Bar­rell along the Bar­row

Lenny An­tonelli spends a weekend ex­plor­ing the Bar­row val­ley on a ca­noe- camp­ing trip

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

Lenny An­tonelli ca­noes and camps along the val­ley

The ca­noe might be the finest ves­sel ever built for the trav­eller. In a ca­noe you can ex­plore slowly and in­tently, just like walk­ing or cy­cling, but from the wa­ter you see ev­ery­thing from a new per­spec­tive. The land­scape takes on a cer­tain fresh­ness.

My first trip in a Cana­dian- style open ca­noe was on the Royal Canal in 2015, pad­dling slowly from En­field to Mullingar over three days. Then I ca­noed the Bar­row and Up­per Lough Erne, each time camp­ing along the way. This sum­mer, I re­turn to the Bar­row, the best of Ire­land’s big rivers.

On a breezy bright evening, my friend Dan Buck­ley and I meet Char­lie Ho­ran of Go With The Flow River Ad­ven­tures – who’s been guid­ing on the Bar­row for 20 years – in Ba­ge­nal­stown, Co Car­low.

Ho­ran gives us a ca­noe, pad­dles, wa­ter­proof bar­rels, buoy­ancy aids, hel­mets and sets us on our way. We pack the boat with camp­ing gear, spare clothes, food and wine and launch into one of the Bar­row’s many side- canals.

We bring the boat through a lock and out on to the river, then pad­dle on un­der the Royal Oak road bridge and the high arcs of a rail­way viaduct. As the wind eases, the set­ting sun casts the river in pale oranges and pur­ples. The still air above the wa­ter thrums with flies and midges, and bats come out to feast.

At Slyguff, we make camp in the dusk by a ru­ined lock house un­der beech trees. A fam­ily is eat­ing din­ner in a barge just above the lock. Later, when I knock and ask if they could boil some wa­ter for us – to my hor­ror, I’ve brought the wrong camp­ing gas for my stove – they of­fer us hot goulash, then in­vite us in for whiskey. Dan and I drink ours straight, our new Ger­man friends pre­fer theirs with Coke.

Through bro­ken English, they tell us that they come boat­ing on Ir­ish wa­ter­ways ev­ery sum­mer. They have barely ex­plored the west coast, but know the mid­lands in­ti­mately. And they are tak­ing it even slower than us, plan­ning to travel just four kilo­me­tres the next day.

We sleep well and wake early. With no fuel to cook, we eat choco­late and get back on the wa­ter, pad­dling in the morn­ing si­lence.

We pull in at Gores­bridge, Kilkenny, a sleepy lit­tle vil­lage. The only cafe is closed, so we raid the lo­cal shop for crois­sants, choco­late, fruit and cof­fee. “What’s go­ing on in the world?” I ask Dan, who is look­ing at the pa­pers.

When ca­noe tour­ing, you shed your nor­mal con­cept of time. In­stead, your day be­comes a slow rota of ac­tiv­i­ties that an­chor you to the present mo­ment: you wake, make cof­fee and breakfast, break camp, pad­dle a while, stop for lunch, pad­dle some more, make camp, cook din­ner, have a night­cap, sleep.

“You are kind of a self- sus­tain­ing unit as you travel down the river, that’s one of the real ad­ven­tures of it, you leave the world be­hind,” Ho­ran tells me. “You have your tent, your sleep­ing bag. If you’re smart enough you’ll turn off your phone.”

In 1783, work be­gan on a wa­ter­way to link the Grand Canal with the Bar­row. This canal, the Bar­row Line, stretches through Kil­dare from Robert­sown to Athy, where it meets the river proper. From Athy south to St Mullins, the nav­i­ga­tion fol­lows the Bar­row and a se­ries of side- canals built to bring boats around shal­low, rocky stretches of river.

