This is new country for me. I may have passed through here by car on occasions but I have never stopped to explore. So a new experience awaited me. A short walk took me to Fenton Bridge, where the Old Barrow Line leaves the Grand Canal. A local I spoke with called it The Summit, as it is the canal’s highest point – it is all downstream from here. Fenton Bridge gave me a bit of a feel for life on the river, for there are a few lived-in barges moored here, but only a few.
The next few kilometers took me along country tracks, and a rather gentle introduction to the experience that lay ahead. Beyond Ballyteige the canal became elevated and provided nice views over the surrounding countryside, with the Hill of Allen off to the south. I could not see the bog of Allen to the north, but the few tractors hauling turf was proof enough. The Griffith Aqueduct, carrying the canal over a river below, was fairly cool.
Walking the tow path is an unusual experience. The slow flowing water and the long straight stretches, away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and houses, lulls you into a gentle mood in keeping with the landscape. As the kilometers unfold the changes in the landscape are not dramatic. Instead, they are subtle; stretches where the view is constrained by tall reeds and sedges but alive with common and blue-tailed damselflies, banded-demoiselle and four-spotted chasers, giving way to sunny banks carpeted with bird’s-foot trefoil and spotted orchids, alive with common blue butterflies and six-spotted burnet moths. There is hardly a stretch of the canal without the scratchy energetic song of the sedge warbler or the metallic ring of the reed buntings in the background – two sounds that I don’t hear near where I live.
The issue of the surface of the proposed Barrow Track was brought home to me very starkly, in a way I didn’t expect. Having walked for maybe four hours along the beautiful soft grass track with lovely wildflower bedecked banks, my feet were tiring. Then as I approached Rathdangan the track suddenly changed to sterile limestone chipping; frankly, awful to look at, awful to walk on, and totally out of keeping with the character of the Track. How anyone could think this is a good idea is beyond me.
It surprised me that I met so few people along the route. One barge, two men walking dogs, a fisherman with his bored wife and a women looking for a secluded place for a spot of private sunbathing (clearly unsuccessfully on this occasion!) were all I met. I began to question why so few people were using this wonderful amenity, on such a lovely day. Certainly, one reason was that from my perspective, there was no evidence of any effort made to promote the Barrow Way. With the exception of a rather jaded (and damaged) sign about wildflowers of the canal, there was no effort to promote the canal. Nothing to tell walkers about the canal’s natural or cultural heritage, indeed even it’s industrial heritage. I saw no amenity provided for fishing, swimming or kayaking; and even cyclists would have to navigate the many locked gates along the track. Perhaps before trying to change the character of the Track by developing a cyclist’s rat run, some effort could me made to promote the canal walk as it is currently. At the very least the communities that live along the canal, and who could benefit from it, deserve that.