Wrap yourself in nature as you explore the lush grasslands and historic treasures surrounding Mullingar and the Royal Canal.
There’s a gentle beauty to be found in the countryside around Mullingar and the Royal Canal. This is a place of immense skies that sometimes seem to overwhelm the rolling pastures. Dawn and dusk bring with them a hazy mystery that explains why this part of the island is so rich with old tales of spirits, fairies and the unknowable. And through it all flow the waterways – meandering rivers, glassy lakes and the still waters of the Royal Canal reflecting the world in its mirror-like surface. Follow the towpaths, boardwalks and trails and you’ll discover walks, both long and short, through sun-dappled forests, around grand estates and along the historic routes of railway and canal.
Royal Canal Greenway
Stroll the grassy towpaths and admire the water’s fluid beauty as you follow the Royal Canal Greenway. The Greenway is Ireland’s longest, stretching 130km from Maynooth all the way to the River Shannon at Cloondara, but with numerous access points along the way it’s easy to enjoy in shorter bursts. Take a few hours for an easy Sunday ramble with the family or give yourself five to seven days to walk its full length. On your way, you’ll see everything from stately homes to cute little lock-keeper’s cottages. There are cosy canal-side pubs; Royal Canal must-sees such as the Ryewater Aqueduct, a wonderful example of 18thcentury engineering; and the fabled “haunted” 13thlock. Mullingar, almost completely encircled by the canal, offers an ideal base from which to start exploring the Greenway and its delights.
Old Rail Trail
Ireland was once crisscrossed by a thriving rail network, which moved people and goods around the country even more efficiently than the old canals. But when the railways fell into disuse, the old tracks were neglected until some were given new life as off-road cycling and walking trails. The 42km Old Rail Trail Greenway between Athlone and Mullingar is one such route and was originally part of the old Midlands Great Western Railway. The trail is almost completely flat, making it ideal for cyclists or walkers of all fitness levels. Bikes can be hired at Mullingar, Moate or Athlone and the many access points along the way make it easy to park up and get going. The route is dotted with treasures: beautiful arched stone bridges, restored station houses, bogland of startling beauty and quiet towpaths where the trail merges with the Royal Canal Greenway. An enchanting way to experience the Irish countryside.
The Westmeath Way, County Westmeath
Take a walk through the heart of Ireland on the Westmeath Way, a 33km-long walking route from Kilbeggan to Mullingar. This waymarked way meanders through tranquil riverside meadows, past glinting lake views, down bog paths, woodland trails and historic canal towpaths. The route weaves together the area’s ever-present waterways – the River Brosna, which powered milling and whiskey distilling in Kilbeggan; Lough Ennell, a lake that inspired frequent visitor Jonathan Swift to create the fantasy land of Lilliput in his novel Gulliver’s Travels; and the Royal Canal, one of the great engineering triumphs of the 18thand 19thcenturies.
Belvedere House and Gardens, County Westmeath
It’s somewhat ironic that the story of Belvedere House should be dominated by the deeds of its erstwhile owner, the wicked Earl of Belvedere, Richard Rochfort. As you stroll about the grounds of this gorgeous Georgian villa on the shores of Lough Ennell, it seems like the most idyllic place on earth. Follow one of the woodland trails and you’ll embark on a journey into the past. Many of these trees are over 100 years old and the yew tree by the ice house is reputed to be at least 800. The follies, those fanciful structures built to adorn the landscape, date from the mid-18thcentury, when Rochfort was creating his perfect country retreat. Explore the lakeshore, marvel at the massive and slightly malevolent Jealous Wall, and finish with a coffee in the airy restaurant. A perfect Belvedere day.
Scragh Bog Nature Reserve, County Westmeath
Bogs are a distinctive characteristic of Ireland’s low-lying midlands and Scragh Bog, close to the picturesque Lough Owel, is one of the rarest of its kind. A raised bog and nature reserve, it is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, from sphagnum moss and skylarks to the endangered and terrifyingly named wolf spider. Walk the woodland path through towering conifers until you come to the wooden boardwalk that protects the delicate quaking bog. Here, the vegetation covers the watery ground like a mat that ripples when disturbed; moss and lichens cling to the twisted willow trees, and the raised viewing platform that marks the end of the 3km walk offers an ideal spot to soak up the atmosphere of this unique place.
St Féchín’s Way, Fore, County Westmeath
Deep in a lush green valley lies the village of Fore, famous for its 7thcentury abbey and a curious collection of miracles known as the Seven Wonders of Fore, which are attributed to the abbey’s founder, St Féchín. Explore the abbey, visit each wonder and then set out on St Féchín’s Way, a 3km walk that loops around the grounds and the tiny village by way of a charming woodland trail. Stop for a drink in the Seven Wonders Bar before finishing your walk with a climb up to the Anchorite’s cell, halfway up the steep hillside overlooking the abbey, where hermits lived lives of quiet contemplation up until the 17thcentury.
Mullaghmeen Forest, County Westmeath
Follow the trails through Mullaghmeen Forest in County Westmeath and you’ll find yourself walking through what seems like an enchanted forest. The largest beech plantation in the country is carpeted by bluebells in spring, dappled by sunlight in summer, awash in coppery tones in autumn and in winter the stark skeletal beauty of the trees is on full display. There are two marked trails here, the Red trail (1.2km) and the White trail (8km). If you have the time, the White trail will take you past an arboretum of native trees such as alder, blackthorn and crab apple, and up to the summit cairn, the highest point in Westmeath where the views over nearby Lough Sheelin will take your breath away.
Donadea Forest Park, County Kildare
Surrounding the ruins of Donadea Castle in County Kildare is the Donadea Forest Park, 243 hectares of mixed woodland on the grounds of what was once the Aylmer family estate. From the cute little Alpine-style café, three looped walking trails encourage you to explore. The Nature Trail (1.6km) takes you past some of Dondea’s historic features: a deserted tower, St Peter’s Church and, of course, the castle itself – a once-magnificent building that is slowly being reclaimed by undergrowth. Feed the ducks on the pretty Lake Walk (0.8km) or follow the Aylmer Walk (5.7km), which includes the impressive 19thcentury avenue of lime trees, the original entrance to the estate.
Newcastle Wood, County Longford
Over 161 hectares of woodland stretch out on either side of the River Inny, filled with features that hark back to its days as part of a grand old estate. This is Newcastle Wood in County Longford, where 28km of forest trails allow you to experience the diverse mix of tree species, including oak, ash, beech and pine, as well as a wonderful range of birdlife, from swans to kingfishers. There are three suggested routes: the 2km Wandering Walk, which skirts the grounds of Newcastle House, once the home of the King-Harmon family who owned these woods; the 5km Church Walk, which features the Lady’s Walk; and the 3km River Inny Walk with its wonderful views of Newcastle House.