The Hawthorn Blog
Liveaboard life and general wanderings on the Irish Inland Waterways.
The Royal Canal - Down's Bridge to Furey's Pub (Moyvalley Bridges)
Down's Bridge with Hawthorn blocking the channel
On the map, Down's Bridge had the appearance of not being an ideal spot to spend several days with the proximity of the N4 and the absence of lanes back to Mullingar making us fear we might struggle for milk and other consumables. We needn't have worried: the road is distant enough not to be too noisy and the village of Downs has a petrol station come shop more than adequately stocked to keep us going. And then our customer there turned out to be one of those generous souls always willing to run us to a supermarket. With this good fortune we managed to leave better stocked than when we arrived and relieved that the stay had been so pleasant. Given this mooring is overlooked by a delightful woman, and there are regular comings and goings from friendly souls at the barn next to it, we'd recommend it as one of the better, more secure spots, to leave your boat. While we were there this barn was full of lambing sheep and the noise they made often drowned out the road traffic. Once strong enough, ewes and lambs were turned out into the fields south of the canal. We left Down's Bridge looking forward to returning and almost immediately were engaged in one of the strangest conversations we've had for a while: a Polish fisherman, on seeing 'Hawthorn's, admittedly slightly symbolic, mast, her stained glass head window, and our slow pace, was convinced we were a church. While tempted to simply reply 'Bless you my son', for some reason I prefered to tell him the truth.
What we were not looking forward to was the first obstacle east of us. Word was obviously out amongst the greater barging community that Hawthorn was on the Royal and we took a couple of phone calls warning us about 'Plastic Bag Alley': a length of canal the adjacent farmer casually pitches all his empty plastic feed sacks into. Being the first boat down the line, and a deep one needing all the water and stirring the bottom as we went, we feared the worst. A further hindrance on this length of canal was the need to raise the lifting bridge the farm uses for access. Eddie, our lock-keeping comrade from west of Mullingar, had called in the week to catch up with us (and drink tea!) before going on to check it was working correctly. So at least we knew it should lift. The bridge comes with its own handle and we did not have to lift it very far to get under.
Plastic Bag Alley and the lifting bridge
Having made it through both the bridge and the 'alley', only one obstacle remained between us and the end of the summit at lock 24: McNeads Bridge beside Mary Lynch's pub on the old N4.
This bridge has managed to achieve considerable notoriety with ex-working barges in the short time the canal has been open since restoration. It's basically a crude, shallow and narrow culvert, with even less water than the shallow canal either side of it. 'Rambler' managed to get part of the way in but was soon hard on the bottom. Running the engine to try and drive on proved pointless, but did deliver an answer: the water displaced in the several minutes spent trying to drive on, surged back once the drive was taken off. This surge picked 'Rambler' up and deposited her several feet further into the bridge. By repeating this process John was able to work his way through and clear. That John was lucky to get through was apparent from the experience Mick had with 31B - that simply stopped, and stayed stopped for the next two days. One has to admire Mick's judgement in getting stuck in one of the very few places it is possible to step off a boat straight onto a pub garden! So we were a little nervous on our approach. We needn't have been: 'Hawthorn's' slightly shallower and narrower profile slid through with only the lightest of scrapes.
We'd left Down's Bridge late in the afternoon and by the time we'd cleared this bridge were looking to stop. Except we couldn't: there wasn't enough water to get against the bank on one side, and the other had a road on the towpath. The mile or so from the bridge to lock 25 took over an hour, and even then we had to go down the lock to moor. Confident that the chances of another boat arriving were very slim we stopped on the lock jetty - being able to step straight from the boat onto solid ground felt like a luxury after weeks of using a gang plank. The cottage beside this lock has a garden full of chickens and ducks and eggs can be bought from it.
Leaving lock 25
Our good fortune with having lock keepers arrive at the right moment continued, though we were to learn that this was mere coincidence not divine intervention: the first thing lock keepers do when coming on duty in the morning is drive their patch - we just happened to be about to start locking at roughly the same time each day. Anyway, it was nice to see Gabriel and to have help for the next couple of hours. The weather had been good the previous day and set to get even better and, had we been passing it late in the afternoon, I've no doubt that the sign above the fourth lock would have brought an end to our cruising. The services offered suggest the sort of pub we really like and I rang the Waterways Hostelry Research Unit seeking expert guidance. Ronnie, the unit's director and chief researcher, did'nt know it but suggested we need to offer our time and energy into furthering the unit's knowledge base. We were later to hear that this pub is beside the railway and in days gone by it was not unheard of for a train to stop and a driver and crew to dash in for a 'quick one'. We look forward to checking it out on our return journey.
Geraldine, the artist who spent a day with us on the Grand Canal as research for the Offaly County Council's art project she'd been commissioned for, lives at Thomastown, and we spent a couple of happy hours sat in the hot sun on our bow having lunch. Ironically, she's so busy trying to complete the commission for the end of April deadline a cruise was out of the question. Wanting a quieter mooring than below its busy road bridge we pushed on east for another couple of hours, finally calling it a day about three miles up the 'Long Level'. This length is 32 km long and we were praying the western end was particularly shallow for we barely made 3km. While the Royal's water seem to be even quieter than the Grand's what has struck us is how much more walked its towpaths are - even on this mooring, effectively in the middle of knowhere, we were regularly passed by strollers. The clocks having gone forward the night before we made the most of the extra hour's light and warmth to potter outside, and I made the most of having returned to wearing shorts after the winter in trousers.
At just 12km, the remaining run to Furey's was a short one, and being on the Long Level meant there weren't even any locks to slow us up. The canal was initially very wide, though sadly not all of this was water (pictured above). What was interesting to read was the OPW on the marker stakes defining where the navigation ran beside the reedy shallows - they must have heritage potential now. Not making good speed did not matter for this is an attractive length with few roads to interrupt the peace and some fine views across open countryside. And the garden on the embankment east of the Hill of Down is a credit to whoever looks after it.
The anchored cruiser in Longwood Harbour
There are a few boats moored at the Hill of Down and it is another spot we intend to pause at on our return. We were at the Boyne aqueduct by mid morning and were leaving it when a boat pulled out of Longwood Harbour just east of it. This was the first moving boat we'd seen, but it wasn't moving for long for these boaters were old friends who had wintered at Confey - our destination on this run - and were now returning to the Grand Canal via the Shannon. They backed to the harbour, something made much more difficult than normal due to the presence, and this is a first for us, of an anchored boat in the middle of it, and we all banged stakes in before settling down in the bright sun for a few hours of catching up while there two daughters burnt energy on the towpath. It is spontaneous moments like these that make boating such a joy at times. We finally arrived at Furey's in the late afternoon and spent a couple of hours researching this establishment in the company of our customer, Eoghan. The outcome of this research? The third pint is just as fine as fine as the first, and it really is a fine pint here. If there is a better way of ending another glorious day of Royal boating we're yet to find it.
The Boyne Aqueduct