Hello again and thanks for checking out my blog as always.
Regular readers will know that I have just finished a lengthy piece (18 posts) about a little expedition I made as a series of day walks in 2013 / 2014 around the London LOOP Long Distance Path which circumnavigates my adopted home city. If you have not read it and wish to do so it begins here.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing it up but it took literally months and so I have decided to do a few shorter pieces whilst I decide on my next major writing project. There are a few options for this including three lengthy trips to Canada, three to Sri Lanka, a couple of trips round Northern Ireland and Scotland and several others. As always, if you have any preference as to which you would like to read about, please let me know.
So far on this blog I have back-dated everything to the relevant time in order to keep things tidy but this has the disadvantage of instantly “burying” the posts away down the order of the blog and so for these few small entries I shall post them immediately with a note as to the date they happened and see what transpires. It may work out easier, I just need to try it out. OK, how many times do I have to tell you? I am rubbish at technology and I don’t see it getting any better at my time of life.
If you want to see what I have in store for this post, you know what to do, just click on the “read more” button and hopefully I’ll see you there.
Date – 12th April 2010.
Hello again and thanks for jumping in.
I have written blog entries for two trips I made to my home country in 2018 (which begins here) and 2019 (which begins here) and this post is also about the land of my birth but longer ago in 2010 when I went back to visit my recently deceased Father for a few weeks and when he was still enjoying relatively good health at the age of 78.
My late Father was always a fit man, having played rugby for Ulster in the early 1950’s and when he was in his 70’s my brother and sister-in-law bought him a folding bicycle as he wanted a bit of exercise and did not fancy riding on the roads round Tandragee, where he lived, because some of the driving in Northern Ireland is frankly lunatic. Motorsport is very popular in Ulster, especially rallying, and half the populace seem to think they are Colin McRae or Carlos Sainz or whoever is top dog in that sport these days. I have cycled the roads round there and it is indeed frightening.
Luckily there is the old disused Newry Canal a couple of miles from his former home so Father would fold up the bike, put it in the boot (trunk) of his car, drive to the canal and cycle along the towpath for a bit where the only hazards were the occasional jogger and dog walker. He thoroughly enjoyed it and I decided I would go for a ride along the towpath myself.
Regular readers will know I love everything to do with canals and I have written here about a lovely long weekend I spent with friends on the Calder and Hebble Navigation in Yorkshire. I have also crewed for friends who own narrowboats and I am including an image here to prove it. I cannot imagine why anoyone would let me “drive” 67 feet and several tons of steel worth tens of thousands of pounds but they did.
The Newry Canal is long since disused and is in an awful state as you shall see but the towpath is well-maintained as a leisure facility. It is only 20 miles long and I thought that would make a not too strenuous day out so here was my plan. I would get the bus, on which I could take the folded bike, down to Newry, cycle the Cut (as canals are known amonst boaties) up to Portadown and then either cycle back to Tandragee or else get the last bus.
I should mention at this point that you have to be very careful with buses in Northern Ireland as public transport is pretty dire. For example, the nearest town to my “home” village of Tandragee is Portadown which is five miles away. Tandragee is now a fairly large village as it is a dormitory town for commuters and yet the last bus from Portadown on a weekday goes at around 1800, there are three buses in either direction on a Saturday and no service on a Sunday so you don’t want to miss one.
Fortunately I was in good time for my bus, put my bike in the luggage space and settled down for the 35 minute journey to Newry. A few times I caught a glimpse of the canal from the bus window as it follows the line of the road fairly closely. Also following much the same route and often between the road and the canal is the main Belfast to Dublin railway line and so you have a potted history of the transport infrastructure in the British Isles all in one place.
There is the road, obviously modern now but on an ancient trackway, the canal which is an 18th century innovation and the railway of the mid to late 19th century which effectively killed off the canals. This phenomenon is repeated all over the UK and I love travelling North from London on a train as it follows the Grand Union canal for long stretches where I lpve to look at the boats.
