Ever fancied an adventure on the high seas? The Royal Canal is right on our doorstep, and there’s a wealth of treasures along the way. Best of all, you don’t need to be an athlete to attempt this. How? Read on!
The Royal Canal Greenway
The Royal Canal Greenway currently runs almost the length of the Royal Canal from Cloondara in the West to Maynooth in the East – a distance of 130km according to Waterways Ireland.
The route is almost entirely flat, making it very easy to ride, and the vast majority is completely traffic-free. In other words, it’s an absolute cycling mecca.
From Navan you’ve got a few options.
If you’re looking to ride the entire route, you can head to Maynooth, which is currently the official end of the Royal Canal Greenway. It’s around 42km from Navan.
Alternatively you can take a more direct route to Enfield, around 38km. For me this takes around 90 minutes at a medium pace.
Both routes are generally on regional R-roads or local L-roads, but there can be a fair bit of traffic, so it’s not for the absolute beginner.
Getting … Over There
Thanks to the Irish Rail policy of carrying bikes for free (!!!), you can hop on the train from either Enfield or Maynooth and head for Longford.
The one-way journey from Enfield to Longford cost me €8.49 on a fully-flexible ticket. It’s a euro or two cheaper if you manage to get the low-fare rate. To me, this seems like an absolute bargain!
There were two spaces available, and you apparently have to lift up your bike at an angle to fit it into the wheel slots. Since there was nobody else around, I opted to just lean it into the space and hope for the best. Luckily nobody else joined with a bike!
It took around an hour to reach Longford from Enfield, by which time the heavens opened and it started to rain so much that animals started queuing up two-by-two.
Upon leaving the train, I couldn’t find any way to exit other than lifting my bike up the stairs and over to the other platform. It was lashing cats & dogs though, so it’s possible I missed an easier exit.
From the train station you can head to the very end of the Greenway at Cloondara, or begin your journey here. I chose the direct route, which begins on the “Longford Town Royal Canal Path”. There were no signs at I could see from the train station, but it’s a few hundred metres before you find the route well-signposted.
Longford to Mullingar
Due to the damp weather I didn’t take a lot of photos on this section, and the greenway was very quiet. I did meet a very drenched couple on bikes going in the other direction, and their grim faces cheered me up considerably!
Somewhere near Abbeyshrule the sun came out and I came across this very quaint place selling home-made honey, which I regret not stopping for.
Not long after, you will look to your left to see Abbeyshrule Aerodrome. This is a field with a sock on a stick. I think this is where Ryanair land for Cork.
After being dried by the sun and feeling quite pleased with myself, the universe intervened and decided to snap my seat. I’m not exactly slim, so I can only take this as a subtle hint!
Luckily, the very nice folks at OE Bikes in Mullingar were open (on a rainy Sunday afternoon!) and I was able to buy a new seat, which they also fitted as my fingers were numb from the rain. Reminder: this was mid-August!
Mullingar and the Fleadh Cheoil
As I rolled into Mullingar on my new seat, there were crowds thronging everywhere. This is when I realised I’d stumbled upon the annual Fleadh Cheoil.
The Fleadh Cheoil (Irish pronunciation: [ˌfʲlʲaː ˈçoːlʲ]; meaning “festival of music”) is an Irish music festival run by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), a non-profit organisation. The festival includes live music events as well as competition. Each year a single town or city hosts the Fleadh (Source: Wikipedia)
The buzz around the town was fantastic to see, and I took the opportunity to stop for some well-earned lunch before setting off Eastward once again.
Mullingar to Enfield
This stretch is starting to feel familiar, as I’ve passed this route before when heading to Athlone. The stretches of canal are broken up by picturesque locks, such as this one at Heatherstown.
There are also the remnants of the industrial age – a good excuse to stop for a rest and have a poke around.
Enfield to Navan
The home stretch is back onto quiet country roads, with a few rolling hills to remind you that you’re not on the Greenway anymore.
What You Need To Know
The route I took was Navan-Enfield (34km), then Longford-Mullingar-Enfield-Navan (148km). This stacked up to 182km, which for me is a very long ride. You’ll need a fair level of fitness to attempt this in one day. Why not split the journey and stay overnight?
The surface on the greenway varies between smooth tarmac, fine compacted shale and slightly rougher compacted stones. I’m on a hybrid touring e-bike with fairly broad tyres and it’s very comfortable. I think it’s very doable for road bikes too.
There are plenty of pubs and restaurants along the way. I think the longest I went was maybe an hour between seeing something.
On the train, I’ve heard that Irish Rail overbook the bike spaces – which suggests they don’t understand the concept of “booking”. The advice I’ve been given is to arrive early and don’t take no for an answer!