Saturday 2 May 2015

Walking the Great Western Greenway - Part 1

The original plan for the weekend was to walk the Great Western Greenway in both directions. I’d drive to Westport, park the car and walk to Achill on the first day. Then on day two I’d walk back, pick up the car and head home. That is a bit of a challenge as the walk is at least 42km ( in each direction) and there’s a three and a half hour drive to get there, and another one to get back. That said I did 42km+ on two consecutive days over Easter, and I drive an hour and half there and back on both days so technically this should have been possible.

A couple of things sabotaged this attempt. The main one was the weather. May decided to come in with a roar and the forecast wasn’t great for day one, and was abysmal for day two so I decided to make this a bit more of a recce mission and leave the double marathon part for another weekend.

The other thing that threw me was the rather limited information that is available about the nature of the walking route itself. This is a big deal for me as I nearly got myself killed walking along the Grand Canal Way when I didn’t realise that a short on road section was on an R-Road ( 80km/h speed limit) with no footpath or verge. Seeing maps that casually indicate that the Greenway is on the actual roadway for quite a few km made me worried. Noticing that this was the N59, a road with 100km/h speed limit, and seeing reports on the web that this section had no footpaths really raised my concern level.

As it happens it seems that almost all of those shared sections are reasonably well thought out. The main one that I’ve come across so far, has the cycle path and walkway running safely beside, but safely separated from,  the R319 at Owenduff between Achill Sound and Mulranney for about 400m. The other area that concerned me was on the 2.5km section of the N59 from the outskirts of Newport village heading south. The path does run parallel to road again on this section, but it is safely separated from it. I’d prefer to see it ten metres or more off the east but it’s safe where it is.

The only real problem at the moment that I can see, as far as safety for walkers is concerned, are two sections where walkers must cross the N59 “at grade”, i.e. they must stop and wait for traffic to clear and the cross. That’s not a big deal in my book.

So the plan changed. I headed for Achill directly and intended to do an out and back linear walk to Mulranney at least, and some of the way to Newport if the weather held out. The weather did hold out but by the time I got to Mulranney it was looking touch and go so I headed back. It was about 28km round trip once I added in the extra bit back to where my car was parked which wasn’t bad for an initial recce. The Greenway follows the line of the disused Achill to Westport Railway that closed in 1937. On this section it follows it fairly closely but often chooses to run parallel rather than on the old line. This is often a better choice as the views are much better outside of deep cuts.

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The first major issue I discovered is that there aren’t many good places to park near the start of the Greenway on the outskirts of Polranny at the Achill end. I could have left my car at the side of the road but in the end I left it parked by the graveyard about 1.5km along the road into the village, where it seemed safer. That did mean I had to walk about a kilometre along the R319 but it was early and while there isn’t footpath on most of it there is a decent enough verge. There is space at the start for 2-3 cars to park but it looks to me like that is somebodies house and it just seemed very rude to abandon a car there for 8-10 hours.

I’ve no idea why the greenway stops/starts at the point that it does and didn’t just continue along the old railway line to the site of the old station house by the bridge.  The start point is highlighted below and as you can see from the scale it’s about 2km from the bridge over to Achill Island. the old railway line is still there, and it really is odd that they didn’t take it to the logical end point.

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That said it’s a fantastic resource. Ideal for casual cycling but as a walker who likes nice easy, civilized walks its very nice.

The start/end point near Polranny. This is a fairly typical junction where the Greenway meets with a normal road. The grill on the side allows cyclists and walkers to pass through with minimal hassle while mostly keeping the animals (sheep) contained.

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The surface is mostly this fairly fine aggregate. Great for walking and most bikes but leave any racing bikes with ultra low profile tyres at home. There are intersections like this where the way crosses very minor local access roads where the traffic is very light.

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Some sections are very thoroughly isolated from the land surrounding the way. In this case the farmer clearly wanted additional protection for his sheep.

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These staggered gates allow walkers and cyclists to progress without any significant delay but limit motorized traffic. Some of the road crossings are staggered, and every so often the way has to take a dogleg to divert around a house that has been built across the old railway line.

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The Greenway route runs east-west and parallel to the R319 for about 5km along this section, the left and right doglegs are generally fairly short. There are a couple of Portaloos around the 5km mark. These are a good idea, especially for an amenity aimed at casual outdoors people and couples with young children. To be honest, Ireland could really do with improving the whole public toilet service by a couple of orders of magnitude.