If you think about it for a moment this parallel running is entirely logical. Canals and railways are broadly similar in that they do not like steep gradients as that requires tunnelling or a flight of locks for the canal, both of which are expensive and costs were everything for the early transport entrepreneurs. You must remember that all early canal and later railways were privately funded by speculators and not Government funded as major infrastructure projects are now. Many of these companies went bankrupt and many a rich man was ruined by dabbling in such projects. I should note here that the Newry Canal was the sole exception to this rule as I shall explain shortly.
I got to Newry with no problems and it is time for an apology. Well, it wouldn’t be one of my blogs if I wasn’t apologising to someone, I seem to do it every time. My apology this time is to the good people of Newry if any of them ever read this. Sorry, but I do not like Newry, don’t ask me why. Although I would never return there to live I do love Northern Ireland and virtually all it’s villages, towns and cities (Newry is a city as of 2002 when it was granted that status as part of the celebration for H.M Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee) but I have never warmed to Newry. There is no logical reason for this, it is just the way it is.
On the bus journey I was pondering a slight potential problem. After all these years I cannot remember if I had a mobile (cell) ‘phone or not as I resisted for a long time but if I did it was certainly not “smart”. I had no map and only the most rudimentary knowledge of the geography of Newry but at least I knew the relative positions of Newry and Portadown so I was sure I could find the canal easily enough by aiming for the North of the city. In the event, I need not have worried.
The Buscentre in Newry bears the official address of Soho Island and guess where the island is. Yes, it straddles the canal and the adjacent Newry River so that was easy. I quickly assembled the bike which I was getting quite adept at by then and ordinarily I might have considered stopping for a pint but it was too early. Not to early for me, you understand, as I do like a pint of breakfast but too early for the pubs to be open so I decided to strike out immediately along the canal.
I have never understood why the original canal builders felt the need to build a canal directly alongside an existing river but they did. The canal does not even go as far as Carlingford Lough which is the access to the sea and one of the reasons for building the canal in the first place. Boats come up the Newry River as far as Albert Dock and then transferred cargo to the canal boats for onward shipment or vice versa for exported goods. Perhaps the river was not navigable for canal boats but I would still have thought it would have been cheaper to adapt the river rather than digging out a completely new waterway. What do I know?
As you can see in the above image, the canal in Newry appears to be well-maintained although that does not last long. There was even some pleasant fauna to look at, as you can see. Newry is not a huge city and 20 minutes leisurely cycling had me well out into the Armagh countryside on what was a glorious Spring morning by which point the canal was already showing signs of dilapidation which only appeared to get worse the further I went.
The first feature of note I came upon was Forsyth’s Lock or more properly the site of the former Forsyth’s Lock as the lock itself is long gone as a working entity although the remains are still visible. Remarkably I did not take an image of the lock proper, merely the abandoned and graffiti scarred lock-keeper’s house but please believe me when I tell you the lock was a sorry sight.
The locks tended to be named for the lock-keepers e.g. Reilly’s, Fearon’s, Arthur Moody’s, Forsythe’s etc. and this lock is #6 of the 14 along the length of the canal although it was the first one I had encountered. Several were downstream of where I had begun and several more were not visible from the route you cycle.
Before we get back in the saddle, I think this might be a good time to tell you a little of the history of the Canal as you know how much I like a bit of research and, as usual, I have amused myself for the last 18 hours or so learning all I can about this particular waterway which is remarkable in many ways.
Perhaps the Canal’s greatest claim to fame is that it was the first summit-level canal in the British Isles, predating Sankey’s Canal in NW England by 15 years and the very famous Bridgewater Canal by a full three decades. In case you are wondering what a summit-level canal is, and I realise that most of you will not be a canal nut like me, it is a canal that joins two river valleys or a body of water and the sea so it rises and then falls all opposed to a lateral canal which only rises or falls in one direction. Whilst this was a first for Britain, the concept is far older with the Chinese building the first one in the 4th century BCE. The summit in this case is at Lough Shark aka Acton Lake (most things on this canal seem to have two names) which is a whole 78 feet above sea level. Don’t forget your oxygen at that huge altitude!
