'This felt like freedom': canoeing the Royal Canal

Lenny Antonelli spends four days winding through rural the heart of the midlands on a canoe camping trip up the Royal Canal

The Sunday Times, Sunday August 16, 2015

(Please note this is my original version of the article, not the edited final version that appeared in the paper, which is available behind the Sunday Times paywall here)

Last March I was learning to canoe on the Lakes of Killarney, under craggy mountains and ancient oak woods, when my instructor Nathan Kingerlee from Outdoors Ireland said to me: “You know, there’s something really special about canoeing on the canals.”

The canals? There we were paddling on one of Ireland’s iconic beauty spots, and he was eulogising about canals. But I knew there was an understated beauty to Ireland’s inland waterways, even if many people associate them with stagnant water and submerged traffic cones. Nathan had recently taken a canoeing trip on the Royal Canal, and suggested I do the same.

So a year later, on a sunny June evening, I found myself waiting with my girlfriend Ruth by the Royal Canal in Enfield, Co Meath. We looked likes bums with bags full of camping gear, spare clothes and cheap dehydrated food. Soon Rory Moorhead from Longford-based Outdoor Discovery Adventure Company arrived with our canoe. He gave us some paddling tips, told us to have fun, and said to call him when we were finished. We hoped to reach the Shannon.

We launched the boat nervously and paddled under the ring road and out along the wooded canal. The evening sun sank in front of us, turning everything to amber. The canal grew quiet in the dusk as we snaked past fields and hedgerows. We had four days of paddling ahead of us: this felt like freedom.

We passed a group of lads who had made camp on the towpath with fishing rods and tins of lager. We went under the bridges at Moyvalley and past Furey’s pub. We pulled in and set up camp, then legged it back down the towpath for a quick nightcap (actually two).

While kayaking is a fairly common activity around Ireland, paddling an open Canadian-style canoe is less so. This is probably because canoes are more suited to the kind of longer expeditions that are difficult on our small island. They are bigger and heavier than closed kayaks. But they can also carry more gear, and keep you drier and more comfortable. This makes them ideal for long ponderous trips, like a four day expedition on the Royal Canal. And with two people in a boat, it doesn’t take long to learn some basic paddle strokes and start moving in a vaguely straight direction. While we were initially terrified of tipping the boat over, we soon realised it was fairly stable, so long as we kept weight evenly distributed.

The next morning we made eggs and coffee, packed up and launched the boat. The stillness of the night before was gone, and a steady wind ruffled the water. We had made a stupid miscalculation: by paddling from east to west, we were going right into the prevailing wind, which was forecast to get stronger.

We paddled across the Boyne Aqueduct, which carries the Royal Canal over Meath’s great river. Later, we pulled into the pretty harbour at the Hill of Down, a one-shop-and-pub village. We cooked pasta and sheltered from the strengthening wind.

Back on the water later on, the canal had turned into a wind tunnel. Gusts pushed the boat across the channel, and if we dare stopped paddling, the boat drifted backwards. But the sunny weather kept our spirits up and we kept battling forward, past fields, woods and bogs.

That evening we arrived, shattered and sore, to Thomastown Harbour. We were at the western end of the Long Level, a 32km stretch of the canal with no locks. But now there were eight locks ahead of us in just three kilometres, and we were going to have to portage — a canoeing euphemism for carry — the boat around all of them. But that could wait until tomorrow. So we spent the evening eating and drinking in Nanny’s Quinn’s pub by the harbour. We pitched our tent on the grass and slept long and well.

Canal folklore say the idea for the Royal Canal was hatched when one of the directors of the Grand Canal Company stormed out of a meeting, vowing to build a rival waterway. The Royal Canal was built between 1790 and 1817. But it went way over budget, bankrupted its parent company, and never saw the same traffic as its rival. It fell derelict after the Second World War, and was then restored in recent decades.

But its ruined lock houses, derelict canal hotels and forgotten bridges still have an air of sadness. Like many of Ireland’s waterways it makes a great long distance walking, cycling and paddling trail, but you won’t see many people on it. The Royal Canal still feels like a secret.

“It really feels like you’re paddling through the ancient veins of the country,” Nathan Kingerlee said to me, when I called him after coming back from my trip. “You’re parallel to railway lines, or you’re going under motorways, and there’s all this stress and busyness and everyone rushing around the place, and you’re just drifting by in your canoe.”

Ireland’s canal network is also one of our best opportunities for a long-distance paddling trip, and its flat sheltered water is ideal for beginners.“That’s one of the beauties of the whole canal system,” Nathan said, “you can jump into a canoe and you can expedition for a week or two weeks.”

The next morning gale-force winds whipped down the canal, bringing heavy showers. We decided to wait out the storm. We cooked eggs and porridge, made coffee and had a lie in. I walked to Kilucan village for supplies. We went back into the pub and had a long lunch, then a long dessert.

By evening the wind had slackened, so we packed everything up, and the torture began. We had eight locks in front of us, and had to carry all our gear — and the boat — around each one. Then we had to paddle all of 300 metres to the next lock and start all over again. It took us four torturous hours to get three kilometres. At about 9pm we dragged the canoe around the last lock, knowing we now had no chance of reaching the Shannon.

