Running along the eastern bank of the River Barrow is the old tow-path. Built in the 18th Century to tow barges plying the waterway, it has long since become redundant for its original use. The picturesque tow-path is now used by locals as an amenity, and is increasingly promoted as an amenity to encourage activity holiday-makers to visit the villages that straddle the Kilkenny and Carlow border; Goresbridge, Borris, Graiguenamanagh and St. Mullins, beautiful unspoiled villages with unique Irish charm.
Ballytigelea Bridge provides access to one of the nicest stretches of the Barrow. Downstream the river flows along the wonderful semi-natural deciduous woodlands of Borris Demesne, linear patches of wet alluvial woodland backing onto to majestic ancient oaks. North of the bridge the river valley opens onto pastoral farmland with beautiful luxuriant species-rich hedgerows and areas of waterlogged ground and pools, each with their own special character. The grassy tow-path is maintained to keep it free for walkers, but the level of intervention is minimal, so it retains is natural feel.
This is a strange time of year. Winter is almost upon us yet on some pet days it still feels like summer. Today along the Barrow the temperature was in the high teens with plenty of bright sunshine. A flock of about 20 swallows were feeding over the river, a surprise, for in most years by now they would have left on their migration south.
Near Ballytigelea Lock, red admirals were basking in the warm sun and, much to my delight, I also came across a couple of comma butterflies. These look for all the world like small tortoiseshell butterflies with badly frayed wings. But the comma is a relatively new addition to the Irish fauna. It was first recorded 2007 or 2008 in County Wexford where it gained a foothold and has continued to expand its range. It now occurs over most of Wexford and has spread into Waterford, Wicklow and Dublin, and is expanding northwards along the river network. There are established populations along the Slaney and Barrow Rivers, and Ballytigelea seems to mark the limit to its range at the moment. I hadn’t seen a comma so far this year, so seeing one so late in the season was an unexpected treat.
The juxtaposition of butterflies basking in the sun and shrubs laden with autumn fruits is a reminder of the changing season. The autumn colours are everywhere; the rusty brown bracken and bramble, vivid red dog rose and guilder rose berries, the carmine guelder rose foliage and the curious vivid orange spindle seeds breaking out from their deep pink shell. Less spectacular but more abundant are the blackberries, haws and sloes, and even the crab apples are almost the size of eating apples this year. A natural bonanza for the birds this winter.
The natural tow-path along the Barrow is a wonderful resource for local and visitor alike, and serves as a huge natural artery for wildlife. Walkers, joggers, anglers and boaters all use and enjoy the amenity, in perfect harmony. The low-level management of the tow-path and the discrete signage make for a experience in keeping with the character of the amenity. It came as a shock to me, therefore, to read a notice pinned on a gate at Ballytigelea, that Waterways Ireland are seeking planning permission to resurface the tow-path with limestone filling. There may be some sound reason why Waterways Ireland are seeking to do this, but for me this would be a huge act of vandalism and totally unnecessary. The Barrow tow-path is an extremely valuable natural asset for the locality – by all means help and promote greater use of the resource, but lay off changing the character of the experience. I’m sure there are better ways of spending the money.