The idea of a canal along this route came long before construction ever began. As far back as the 1640’s no less a person than Oliver Cromwell ordered his commander in Ireland, Colonel Monk to survey the area with a view to connecting Lough Neagh to the sea. Monk ordered a navigable trench dug (not a fully lined canal, the technology for which was not yet in place) but it never happened. A further suggestion by a Government official in 1703 was similarly ignored but shortly afterwards reserves of coal were discovered around the aptly named Coalisland on the West shores of Lough Neagh which made the prospect of a waterway linking the Lough to the sea attractive again. The main reason for this was that it would allow coal to be shipped to Dublin, thereby avoiding the need to import coal from the British mainland, a practice that was expensive and unreliable.
There was one large flaw in the plan for the waterway and that was capital. Whereas later “canal barons” on the mainland expended large amounts of their own cash building canals, there just was not the money avilable in Ireland and so in 1729 the Commissioners of Inland Waterways for Ireland was set up. This consisted of three Government officials, four bishops (why?) and 80 “responsible persons” to oversee all inland waterways on the island. Their first project was going to be the Newry Canal but the story quickly degenerates into the self-serving disgrace that is Government officials.
The Surveyor General at the time was a man called Thomas Burgh but he had an interest in the rival Ballycastle coalfield so he did nothing. It was only upon his death in 1730 and the appointment of Edward Lovett Pearce that things started to happen. Pearce was the most famous Irish architect of his day and was busy on other projects, notably desigining the Irish Houses of Parliament and so he delegated much of the work to his deputy Richard Cassels, a Hugenot who had fled to Ireland to avoid French Catholic religious persecution.
Cassel was an able young man and himself designed many grand houses all over Ireland but it was he that got the canal plan up and running. When Perce died in 1733 at the young age of 34, Cassel assumed control of the project but was replaced in turn in 1736 by a man called Thomas Steers and eventually the canal opened in 1742 but it was in trouble from the start. There were all sorts of problems like defective locks and water shortages and, yes, I know the concept of a water shortage in Ireland seems far-fetched but it is a fact.
The canal never made an actual profit as the modest working profits it did make had to be offset against the huge sums of public money used to keep it open. By 1800 it was virtually derelict and closed for repair as often as it was open. The Drector General appointed an engineer called Henry Walker to sort it out but he did no more than get himself imprisoned and deported to America for fraud. Were there no honest men back then?
With Walker in irons on this way to the New World, several independent engineers were called in and they unanimously recommended building another canal as a cheaper option to restoring the original but they were ignored so the canal limped along. In 1829 the Government decided to sell the canal to a private company which annoyed many people as it had been built with public money but at least the company did pump in a lot of money (£80,000) to bring the canal back up to standard.
The death knell was sounded for the ill-fated canal with the coming of the railways in the 1850’s as was to be the case all over the British Isles. By the late 19th century there was still some traffic but most of it was going North from the now floruishing port of Newry and, ironically, much of the cargo was imported coal. The Tyrone coal had long since been exhausted.
The canal continued to decline, apart from a small profit during World War One and the last commercial traffic was in 1936. After World War Two the Canal was officially abandoned in 1949. The Newry Port and Harbour Trust was wound up in 1974 and the liquidators sold the various portions of the canal to four different Councils (now two with the merger of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon) for nominal sums and they jointly administer the canal as a recreational facility (and a very fine one) to this day.
There you go, history lesson over, I hope it was of some interest to you so let’s get pedalling again but we don’t have far to go. A few hundred yards from Forsythe’s is Steenson’s Bridge. Again, who Steenson may have been I have no idea but they named a bridge after him (or her, who knows?) so at least the name lives on. Unlike most of the structures associated with the Canal, the bridge is still in vehicular use carrying a road that is so small it is not even named on maps which is very unusual in Northern Ireland where every tiny goat track has a name.
