Posted 12/10/2015

The Grand Canal

A Canal Guide

The main line of the Grand Canal is 82 miles length from Dublin to the Shannon of which twenty-five lie within Co. Kildare. There is also the 28 mile Barrow branch from Lowtown in mid-Kildare to Athy and the Naas Branch and Milltown Feeder

A Brief History

Work began on the Grand Canal in 1756. Engineering difficulties and mistakes by the builders in the early stages meant that progress was slow - by 1763 only ten miles and three locks had been built. The tempo picked up during the last twenty years of the 18th century. The canal company managed to make the link with the Shannon in 1803. The important branch to the river Barrow had been completed a decade earlier.

Passenger boats used the waterway until the 1850s and cargo boats until 1960. After their closure to commercial traffic in 1960 the future for the waterways seemed bleak (although the Grand, unlike the Royal, remained navigable). However the vision of the inland waterways activists encouraged a more enlightened attitude by Government.

Branches were restored (for example, Naas in 1987) and the canal environment improved - a progress which continues as the role of the canals for water and land based recreation and tourism is increasingly valued as a national asset as well as a source of amenity for canalside communities.

Route 1: Hazelhatch to Sallins: 8 miles, 13 km
Snow on the Grand Canal
The starting point at Hazelhatch bridge is just half a mile to the east of the railway halt of the same name on the Celbridge to Newcastle Road. Two pubs lie within the shadow of the bridge which is a favourite mooring spot for boat owners away from the built up areas of the city. Begin your walk on the south bank of the canal and stay on this side all the way to Sallins. For the first half mile the underfoot going consists of an old tarmac path which gives way to a firm grass track on the approach to Aylmers Bridge. The view to the east is dominated by the Dublin mountains.
Past Aylmers bridge the towpath is shadowed by the high wall of the Lyons estate which was formerly the home of the Aylmers, an old Kildare dynasty, and later the Lawless family who held the title of lords Cloncurry. The first lord Cloncurry built the classic great house which can just be glimpsed through the gates of the demesne wall. It was remodelled by the renowned Palladian architect Richard Morrison in 1810 and later furnished by the second Lord Cloncurry with architectural treasures from Greece and Rome. Lyons Hill to the east rises to 630 feet - according to legend it was a rallying place of the tribes of Leinster.
The towpath continues past Henry bridge and along a badly-maintained road towards Ponsonby Bridge. An old pumping tower stands off the canal to the east indicating the location of the large Boston limestone quarries, now flooded. The stump of a 6th century round tower may be glimpsed on Oughterard Hill in the background. In a cemetery at the foot of the tower is the grave of Arthur Guinness (d.1803) who has satisfied more thirsts in the world than anybody else in history; Indeed the hill echoes many footnotes to the past - it was on this slope in 1815 that Daniel O' Connell and John D'Esteere fought a pistol duel, with mortal results for the latter.

Letting the mind dwell on such colourful historical memoirs is an antidote to the rather plain nature of the canalside on this stretch but do look out for the old Ardclough church, now converted to a residence, and the adjacent school-house with its classical portico. The stretch from Ponsonby Bridge to Devonshire Bridge is tedious with difficult underfoot conditions but patience is rewarded west of Devonshire Bridge where two locks - 14th and 15th in proximity - and the waterworks associated with the Morell feeder form an interesting diversion. This vigorous stream which tumbles from the hills of east Kildare was a crucial factor in resuscitating the paralysed canal building scheme in the 1760s. Dublin Corporation drove the project on to reach the Morell which they saw as a fine supply of clear water for a thirsty and growing city. The old sluice house at the 15th lock is ruined but the nearby aqueduct is a noteworthy structure being almost a scale model of the much larger Leinster Aqueduct west of Sallins.

The topography changes on the way into Sallins with the canal curving through the sandy hills at Kerdiffstown where it is bridged by the Dublin - Cork railway line. As mainline trains thunder overhead pause for a moment and reflect on how this spot marked a watershed in Irish transport history in the last century . In the 1840s as the rail route was being built towards the south from Dublin the canal company directors tried to stop their faster and more spectacular competitor by refusing the rail company permission to build the bridge across the canal. After the case went to the highest levels of Government the rail company was given permission to bridge the canal near Sallins thus giving the green light to the spread of the railway system to the rest of the country.

