Hazelhatch bridge is just half a mile to the east of the train station 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.
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. Take the first right, a small road, after Lyons Estate and you will find a cemetery at the foot of the tower wherein lies the grave of Arthur Guinness (d.1803) who has satisfied more thirsts in the world than anybody else in history. There you can pay homage to the great man before making the fifteen minute journey back to the canal.
West of Devonshire Bridge there are 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.
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 with canal barges and cruisers moored on either side to form the centerpiece of the village. There are several fine café’s and bars including the award winning Canal Walk Café and Restaurant, The 13th Lock Bar and Grill and The Bridgewater Inn.
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. From Sallins bridge the canal 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 at the bend in the canal) 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. 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.
At the Lock you can take time out to study the pair of quaint gate lodges at the entrance to Landenstown House. 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. Continue on 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.
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. Soon 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 cruise, 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.
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 canal.
This 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.
This is an amended and edited text that was first published by the County Kildare Vocational Education Committee.