But the wind had died, and the low evening sun glowed in the west. We got back on the water and paddled onwards. Evenings became my favourite time to paddle, when the setting sun cast long shadows and deep colours on the canal. Everything outside dissolved away, and our world reduced to just a canoe and two paddles and still water.

But soon it got dark. We paddled under the M4 and past Mary Lynch’s pub and B&B. We pulled the boat in to look for a camping spot, but the towpath was paved for cyclists, and surrounded by ditches and wet fields. Behind us Mary Lynch’s gleamed like an oasis in the dark, impossible to resist.

Ruth went up, told the proprietor our story, and asked if he had any rooms free. “We have rooms,” he said, “but sure you can camp in the back garden if you like.” And so, for the third night in a row, we found ourselves camping beside a pub. We cooked dinner quickly and went inside to repay his generosity by drinking his beer and cider.

We woke early the next morning to a hard bright sun, and started paddling towards Mullingar. The canal banks were thick and green with mature trees. But I was also exhausted, my shoulders were frozen stiff, and we were out of drinking water.

As our bodies started to give up, Mullingar became like El Dorado to us, almost mythical. We expected to see it around every corner, but it never appeared. Finally there were more buildings, beer cans floated through the reeds, and as we turned a corner a faded ‘Mullingar’ sign appeared.

Up ahead, two lads were drinking cans by the canal in the afternoon sun. “Come here,” one of them called over to us, “where have yis come from?” We told him we’d come from Enfield, but he seemed confused. “No, where have yis come from today? Have yis come form Mary Lynch’s?”.

“Yeah, we have,” Ruth said. He turned to his friend, looking gleeful. “I f*ckin’ told you they’ve come from Mary Lynch’s!” he said. “And people think I’m not smart.”

We said our goodbyes and paddled on. We had decided Mullingar would be the logical place to end our trip. We pulled in the boat on the west side of the town. Ruth was getting a late train to Dublin, and I was staying in Mullingar for the night. Rory was coming to pick up the canoe the next morning.

I climbed up the embankment, out of the canal and right into the town centre, stinking and sweaty. I knocked on the door of a B&B. “Hi, I’m just wondering if you have any rooms free?” I said. Looking me up and down, I wouldn’t blame the owner if he thought two or three times before telling me that yes, he did. “That’s great,” I replied.

”Oh and by the way,” I said, “would you have any space for a canoe?”

Canoe touring: top tips

Ireland’s canals are a great place for beginners to canoe. They are calm, sheltered, and always close to land. Always get advice and support from an experienced instructor before embarking.

It’s harder to find canoe skills courses in Ireland than kayaking courses, but ask your local instructor to organise a personalised canoe training day (see www.canoe.ie for providers).

Buoyancy aids / life jackets are essential, as are lots of warm clothes and submersible dry bags or barrels to keep your gear dry. Canoe outfitters often rent essential gear. Bring plenty of food and drinking water. Don’t paddle alone, and a minimum of three people is best practice.

The Outdoor Adventure Discovery Company in Ballymahon, Co Longford, offers canoe rental on the Royal Canal (www.outdoorisovery.ie / 090 640011). They also provide kayaking, tubing, rafting and many other activities.

Waterways Ireland recommend that canoeists portage around locks. You can also lead canoes (which must be unmanned for safety) through locks using a long line, or get a canoe trolley for easier portaging.

A Waterways Ireland smart card will give you access to toilet and shower blocks (www.waterwaysireland.org). Canals sections close occasionally for maintenance, check the Marine Notices section of Waterways Ireland website for details.

The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland publishes very useful online & print guides to Ireland’s waterways (www.iwai.ie).

Camping is permitted on the towpaths but in some places (eg Co Westmeath) these have been paved. Harbours and locks often have grassy areas. Find your camping spot well before dark. Don't light fires.

Great canoe trips

A series of Blueways — walking, cycling and paddling trails — has recently been developed on the Shannon and the Royal Canal (www.bluewaysireland.org). For a longer adventure, the River Barrow provides one of Ireland’s most iconic multi-day canoe trips, with guided and self-guided tours available for beginners from Go With The Flow River Adventures (www.gowiththeflow.ie). The business listings section of the Waterways Ireland website also provides a full list of canoe and kayak providers on Ireland’s waterways (www.waterwaysireland.org).

Blackwater Boating In Cork provides canoe trips, including camping, on the scenic River Blackwater (www.blackwaterboating.ie), while Canoe Northern Ireland has developed a paddling trail with an island bothy for camping on Lough Erne (www.canoeni.ie). Further afield, Wilderness Scotland runs guided canoeing trips through Highland lochs, with hotel and camping options, as well as a whiskey canoe trail (www.wildernessscotland.com). In England, the sprawling Norfolk Broads is a great place for canoe tours (www.thecanoeman.com). For those seeking a real wilderness experience, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota offers over 1,000 lakes across one million acres (www.bwca.com), while bushcraft legend Ray Mears runs annual guided wilderness canoe expeditions in Northern Ontario (www.raymears.com).