Tucked away in the south east corner of our tiny county is the historic village of Clonegal and its incredible Huntington Castle. A gem.
Huntington Castle is the ancient seat of the Esmonde family. The Esmonde’s moved over to Ireland in 1192 and were involved in other castles such as Duncannon Fort in Waterford and Johnstown Castle in Wexford (both also feature on my cycle routes in Cycling South Leinster) before building Huntington and settling down in Clonegal. The family name has changed twice due to inheritance down the female line and the present family name is Durdin Robertson, who are direct descendants of the Esmondes.
I was surprised to learn that one of their notable ancestors was Lady Esmonde (Alish O’Flaherty) – the grandaughter of Grace O’Malley the famous Pirate Queen of Connaught.
Barbera St. Ledger (Not Bríd), Edward King, Herbert Robertson MP, Nora Parsons, Manning Robertson, and latterly Olivia Robertson are others to name but a few. A Tour of the Castle introduces the visitor to their back stories and to ghosts, witches and Egyptian Goddesses!
The Castle is presently lived in by three generations of the Durdin Robertson family, and the current owners Alexander and Clare Durdin Robertson are very much hands on with the business and can frequently be found giving tours, working in the gardens or making tea in the tearooms.
Rose Shiels, wife of Stephen – a great servant of Kildavin and Carlow football in his day, introduced me to Alexander and I spent a fascinating afternoon plodding round the gardens.
The Gardens were mainly laid out in the 1680’s by the Esmondes. They feature impressive formal plantings and layouts including the Italian style ‘Parterre’ or formal gardens, as well the French lime Avenue (planted in 1680) The world famous yew walk is a significant feature which is thought to date to over 500 years old and should not be missed.
Later plantings resulted in Huntington gaining a number of Champion trees including more than ten National Champions.
The gardens also feature early water features such as stew ponds and an ornamental lake as well as plenty to see in the greenhouse and lots of unusual and exotic plants and shrubs.
The Lake at Huntington Castle
Vintage Tractor Run at Huntington Castle
The Lake at Huntington Castle
17th Century Parterre Gardens at Huntington Castle
For the week that’s in it, I am putting up a really lovely cycle along country lanes in beautiful East Carlow. An unspoilt green oasis of tranquility, with lots of interesting historical and heritage sites along the trail.
Home to the clubs of County footballers Darragh Foley, Daniel St Ledger, Liam Roberts and Jack Kennedy who will all be part of the Carlow Squad playing in the NFL Division 4 Final v our great rivals, Laois.
This is a seldom visited part of the county – why not make a day trip this summer and sample it’s delights!
Height gain: 611 metres
Duration: 2.3 – 3 hours
Start / Finish
Park in the town car park opposite the municipal buildings in Tullow.
The roads on this route are exceptionally quiet and the only sound is the sound of bird song as you travel along The Slaney Valley down to Clonegal and onward to Clonmore.
It’s beauty will surprise you in this quiet backwater that really should be a tourist mecca.
Turn left on leaving the car park and leave Tullow behind as you head towards the village of Ardattin 6kms away. The road is good and flat and you will speed along this early section.
Take a right in Ardattin followed by a quick left. You are now onto a very small boithrín that will take you through the townland of Ballintemple and the Coillte nursery. This was once the home place of Pierce Butler, signatory of the American Constitution.
The road runs parallel to the River Slaney here and on the far side but out of sight from here is Altamont Gardens, one of Ireland’s most important gardens – well worth a diversion if you are so inclined.
The further along the road you travel, the grass centre increases in size and the hedgerows crowd in from both sides. It’s enchanting.
You will eventually meet an equally small road and you turn right and continue to climb a little more.
The views now become spectacular across the Slaney Valley towards Mount Leinster. Kilcarry Bridge is also in view below but take care going downhill here as the road surface deteriorates on this section.
These are views few people see of County Carlow and the route is a real treat.
The road meets the L2024 which will take you into Clonegal when you turn left. But first a quick diversion to Kilcarry Bridge which is 50 metres away on your right. A lovely resting place on the Slaney.
