There’s not many dog friendly Ways in Ireland as i have complained before, and the South Leinster Way was the last on my list, having previously walked the Grand and Royal Canals, the Ballyhoura,the Slieve Felim, the North Kerry and the Offaly Ways and not wanting to do the only other, the Dublin Mountains Way.
I didn’t want to do all the 104km of the South Leinster either, which starts in Kildavin Co Carlow, near the boundary with Wicklow and Wexford and travels southwest passed Mt Leinster, down the Barrow to Graiguenamanagh, across it into Kilkenny, over the Nore and Blackwater and finally the Suir to finish at Carrick in Tipperary.
With a weekend available we concentrated on what we thought would be the nicest stretch with the easiest start and finish logistics, a linear walk always throwing up transport complications. We’d park up in the camper at Ballytiglea bridge, on the Barrow just outside the village of Borris, and on the first day hike downriver the 12km to Graiguenamanagh and then the 16km over Brandon Hill to Inistioge. Hopefully we’d find somewhere to camp around Woodstock Gardens and carry on over hills and down dale the next day another 30km to Mullinavat on the main road bus /taxi route and so get back to the van.
I had originally thought it would be nice to hike without the added weight of camping gear and had looked for a B+B on route but a concert by Rod Stewart in Kilkenny had, unbelievably, filled every bed for miles around. Another major event that we needed to try and work into our schedule was Ireland’s Euro 16 knockout stage match with France at 3pm on the Sunday. It would be nice to be happily settled in a big screen pub for that and we thought there might not be too many taxi drivers on the road then.
And so it was, we spent a peaceful evening on the waterside wondering if we could remember it from our boating trip the length of the river 4 years previously. A jogger and a couple of strollers were all that passed us by and the frequent splashes awoke the optimistic hunter in me and i wished i’d brought a rod to catch the obviously massive fish that filled the unseen depths.The lack of one saved me from the mundane reality of waiting hours to,perhaps, eventually land a miniscule and inedible roach.
Next morning at 7 we set off down the grassy path that the powers that be have unfortunately earmarked for a tarmac or gravel cycle greenway. I’m all for encouraging more people to explore the beautiful waterways of Ireland by boat, bike or foot but the towpaths as they are are much kinder on the eyes and sole than the envisaged “improved” version.
As with the canals, the Barrow is certainly an under-utilised resource and it must be hard for Waterways Ireland to justify the expense of keeping the channels clear of weed and silt and the paths mowed. There certainly seemed to have been a build up of vegetation since we motored through on the Jack Daniells.
This was a very attractive wooded stretch of river, with Borris Demesne hidden behind the trees. The grand house, now used as a wedding venue, is the seat of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family, descendants of the kings of Leinster. A remarkable 19th century member of the family was Arthur,The Limbless Landlord, born without arms or legs, who never the less managed to become an expert horseman, shot, yachtsman and travelled throughout the Mediterranean, Russia, Prussia and India. He was a popular local figure and a caring and generous landlord who became an MP and travelled to London on his yacht, mooring it outside the houses of parliament where he made many powerful speeches on the obligations of the ruling classes. I’m not sure if the lock houses in the area were designed and built by him but know that he won prizes for best designed houses at lowest cost.
Leaving the woods of the Borris estate behind, the river winds through cultivated land and it’s course becomes more tortuous as it approaches the hills ahead. I remember being careful to keep our boat well clear of the weirs at Ballingrane and on the approach to Clashganna Lock, which features in the photo at the top of this blog post.
It wasn’t long before we were approaching Graiguenamanagh as the river cut itself deeply into the surrounding tree covered slopes to emerge near the slipway and warehouse lined quay. This was the busiest place for moorings on the river and justifiably, as the stretch from here south to St Mullins was probably the icing on an already sweet cake.
However, we had to leave the river here, and passing over the barge rope worn bridge onto the west bank we made our way through the pretty flower bedecked streets and out onto a dead end lane into the hills rising above the town.