On the north bank shortly after passing under the rail bridge you will see a concrete shell which is all that remains of an attempt by a German national to build a sugar - factory about the time of the First World War. The enterprise failed but the building is noted as one of the first to use reinforced concrete. Sallins is a gem of a canalside village. Fine rows of houses stand back from the compact harbour which once bustled with boats loading and unloading for Odlums mills just settlement clustered around the canal and the mills were powerhouse of the local economy. The meat factory on the north bank stands on the site of an old canal hotel. Sallins is a good starting point for a circular walk to the Leinster Aqueduct, back along the interesting and scenic Naas branch, and then returning by a path along the main road to the village. Alternatively it is also the starting point for the walk towards Robertstown. Stock up well on snack material - it is the last village for seven miles.
Route 2: Sallins to Robertstown: 7.25 miles, 11km
The Grand Canal from Sallins to Robertstown covers some of the most picturesque and, from an industrial heritage aspect, some of the most intriguing sections of waterway. Beginning on the north bank from Sallins bridge (tastefully widened some years ago) the towpath follows a gravel road for the first mile out of Sallins. It would be easy to miss the abandoned canal channel to the right (through a gate just past the meat factory) which marked an early failed attempt to cross the Liffey. Equally inconspicuous on the south bank of the canal is an abandoned dry-dock chamber. Shortly afterwards on the same side is the three - legged junction with the impressively scenic and historic Naas & Corbally branch of the canal.
The triangular island at the junction is known locally as Soldier's Island. Some say the name comes from the ghost of a soldier who hung himself there; more likely it refers to the location of a guard post during the 1798 disturbances when the canal barges were often raided by rebels. 
As with so many of the canal's spectral features the Leinster Aqueduct steals up suddenly. There is no sense of traversing a major landscape feature yet the Aqueduct was a huge challenge for the canal builders and still inspires awe. Sit on the low wall (take care, of course ;) and look down at the muddy waters of the Liffey spanned by the mass of the Aqueduct.
A plaque proclaims that it was completed by Richard Evans, engineer, in 1783. The completion of the Aqueduct opened the way for the canal builders to continue their progress to the west. There is an added thrill in store for the walker who descends the embankment immediately after the parapet of the aqueduct bridge and finds the passageway under the canal which leads to the public road. The experience of walking under so many hundreds of tons of water will surely heighten admiration for the canal builders of two centuries ago.
Continuing on the main line of the canal the landscape could be described as lush Leinster pastureland with the gentle gradients relieved only by a hill crowned by prehistoric earthwork on the south bank of the canal. Just as Digby Bridge comes into view an intriguing structure just off the towpath defies explanation. Commonly thought of as an overflow control device its concentric walls with tunnels and culverts seem highly elaborate for such a routine purpose.
Sandymount House to the right of Digby Bridge seems to have been built to face the canal rather than the road. At the bridge, transfer to the south bank and continue along a narrow path on the water's edge with a coppice to the left. This leads out on to the public road which has been following the canal bank since the Aqueduct and which in turn swings back to the north bank of the canal at Landenstown Bridge.
Follow this road taking time out to study the pair of quaint gate lodges at the entrance to Landenstown House (out of view behind trees on the South bank of the canal). The noise of racing engines at the nearby Mondello motor-racing track can often be heard forming a contrast to the otherwise quiet ambience of canal and farms. Follow the road for just under a mile until the canal swings to the south - west leaving the road which has been its constant companion since the Leinster Aqueduct. The 18th lock may seem like any other but it has special significance - it is the last step to the summit level of the main line of the canal. From this stretch, 279 feet above the old Ordnance Survey sea - mark in Dublin Bay, the headwaters of the canal divide to the east and the west.
After the 18th lock the towpath deteriorates into a narrow and muddy trail almost at the water's edge and overshadowed by high banks and scrub. This is one of the least attractive stretches but fortunately on passing under the next bridge - officially titled Burgh Bridge but invariably known as the Cock Bridge - the character of the walk changes sharply for the better. The cutting although still impressively high widens out and the towpath becomes firmer forming a fine walking track through the Hill of Downings and on to Bonynge or Healy's Bridge. In high summer and autumn this a particularly delightful stretch with a forest of blackberry bushes featuring among the luxuriant growth.