Speaking of names, here’s one for you. What you see in the image below on the left is Gamble’s Bridge (no, I have no idea who Gamble was either) but it is also known as the Crack Bridge although, being Northern Ireland there is another bridge, apparently without another name that also gets called the Crack Bridge. I’ll put the two of them together here and you decide. I think it is the one on the right for very obvious reasons but why call Gamble’s Bridge the Crack Bridge. I’ll explain but it is difficult.
In Ireland we have a concept of “the craic” (pronounced crack) and it is always the craic, never just craic. You would not say, “We were having craic”, it is invariably “we were having the craic”. So what is the craic? This is where it gets tricky as it is hard to pin down but the best I can manage is that it is being in good company with friends, chatting, telling stories, cracking (no pun intended) jokes and generally being convivial, that’s the craic. The reason these bridges are called the Crack Bridges is that they were natural meeting places for people to meet of an evening or possibly a weekend and swap gossip and stories. It really is an Irish thing.
When I was playing with a great band called the Northern Celts, which I did for over 20 years, our band T-shirts bore the Gaelic legend “Ceol agus craic” which translates as “music and the craic” which was exactly what we were about. I have somewhat gratuitously included an image of that fine bunch of musicians (l. to r.) Emma Scarr, Les Coughlin, Marie MacCormack and your humble narrator. Apart from anything else I thought I’d give you a laugh at my puny attempt at a pony tail, well it was 12 years ago and it is much more respectable looking now. Back to the bridge.
The nearest lock to the Crack Bridge(s) is #9 aka John Waddell’s Lock so named for the family who took it over in 1913. It had previously been known as Gordon’s Lock after the previous keepers but I suppose it will remain Waddell’s forever now as there will be no more lock-keepers. Whilst researching it I found this wonderful document placed online by the local history society and written by M.J. Waddell, son of these lock-keepers and dealing with his childhood in the 1920’s. It is quite a long document but it is packed with wonderful anecdotes like him being stood in a tea chest in lieu of a playpen as his Mother operated the lock. There are also some wonderful monochrome images there including a canal work gang of that era with his Father as part of the crew. If I have interested you in any way in the Canal, it is well worth a read.
A gentle cycle further along brought me to the delightfully named village of Poyntzpass. I can think of very few places in the UK with the letter z in their names, Ashby-de-la-Zouch is about the only one that springs to mind. Why the odd name? Prepare yourself for another brief history lesson but before that, take a look at what was once Poyntzpass Lock (#11) and weep, it is a disgrace, just left to rot.
You will note also that the lock is a single, not a double as is common on much of the English canal system which must have slowed proceedings considerably at times of heavy traffic. The locks on the Newry Canal are only 44 feet long as opposed to the 72 feet which is standard on English canals to accommodate the 70 footers which were the standard working boats. The boat I was piloting in the image above would not even fit on one of the Newry locks as it was 67 feet.
In the late 16th century there was a post-glacial marsh called the Glenn Bog that stretched from Lough Neagh to Carlingford Lough, covering much the same route as the canal and the road follow now and this was one of the passes through it. In 1598 the O’Neills of Tyrone, under their leader Hugh O’Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone, were rebelling against English rule during the Nine Years War. At this time Lieutenant Charles Poyntz, an English officer, successfully defended the pass and Queen Elizabeth I granted him lands in the area as a reward, hence the odd name.
The village of Poyntzpass, if indeed it could even be called a village (the 2011 census only records 614 people residing there) was a small, insignificant place until the coming of the canal and subsequently the railway which increased it’s importance. In the early 19th century there was briefly a passenger service on the canal from Knock Bridge to Newty to compete with the stagecoaches and the village became an important staging post but the railways soon put paid to the service.
