mickey Webster’s Lock, Carlow

(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.

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Braganza, Carlow Town

(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.

Waterford Greenway Tunnel

Waterford Greenway Tunnel – a different type of route. Magnificent cycle route.

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!




‘Serious Flaws’ in Barrow Towpath Proposal

Barrow Cyclists

Barrow Cyclists

According to the Kilkenny People website, an engineer’s report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, raises serious questions about the suitability of the controversial Waterways Ireland “Blueway” plan to replace the grassy towpath along the River Barrow with a hard-surface cycling trail.

In a recent posting here I commented on the issues that he has raised that make the route unsuitable. His opinions will not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the route but it is surprising that these concerns have not carried sufficient weight with project promoters, resulting in the project becoming controversial.

It’s fair to say that most people opposed to the proposal are not guilty of ‘nimbyism’ but are doing  so through conviction that the proposal is indeed flawed and from a love of the beauty of the Barrow Track. I am sure that the vast majority would support a different proposal that respects this unique riverside habitat and maintains as much grass surface as possible.

Local knowledge should always inform these proposals; the engineer’s report refers to maintenance issues for a hard surface – and that is even without taking into account flood damage that will occur!

I would support the upgrading of the Barrow Track and the benefits it could bring to tourism in the area and for the health benefits attached to outdoor pursuits – walking, cycling, swimming and running on a well maintained grass surface with quality quayside developments in the towns and villages along the route. Carlow County Council got so much right in Carlow Town with the beautiful promenade and park which have truly enhanced the river in Carlow Town. An extension of this development a little further towards the town boundaries and in other towns and villages – Athy, Milford, Bagenalstown, Goresbridge, Graiguenamanagh and St Mullins would give us an international quality riverside development.

As a regular user I have to continue to point out that the maintenance of the towpath is not acceptable and has caused serious damage on long stretches. This has to be addressed. Waterways Ireland need a larger budget if they are to fulfil their obligations to the towpath.

Again I ask – is it not possible to develop the derelict rail line from Bagenalstown to Glynn just as the Déise Greenway has used the old rail line in Waterford? Surely a good solution? There would be no issue with a hard core surface and in fact it could develop into a rally good Loop cycle by using the grass bank from Bagenalstown to St Mullins to give it another dimension!

Barrow Cycle Barrow Cycle


Déise Greenway v Barrow Blueway.

There has been a lot of focus on the plan to develop the Blueway along the Barrow Track. And a lot of controversy.

Many make the comparisons with the Déise Greenway in Waterford and the Great Western greenway in Mayo.

I thought I would take a spin down and cycle the Déise Greenway when the calendar allowed.

First impressions are that they have done a fantastic job on the route. Waterford County Coucnil obtained a licence from CIE at the turn of the century to develop the line as an amenity. They have completed the section from Dungarvan to Kilmacthomas and are working on the Kilmac to Waterford City section at present. I have to say it’s a great amenity for local and visitors alike. I have cycled on Greenways in Europe on old railway lines but found them a little boring as they were straight as an arrow and flat too. This line offers a lot more with great scenic views of the Comeraghs, Dungarvan Bay and Helvick Head. Other highlights are the Durrow Tunnel which has been tastily lit and is very atmospheric and the Ballyvoille Viaduct.

I started in Kilmacthomas and headed west for Dungarvan returning to Kilmacthomas. It’s a very easy pleasant cycle, ideal for families. There are bike hire facilities along the Greenway.

The surface is a mixture of tarmac and a cinder surface and on this occasion I was fortunate to use a carbon fibre Teschner racing bike, courtesy of Shane Foley  – what a machine! I think my full water bottle weighed more than the bike!

For a Monday in January the Greenway was quite busy with cyclists and walkers and I got speaking to a number of them. All of them love using the Greenway but with one complaint – it has become a victim of its own success! Weekends are very busy times and there is little enjoyment on it as a result!

I would highly recommend the Greenway for anyone looking for a nice route easy route in beautiful countryside. It’s 24kms in length at present but will extend to 48kms when the final section is complete.

The thinking is that the Déise Greenway can join up with the Barrow Blueway to form a pretty impressive off road cycle route across the south east. It sounds amazing and would certainly be a boost for tourism in County Carlow. Would it work?

Having cycled both the Barrow Track and now the Greenway there are a number of differences between both routes.

For a start the Greenway will never flood whereas the Barrow floods on multiple occasions every year. The surface would be damaged and possibly washed away.The Greenway is attracting serious traffic on the weekends – the Barrow track could not cater for big numbers and for other users at the same time. I can imagine arguments between fishermen and cyclists – fishermen need the space for their rods and equipment; a bike track will reduce the area available to them. The Greenway runs along a rail line of no important ecological significance whereas the Barrow is Carlow’s most important wildlife habitat. this is a very serious difference between the routes. I don’t see how a hard surface can be considered in such a sensitive area nor how the Barrow track can retain its existing use and also cater for an influx of cycling enthusiasts.

A few other things struck me while cycling on the Greenway today; in places the route is lined with furze bushes and brambles. I could clearly see the thorn branches on the track after the hedges had been cut. Presumably this results is punctures! Maybe it isn’t the issue I think it is but I imagine in Autumn every year that there will be a problem with thorns puncturing tyres. I did notice that close to Dungarvan a sweeping truck was employed cleaning the path but I don’t think it does the entire route. This is a terrible problem on the Barrow Track because Waterways Ireland leaves the track in a terrible condition after hedge cutting – using machinery that is too heavy and never cleaning the surface after cutting. Farmers on roads always tidy up after the annual cut and the same should apply on the track. The route is very well laid out with protective gates at road junctions that are wide enough apart to allow cyclists continue without dismounting yet preventing motorised vehicles entering. A smart gate system also operates to allow farmers access their lands on both sides of the path.

The Déise Greenway is a great success and I think all options must be explored to see how the Blueway can be sensitively developed without harming the environment. Another thought struck me while cycling along this disused railway line. Running parallel to the Barrow is the disused Bagenalstown to Wexford railway line. If the Déise Greenway could be developed under licence from CIE could the Carlow line not also be developed in similar fashion? I assume the Waterford line fell into the same disrepair as the Carlow line so it should be possible to develop it instead of the Barrow as our off road cycle route!

Waterford Greenway 1

Waterford Greenway 1

Waterford Greenway Tunnel

Waterford Greenway Tunnel

Waterford Greenway Dungarvan

Waterford Greenway Dungarvan

Waterford Greenway Disused Train Station

Waterford Greenway Disused Train Station




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