Through the eye of Healy's bridge you will see the dead-end of the filled-in Blackwood feeder which linked the waterway with Ballynafagh reservoir which is located two miles to the north. Cross Healy's bridge to the south bank. After a few paces the canal scenery changes again - this time revealing a vista of cut-away bog, forest and whin bushes which will be constant theme for the remainder of the canal's course across the bogs of West Kildare. For the first time since leaving Sallins the canal is carried on a high rampart. This elevation was caused both by the need to build the canal on an embankment over the bog and by the effect of decades of cutting of the peat on either side of the waterway. Canal historians record that the entire canal project nearly foundered in the morass of bog over the one-and-half miles between Healy's Bridge and Robertstown.
Just as you are beginning to wonder if the relaxing but unchanging cutaway bog landscape is going to be your lot for the rest of the walk a structure, large and rusty - pink in colour, appears at the end of the stretch from Healy's Bridge like some sort of midlands mirage. Draw closer and the solid outline of the Grand Canal Hotel at Robertsown becomes clearer. An unusual place to find a hotel on this island in the bog of Allen but it was no doubt a welcome sight for boat passengers and crews battered by bad weather on the slow journey from Dublin.
The Hotel was built in 1804 and was closed as such in 1849. However the building continued in use for various purposes including a constabulary barracks and, in the 20th century, a hostel for turf - workers.
In the early 1970s it became the hub of an imaginative community project capitalise on Robertstown's canal heritage. Seizing on the tourist potential of the village's water-side location the locals set-about restoring the hotel and recapturing the village's period atmosphere. Period banquets in the hotel, barge cruises, and a week of canalside festivity marked a resurgence of Robertstown, this time as a tourist venue. The momentum was difficult to sustain and now the programme is more modest but on summer weekends you may find a coffee shop open in the hotel and the opportunity to take a barge cruise from the Robertstown quayfront.
Neglect of waterfront buildings has taken somewhat from Robertstown's atmosphere as a waterways village but there are still strong ambitions to rebuild the village's period ambience and re-echo its once thriving status as an overnight stop for canal travellers.
Robertstown is one-half of the pair of locations which together form the centre-of-gravity of the Grand Canal system. The other half, Lowtown Junction, is another mile along the road. Cross the bridge at the west end of the village (Binn's bridge) to the north side of the canal and keep to the canal bank road where it diverges from the main road.
Route 3: Robertstown To Edenderry: 13 miles, 21 km
This route takes you to Lowtown Junction, a triangular link between the main line of the Grand Canal which continues west and the beginning of the 28 mile Barrow branch of the canal. Lowtown once served the canal system as a stables for barge horses and as a coal yard. Today it is an inland dockyard. There, distant from any town, is a place of industry and activity within an island of canal links. 
Pleasure boats of all shapes and sizes lie moored to either bank. In summer their number will be less with the craft having departed for cruises on the canal system but in winter the marina echoes to the sound of generators, angle-grinders and drills as boat owners snatch hours at the weekend to prepare their craft for another season's cruising.
Cross Fenton's bridge if you want to take a long look at the boating activity and perhaps enjoy a chat with a crew setting out for some distant point. Continue your walk by returning over Fenton's bridge to the north bank of the main line of the canal. The second canal junction which you pass as you leave Lowtown is another link to the Barrow line. The walk passes by a neat culvert over the clear waters of the River Slate - an important bogland drainage stream. The track continues under Bond Bridge on the Allenwood - Kilmeague road where the gravel laneway gives way to the grassy bank. Locals have installed seating and planted trees along the route - a gesture which says welcome' to the passing walker.
The canal now closes with the Prosperous - Edenderry road as a curiously angled bridge looms ahead. This is known locally as the skew bridge (pronounced by locals as Scow').
Here ignore the Grand Canal Way' signs which point along the north bank. This in fact would lead on to the busy and fast Edenderry Road. It is more comfortable to cross the Skew' bridge to the south bank where after a few paces on a tarmac road you gain a grassy stretch which in turn gives way to a minor canal bank road. This leads by a guillotine-style lifting bridge for a narrow gauge peat railway. Continue on to Hamilton's Bridge and cross back over to the north bank pausing on the bridge to take in the view to the south which reveals a vast stretch of airy peatland merging with the horizon.
Continue on a rough track under a narrow modern bridge, passing the redundant Lullymore briquette factory to the left.