Clonegal has been described as ‘The Switzerland of Ireland’ because of the surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers. The Slaney and the Derry rivers meet close by at this meeting point of Counties Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford. The village has twice been awarded the accolade of Ireland’s tidiest village in 2014 and 2015. The displays of flowers every summer are a sight to behold and a great indication of community pride.
A visit to Huntington Castle is a must – the Guardian newspaper voted it one of Ireland’s top 20 hidden gems in 2015. Guided tours are available which include The Temple of Isis, located in the old castle dungeons. The castle is still lived in by descendants, the Durdin Robertsons, of the original owners, the Esmondes who were also involved in Duncan Fort and Johnstown Castle Wexford. A fascinating place.
Retrace your steps to the top of the village and take a right onto the L6049, following signs for the Wicklow Way. This renowned walking route finishes in Clonegal where the South Leinster Way begins. After 4 kms take a left, again following the signs for the Wicklow Way. The road begins to rise steadily and this road section is part of the official Wicklow Way. the Way heads into the woods 2kms further on and we rejoin it shortly after when it comes back to the road.
It’s up and down now for a few kilometres but nothing too difficult. The scenery is beautiful in this secluded border area of Carlow and Wicklow. The road is bordered by woodland on you right and you will shortly take a right at the next junction, again following the signs for the Wicklow Way.
At the next t junction take a left and we leave the Wicklow Way here and continue along a pleasant scenic road as far Aghowle Church. This is one of the prettiest ruins in the country, situated 400 metres down a laneway. Really worth a visit to this 6th century monastery founded by St Finian.
Aghowle Church and Cross
The wonderfully named Crab Lane Pub is 500 metres away, go right here and continue until you meet the R725. Cross over the staggered junction and down the hill. At the bottom continue left followed by a right and heading for Clonmore 5 kms away.
Clonmore is one of County Carlow’s most important Early Christian sites. It was named after St Mogue who built a monastery here in the 6th century. None of the original buildings survived but there are many important reminders of its past with two high crosses, a lintel, an ogham stone, two bullaun stones, a font, nineteen cross-inscribed slabs and a holy well.
The village is dominated by the ruins of Clonmore Castle which was taken by Cromwell in 1650.
Passing the castle we now return to Tullow on good flat roads. We have an option after 7kms to take a right or left – both will take you back to Tullow. Go right and then right again, passing over a bridge and take the next left. Another left after that and you will eventually join the N81, turning left you are on the outskirts of Tullow. Cycle down the Town and back to car park to finish a very rewarding and challenging route.
This is not an established route but I aim to make it one!
I havent done all of this 135kms loop of County Carlow but I will in the summer.
This route has many outstanding features:
Leave Carlow taking the Barrow towpath which you follow all the way to St Mullins.
This is obviously flat the whole way down but that’s no harm with what has to come later!
The Barrow Towpath is beautiful and differs from Canal walking as it is a follows the meanders of the River. It’s a gem of a mtb trail on a fine summer day. And there are significant places of historical and religious importance such as Leighlinbridge, Borris, Graiguenamanagh and the monastic site at St Mullins.
Leaving St Mullins talk a short road section before climbing up onto the ridge of the Blackstairs. This is a well known walking trail along the Carlow – Wexford border. Continue across the Scullogue Gap and rise up to the peak of Mount Leinster, the highest point in Carlow and Ireland’s fifth highest mountain.
Take the road down to the Nine Stones and follow it across to the t junction. You are now on the Sth Leinster waymarked Way. You will shortly go off road again and rejoin the trail which you follow to Kildavin. Take the road to Clonegal village and Huntingdon Castle.
Look for signs to the Wicklow Way, again on quiet roads. After about 6 kms you leave the road for a beautiful short section through wooded hillside on the famous Wicklow Way.
We leave the Wicklow Way to go to the ruins of Aghowle Church.
The area from the Blackstairs to here is where Columbanus is said to have been born.
After Aghowle we follow winding lanes to Ardattin and the bridge on the River Slaney at Agahde – a nice place for a picnic or a swim.
Time to head back to Carlow now and we again keep to the back roads and follow the route over by Kellistown Church ruins and into Carlow Town.
This has the potential to be a mega route with a little bit of mapping and signposting.