Today’s walk takes me into familiar territory. I live in Gowran no more than about 6km from the Barrow, so I visit the river often. It is a fantastic amenity to have so close at hand. It is rich in wildlife and I try to make good use of it, as do the family. The walk from Bagenalstown to Clashganny, a distance of 25km, covers perhaps the most beautiful and special part of the Barrow. Along this stretch there are six lock gates in the most magical, peaceful setting, an impressive five-arch railway bridge spanning the river south of Bagenalstown, and beautiful valerian-covered stone arch road bridges at Goresbridge and Ballyteigelea. Sitting under the towering railway bridge watching grey wagtails feeding their young and listening to swifts screaming overhead was a special treat.
The main river channel is nice and broad but for much of the time the towpath follows narrow channels leading to the lock gates, giving the appearance of a sluggish canal. The still water of the canalised sections interspersed with the fast flowing rapids provide variety to the river structure which in turn supports increased biological diversity. This is kingfisher territory, so almost every visit is rewarded with a glimpse of these magnificent birds plying the river.
As the river flows south the valley steepens and the slopes become more wooded. South of Ballyteigelea Bridge the river flows past the magnificent deciduous woodland of Borris Demesne. This is my favourite part of the river as it supports many biodiversity treasures. The beautiful scalloped-winged comma, one Ireland’s newest butterfly arrivals, is now commonly seen here. Purple Hairstreak also breed on the canopies of the oak trees along this stretch, but despite my best efforts, I have yet to find them. The garrulous Jays call from the woodland, and most recently Great-spotted Woodpecker have taken up residence here. Today they were silent, but when walking the path last weekend with my brother Seán, he picked out the harsh kik-kik call, a delightful find. I can’t wait to visit next spring to hear the woodland resonate with the sound of their drumming.
As it was a Saturday, the river was much busier today. I met many people walking and cycling the towpath, there were fishermen (yes they were all men!) at regular intervals, and saw boats, kayaks and canoes on the river. A group of about half dozen kayakers joined me for lunch at one of the lock gates, and kindly shared their picnic with me. We kept pace with each other for the rest of the day, for although they paddled quicker than I walked, their progress was slowed by hauling out the kayaks at each set of lock gates as they did not wish to run the rapids.
Walking the towpath, chatting to people as you go, you get the sense of being part of a community with one thing in common – an affinity for the river. You get the sense that this is their river, and that it means a great deal to them. Unsurprisingly the topic of resurfacing the towpath comes up on even the briefest of chats. What surprised me greatly was that everyone I spoke to, without exception, thought it was a bad idea. I had expected opinion to be mixed on this, but no, everyone gave out about it. What became clear to me is that people who use the towpath are happy with the way it is, but it is those who see potential in exploiting the towpath for business benefit, that want to resurface it.
It is very disappointing that this community of users don’t appear to have a voice that is listened to. They don’t ask for much, no grandiose plans, just leaving the amenity as it is. I find it sad (actually it makes me quite angry) that people who appreciate the non-monetary value of special places like the Barrow, have to aggressively fight to hold on to what they have or run the risk of losing it. The exact same issue applies to nature conservation, a topic close to my heart. Everywhere it seems, is the move toward commodification of wild places; if it doesn’t fall on the right side of the balance sheet, it doesn’t count.