Light at the end of the tunnel
Waterford was particularly badly hit by the recession, but as our reporter discovers, the new 46km Greenway track has given the area a much-needed tourism boost
Kilmacthomas used to be a sleepy little town midway between Waterford City and Dungarvan that was best known as the home of the Flahavan's porridge factory and for its spectacular stone viaduct.
Now, it's transformed. A large Avoca-style restaurant and food court, The Coach House, opened there last year and it's busy all day, every day. Today, early in the afternoon on a Wednesday, its large car park is thronged with cars and there's constant activity as cyclists come and go.
The Coach House - and 'Kilmac', as the locals call it - is the halfway point on the Waterford Greenway and it's the perfect pit-stop for walkers and cyclists to enjoy refreshment, especially for those who have negotiated the entire journey from Waterford City - 23km to the east - or Dungarvan, the same distance away to the west of the county.
The route follows that of the old railway line between Waterford and Dungarvan. It lay abandoned for years, a relic to an era when Ireland was criss-crossed by thousands of kilometres of train track. But now, thanks to a €15m investment over a decade, it has been redeveloped into a walking and cycling tourist attraction that has had a huge effect on Kilmacthomas, and on Dungarvan, too.
"We're one of seven bike hire providers in the town," says Tony O'Mahony, who first opened his bike shop 30 years ago. "And the change in Dungarvan over the past while has been incredible. When you live here, it can be hard to appreciate how much it's changed but when you get people who would come in pretty regularly, and they haven't been in maybe a year, they talk about how much of a buzz there is in the place. And it's all thanks to the Greenway."
And if there's a buzz in Dungarvan, there certainly is a buzz on the Greenway, too. Virtually everyone you meet - young or old - has a smile on their face as they cycle leisurely along the smooth surface. The vast majority cycle rather than walk and they appreciate the pleasure of being able to pedal on a car-free road where they don't have to inhale diesel fumes or be exposed to angry motorists. As a daily cyclist in Dublin, I find the journey from Waterford to Dungarvan to be blissful. It's a joy not to have to be mindful of cars as they pass perilously close and there's something about the route that encourages you to slow down, to drink in the surrounds.
And what surroundings: the first part, after leaving the quays at Waterford, is the least captivating, but even then, the still Suir waters provide a soothing vista, and as you cycle along the wild-flower margins your only companions are dragonflies and butterflies.
The café at Mount Congreve provides an early stop, especially for those who may have driven a long distance to get to the Greenway - and it's breathtaking mature gardens offer a reminder that Waterford is something of a horticultural lover's paradise.
For much of the journey, the old railway line runs alongside, but in those places where it's gone, it's sometimes difficult to remember that you're traversing a route once used by trains. There are landmarks everywhere, though, including those ancient electricity polls that are no longer to be found on the lines that are used today and the shell of old stations, like the one at Kilmacthomas, that saw its last service in 1982.
The stretch of the route from Kilmacthomas to Dungarvan is marginally more scenic, and it's more popular, too. The old 400-metre tunnel at Durrow is the pièce de résistance of the entire journey and many people stop for selfies after they emerge into the light. It's an extraordinary sight, the lush, fern-covered banks and all those little fairy doors that have been left by families in recent years.
Michael Walsh, the chief executive of Waterford City and County Council, says the Greenway's success is down to its appeal to families. "We wanted to make it as family-friendly as possible," he says, "and as accessible to as many people as possible. We see it as a great amenity that connects the city and county of Waterford."
The Greenway opened in March 2017 and quickly became a must-do for Waterford residents and visitors alike. More than 248,000 people used it in its first nine months and those numbers are way up this year, especially after the exceptional summer weather we have had.
"When people talked about Waterford before, the first thing they said was 'Crystal'. Now it's 'Greenway'," Walsh says. "And when people try it for themselves, they find that there's so much to see along the way and things to do as well. We know that places like West Cork and Kerry have pulled in tourists for years and years, but we feel that Waterford can be just as special."
The county and Waterford city suffered especially badly in the recession. There were several blows, not least in 2009 when Waterford Crystal shut down with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
But tourism has helped the county to rebuild and the Greenway has been a fundamental part of that. The restaurateur and television chef Paul Flynn says it has been transformative for Waterford. "It's raised Dungarvan on so many levels. There's been all sorts of entrepreneur activity since it opened and it's great to see."
Flynn's restaurant and guest house, The Tannery, has seen an impact. "It really has helped us," he says. "In previous summers, we'd be booked out at weekends but not weekdays. Now there are people using the Greenway and staying with us every night. I think a lot of people in hospitality have seen that sort of upswing in the past year or so and it's really great because many of us in this county would feel that there's so much here that visitors would enjoy, but they don't know about them. The Greenway is helping to shine a light on the entire county and it's one of those amenities that has great word-of-mouth appeal."