The reasons I have included the images of the railway are a) I love railways as much as I love canals and b) I was lucky enough many years ago to have been in that signal box which was still manually operated with all the levers etc. and I was entranced watching the guy changing the signalling for the Belfast – Dublin Enterprise express. Sheer bliss for a railway buff.
The recipient of the first ever Victoria Cross, which is the highest bravery award available to British service personnel, came from the village. Charles Davis Lucas was a naval officer involved in bombarding an island off Finland during the Baltic War (I didn’t even know there had been one!) when a live shell landed on the deck of his ship, HMS Hecla. He picked it up and hurled it over the side where it exploded before it hit the water and nobody was injured.
More recently, Simon and Rory Best, the Irish rugby international brothers were brought up on a farm just outside the village. Rory was captain of Ireland from 2016 – 2019 when he retired after appearing in his fourth World Cup. With 124 caps he is one of the most-capped forwards ever, 12th equal in the world, and he went on two Lions tours. Not a bad track record for such a small place.
On again, and it is not far to Scarva along a section of minor road as the towpath here is just too degraded. Don’t worry about riding or walking on these little backroads, I did not meet another vehicle all day. About the only thing you are liable to meet is a slow moving agricultural vehicle going from one field to another, everyone else uses the main road.
Along this section I did something that I usually never do and, truth to tell, I have no idea why I did it here. I took a selfie. I hate selfies and I think they are the height of nonsense but I must have been in a funny mood that day. I was actually doing a couple of things I almost never do at this point as not only did I take a selfie but I was wearing a football (soccer) top which is rare for me. I have several rugby shirts which I wear all the time but this is the only football shirt I have.
Football afficionados can stop now. If you are trying to work out what the top is, forget it as you will never do it. It is the strip of a local amateur team whose name I never knew in the town of Trat which is in SE Thailand near the Cambodian border. The team are sponsored by a German guy I met who runs an excellent bar / restaurant called Oscar’s in honour of his young son who must be a grown man now. He gave me the shirt to go to a game one Sunday which was great fun especially as we won. I was the only Westerner in a crowd of several hundred and it was a wonderful afternoon. Then he told me to keep it as a souvenir, he was a good bloke. If you are wondering where my hair is, it was in a ponytail to stop it whipping into my face at the huge speeds I was doing on the little collapsible bike. Or maybe not.
Very soon I was in the lovely little village of Scarva which is probably best known for the popular “Sham Fight” every 13th July when participants dress in period costume to re-enact the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. There is also a parade of the Royal Black Preceptory which is an organisation closely allied to the Orange Order.
The reason for having this event here is that the Williamite Army camped and drilled here prior to marching to the Botne River for the Battle. Local legend has it that Prince William camped under a chestnut tree which still stands. The festivities can attract up to 100,000 spectators and participants but is obviously cancelled in 2020 due to the virus which will deal a serious blow to the local economy.
The canal here forms the border between Counties Armagh and Down with the former being West of the Cut and the latter East. There is a very pleasant little visitors centre here housed in one of the old canal buildings. I stopped for a while to have an excellent cup of coffee and a smoke which I enjoyed whilst looking at the sorry remains of the canal and trying to imagine what it must have been like two centuries previously with all the hustle and bustle of a busy commercial waterway. Although now a predominantly dormitory town it was an important trading centre back then.
No point in dwelling on the past and so I was back in the saddle and off Northwards again until I came to the next point of interest which was the Cusher River aqueduct which once carried water from the Cusher to fill the canal from the summit. The Cusher is actually the little river that runs through Tandragee.
Another short ride brought me to lock #12 aka Campbell’s Lock which I can only assume meant that people called Campbell were lock-keepers here once. Campbell’s is yet another sorry sight but the gates here seemed in a better stte of repair than some of the others, perhaps something could be done to stop them rotting away completely although I doubt the Council will spend the money as I know what they are like.