Weirs were built to pro­vide suf­fi­cient wa­ter for each side- canal. Ex­pe­ri­enced pad­dlers might choose to shoot the weirs and the rapids be­low. New­bies should take the canals, which means ei­ther bring­ing the boat through a lock if you have a key, which is slow go­ing, or portag­ing around ( carry- ing the boat), which is hard work.

We get back on the wa­ter as the grey day warms up. Be­low Gores­bridge, the Bar­row is a rev­e­la­tion, wind­ing south through end­less for­est. Down on the wa­ter, the sky­line is noth­ing but fir and larch, wil­low and ash.

This is the Bar­row’s beau­ti­ful de­ceit. The river­side woods might only be tens of me­tres of deep, but in your ca­noe you have no way of know­ing. So where woods over­hang the river near Bor­ris es­tate, the Bar­row feels so wild and empty you could be a voyageur ex­plor­ing the wa­ters of deep­est Que­bec. Ho­ran tells me that when guid­ing on this won­drous stretch of the river, he asks his clients to be to­tally quiet, just to ex­pe­ri­ence the si­lence.

At Bor­ris Lock we stopped for lunch in the close heat. Dan spots a young buz­zard perched deep in the woods, as one of its par­ents shrieks over­head. Trav­el­ling with Dan, a skilled nat­u­ral­ist, is an ed­u­ca­tion. He points out the whooper swan loi­ter­ing for the sum­mer when most had re­turned to Ice­land, the jays call­ing from the woods, the spar­rowhawk cir­cling over­head.

He tells us the woods fronting the river are known as gallery woods, and that one bird call we hear is a great- spot­ted wood­pecker – a species that has only re­cently re­colonised Ire­land.

Later on, the clouds burn off and the evening sky turns blue. We pad­dle into Graigue­na­managh and set up our tents on the grassy river­bank above the vil­lage. We walk up the town’s pretty, curv­ing main street, have din­ner in the Chi­nese and walk around his­toric Duiske abbey. We climb up to a ter­race of Tu­dor- re­vival style “widow’s cot­tages”, built around 1850 by the lo­cal land­lords for “in­di­gent wid­ows” ac­cord­ing to the plaque, as dusk comes over the val­ley.

Then we make our way back to the tents, but slowly, via three pubs. Kilkenny have just beaten Lim­er­ick in the hurl­ing, and the town is buzzing, the main street throng­ing as cover bands and disco lights fill the

bars and lo­cals ease from pub to pub.

The next morn­ing is bright and still. Back on the wa­ter, the morn­ing is hot as we pad­dle on un­der the forested slopes of Bran­don Hill. The val­ley grows deeper, the trees seem taller. At Car­riglead Lock a sign out­side the lock cottage protests plans to turn the grassy tow­path into a cy­cling green­way.

We pad­dle down the long canal to St Mullins Lock, where barges and cruis­ers sit, some half- sunk and for­got­ten. This is where the Bar­row Nav­i­ga­tion ends. We tie up the ca­noe and walk the kilo­me­tre down­river to the Mul­licháin Cafe, sit­u­ated in an el­e­gant old river­side grain store.

From here south, the river is un­der the pull and push of the tides. This is also where the tow­path ends. There is talk of ex­tend­ing the planned green­way south of here, where the val­ley be­comes deep, wild and in­ac­ces­si­ble. And while I’m sure there are good eco­nomic rea­sons for do­ing so, there are other good, less tan­gi­ble rea­sons, for do­ing noth­ing at all.

The cafe i s buzzing, the river­bank thronged with peo­ple sun­bathing in the heat. Af­ter a big lunch we get back on the wa­ter; our car is back in Graigue­na­managh. We launch the boat for one last pad­dle back up river as the white sun beats down on this wild lit­tle world.

Dan Buck­ley with the ca­noe and gear needed for a trip down the Bar­row Left: Graigue­na­managh, Co Kilkenny. A per­fect stop off for a trip a down the Bar­row.

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