It's a sentiment shared by Adriaan Bartels. The general manager of the five-star Cliff House Hotel at Ardmore says the Greenway offers a compelling reason for people to visit the county and spend time there.
"This is a really special place but maybe for too long Waterford didn't shout out about how great it is," he says. "So there is that feeling when people come to this part of the country that they're really blown away by the beauty of the place and the large amount of things you can do and the great food you can eat."
The beauty Bartels talks about is impossible to deny. Behind him, the huge wall of glass affords glorious views of the postcard pretty horseshoe bay. There's a vast expanse of sandy beach - awarded Blue Flag status this year - and boats bobbing in the harbour.
Bartels, who managed one of Kerry's best-known luxury hotels for more than a decade, says the Greenway is just one of several attractions that makes Waterford unique.
"You've got the development of the Viking Triangle in the city, the Geopark near Tramore - which is a very special place although not many people know about it - and the Copper Coast, and a perfect place to explore it is on bike."
It may not enjoy the instant recognition of places like Connemara and the Burren, but the Copper Coast is a UNESCO-designated 'Global Geopark' in recognition of its international importance.
The hotelier is a keen cyclist and has ridden the Greenway several times.
"The beauty of it is you can start or begin wherever you want and it's accessible to everyone. It's particularly appealing to families and there's something lovely about being about to have an experience that's really healthy and takes you into countryside that's so lovely and unspoiled."
One family I meet on the Greenway are Ruairi Hourihane, his six-year-old daughter Ava-Lilly McGovern and his father Dan. "We haven't been on a holiday in a while," Ruairi says, "and we thought we'd do an activity holiday before he" - he winks at his dad - "gets too old."
The pair are happy to be holidaying in Waterford and Ruairi insists they'll be back.
"We'd normally go over to Kerry - but it's really nice out here."
Most people using the Greenway seem to be Irish, but Suzanne Bartlett and her boyfriend Marcus Gooch have come over from Suffolk in England. "We've driven down today specifically to do the Greenway and it's been lovely so far," Marcus says.
"I'd known nothing about Waterford," Suzanne adds, "but I read an article about somebody who came over to cycle the Greenway and it really captured my imagination. It's a really great thing."
Mary Walsh and her daughter Mary Lanigan, who hail from nearby Carrick-on-Suir, are frequent users of the Greenway. "We walked part of it with cousins over from American today," Mary Snr says. "And they loved it - we met them in The Coach House [in Kilmacthomas]."
Michael Walsh hopes more can be done to bring the Greenway into the heart of Waterford city's Viking Triangle. Much has been done in recent years to highlight its connection to the fearsome Scandinavian invaders who founded the city, the country's oldest. The Fáilte Ireland initiative, Ireland's Ancient East, has also helped to draw attention to Waterford.
The Viking Triangle features a trio of rebooted museums that not only document Waterford's Viking past, but its medieval and Georgian histories, too. The city has also become synonymous with top-quality urban festivals, including the child-oriented Spraoi - set to take place over the August bank holiday weekend - and the yuletide Winterval.
Adriaan Bartels believes the success of the Greenway can point the way for Waterford and other parts of Ireland to develop other exceptional routes, and not just by using abandoned railway lines. He believes there is great scope to develop the ancient pilgrim path from Ardmore to Cashel in Tipperary. This multi-day walking pilgrimage is one of the great secrets of the area. It begins at the monastic settlement in Ardmore founded by St Declan in the fifth century - well before the arrival of St Patrick - and continues across the Comeragh Mountains before concluding near the celebrated Rock of Cashel.
"When you consider the global appeal of the Camino de Santiago [in Spain] you could get an idea about how captivating it could be," he says. "And it could be done in such a way that would be very sensitive to the environment."
The growth of eco-holidays and 'leave-no-trace' tourism has encouraged the development of dedicated cycling and walking routes across Ireland.
The Great Western Greenway in Co Mayo was one of the first to utilise a disused railway line and the concept has spread to places like Louth where the short Carlingford-Omeath Greenway has helped boost numbers in an already bustling tourist town.
And there are grand visions to one day connect Dublin with the Waterford Greenway, although opposition from landowners and other vested interests could make such a possibility remote.
But bike-shop owner Tony O'Mahony believes where there's a will, there's a way. "When enough people see how amazing a resource like this can be, attitudes can change," he says.
And it's hard to imagine anyone using the Greenway who doesn't derive some sense of contentment. After 40km of mostly easy cycling from Waterford, the sea comes into view. There's an evocative scent of salt and seaweed in the air and as I freewheel towards Dungarvan, the pressures of daily life seem far away.
Like any great minibreak experience in this country, it is the memory of such pleasures that sustain you in harder, more wearying times.
"The great thing about it is you want to do it again and again," Paul Flynn says. "And while it's wonderful for people who holiday in the county, it's also fantastic for those who live alongside it. It's part of our lives now and there will be a point where it's felt as though it's always been there."