The next feature was the Madden Bridge which was where my late Father used to park up to go for his rides on the bike so I reckoned my trusty mount should know the way. I could easily have jumped off the towpath here and been home in about 15 minutes but I was enjoying myself and I wanted to go all the way to Portadown as planned so on I went. After that came the Cusher River Bridge and then the final lock, #14 and arguably the most interesting.
As well as being #14 it is locally known as Moneypenny’s Lock and the Lock-keepers house, which is a rather grand affair as you can see, is the only such stucture still in use the whole length of the Canal. Whilst most of the building is a privte dwelling (what a beautiful place to live) the former stables house a small canal museum which, sadly was not open when I passed and also has occasional blacksmithing demonstrations. I have done a bit of blacksmithing myself and I would like to see that. OK, I hammered out one nail in a blacksmith’s forge in Sherbrooke Living Museum in Nova Scotia in Canada and it was fun. I’ve still got the nail somewhere.
Moneypenny’s Lock was originally called Trueman’s Lock but the Moneypenny Family was there since at least 1800. As the Newry was the first canal in the British Isles and the first craft went North to South Moneypenny’s was the very first lock ever used in the UK and Ireland. A vessel called the Cope brought a cargo of coal through here in 1742 for the inaugural journey. There are now 1569 locks in England and Wales alone.
I knew I was close to Portadown and in fact it was only two miles but there are a couple of things still to see. The canal does not actually go all the way to Lough Neagh because it doesn’t have to. Nature has very helpfully provided the Bann River instead and the canal joins it at the oddly named Point of Whitecoat where the Cusher also gets in on the act. Don’t ask me what that name is all about, I have no idea.
From the Point of Whitecoat it is only about a mile to the bridge in Portadown which is where I jumped off the path and I even had time for a quick pint before I folded up the trusty steed and caught the last bus home in time to make tea for Father and myself, it had been a great day.
So what now for the Newry Canal, will it ever function as a waterway again? A feasibility study was carried out in the 1990’s and deemed it perfectly possible to re-open the Canal to boats. There are only three obstructions on the whole route, one of which, in Newry can be circumvented by using an alternative route via a small river. Although the gates, which incidentally were of a style known as mitre gates, invented by no less than Leonardo da Vinci in the 15rh century, are long rotted away, the actual locks themselves are in remarkably good condition as they were constructed using Mourne granite which is an extremely durable material.
Restoring the canal to a fully working waterway is therefore no mere pipe dream and although the there is strong lobbying from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, which administers it, there seems to be little will on the part of either local or central Government to spend money on it which I think is a bit short-sighted. As part of the so-called “peace dividend” tourism is booming in Northern Ireland and this would surely be another attraction to bring in the visitors. The towpath is already part of Cycle Route 9 which runs from Belfast to Slieve Gullion, near Newry.
Route 9 in turn is part of the National Cycle network (UK wide). This is a series of routes on traffic free paths or very quiet minor roads suitable for safe cycling and already covers over 800 miles in Northern Ireland alone with more being planned. I don’t think it was available when I was there and it was irrelevant anyway but apparently there is cycle hire available in Scarva from the same Visitor Centre / tea room complex I mentioned above.
The towpath is also one of nine waymarked long distance paths which in turn is part of the Ulster Way, a massive 625 mile (1,000 km.) walk all round Northern Ireland. I had entertained the notion of perhaps having a go at it some day but sadly my health has put paid to that idea.
I really wish they would restore the canal, just imagine the joy for the cyclists and walkers if there were actually boats on the canal as well instead of the overgrown and dilapidated mess it is now.
As a final word I must mention an excellent website I came upon whilst researching this post, it is called Guidigo and it provides an interactive map of the entire route which is very well researched and even includes audio commentary on each point of interest, I really do recommend it. The Newry Canal Tour was produced by the IWAI so it is obviously well informed and presented. Guidigo is free, no signup and no adds so no worries. I really do recommend it.
Well, that was my day out on my late Father’s little folding bike exploring the Newry Canal. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll try to publish another couple of short posts before I finally decide on my next major project so, as always, stay tuned and spread the word.