Climbing up our first rising ground of the walk the weight of the camping gear started to be felt as the views across Carlow to the Blackstairs Mountains opened up and we hurried past deadly dogs.
Past the last isolated farmhouse and onto forestry tracks we ascended to about 350m of the 500m Brandon Hill, stopping for lunch at the charming Freney’s Well just off the trail.
Revived, we headed back to the track and carried on through the cleared forestry. Here we came across the huge bundles of compressed brash we had only seen once before ,on Keeper Hill in Tipperary. Coillte are looking to transport these heavy bales out of the forest for use as a biofuel, a controversial practise as it was previously thought good management was to leave it as a biodegradable nutrient source for future forest growth. The jury is out.
Hiking across the hill we could see a track not far below us to the north and many kms and a good while later we had done a huge switchback dogleg to arrive there at the approriately named Sally Bog where we started to climb again onto more open moorland.
Following the wide track we somehow missed the small footpath we were supposed to take off to our right and blithely carried on for 3 km in the wrong direction to emerge onto a road without, (obviously), any trail direction markings. Complaining aloud about the lack of signage we continued on what we thought must be the way, becoming more and more uneasy as the surroundings didn’t match where we thought we were on the maps. Not only should i have “gone to specsavers” but i should have checked my GPS and i would have discovered we were way off route before being told so by a farmer we passed.
Bad news. We were going to have to detour about another 5 km to get back to where we should be, just when we were looking forward to arriving for much needed refreshment at Inistioge which we wearily trudged into over an hour later. To add insult to injury the supermarket, in which we had planned to get supplies for dinner, as well as for breakfast and lunch the following day, had closed a few months ago and there was nowhere else.But there was a bar where we were able to have some craft beers and a pizza and a bottle of wine, decanted into a water container, for later. We also found a cafe that made us up a couple of sandwiches for the next day’s hike.
Feeling much better about the situation we headed off once again through woods on the banks on the Nore passing a planting idea i have since copied at home with some of my worn out hiking boots, each with a trail tale to tell.
It was a pleasant path leading up into Woodstock Park and the gardens that charged for cars but not for people and were still open.
The house is still in ruins but the gardens and arboretum have been restored to something of their former glory after a programme of more than 15 years. I remembered coming here at the time they had just started, when i was collecting tree seed for the Coillte nursery and had heard of the Monkey Puzzle avenue, the longest in Europe. The seeds of these trees are worth a fortune, or what was a fortune to me then, but unfortunately they did not give up their riches on that occasion.
On this fairly dismal evening we had the place more or less to ourselves and were able to wander at will around the rose arbours, the dove cote and glasshouse although the walled vegetable garden was, frustratingly, locked.
Climbing to the very top of the grounds we came upon what we thought would make a nice shelter for the night and so it proved to be. A bamboo rustic summerhouse constructed of materials from the grounds and copied from an earlier victorian one on the same spot that in contemporary reviews offered the leisured classes fine views over the extensive estate.
So we didn’t need the tent after all, but the bottle of wine came in handy and it made for a good nights sleep after a hike of what had eventually added up to 39km. We woke to a wet morning and the weather forecast was for “heavy and persistent” rain. Our plan was not looking good or at least not pleasant. We decided to be flexible and abandon it.
So we had time to explore the grounds some more and strode along the Noble Fir and Monkey Puzzle avenues and wandered through the ferny grottos and over the sunken lawns of the winter garden as if they were our own, which for one night they had been.
Back down in Inistoige a kindly cafe proprietress opened up to serve us coffee while we waited more the dog, and human, friendly taxi driver from Borris to spin us back there after being up most of the night with the Rod Stewart fans. On the direct road rather than the winding track over the hills, our 12hr trek of the day before was reduced to minutes.
Back at the van, with the rain coming down as we tucked into a hearty breakfast rather than the frankly unappetising and soggy white bread/cheese slice sandwich, we knew we had made the right decision and when, a few hours later on our sofa, i watched Ireland score the first goal after 3 minutes, walking the South Leinster Way was the last thing on my mind.