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A couple of hundred meters after this point the Greenway and the road meet up. This marks the start of the 400m section that parallels the main road at Owenduff. To be honest I think this is pretty well done, and as you can see here perfectly safe even for fairly young children on bikes provided someone with a bit of road sense is paying attention and doesn’t let them go nuts.

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I came across these two having a bit of a wander along the way just after the path left the road again. It was quite refreshing to see two kids, aged about 8, exploring on their own. They ended up going back to one of the houses in the distance in this picture so don’t go calling child services, they were fine. We need more of this sort of thing or future generations will be utterly useless and unable to survive on their own.

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Time for a picture of a sheep. There are a lot of sheep. This is Connemara.

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And some lamb. Extremely rare.

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There are some spots along the way that are a bit of a surprise. This building seems to have been torn down and is being replaced. I hope its not going to be someone’s house as that would be very awkward. A cafe would be pretty cool though. Who knows but it’s a bit strange to see it. There are also some quasi-industrial bits here and there. This quarry for example, and there’s another spot where someone has chosen to store a few car wrecks that seems at odds with the whole get back to nature and idyllic walk in the wilds vibe. However it is worth remembering that this is a working rural farming community and from that perspective it is surprising that there isn’t more if this. It is mostly idyllic though, but I wouldn’t want someone to think there was nothing like this to be seen, because there is.

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There are a few spots that indicate some slight tension, and possibly totally justified worries, on the part of some of the land owners with regard to letting hordes of ignorant city folk onto their land. In any case agreements seem to have been made and the compromise works well for me.

The “no dogs” rule is pretty severe though and I think it should be more clearly stated in the marketing. Most people will know that bringing a dog to Connemara is likely to be a problem, especially if it’s a big dog but a novice tourist from one of our vast metropolises might not have a clue. I suppose since its not possible to bring a foreign dog in as a tourist this is not such a big deal but I still think it should be highlighted.

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Scenery – The Great Western Greenway Haz it. In spades.

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The Blue Bridge crosses a stream near Lough Gall, about 7km along the route. One of the old train line bridges had collapsed here and this was an inspired way to rebuild it. Tht thing about scenery I said earlier – Haz it in spades and buckets.

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After the Blue Bridge there is a two kilometre section that passes west of Lough Gall where the path winds between the roadway and an inlet of the sea that winds down to this point from the north. It looks like a lake but the fish farm rings and mussel bed floats are a bit of a giveaway.

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The path winds along to the south side of the bay delivering some epic wild Atlantic views as you look to the north over the sea.

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As the way cuts along between the seashore and the roadway at the end of the bay there is an intriguing art work.

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The terrain acquires more of a woodland feel here as the trail approaches the hills just north of Mulranney. There are a couple of signature pieces here that were installed to mark the opening of this section of the Greenway. This point on the path is within comfortable range of Mulranney for someone looking for 4-5km walk or bike ride.

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The old railway bridge over the N59 now carries the Greenway into the outskirts of Mulranney which is marked by another set of brass suitcases. I’m not sure I get the reference but they look cool.

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You realise you are in Mulranney itself when the Railway Houses jump into view and clobber you with their rather, how can I put it, let’s say “Unabashed Modernism”. Somewhat Scandinavian? Whatever, personally I think they are a rather poor knock off of 1970’s Brutalism but who am I to be an architectural critic. You can’t miss them in any case and if you like the style then one if up for sale. They were built on the approach to the old Railway platform, the remnants of which can be seen along the path as the Greenway passes behind the block of flats.

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The old station house is ruined but appears to be being renovated and the old water tower is more or less fully intact and quite attractive.

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The Greenway takes a few turns here and hikes up a couple of very steep, but thankfully quite short, hill sections in order to bypass the village and the very congested main street. That said a trip into the village for supplies, a nice cup of coffee and a rest is strongly recommended.

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This has the added advantage of bringing you to a point where you get panoramic views of the north side of Clew Bay.

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I stopped at this point and turned back. As an out and back walk I think it would have been smarter to park in Mulranney as there is quite a lot of parking at the old train station. You can hire bikes right there too so it’s also a good option for someone who wants a short easy bike ride. There are also a couple of loop walks/cycle paths that start and end here, which is nice to see as a lot of people will find linear out and back walks and bike rides quite annoying.

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