Hartley Bridge at Ticknevin comes into view followed shortly by the 20th lock which marks the end of a 7-mile stretch without a lock gate but the start of an 18 mile level. It is from this point that the true wilderness of the Bog of Allen comes into its own. For a stretch the canal is bounded by bushy followed by forestry plantation but as the channel continues west across the unmarked Kildare-Offaly boundary the trees fall back, the ground falls away and the horizon widens. The canal is carried along on a massive embankment, its height accentuated by years of cutting away of the peatland.
The vista to the south is one of almost unending peatland: the flat horizon broken only by a power station cooling tower or peat-harvesting machinery moving like yellow mechanical insects across a desert of brown.
The canal-builders tempted nature along this stretch. It was here that the watery morass almost brought the entire canal project to an end in the late 18th century. Year after year workers had poured tons of filling into the canal foundation only to find that within the space of each winter the bog swallowed the solid material. It was only after a decade of back-breaking work that construction was possible on the treacherous bog and the canal was able to push on towards Edenderry.
However a bog is never a permanently stable foundation and over the years the canal rampart has breached as its underpinning gave way. The most serious breaches ever on the canal occurred along this stretch in 1916 and, even more spectacularly, in 1989 when just to the west of the Blundell viaduct a section of bank under the north towpath gave way releasing three hundred million litres of water into the fields below. The embankment was devastated and the canal drained for nearly twenty miles. The damage was repaired by a modern generation of canal engineers who have continued to embark on a rebuilding programme for other vulnerable stretches of canal across the bog. Layers of peat, plastic membrane and a special clay are laid one on top of the other to strengthen the old canal formation for another two centuries.
The towpath takes you across the Edenderry-Rathangan road by the Blundell viaduct (locally the tunnel') and to the unusual and charming horse-bridge which allowed towing horses cross the leg of canal which branches from the mainline to Edenderry town. Do not cross the bridge (unless you are carrying on further west along the main line) but follow the branch into Edenderry. After walking across so much flat land it is a welcome change in the perspective to find the waterway contouring around a hill which is crowned by the remains of an old castle. The branch curves into Edenderry's neat harbour which is located right beside the town's main street. There is plenty to see in this well planned estate town which owes its present shape and landmarks to the Earls of Downshire once the principal landlords in this area. A walk back up the hill towards the castle ruin which is surrounded by a public park will give a parting vista over the Bog of Allen and the canal route you have just walked.
Route 4: Naas Branch - Sallins to Leinster Aqueduct, Naas: 3.5 miles, 5.5 km
The Naas Branch is appreciated as one of the most scenic and interesting stretches of waterway on the canal network. Lined by majestic stands of old trees, its banks reveal many features of engineering and historic interest.
Follow the main towpath from Sallins to the Leinster Aqueduct ( it can be muddy here ) and turn back east along the road. Cross under the rail bridge carrying the Dublin-Cork main line and turn left at the T-junction shortly afterwards. In a short distance you will join the canal, this time the Naas branch from the main channel. Follow it past a set of locks and under the modern motorway bridge to reach the Leinster Mills which were built in 1790 on the canal bank so that grain-laden barges could easily discharge their cargoes.
Continue on the tarmacadamed road admiring the forested Oldtown Estate on the east bank. The road rises slightly past Oldtown lock ( Can you spot the De Burgh' name inscribed on a pier of the lock chamber ? ) and continue on to Tandy's Bridge which is framed by trees dipping down to the nutrient-rich waters from the boundary walls of the estates on either side of the canal.
The estates of Oldtown, the Knocks and Keredern ( named after a French countess ) create a mature parkland ambience. Continue past the bridge on a pedestrian way on the west side of the waterway.
From there you can view the well-preserved Naas gasworks hose where boats laden with coal once unloaded their cargoes for the town gasworks which supplied Naas householders with light and cooking fuel. Poets and artists have drawn inspiration from this section of canal through the years. The fact that there are five locks within two miles is a penance for boat crews but adds interest of the route for the walker.
Cross the bridge nearest to Naas - known as the Abbey bridge from the fact that its stone was re-cycled from an old monastic foundation - and walk towards Naas harbour along a track on the east bank. The harbour close to the town centre is complemented by the old canal stores which have now been restored as a base for youth work activity in the area. The harbour once bustled to the sound of horses and drays unloading supplies for the merchants of the town from the incoming barges. A short walk up the aptly named Basin Street will take you into the town centre. 
Route 5: Corbally Branch: 4.5 miles, 7.25 km
The Corbally branch diverges from the Naas branch canal at a junction on the west bank just before the harbour. It was completed in 1810 as something of an afterthought following the completion of the Naas branch. Its function is unclear as it terminates at the isolated Corbally harbour remote from any population or industry. Although its towpath is walkable it leads to country dominated by large-scale farming activities and newly built motorways.
It offers little in the way of points of interest and terminates in a derelict harbour where there is no access to public transport or facilities. Its main traffic in the era of canal transport was malting barley for Reeves' mill at Athgarvan, two miles to the west of Corbally harbour. Local folklore suggests that it was used to ferry the building material for the Curragh camp but has little substance. The canal was little used since the Second World War and a low culvert built near Jigginstown in 1954 closed it finally to navigation. However in its non-navigable condition the Corbally line is now a valuable sanctuary for wildlife in an area of intensive farming.
Those interested in tackling its towpath are recommended to walk out the Newbridge road from Naas and pick up the canal beyond the ruined 17 th century Jigginstown castle. A section of dense thicket will make progress difficult in the early part of the route but the westbank towpath presents no difficulty for the rest of the walk to Corbally. Look out for Hoare's bridge - the fifth canal bridge out from Naas - which was widened in 1995 and rebuilt in a manner sympathetic to the original design.
Route 6: The Milltown Feeder: 5 miles, 8km
The smallest of the canals in the Kildare waterway system, the Milltown Feeder also offers what may be regarded as the most pleasant walk of all. It takes the walker into the country away from traffic, offers a variety of scenery, and is the cleanest stretch of all both on the towpath and in its channel where clear water flows from its source springs at Pollardstown fen.
Although strictly speaking the feeder was built as a water supply rather than a navigable canal and therefore had no purpose-built towpath, it was in fact used by some boat traffic over the years and is walkable for all of its five mile course - although the going is a little rough along some stretches.
The walk along the feeder begins on the east bank of the old' Barrow line link from Lowtown beside the old 19 th lock. A bridge ( named both Huband Bridge and Greene's Bridge ) marks the junction of the narrower, shallower feeder with the canal proper. Take the lane along the east bank and continue on an earthen track when the road turns away. The Hill of Allen seems to form an obstacle to the line of the canal towards the east.
Cross the feeder at the ivy-covered Pims bridge to the west bank where an old stone ruin sheltering a lime-kiln furnace is a noteworthy feature. Continue on the west bank to Pluckerstown Bridge where the channel is crossed by the Allen to Rathangan road. At this point the view is all too full of the quarries gouging out the basalt rock of the Hill where, according to legend, the Celtic warriors roamed as they practised their feats of skill and strength. Switch back to the east bank at Pluckerstown bridge and keep on along a gravelled track and later a stock-trodden path as the waterway curves around the foot of the Hill of Allen.
The untouched western slope of the 676 feet high Hill is attractive and combined with the views of the other mid-Kildare hills to the south offers a variety of landscape not normally seen from the canal banks which tend to avoid hilly country. The feeder goes into a long curve on a high embankment. Watch out for a dry culvert along this stretch where by crouching down it is possible to cross under the waterway to the other side of the canal. However for walking purposes it is better to stick to the east bank. Continue past the mill bridge where the shattered bulk of an ancient mill looms on the far side and keep along the easy path which conveniently delivers the walker alongside the intriguingly named Hanged Man's Arch pub on the Milltown road. The bar-keeper will, no doubt, be glad to give thirsty walkers an explanation for such a ghoulish name.
The feeder channel south of the bridge continues into the dip in the landscape surrounded by low ridges known as Pollardstown Fen. It is a rare habitat for the flora and fauna of the Irish wetlands. It is an embryonic peatland where a rich diversity of plants is nourished by calcium-rich spring water which originates in a vast layer of water-holding rock beneath the Curragh plains. Within the twelve thousand year-old fen are more than thirty springs which supply a vast quantity of water to its habitat. This water was channelled by the canal builders into the Feeder canal which in turn transfers it along its five-miles course into the summit level of the Grand Canal system. 
The fen's waters have another claim to fame - they end up via the waterway in the filter beds at Clondalkin from which Arthur Guinness & Company take a supply for the James's Street brewery.
So water from the heart of Kildare is one of the magic ingredients in the world famous brew!